For Sunday, December 9, we are reading Judges 4-5. This is the story and song of the judge Deborah. Before we get to the story, let’s get a little context.
The book of Judges is part of a longer narrative of the history of Israel from the time in entered the land of Canaan until it left that land to go into exile in Babylon in the sixth century. The narrative encompasses four books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Scholars call the author of these four books, “the deuteronomistic historian,” or “the DH” for short. The DH is driven by a central question: why are we in exile? What went wrong? Let’s take a quick tour through that history.
Joshua recounts the “conquest” of the land. The massive power of the Israelite army overwhelmed one after another of the Canaanite towns. In a form of total warfare known as herem, the people and livestock were slaughtered, the land was burned, and the wealth of the land was given over to the temple treasury. Israel “cleansed” the land of its foreign people and foreign gods and took possession of what their god had promised them. Archaeologists have found no evidence of a comprehensive, large-scale conquest of the land during the relevant time period. There probably never was a large army of foreigners who infiltrated the land and drove off its original inhabitants. Instead, what we find is evidence of upheaval based on discontent with the a growing degree of social inequality. The habiru (sounds like Hebrew, no?) who were bandits and outcasts right at the heart of this upheaval, banded together and began to think of themselves as one people. It’s possible that they joined together with a small “Exodus” group of Egyptian slaves who sought shelter in the highlands and who worshiped the god called YHWH. In fact, the Bible itself references this history in the book of Ezekiel (see chapter 16). So, if the conquest didn’t happen as recounted in Joshua, why would the DH tell it this way? The answer to that question probably has more to do with the DH’s theological agenda than it does with any misunderstanding of the history. After all, the DH and Ezekiel were contemporaries. They both lived in exile. The DH believed that Judah went into exile because it had violated the terms of a conditional covenant that said God would secure the people in the land on the condition that they would remain faithful to YHWH alone. The book of Joshua shows the people fervent and exclusive in their faith, driving out all foreign influence that might detract from their adoration of God. It is, in other words, an idealized beginning of a story that ends in tragedy.
The books that occupy the middle and end of the DH’s story account for a fall from this idealized beginning. Slowly but surely the people lose the fervency and exclusivity of their faith. They turn to other Gods. The book of Judges recounts how the people lost and regained their faith many times. It is set during a period when Israel was not yet a unified nation. It was instead a confederation of 12 tribes who had mutual defense pact with one another. The book sets out a clear cycle that begins when the people “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD;” they worship other gods. Next God “sold them into the hand” of some foreign king who oppresses them for a set number of years. At last they “cried out to the LORD” who “raised up a deliverer.” This deliverer is a shofet, a military figure who frees the people from their oppressor. Shofet is the Hebrew word for judge. When victory has been won, the “land rests” for a set number of years until once again the people do “what was evil.” Then the cycle begins again.
Deborah was the third judge of Israel. She was also a prophet, a nabi, a mouthpiece for God. We find the story of Deborah recorded twice in the book of Judges. Chapter four contains a prose account of her story, and chapter five contains a poetic/musical account. The Hebrew in chapter five is some of the oldest in the Bible – probably 15th century! This language originated six centuries before there was any written form of Hebrew. Like most very old language that persists, it is in musical form. Think about the song “Auld Lang Syne.” Here’s one of the verses:
We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.
Do you have any idea what that means? Probably not. Could you sing it? I’ll bet you could! Isn’t that fascinating? So, imagine that I told you what it means (Thanks Wikipedia!):
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.
Now we know the story and we can sing it. That’s exactly what is going on in chapters four and five. By the sixth century when the DH was writing this, now one had any clue what the archaic Hebrew of the song meant, but they could sing it! So the DH does a simple thing: tells the story and then records the song.
Here are some interesting things to notice about the story:
- In 4:15 Barak – at Deborah’s command – defeats Sisera. But in 5:4, a sudden thunderstorm left Sisera’s chariots mired in mud. (This is interesting, by the way, because Ba’al is the god of thunderstorms, so when the Israelites give YHWH credit for this victory, they are having their god…ahem…steal Ba’al’s tunder!)
- Notice Jael’s hospitality sets Sisera up for an unexpected and scandalous fall. It is unexpected and scandalous because there was a very strong prohibition on committing acts of violence against someone who has eaten and drunk within your own home. Think about the way Lot responded to the crowd of angry Sodomites in Genesis chapter 19.
- Okay, take a look at 4:21. In this sixth century version Sisera is sleeping, when Jael sneaks up on him and drives the tent peg through is temple. Messy, but effective. Now look at 5:26-27. After she puts the tent peg through his head “he sank, he fell.” What?! He was standing up? That doesn’t make any sense. Try to imagine the scene: “Excuse my Sisera, could you stand still for just a minute while I hold this tent peg up against your temple?” No, that’s not what happened. Notice that he fell “at her feet.” This actually isn’t one of those Hebrew circumlocutions. It’s prudish translators. The Hebrew says “he lay still between her legs.” Ah, that makes more sense.