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Judges 5. The Song of Deborah
Stephen O. Smoot
The second account of Deborah’s tenure as a judge in Israel is an epic poem. Judges 5 is frequently called the “Song of Deborah,” even though technically it is both Deborah and Barak who are depicted as having sung the ballad (Judges 5:1). This poem is one of the oldest portions of the Hebrew Bible and might very well be a near-contemporary poetic account of the events recorded in Judges 4.
The prose account of Deborah and Barak (Judges 4) has some significant differences from the poetic version recorded in Judges 5. For example, the song depicted the Canaanites as being defeated as the result of a (miraculous) flash flood in the river of Kishon that appears to have impeded the Canaanite chariots (5:19–21). This detail is omitted in the prose version, which merely says that the Lord threw Sisera’s army into a panic without specifying any natural causes (Judges 4:15). The poem also identifies a third character not mentioned in the prose account: Sisera’s mother, who is depicted at the end of the song as waiting in vain for her son’s return from the battle (5:28–30). Deborah herself was afforded the title “a mother in Israel” in the song (5:7), something also missing from Judges 4. These differences suggest separate compositional histories, but notwithstanding, the prose and poetic accounts of Deborah and Barak are in broad strokes complementary.
The Song of Deborah, like the Song of the Sea at Exodus 15, is one of the classic examples of God being depicted as a divine warrior in the Bible. The opening of the song, for instance, depicts the Lord as marching like a military commander through the Sinai wilderness with Israel as His army (5:1–5). The military context of the song makes this imagery more comprehensible.
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