Real Bible Studies: Judges, The Song of Deborah

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In Judges 4-5, we meet one of the few women who stands on her own in all of the Old Testament. Deborah isn’t just identified as a strong woman, Judges tells us she’s leading the Israelites and holds counsel under the Palm of Deborah. She’s identified as a prophet, and the wife of Lappidoth. Despite being a married woman, who typically had little authority in the ancient world, when the tribes do “evil in the eyes of the lord” it’s to Deborah they turn for guidance. Jabin, king of Canaan is oppressing the Israelites sending Sisera, commander of his army, to keep them in check for more than twenty years. When the Israelites ask Deborah what to do, she instructs them to bring Barak, the son of Abinoam, from the tribe of Naphtali, to her. 

It’s likely that Deborah started out as a minor deity worshipped by one of the tribes, or as a consort to a god, who was humanized when worship of YHWH became more prevalent. It’s known that Astarte and Ashtoreth were two local names for the goddess Ishtar, worshipped in Canaan, Persia, and Babylon, and is sometimes mentioned as the consort to YHWH. Kings and Chronicles report that altars to her were destroyed by King Josiah, who insisted Israel follow monotheism. Getting rid of the goddess proved problematic for the children of Israel, however, as prophets, notably Jeremiah, continued to preach against Astarte up to the time of the Babylonian exile, and scribes exiled in Babylon attributed worship of other gods and goddesses than YHWH as factors in why Israel lost favor with their God. Astarte was a goddess of war according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Deborah fills a similar role in her story, selecting Barak to lead the troops against Sisera, and accompanying him as he marches into battle. The army mainly consists of Naphtali and Zebulun, so it’s likely this story originated with one of those tribes.

When Deborah calls upon Barak to go against Sisera’s army, he agrees, provided she accompanies him. She taunts him by saying that this will mean he’ll get no credit for the victory and that Sisera will be defeated by a woman. YHWH is credited with somehow thwarting Sisera’s army, neutralizing their 900 chariots, so the Israelites are able to rout the army. Deborah’s words to Barak prove to be prophetic, as Sisera flees the battlefield on foot and seeks refuge in the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. First, Jael gives Sisera curdled milk instead of the water he requests, then, while Sisera is sleeping, Jael hammers a tent pole through his temple, killing him. When Barak arrives, Jael leads him to the dead body of his enemy. Energized by their victory over Sisera, the Israelites press on and free themselves from Jabin’s oppression.

Judges 5 is devoted to The Song of Deborah, which Isaac Asimov cites as perhaps one of the oldest contributions to the Bible in his guide to the Old Testament. It’s possible that Judges 4 was written to provide context to The Song of Deborah, which mostly gives an overview of the battle against Sisera, praising the tribes that fought, especially Zebulun and Naphtali, but also noting that Ephraim, Issachar, and Benjamin were among them. It contains the usual curses for the enemies of the Lord and any tribe that failed to support the battle, and praises Jael as “Most blessed of women”. The account in the song gives a slightly different telling of how Sisera died, implying he was standing when Jael delivered the death blow instead of sleeping as is stated in Judges 4, but it does include the detail of Jael giving Sisera curdled milk instead of water. Throughout, Deborah refers to herself in first person, but her words do sound similar to a goddess bestowing blessings on her people. Verse 12 seems to be an invocation to Deborah, “Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song!”

It says much about the importance of Deborah that even after worship of the patriarchal YHWH had taken over the land, the editor of Judges felt that her story needed to be included. If Deborah indeed started out as a local deity, it’s possible whoever compiled Judges is the one who humanized her, making her a legendary figure. By the time her story entered the Hebrew Bible, there may not have been anyone left who recalled her origins. Judges tells us that Israel lived in peace for forty years following her tenure as a judge. 

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