The Song of Deborah (Judg. 5)


One of the most popular leaders in the Book of Judges has long been Deborah: an early example of a woman leader—and the only female “judge” (read: chief)—she has rightfully drawn a lot of attention because of her unique place in the Old Testament (along with, in a different way, Ruth). But Deborah also serves another purpose: to allow us to see another hole in Biblical storytelling.

Chapter 5 of the Book of Judges entirely consists of “The Song of Deborah,” which is a retelling, in poetic form, of other events in the book. Why, you might ask, would a narrative account contain the same story twice? Well, not without a purpose. In previous posts, we have seen other Biblical repetitions—such as the two distinct creation stories and two different floods in Genesis—have arisen most likely because what we now consider to be one narrative was actually multiple accounts stitched together many centuries ago.

Thus, the best explanation for this repetition, it may be no surprise, is similar. Scholars believe that the Song of Deborah forms the original core of a story, which was then later rewritten and expanded—and put in prosaic form—into what we now consider to be portions of the Book of Judges.

Is Anything Different?

If you’re clever, you’re probably already asking yourself: So, like the discrepancies in Genesis, was there anything different between the two stories? If you have learned anything reading Holey Books, you’ll probably guess there is. In Judges 4, the Canaanite general Sisera, fleeing from a mad charge by Israelite general Barak (who counterattacked at this particular juncture because of Deborah’s divine revelation), searches for a place to hide. He meets Jael, the wife of a “Kenite” Heber. Jael only pretends to hide Sisera in her tent; when he is asleep, she murders him by driving a tent peg into his temple “until it went down into the ground” (Judg. 4: 21).

Now go read the Song of Deborah. Does it tell the same story about Sisera’s end? In Judg. 5:24-27, Sisera falls after being struck in the head with a tent peg by Jael. Other details are also missing (such as covering Sisera with a coverlet). The distinctions, scholar James Kugel points out, are a result of quirks in ancient Israelite poetry. (For more detail about quirks in ancient Hebrew poetry, see Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible,” p. 394-5).

So rest assured it wasn’t just your tenth grade self misreading poetry: ancient Biblical writers did it as well.

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