Stateswoman or Propagandist? Unraveling the Song of Deborah

deborah-detailWhere we left off in our story, Deborah and Barak– with an assist from a housewife and a tent spike– had succeeded in conquering Jabin, one of the kings of the Canaanite kingdoms, and his 900 iron-fortified chariots. This post will revisit a lot of that material, so see my previous entry if you want a refresher.

What did they do when they won this peace? Like any great Broadway musical, they sang a song about it. I will leave you to imagine the choreography, but it probably didn’t involve dancing girls. The Song of Deborah offers a second look at the events of Judges 4, but also depicts how Deborah wanted the story to be remembered. This song, far from being just an epilogue, depicts a woman that was both an expert at statecraft and perhaps a little bit of propaganda. Read on for the end of the story about this amazing woman.

Why Does Deborah Sing?

The first thing I did when the narrative was interrupted was to ask why.  There are songs, even some famous ones, in the histories but not so many that they aren’t notable. Deborah’s song is a victor song, in the same genre as when Moses and Miriam sang about their victory over Pharaoh in Exodus 15. That song is still celebrated every year at Passover, though Deborah’s doesn’t get quite the same level of respect.

But why did she sing? I think the answer is in the song itself:

“You who ride on white donkeys, sitting on your saddle blankets, and you who walk along the road, consider the voice of the singers at the watering places. They recite the victories of the Lord, the victories of his villagers in Israel.

Judges 5:10-11 (NIV*)

We know from the bible just how important fresh water sources were to the people. Wells are places where a man can find his bride, where a leader can negotiate a treaty, and where a community comes together. It’s no wonder that in Deborah’s time news was spread through “singers at the watering places”. Deborah’s song may have been written for just that purpose, as her recording of the war for the people. Since her telling is different than the chronicler that wrote the rest of the book, we see how she (and Barak) wanted to present themselves.

The Song of Deborah and Barak

The Song of Deborah makes up the entirety of Judges 5, save for one line each at the beginning and end of the chapter. The work itself is fantastic and the little bits and bobs that I will include in this post don’t do it justice– this is really one occasion where I recommend that you read it yourself. Go ahead and read it now, if you like. I’ll wait for you.

The song is roughly divided into nine sections, though this is my breakout and there could be others:

  1. Singing praise to God (verses 2 and 3)
  2. Recounting in brief the Exodus from Egypt (verses 4 and 5)
  3. Description of the situation in Israel (verses 6 through 11)
  4. Deborah and Barak are called up by God (verses 12 and 13)
  5. List of the tribes that participated, as well as admonishments against the ones that did not (verses 16 through 18)
  6. A description of the battles (verses 19 through 23)
  7. Jael kills Sisera (verses 24 through 27)
  8. The lamentation of Sisera’s mother (verses 28 through 30)
  9. A closing request to God for future success (verse 31)

One thing that I love about Deborah’s style is the way that she transitions from praising God, to stressing God as essential to the history of Israel, and then starting in on the present day. For an audience that would have heard this sung, and not read about it in a group of “bible stories”, the progression tells us a lot about how Deborah saw her place as a prophetess. Nothing in the world happens without God, including this great victory.

It’s clear that Deborah was a woman who used words well to express her point. She’s clear and concise, and even in translation the words are memorable. It’s easy to see why the Israelites would have valued her judgement.

Deborah as a Stateswoman

Once you look closely at Deborah’s song, you realize that it doesn’t tell exactly the same story as was told in the preceding chapter. She wasn’t just telling a true story, but she was telling a story in a way that brought Israel together– even as she admonished those tribes which didn’t participate in her war.

In the earlier retelling, there were only two tribes participating: Naphtali and Zebulun. But Deborah calls out six groups that participated  and admonishes four that did not. This is a little challenging to imagine– especially if you, like me, don’t have the tribal layout of Israel memorized, so I made a little color coded map(**):

deborah war

On this map, blue represents tribes that participated in the war, red ones that Deborah scolded for not participating, and gray for tribes that were absent from her retelling. The star, deep in Naphtali-claimed territory, is the capital of the Canaanite king that is causing so many difficulties (but more on that in a moment). It’s no wonder that Naphtali and Zebulun are the two tribes listed in both chapters! The yellow circles represent the two battles which Deborah sings about, one near Mount Tabor, in Issachar territory, and one near Taanach in Manasseh-claimed territory. Judges 4 gives the location of that battle as the fortress Harosheth Haggoyim, but other biblical and extra-biblical evidence suggests they were pretty close to the same place.

In Deborah’s version, Naphtali and Zebulun are joined by their brothers from Ephraim, Benjamin, Makir (a sub-tribe of Benjamin), and Issachar. She castigates Ruben, Gilliad (a sub-tribe of Manasseh), Dan, Asher, and (separately) the city of Meroz for not providing aid. Meroz is actually pretty odd since it’s a Naphtali town, but no other details are provided to know what happend there. Not mentioned are Judah, Simeon, Gad, and the rest of Manasseh.

Now, some people see the two lists and point this out an an error in the bible. I see it as a brilliant bit of statecraft. The hint is right there:

Out of Machir came down governors,
And out of Zebulun they that handle the marshal’s staff.
And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah;

Judges 4:14-15

Book_of_Judges_Chapter_4-4_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)From the four groups which Deborah names, but the chronicler does not, Deborah sings that they sent leaders, not troops. She only sings of the “people” (5:18) of Zebulun and Naphtali, but the commanders and princes of the others. The leadership came from far and wide, but at the core this was still a local problem with a king in Naphtali land, so farther away tribes didn’t send their own foot soldiers.

But by mentioning the other tribes, Deborah is changing this story of a small set of skirmishes in northern Israel into one of national importance. And this is the story that is being sung at the wells all over Israel, about how six of the tribes got together to defeat a common enemy, even when two of the tribes were far from in danger. And by castigating the others that didn’t help, she’s both asserting her (and God’s) leadership of them and encouraging them to participate next time. That’s brilliant and it worked: Manasseh and Asher both sent troops to the next incursion in Judges 6. Why didn’t she mention the southern tribes? I suspect some politics that may have long preceded the north/south split that would come.

Deborah made one other great omission in her story: she never mentions Jabin, the antagonizing king of the Canannites. Instead, she makes the combatants more generic:

The kings came, they fought;
Then fought the kings of Canaan […]

Judges 5:19

In my view, this is another example of her excellent use of the song for statecraft. Instead of being one thorn in the side of one tribe, she widens the net. All of the tribes had enemies among the Canaanites and by expanding the fight to the “kings”, everyone that heard this song could have identified with it.

Deborah as a Propagandist

Deborah-judgeIf I have one gripe about Deborah’s song is that she isn’t much afraid of self-promotion. With the same gusto that she ties the land of Israel together in one song, she also makes it very clear that she was chosen by God and that they couldn’t do it without her.

Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel. God chose new leaders when war came to the city gates, but not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel.

Judges 5:7-8 (NIV)

I really wanted to credit Barak for Deborah’s non-humble language in this song, but there’s little ambiguity here. She may be a prophet, but where is her humility before God? Obviously somewhere else. I have trouble seeing this as anything but boastfulness on her part. The people wouldn’t have been inactive against an external threat, though she may have caused them to organize a resistance to it.

And yet, the song doesn’t depict her as a community organizer either. In fact, the Israelites are not passive when it comes to demanding that Deborah help them!

“Then the people of the Lord went down to the city gates. ‘Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, break out in song! Arise, Barak! Take captive your captives, son of Abinoam.’

Judges 5:11-12 (NIV)

I am troubled by these lines, but Deborah was flush with victory and wanted to influence the way that she would be perceived. I expect better of a prophet of God, but humility wasn’t quite the virtue in those times.

 In Conclusion

And the land had rest forty years.

Judges 5:31

Regardless of how you might feel about Deborah’s lack of humility, it is her  brilliant military strategy, her oratory, and her mastery of Israeli tribal politics that she is remembered for. Because of her efforts, Israel was at peace for forty years. Not bad! For a girl.

If you’ve enjoyed this, please join our community at our Facebook page, or subscribe with the RSS or email links on the right.

What’s next? Probably a return to Isaac. Not that I’ve been procrastinating it or anything…

(*) The word “singers” in this verse have given bible translators some pause. Three of the bibles I checked have the word as either “musicians” or “singers”, but three others say “archers”. I’m not sure archers make sense in context. As a result, this quote is from the NIV version rather than the old JPS or KJV versions that I usually favor.

(**) This map is based on one from Wikimedia commons describing the placement of the tribes in Joshua, but I haven’t reconciled it to the various movements in Judges 1. Your mileage may vary, but it should be okay for this purpose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *