Epic in the Song of Deborah

I’ve been thinking all day long about the Song of Deborah (from, primarily, Judges 5). It is one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew poetry we have, dating back, in all likelihood, to the 1200s BCE, and I’d argue that it’s an episode from a longer epic, which we no longer have. I see three reasons in support of it originally being from a longer epic: first, the song itself mentions that it is to be sung in encampments at watering holes; second, it is highly repetitious at climactic or vivid moments; third, it has a quite abrupt ending.

First, though, here’s the text from the NRSV:

Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:

“When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly— bless the Lord!

“Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the Lord I will sing, I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.

“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways. The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel. When new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates. Was shield or spear to be seen among forty thousand in Israel? My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel who offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless the Lord.

“Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way. To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

“Then down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.

“Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! Arise, Barak, lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam. Then down marched the remnant of the noble; the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty. From Ephraim they set out into the valley, following you, Benjamin, with your kin; from Machir marched down the commanders, and from Zebulun those who bear the marshal’s staff; the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah, and Issachar faithful to Barak; into the valley they rushed out at his heels. Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds, to hear the piping for the flocks? Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he abide with the ships? Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, settling down by his landings. Zebulun is a people that scorned death; Naphtali too, on the heights of the field.

“The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!

“Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.

“Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord, curse bitterly its inhabitants, because they did not come to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.

“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.

“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.”

And the land had rest forty years.

(For a helpful commentary on this text, with an amended and reconstructed text of the song, see Thomas F. McDaniel’s The Song of Deborah: Poetry in Dialect.)

This text shows two features that make it undoubtedly very old. First, Yahweh is still a storm god who lives on Mount Sinai (“Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.”). Second, Israel’s main occupation is still donkey caravaneering (“you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way”).

What strikes me most about this text, though, is that it’s meant to be sung in encampments, likely while on the caravan trail:

Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way. To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

Given that this passage is meant to be sung for entertainment and to communicate an important historical victory, I think it’s plausible that this song is a scene from a longer epic, the rest of which we no longer have.

As further evidence that this song is part of an epic, a poem meant to be sung for entertainment, note the repetition it shows in its phrasing (beyond the normal parallelism in Hebrew poetry):

Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds. . . .

[Jael] put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead. . . .

Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

This repetition is a means of adding emphasis when singing the poem at the watering holes and of making the scenes more vivid and memorable (cf. the similar use of repetition in the Iliad), and is well suited for recounting Israel’s historic exploits at a wadi on the caravan trail.

My final observation in support of an original epic setting for this song is the abrupt ending:

“Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.”

The last tag is, pretty obviously, the moral of the song within the framework of Judges 4-5. The episode of Sisera’s mother and her slaves, though, begs to be drawn to a close. We’d expect a scene where she discovers the death of her slaves and mourns her terrible misfortune, which would give the Israelite storyteller and audience even more opportunity to gloat over the death of Sisera. As it stands, though, the song is jarringly disjointed between the last episode and the moralizing tag, which argues strongly in favor of the Song of Deborah being one section of a longer epic.

Thus, in conclusion, I think that the Song of Deborah is a single episode, drawn from a longer epic. I see three factors in support of this conclusion. First, the song says quite clearly that it is to be sung around watering holes on the caravan trail, likely for entertainment, as an epic would be. Second, the language is full of parallelism and is highly repetitious and vivid at climactic points, like in other epics. Finally, the ending of this song is abrupt and disjointed, which supports the conclusion that the song comes from a longer work.

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One response to “Epic in the Song of Deborah

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Blogging (SBL Paper, part 2) | Ex Libris

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