The Canticle of Deborah and Barak (Judg 5:1-5:31)

“Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day.

‘When locks of hair are long in Israel,

When the people offer themselves willingly,

Bless Yahweh!

Hear, O kings.

Give ear, O princes.

To Yahweh I will sing.

I will make melody to Yahweh, the God of Israel.’”

This is a great ancient Hebrew canticle in praise of Yahweh, perhaps one of the oldest texts of the Hebrew bible. There is no explicit mention of Egypt or crossing the Jordan, just a faint reference. This is all about the settled Israel.

Yahweh, 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 Yahweh, the One of Sinai

Before Yahweh, the God of Israel.”

Yahweh led the people on the east side of the Jordan from Edom. There the earth shuck and the rains came because Yahweh is the God of Israel. Due to the rains the chariots were not able to maneuver around.

“In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath,

In the days of Jael, caravans ceased.

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 Yahweh!”

It is supposed to be sung by Deborah and Barak, but here it addresses Deborah, who was an Israelite mother. There is a mention of the judge Shamgar and Jael, Sisera’s killer. The peasants were fine, but then new gods arose. Thus 40,000 Israelites went out to fight. Bless Yahweh!

Tell of it, you who ride on white tawny 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 Yahweh,

The triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.”

Yahweh seems to be on the side of the peasants and not the rich.

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

Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, and utter a song!

Arise, Barak, lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam.

Then down marched the remnant of the noble.

The people of Yahweh 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,

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 was great searching of the heart.

Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds,

To hear the piping for the flocks?

Among the clans of Reuben there was great searching of the heart.

Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan.

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.”

In this song more tribes are included rather than just Naphtali and Zebulun, as Benjamin, Ephraim, Machir, and Issachar came to their aid. Apparently, Reuben, Dan, and Asher did not come to help. However, there is no mention of Judah, Simeon, or Gad.

“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!”

The battle seems to have taken place at Taanach and Megiddo, in the northern part of Manasseh, near the border of Asher, Zebulun, and Issachar. This Kishon River seems to be like the Red Sea and the Jordan River in wiping out the enemy.

“Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping,

Galloping of his steeds.

Curse Meroz, says the angel of Yahweh,

Curse bitterly its inhabitants,

Because they did not come to the help of Yahweh,

To the help of Yahweh against the mighty.”

The people of Meroz get a special curse because they must have been close by and did nothing to help.

“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 workman’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.”

Jael gets a special blessing for killing Sisera. She was not an Israelite but a Kenite who had a peace treaty with King Jabin. She gave Sisera something to eat and drink. Then when he fell asleep she killed him with a blow to the head.

“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 hoof-beats 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?”

This is a very moving story with the introduction of Sisera’s mother at the end waiting for her son to a return that will never come. Notice that it is not his wife. This canticle has a distinctly feminine perspective with Deborah, Jael, and Sisera’s mom playing leading roles.

”So perish all your enemies, O Yahweh!

But may your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.

And the land had rest for forty years.”

After this battle there was 40 years of peace. The enemies of Yahweh shall die while the friends of Yahweh will grow strong.

37 thoughts on “The Canticle of Deborah and Barak (Judg 5:1-5:31)

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