Literary Analysis: Deborah

Arnold J. Band

Please note that this web version does not include the footnotes containing references present in the book.

In the memory of ancient Israel, the period of the Judges is a chaotic interlude between the epic sweep of the Exodus  including the revelation at Sinai , and the establishment of the Davidic monarchy.  The narratives in the book of Judges are usually brief and violent, often retelling the cycle of apostasy, punishment, and delivery.  The people of Israel stray from the covenantal Lord to worship other gods; they are punished by the Lord who subjects them to the ravages of hostile powers; in response to their pleas for help, He sends a hero, often called a “judge” (Ehud, Deborah, Gilead, Jephthah, for instance)  to save them;  Israel enjoys a period of tranquility but inevitably returns to its wayward ways.

Recent scholarship by Yaira Amit, attentive to the editing of the text and its contextualization, arrives at a sophisticated formulation:

“…it would seem that the book of Judges reflects the beginning of a process, that took place after the exile of the kingdom of Israel [722  BCE], of setting in order the world of beliefs of the kingdom of Judah, and the first attempt to understand the process of history and understand its underlying principles.”   As such, “the book of Judges expresses the earliest signs of the taking of shape of an absolute monotheism.”

However fascinating this formulation of the importance the book might be in the history of ancient Israelite religion, it is undeniable that the book of Judges is a compilation of bloody events, of murder, mayhem, pillage and rape.  Of the twelve so-called Judges in the book, only one transcends the violent paradigm of the other heroes, even though she is the one who summons men to battle: Deborah.   Deborah is sent by the Lord to  deliver Israel from its oppressor, here the Jabin the king of Hazor, but she differs radically from the archetype of the “judge” we have become accustomed to from a serial reading of the book from chapter One on.   The first three judges are portrayed as warriors:  Otniel, Ehud, and Shamgar., but Deborah, a woman not a man, is presented as an inspired leader, a prophetess through whom God gives instructions to Barak, the general of the Israelite forces.  She clearly was an inspiring figure to generations of Israelite audiences since she is enshrined in the book of Judges in two different literary genres: a prose narrative (Chapter 4) and a poem (Chapter 5) which she ostensibly sings.  We are told little about her: she is assigned no father, rare for a Biblical figure.  She is given a husband, Lappidoth, but that name might be a misunderstanding since it exists nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some readers imaginatively take the word “lappidoth” in its basic meaning, “torches” and translated the phrase aptly as “a spirited woman.” In the prose narrative she is a prophetess accorded a  known seat of prophecy called “The Palm Tree of Deborah” to which people came for “judgment.”   In her, judgment is merged with prophecy.   In addition, in the poem, chapter 5, she is both a consummate, inspired, forceful  poet and, as she designates herself triumphantly, “a mother in Israel,” an epithet that connects her to the matriarchs of Genesis.

A multifaceted figure: judge, prophet, poet, matriarch,  she is  convincingly fitting to play a role in a complex plot.   While chapter 4 supposedly tells the story of a victory of the Israelites led by Barak over the army of Hazor lead by Sisera, the entire battle scene amounts to one successful charge.  The real triumph is in the deceptive plot.  When Barak insists that Deborah accompany him to the battle, she agrees but warns him:  “However there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking for then the Lord will deliver Sisera  into the hands of a woman.”   The reader assumes that she means that fame for the victory will be accorded to Deborah, a woman, and not to Barak the general, the normative  masculine hero of Judges.  But the plot is shrewder than the reader is.

As his army is routed, Sisera takes refuge in the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, a putative ally of his master, Jabin the king of Hazor.  Heber, we have been informed in what seems to be a misplaced verse (11), that Heber was a distant relative of Moses’ father-in-law but had  separated from him.  Jael, in a famous, memorable act of deception, welcomes Sisera to her tent, feeds him milk, covers him, and as he slept, drove a tent peg through his skull into the ground.

The scene is carefully wrought with many innuendos.   Sisera, for instance, instructs Jael to say to any man who comes by that there is no man in the tent, and she will make sure that there us no (live) man in the tent.  When Barak approaches (she apparently recognized both warriors) she welcome him in to show him the corpse of his enemy. In a sense she did not betray Sisera since he was already dead, not a man.   Deborah’s prophecy came true, but not as we expected.  Sisera was killed not by Barak, but by a woman, Jael. Significantly, furthermore, Deborah emerges with her hands clean.   She did not kill Sisera.  Jael did.

What we enjoy as readers, then, is not the tactics of the battle, but the tactics of a clever emplotment.  We have deception here as in the stories of Ehud or Gilead, but Deborah, unlike Ehud or Gilead, is not involved in murder.

Chapter 5, “The  Song of Deborah,” is often considered the oldest extant sizeable fragment of Hebrew literature and unintelligible is some places.  Though basically a hymn of praise for deliverance, it is infused with the forceful fictive personality of the poetess, Deborah, who is supposedly singing this song. In the agitated proem  (vs. 2 and 3),  she declares that she sings this sing of praise and thanksgiving  to  the Lord in a time of national upheaval.   Just as people have dedicated themselves to the struggle, she will sing this song to the Lord of Hosts, not to herself, but to the kings and potentates of the earth. The exalted tone is enhanced in vs. 4 and 5 which evoke the traditional images of the theophany at Sinai one might find in Psalms.  She graphically portrays the conditions in the country prevalent in the period of the Judges:

“In the days of Jael, caravans ceased,
And wayfarers went
By roundabout paths.”  (v. 6)

At that point she, “the mother in Israel” arose to save her people since there were no fighters in the gates for Israel.   Again, the woman must rally the men and she enacts how she did so in the stirring battle cries and vivid descriptions of vs. 10-12.  Her challenges lead to victory:

“ Then was the remnant made victor over the mighty;
The Lord’s people won my victory over the warriors.”
v. 13.

In a dazzling series of names and bits of history reminiscent of scenes from the Homeric epics, Deborah praises the tribes who participated in the battle and chides those who shirked their duty ( vs 14-18).    Turning to the enemy, “the kings of Canaan”,  she presetns a brief battle scene in which we learn that Sisera’s army of chariots was actually swept away by a heaven sent torrent of the Kishon stream where the battle was fought.  The excited climax of the battle is rendered by three cries of the same central term: nahal (torrent) in nahal Kishon, nahal kedumim (raging torrent) , nahal Kishon  in v. 21.   As in the narrative account of chapter 4, there is little attention paid to the battle itself; rather, victory is attributed to a torrent sent, obviously,  from heaven.

Verse  23 seems  at first to be out of place since it in the angel of the Lord  curses Meroz (an unidentified people)  bitterly

Because they came not to the aid of the Lord
To the aid of the Lord among the warriors.

One expects this verse to be a continuation of the enumeration of the tribes and their various behavior verses  14-18, but it is much more angry and bitter.  The reader is surprised to learn that the curse of Meroz is immediately followed and balanced by the blessing of Jael in  v. 24:

Most blessed of women be Jael,
Wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of women in the tents.
” V. 24.

Her actions in viciously slaying Sisera is conveyed in full rhythmic detail, unlike the battle scene which here, as in the prose narrative, is scantily treated.   The end of the scene varies significantly from the prose version:

At her feet he sank, lay outstretched.
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay – destroyed.
”  v. 27.

Note that in  contrast with the prose passage where Sisera  simply dies from the piercing blow of the tent peg, here we see him sinking  (kara’) three times. The verbs kara (sink) and nafal (fall) appear together in Psalms 20:9 : which describes the enemies who have chariots (like Sisera)  collapsing and falling. But since in the Hebrew Sisera kara ben ragleha (sank between [not “at“ Jael’s legs), the sexual implication or reversal is also intimated.   Kara also is used in gestures of adoration, or giving birth.

The polysemeity, mulitple meanings,  of kara prepares us for the last section of the poem which presents a scene totally absent from the prose version:   the mother of Sisera waiting at the window for her son to return from battle. The audience knows, of course, that Sisera is dead, brutally murdered by Jael, but his mother does not know.  The dramatic irony is crushing.   She  wonders:

Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why so late the clatter f his wheels?
”  v. 28.

Ironically, she is reassured by her  “wise” lady-friends who reassure her:

They must be dividing the spoil they have found:
A damsel or two for each man …
” v. 30 .
We, of course, know that the opposite is true:   he has already been brutally  slain by a woman.   (One does not need sophisticated feminist theory to get the point.)   The Hebrew, of course, does not say “damsel” but rehem which means womb or, by extension, vagina.   Sisera’s mother’s statement is blatantly cruel and vulgar;  it undercuts whatever pity we might have had for the mother waiting at the window for her returning son.   The poet plays on the assonance between  the word rehem and the root rekem (embroidery) which appears twice in the following lines.   Part of the booty she imagines Sisera will bring home is colored embroidery to adorn her neck.

The   poem ends with Deborah’s  prayerful wish:

So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!
But may His friends be as the sun rising in might!
” v. 31.

The two chapters end with the conventional Biblical closure:
And the land was tranquil forty years.”  V. 31

Mieke Bal, a leading semiotician and feminist, has written three books on the book of Judges.   In the last she sums up Deborah’s figure:
In the Song of Deborah, poetry is related to judging in both the military-political sense and in the juridical sense.  Deborah’s song is full of judgments, of praise and curse.   It is also an evocation of the victory prompted by her own activity.  The prophecy, emphasized more in chapter 4 than in chapter 5, is implicit in the direct communication between Deborah and Yahweh.   The combination of ordering qualities that the poetess displays allows for the display of her function as one who establishes order in chaos by means of the proper word.  And the proper word is the commemorating word, the one that will not let daughters die in forgetfulness.  A mother who deserves the title “a mother in Israel” stands for wholeness, completeness through order and memory.


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