The Ancient Song of Deborah

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A Stunning Deliverance

The Song of Deborah

Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song.—Judges 5:12.

A Verse-by-Verse Study in Judges 5 by Carl Hagensick

Repetitive warfare punctuated the period of the judges of Israel. Among ..their foes were the Philistines in the south and the Canaanites in the north. Deborah of Ephraim and her general, Barak of Zebulon, were particularly concerned with an oppression by the Canaanites during the reign of Jabin of Hazor. The account of this battle is related in “Deborah, Gideon, and the LORD,” p. 8.

After obtaining the decisive victory and the death of Jabin’s general Sisera, Deborah wrote a victory song much as Moses and Miriam led Israel in song after the successful crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15).

Introduction—Judges 5:1-3

Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying, Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves. Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the LORD; I will sing praise unto the LORD God of Israel.

Though little is known of Barak’s father Abinoam, the fact that he was from Kedeshnaphtali, a Levitical city of refuge (Joshua 20:7), implies that either Abinoam was a Levite or that he fled there for refuge; if the latter, it might explain Barak’s secondary status. Barak himself, however, was sufficiently faithful to be listed as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

Deborah begins her song with praising the Lord for the victory, but is quick to add her appreciation of the willingness with which ten thousand Jews put their lives on the line to defend the nation against the superior armaments of the armies of Sisera. It is unclear whether the kings and princes to whom she addresses her words were leaders in Israel who helped in her struggle, or rulers of surrounding nations encouraged to reflect on the power of Israel’s God.

As Deborah and Miriam sang hymns of praise for miraculous deliverances from the hands of the enemy, so it is appropriate today for Christians to likewise take time after a spiritual victory to compose a hymn or testimony of thankfulness. As with Deborah, such testimony should first show gratefulness to God, but also include appreciation of fellow Christians who joined in our struggles, either through their prayers (James 5:16) or by words of encouragement, counsel, or other substantial assistance.

Praising God’s Methods—Judges 5:4,5

LORD, when thou wentest out of Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water. The mountains melted from before the LORD, even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel.

It seems odd that all three of the geographical places named in these verses (Seir, Edom, and Sinai) are in the south of Israel, whereas the battle concerned a foe from the north and took place in the northwest by the river Kishon, a stream that flows from Mt. Carmel.

Undoubtedly the method God used to bring victory to Barak’s army was a flash flood of the river, brought on by a sudden storm making the approach route for Sisera’s chariots not only impassable but actually bogging them down in the mire. The march of God from Seir and Edom suggests that this storm approached from the southeast, quite contrary to the usual middle eastern squalls, which blow in over the Mediterranean in the northwest before turning south along the Jordan river valley and being dissolved in the arid Negev desert.

The quaking of the earth may be understood as either an earthquake accompanying the downpour or figurative language of the trembling of the people at the intensity of the rainfall. The likeness to the quaking is described as reminiscent of the quaking of Mt. Sinai at the giving of the Law covenant.

So with the Christian, the dark clouds that seem to cause the deepest distress are the very means for discomfiting the foes of the new creation.

Effects of Oppression—Judges 5:6-8

In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travelers walked through byways. The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel. They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?

The judgeship of Shamgar was some hundred years before that of Deborah. Thus it is intimated that dire conditions had existed for about a century. This does not necessarily mean that Jabin’s domination in the north was that long, for the oppressors faced by Shamgar were the Philistines (Judges 3:31). In fact there is evidence of Canaanite influence immediately preceding Shamgar, for the name of his father Anath is that of one of the three principal goddesses of Canaan, either the wife or sister of Baal and associated with lust and war (Insights Into Bible Understanding, “Anath.”)

It was not just the organized oppression of Gentile kings exacting heavy taxes. The general condition of lawlessness among highwaymen made the roads unsafe and forced the local population to seek narrow lanes to avoid being robbed. Even today one deep ravine in northern Israel is known as the “valley of the robbers” since the bandits could attack easily from their hiding places in the surrounding forested hills.

The term “inhabitants of the villages” which appears in italics in the King James version is more correctly rendered “the rulers ceased in Israel.” In other words, there was a period of time in which no judge was raised up to deliver the oppressed Hebrews. The “they” in verse 8 apparently refers to those who should have been the leaders of the people. Much of the blame for Israel’s desperate circumstances rested on their shoulders. Those to whom the safety of the people had been committed became instead the very ones who helped sponsor idolatry.

How true, even in our day, those entrusted with the spiritual welfare of their flocks frequently depart from the teachings of the Bible, substituting the gods of humanism, secularism, or the creedal gods of the dark ages.

The fact that there was not one spear among forty thousand of the Jews may well indicate that the northern oppressors, like those of Philistia, had imposed a forced embargo on the smithy trade among the Jews (1 Samuel 13:19-22).

Appreciation for the Governors—Judges 5:9-11

My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the LORD. Speak, ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, and walk by the way. They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, even the righteous acts of his rule [ASV] in Israel: then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates.

Deborah’s praise of the governors of Israel is in contrast to her attitude toward “those who ride on white asses” and those that “sit in judgment” and those that “walk in the way.” According to Insights Into Bible Understanding, “Governors in Bible times generally had military and judicial powers and were responsible to see that the tribute, tax, or revenue to the king or superior ruler was paid by the jurisdictional district or province that the governors ruled.” As such, they often served as tax collectors, and Deborah praises their willingness to join in revolt against the oppressive taxation by the Canaanite king.

Deborah asks three groups to consider or meditate on this nobility, for thus is the thought of the Hebrew siyach, translated “speak” in verse 10. The riding on white asses, or ass colts, was sometimes the privilege of the descendants of a judge, as was the case with the sons of the judge Jair (Judges 10:4). These sons of judges often did not have the same piety as their more illustrious fathers. Thus the conduct of the governors was to be an object lesson to them, as it was to lesser local judges who sat in judgment at the city gates and to those who walked by the way, an idiomatic expression for those who went along with popular opinion and did not have the strong character to stand for Israel. (Similar English idiom: those who take the path of least resistance, or, those who go with the flow.)

Verse 11 indicates another dimension of the oppression, speaking of armed men gathering at the wells. Since it was the women who most often did the water drawing, they were specially delivered in this battle. Along with verse 30, the implication is strong that it was customary for these women to be violated by these armed oppressors. This might be why it was a woman, Deborah, calling herself “a mother in Israel,” who rose up in rebellion rather than her male contemporaries.

The American Standard Version translates the latter part of verse 11, “There shall they rehearse the righteous acts of Jehovah, even the righteous acts of his rule in Israel. Then the people of Jehovah went down [again] to the gates.” None would rejoice more than the Hebrew women when the oppression was over and it was again safe to go down to their own judges in the gates of the cities.

The Refrain—Judges 5:12,13

Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam. Then he made him that remaineth have dominion over the nobles among the people: the LORD made me have dominion over the mighty.

This refrain, possibly repeated at the end of the song, marks a transition in the poem from a theme of thanksgiving to the mention of the roles played by the various tribes and then strikes a derisive satirical note in a final rejoicing over the defeat of the hated foe.

In the latter verse above Deborah mentions two dominions; first, the dominion of the surviving warriors over the less honorable nobility who chose to avoid the conflict, and second, her personal exaltation over the other tribal judges who lacked the courage to foment the rebellion against the Canaanites.

Tribal Reactions—Judges 5:14-18

Out of Ephraim was there a root of them against Amalek; after thee, Benjamin, among thy people; out of Machir came down governors, and out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer. And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley. For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart. Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Gilead abode beyond Jordan: and why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the seashore, and abode in his breaches. Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.

One of the main distinctions between the period of the judges and that of the kings was the alliance of the tribes. During the judges, each tribe acted separately and cooperated only on selected occasions, whereas the kings ruled over a much more structured nation where, when they went to war, they went unitedly. Deborah’s song demonstrates the varying decisions of the different tribes. Deborah singles nine of these tribes out for specific mention. Judah, Simeon, and Manasseh are not mentioned. This omission may indicate the extent of control that Midian, Amalek, and the Arabs had just before Sisera’s defeat.

Ephraim joined in the battle. Ephraim played a dramatic role in the earlier defeat of Moab and Amalek in the days of the judge Ehud, by providing him a refuge after he slew Eglon with a dagger (Judges 3:13-30).

Benjamin is briefly mentioned as the second tribe to contribute forces to the tribal coalition.

Machir, from Manasseh (Numbers 26:29), founded a dynasty that conquered Gilead (Numbers 32:39,40). Manasseh is noted for supplying governors, military chiefs and tax enforcers.

Zebulon furnished those who handled “the pen of the writer,” more appropriately translated as “the marshal’s staff” in the American Standard translation. These would have been the leaders who were in the forefront of Barak’s forces. They were also a northern tribe under the oppressive taxation of King Jabin.

Issachar, seemingly the southernmost tribe directly affected by the Canaanite occupation, provided foot soldiers for the battle.

Reuben did not participate. Their inheritance was in the south and not directly affected by Jabin. Reluctantly they declined, since it was the time for their sheep to bring forth new lambs, thus they were held back by the temporal interests of their bleating flocks.

Gilead, being unaffected in trans-Jordan, also declined with the aforementioned segment of Machir.

Dan remained in his ships, not willing to jeopardize his profitable sea trade and his alliance with Tyre and Sidon.

Asher also was involved in maritime pursuits and was safely protected by the deep ravines, or “breaches” that led down from the anti-Lebanon mountains to the Mediterranean. Thus they felt secure and had no desire to risk their security and prosperity by joining against the powerful kingdom of Hazor.

Zebulon and Naphtali, being most affected, provided a great number of troops to hold the high ground overlooking the plain of Jezreel where the battle took place.

There is a lesson here for all God’s people not to refrain from giving assistance to our brethren for fear of financial loss, or out of the sense of personal security that says, “This is your battle to fight, it does not affect me.”

The Battle at Taanach—Judges 5:19-23

The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; they took no gain of money. They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera. The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength. Then were the horsehoofs broken by the means of the pransings, the pransings of their mighty ones. Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the LORD, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty.

Although many of the nobility did not join the fight, Deborah calls all of the fighters “kings,” for they acted as kings should act, protecting Israel against oppression and fully conquering the promised land. Their battle was not mercenary, they took no spoil, but fought out of pure patriotism, reminding one of the victory of Abraham in saving Sodom for Lot’s sake (Genesis 14:22,23).

The stars fighting, whether referring to angels or the elements themselves, might imply that some of the battle at least was still being fought at night. A bright night would enable the Israelites to more easily find the discomfited and deeply mired soldiers of Sisera.

It is from the song, and not the account of the battle in the previous chapter, that we learn the method God used was a flash flood down the Kishon River. The Kishon flows for about twenty-three miles from the hills of Taanach through a narrow mountain gorge to the sea. Usually dry in summer, spring rains can quickly cause a rushing torrent and swell the river to as wide as sixty six feet. Such a sudden onsurge of water would overwhelm the prancing horses and thoroughly mire down the scythed steel chariots.

Although Meroz has not been positively identified, it has been identified by some archaeologists with Khirbet Marus, some five miles south of Barak’s home town of Kadesh-naphtali. The curse on the city was probably occasioned by their failure to stop and capture the fleeing Sisera.

Jael—Judges 5:24-27

Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent. He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish. She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead.

Although Heber had been a guide for the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt, his descendents fell into idolatry in their city of Arad in southern Judea. It may have been for this reason that Heber separated himself from his fellow Kenites and settled in Zaanaim, near Kadesh[naphtali] (Judges 4:11). He and his wife evidently were proselytes to Judaism and sought to be faithful to the Mosaic covenant.

When Sisera approached her tent in acute thirst requesting water, she flattered him by offering milk and butter, a potion which, when warmed, induces sleep. As he slumbered, she took a tent peg and, with the blow of a heavy hammer, slew the general by driving it through the temples.

It was for this act of heroism that Deborah lavishes praise on Jael. By thus meeting his death at the hand of a woman, the prophecy was fulfilled that Barak would not receive the glory for the victory (Judges 4:9).

A Satire—Judges 5:28-31

The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots? Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself, Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera a prey of divers colors, a prey of divers colors of needlework, of divers colors of needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take the spoil? So let all thine enemies perish, O LORD: but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might. And the land had rest forty years.

Deborah closes her song on a satirical note, mocking the mother of Sisera for anticipating the victorious return of a conquering general. She sarcastically pictures her attendants as saying he will quickly return in triumph, bringing vast spoils. Referring to the loot as containing “a damsel or two” for each soldier gives further weight to the removal of sexual exploitation as one of the elements of the Canaanite oppression which was especially galling to Deborah.

The brightly colored needlework, while referring to any garment, seems to be applied specially to shawls that would be “meet for the necks of them that took the spoil.”

The song ends, like it begins, praising Jehovah, and neither Barak nor Jael, as the ultimate cause of victory. May it be thus, she pleads, to all tyrants who oppress the people of God. The enemies are temporary but the shining prospect of those who are the Lord’s is to shine eternally as the sun—the Sun of Righteousness with “healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2).

….

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