645.     In the 4th, and 5th, chapters of Judges we have an account of a terrible man, Sisera, who, besides oppressing Israel generally, was like a sleuth-hound in pursuing and capturing Israel’s maidens, to despoil them of their beautiful, double-embroidered garments (5:30), and deliver them over, “to every soldier a damsel or two.” Deborah arose, “a mother in Israel,” stirred up Barak, and together they went forth to war. But another woman, an alien to Israel, but living in the midst of it, had likewise been fired with indignation at the depredations upon her sex. The war that Deborah began Jael finished, for God sold Sisera into the hands of the woman (4:9). Deborah celebrates this victory of two women over a capturer of women, in a song which knows no rival for beauty in Hebrew literature. The opening line of that Song of Deborah, Judges 5:1, has caused much labor to translators, who can never agree as to its meaning. Here are some renderings

“A revelation was revealed in Israel,” Vatican Code, Septuagint.

“In the leading of the leaders of Israel,” Alexandrian Code, Septuagint.

“In the vengeance with which Israel was avenged,” Syriac Version.

“For the avenging of Israel,” English, A. V.

“For that the leaders took the lead,” English, R. V.

“In the breaking forth of the breakers,” Cambridge Bible.

“That the strong in Israel showed themselves strong,” Keil and Delitzsch.

“For those whose hair was let flow loose,” Cooke.

“That the hair waved wildly in Israel,” Cassel.

646.     The subject of this sentence is a feminine form, being the plural participle of the same verb as the predicate. This verb is para (HEB), and Gesenius’ Lexicon informs us that it means “to loose, to let go,” and it is so translated in Exodus 5:4 (R. V.): “Wherefore do ye . . . loose the people from their works?” It appears, therefore, that the most natural sense of the words would be: “For that freeing women freed Israel. . . . Praise ye the Lord.” What better would suit the context? This has always been known as “Deborah’s Song,” and rightly, for the announcement is: “Then sang (feminine singular) Deborah¾and Barak,” his name coming in as a sort of afterthought, showing that she was the proper renderer of it. The song is composed by a woman, to celebrate the deliverance, by two women, of both Israel as a whole, and also the maidens of Israel, from an oppressor. Although no Hebrew scholar could be ignorant of the fact that this is a feminine form, no one in translating the verse, so far as we can learn, has ever indicated this in his translation.

647.      Deborah means “a bee,” and there was something of a sting in this woman, for evil-doers. She may have had this name given her as a title during her public services to her people. The wars Sisera conducted seem to have been for two purposes, conquest and women. Israel submitted to his depredations for some time, and then two women became thoroughly aroused with indignation for the unavenged wrongs of their sex. Deborah began the war, and Jael finished it, and that is why Deborah’s song begins,

“For women-deliverers freeing Israel,

For the people volunteering,

Praise ye the Lord.”

The song continues, according to the translation, v. 6 “The highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through [crooked] byways.” But the word translated “unoccupied” means “to cease,” and has never been translated “unoccupied” anywhere else in the Bible, while “highways” is the feminine plural of the participle “wandering”¾meaning, literally, “the female wanderers.” This leads the R.V.to suggest, in the margin, “caravans ceased.” But since this is a woman’s song, nothing is more natural than for Deborah to note that women had ceased altogether from going about, and men “travellers” (masculine) went only in the “crooked bypaths,” where they would be unobserved. (See Additional Note.)

648.      Deborah continues: “The rulers [R. V.] ceased in Israel, they ceased, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.” This word “mother” means, according to Semitic usage, in this connection, “female chief,” a female ruler,¾of the tribe of Israel. Not only was there no one to rule, until she took the reins of government, but Deborah goes on to complain (v. 8) that whereas, when Israel entered the Promised Land, forty-thousand armed men marched before them (Joshua 4:12,13), now not a spear or a shield had been lifted to defend Israel against Sisera.

649.     When the children of Israel entered the Promised Land, the children of the Kenite, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, went with them from Jericho into the land of Judah, at the south, and settled there, Judges 1:16. But Heber removed his tent from there, and was living far to the north, near the southern extremity of (what was later called) the sea of Galilee (Judges 4:11). The encounter with Sisera took place at the western part of the plain of Jezreel, by the river Kishon, and Sisera fled north-eastward to the tent of Jael for shelter and protection, arriving perhaps three days after the battle. The effrontery of it! A man out capturing women is in danger of being captured, and runs to a woman for protection!

650.     He would probably have captured Jael, herself, at another time, if he could. She knew this very well. The house of Heber was at peace with Jabin, Sisera’s king. But that is not saying Jael was at peace with Jabin or Sisera, for women were very independent in those days, and only a treacherous woman loses the sense of loyalty towards her own sex. Sisera stood a suppliant at the door of Jael’s tent, while Barak was in hot pursuit. It is not likely that Jael recognized him at this moment, but she would under the circumstances be filled with fear lest an armed warrior meant mischief to herself; and realizing that the giving of the hospitality he desired meant her own safety, while the refusal of that hospitality meant peril, she bade him welcome, and when he asked for water gave him milk.

651.     Once inside, his quick request for her to stand guard at the door, and tell a lie when his enemy came,¾she an unarmed woman, and he a warrior, armed to the teeth¾(while he showed no sign of going again, but lay down exhausted), would arouse her suspicions. She probably then realized for the first who this man was. Sisera, the despoiler of the women of Israel,¾Israel with whom the Kenites, from the days of Moses, had a most sacred covenant (Exodus 18:12): among whom in fact, the Kenites dwelt as guests (1 Samuel 15:6).

652.     She hesitated no longer. He had thought to entrap her by the Arab custom of desert hospitality, which carries the promise of protection with the giving of food. Fired with indignation, at once she dispatched him by the only means she had at hand (4:21). Barak now stands at the tent door, but too late. Jael has the honor of slaying the enemy, and Deborah sings: “Blessed above women shall Jael be . . . Blessed shall she be above women in the tent.” And a few miles away, a woman of fashion and of folly is saying to the women of her train, “Have they not found, have they not divided the spoil? A damsel, two damsels to every man” (5:30). Commentators have wrangled over the question whether Jael ought not to have obeyed that custom of Arab hospitality, and spared Sisera. Jael knew better than to transgress a covenant with God’s people (Numbers 10:29-32), for the sake of man-made custom. And let us hope she realized, too, that no compact should be held so sacred among women as that which binds them in a common defense of their virtue. Many Biblical scholars hold that Deborah was of the tribe of Ephraim. If so, we may be sure Jacob saw her also among those daughters of Rachel who could “ascend over a wall” and blessed Jael for doing the same (pars. 607-608).

653.     The entire Song of Deborah is pronounced by scholars the most remarkable specimen of Hebrew poetry in the Bible, but “The closing part of Deborah’s Song has justly been regarded as a specimen of poetical representation that cannot be surpassed” (Cassell, in Lange’s Commentary).

Additional Note

“Your new translation of the Song of Deborah is in my judgment somewhat arbitrary and unconvincing, but I must own that the Hebrew text is very difficult.”¾Dr A. Mingana. But are the other renderings any less “arbitrary and unconvincing?”

Lesson 81     INDEX      Home