Tag Archives: Homer

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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Greek Wednesday: Non-Past-Referring Aorist Indicatives

Note: This post is adapted from F. Beetham, “The Aorist Indicative,” Greece & Rome 42 (2002): 227-236, Frank Stagg, “The Abused Aorist,” JBL 91 (1972): 222-231, Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar (rev. Gordon M. Messing; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956), 429-434, and Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 

A good many aorist indicative verbs should not be read as a past tense; in fact, D. A. Carson has estimated that perhaps 15% of the finite aorists in the New Testament do not refer to the past.[1] On the face of it, this number might not seem significant, but it means that, to take Carson literally, somewhere around 900 aorist indicatives in the NT do not refer to the past. So, obviously, understanding this phenomenon is very important for understanding the text of the NT. I’ll use examples from Classical Greek to illustrate the phenomenon, which can then be applied back to the NT.

1) Substituting for the future tense, in order to intensify the action of the verb.

Classical examples:

εἴ περ γάρ τε καὶ αὐτίκ’ Ὀλύμπιος οὐκ ἐτέλεσσεν,
ἔκ τε καὶ ὀψὲ τελεῖ, σύν τε μεγάλῳ ἀπέτισαν
σὺν σφῇσιν κεφαλῇσι γυναιξί τε καὶ τεκέεσσιν.

If he that rules Olympus fulfill it not here and now,
he will yet fulfill it hereafter, and they shall pay dearly
with their lives and with their wives and children.

(Homer, Iliad 4.160-162)

εἰ μέν κ’ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται·
εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ’ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν
ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ’ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη.

If I stay here and fight, I shall lose my safe homecoming but I will have a glory that is unwilting: whereas if I go home my glory will die, but it will be a long time before the outcome of death shall take me.

(Homer, Iliad 9.412-416)

ἀπωλόμην ἄρ’, εἴ με δὴ λείψεις, γύναι.

I am lost, then, if you are going to leave me.

(Euripides, Alcestis 386)

NT examples:

πάντα ὅσα προσεύχεσθε καὶ αἰτεῖσθε, πιστεύετε ὅτι ἐλάβετε, καὶ ἔσται ὑμῖν.

Whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you have received [it], and it will be yours.

(Mk 11:24)

λέγει Ἰησοῦς· νῦν ἐδοξάσθη ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου καὶ ὁ θεὸς ἐδοξάσθη ἐν αὐτῷ.

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him.”

(Jn 13:31)

2) Using the aorist to express a general truth (like a proverb or a maxim) or to make a general description.

Classical examples:

παθὼν δέ τε νήπιος ἔγνω.

A fool learns by experience.

(Hesiod, Works and Days 218)

οἱ τύραννοι καὶ οἱ τὰς ὀλιγαρχίας ἔχοντες μάλιστα δύνανται τιμᾶν· πλούσιον γὰρ ὃν ἂν βούλωνται παραχρῆμ’ ἐποίησαν.

Tyrants and oligarchs have an immense advantage in that they can make anyone they choose instantaneously rich.

(Demosthenes, Speeches 20.15)

φᾶρος δὲ αὐτημερὸν ἐξυφήναντες οἱ ἱρέες κατ’ ὦν ἔδησαν ἑνὸς ἑωυτῶν μίτρῃ τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς

On the day of the festival, the priests weave a cloth and bind it as a headband on the eyes of one of their number.

(Herodotus, Histories 2.122)

This aorist is also often equivalent to a conditional statement.

ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἀθυμοῦντες ἄνδρες οὔπω τρόπαιον ἔστησαν, ὦ Κριτία

But men of faint heart never yet set up a trophy, Critias.
(= If there is a disheartened man, he has never yet set up a trophy.)

(Plato, Critias 108c)

And it also occurs in similes pretty frequently in Homer.

ὡς δ’ ὅτε τίς τε δράκοντα ἰδὼν παλίνορσος ἀπέστη
οὔρεος ἐν βήσσῃς, ὑπό τε τρόμος ἔλλαβε γυῖα,
ἂψ δ’ ἀνεχώρησεν, ὦχρός τέ μιν εἷλε παρειάς,
ὣς αὖτις καθ’ ὅμιλον ἔδυ Τρώων ἀγερώχων
δείσας Ἀτρέος υἱὸν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδής.

As one who starts back affrighted, trembling and pale, when he comes suddenly upon a serpent in some mountain glade, even so did Alexander plunge into the throng of Trojan warriors, terror-stricken at the sight of the son Atreus.

(Homer, Iliad 3.33-37)

NT examples:

ἑπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.

(Matt 23:3)

ἐξηράνθη ὁ χόρτος, καὶ τὸ ἄνθος ἐξέπεσεν.

The grass withers and the flower falls off.

(1 Pet 1:24)

3) The aorist with τί οὖν οὐ and τί οὐ takes the place of the present tense to express surprise that something hasn’t been done.

Classical examples:

εἴ τινα ἔχεις τῶν ῥητόρων τοιοῦτον εἰπεῖν, τί οὐχὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ αὐτὸν ἔφρασας τίς ἐστιν;

If you have any orator of this kind that you can mention, without more ado tell me who he is!

(Plato, Gorgias 503b)

Τί οὖν, ἔφη ὁ Ἱέρων, οὐχὶ καὶ σύ, ἐπεὶ νῦν γε ἔτι ἰδιώτης εἶ, ὑπέμνησάς με τὰ ἐν τῷ ἰδιωτικῷ βίῳ;

Why, then,” said the Priest, “don’t you, since you are still your own person, remind me about what happens in private life?”

(Xenophon, Hiero 1.3)

NT examples:

καὶ διελογίζοντο πρὸς ἑαυτοὺς λέγοντες· ἐὰν εἴπωμεν· ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, ἐρεῖ· διὰ τί [οὖν] οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ;

And they discussed it among themselves: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why don’t you believe him?'”

(Mk 11:31; par. Matt 21:25; Lk 20:5)

Τότε προσελθόντες οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ κατ᾿ ἰδίαν εἶπον· διὰ τί ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἠδυνήθημεν ἐκβαλεῖν αὐτό;

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why can’t we cast it out?”

(Matt 17:19)

——————————

1. D. A. Carson, “An Introduction to the Porter/Fanning Debate,” in Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics. JSNTSS 80 (1993), 25.

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Greek and Latin, in Authentic Pronunciation

Real quick post about a resource that I (and I hope others) have found really interesting and even useful: the Society for the Oral Reading of Greek and Latin Literature. They have quite a few recordings on their site of famous selections of ancient Greek and Latin, recited in authentic historical pronunciation. The ones I’ve found most interesting are Homer, Demosthenes, and AristophanesCicero, and Catullus, though all the others are also really informative. The only thing cooler than this site in regards to ancient Greek pronunciation, I think, is W. B. Stanford’s The Sound of Greek (which comes with a 33 1/3 record in the back!).

Check it out!

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Redaction Criticism and Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking about redaction criticism lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the folly of assuming that a book of the Bible was composed by a single author simply because it has traditionally been attributed to a single author. For instance, the Pentateuch was most probably edited from several source documents over the course of a few centuries, rather than being written all at once by Moses (with Joshua adding a tag at the end). It is also highly likely that 1 and 2 Corinthians have at least a couple interpolations, from marginal notes being copied into the text. Interestingly, the sample problems are being explored in Homer scholarship, too — whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by Homer (who may not even have existed) or were composed over the course of a long period of time and only later attributed to Homer.

(As a sidebar, I do wonder if conservative Christians during the early 1900s rejected historical criticism not for the methodology so much as for the results, which they saw as an attack on their faith, and, rather than thinking through  the evidence, shooed it away and declared it anathema. But that’s another post for another day.)

Let’s take a contemporary example of redaction and interpolation: Wikipedia. We all know that no one single person is “the author” of Wikipedia. However, let’s imagine a time, maybe 1000 years in the future, where the original Wikipedia was lost to the ravages of the Internet, but someone had the foresight (or luck) to preserve a print copy of some of Wikipedia’s entries, which was then, through some miracle of history, meticulously copied and transmitted for 1000 years. Over the course of a millennium, a tradition has cropped up regarding Wikipedia, assigning a single author to each of the articles.

By this time, a group of Wikipedia scholars has cropped up. However, because the only remaining evidence of Wikipedia is the collection of articles, which have no authorship attached, but which also show clear signs of multiple authors, there is a lively debate in this niche of scholarship about Wikipedia’s authorship. On the one side, some scholars claim that, because each article is a unified source, each article must have been written by a single person. On the other side, other scholars claim that they have determined, through redaction and linguistic criticism, that the articles were, in fact, written by several people over the course of time. (Thankfully, scanners and photocopiers kept the number of textual variants to a minimum!)

We all know, of course, how silly it is to assert that a given Wikipedia article, especially one of the featured articles, has been written by a single author. But, assuming all we had was the text of major Wikipedia articles, would it be any more valid to say that Wikipedia articles are the work of a single author? Of course not.

The implications of this Wikipedia principle are, I would hope, very clear. In the case of a text like the Pentateuch, or the Iliad and the Odyssey, or even our hypothetical Wikipedia, multiple authorship is infinitely more likely than single authorship. It is invalid to perpetuate a tradition in the face of contrary evidence.

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