Celebrating the Victory in Song, 1-31

Many scholars consider this song to be one of the most ancient parts of the Hebrew Bible, dating back to 12th or 11th centuries BC, and contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the events it describes.

5:1 On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this victory song:
5:2 “When the leaders took the lead in Israel,
When the people answered the call to war—
Praise the LORD!

When the leaders took the lead in Israel – This is a notoriously difficult line to translate:

  • NRSV: When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly
  • ESV: That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly
  • NIV 2011: When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves

If the correct translation refers to long hair, this would be hair worn long in preparation for battle; cf. Num. 6:5, 18; Acts 18:18.

Robert Miller (Journal of Theological Studies 59 (2008): 650-54) proposes the translation: ‘When the Pharaohs pharaohed’; i.e., ‘When the Pharaohs ruled’.  If this is correct, we would have a rare reference to Egyptian domination in Canaan, which domination ended around 1140 BC when Ramesses IV finally pulled out of the area.  (See also this).

5:3 Hear, O kings!
Pay attention, O rulers!
I will sing to the LORD!
I will sing to the LORD God of Israel!
5:4 O LORD, when you departed from Seir,
when you marched from Edom’s plains,
the earth shook, the heavens poured down,
the clouds poured down rain.
5:5 The mountains trembled before the LORD, the God of Sinai;
before the LORD God of Israel.
5:6 In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
in the days of Jael caravans disappeared;
travelers had to go on winding side roads.
5:7 Warriors were scarce,
they were scarce in Israel,
until you arose, Deborah,
until you arose as a motherly protector in Israel.
5:8 God chose new leaders,
then fighters appeared in the city gates;
but, I swear, not a shield or spear could be found,
among forty military units in Israel.
5:9 My heart went out to Israel’s leaders,
to the people who answered the call to war.
Praise the LORD!
5:10 You who ride on light-colored female donkeys,
who sit on saddle blankets,
you who walk on the road, pay attention!
5:11 Hear the sound of those who divide the sheep among the watering places;
there they tell of the Lord’s victorious deeds,
the victorious deeds of his warriors in Israel.
Then the LORD’s people went down to the city gates—
5:12 Wake up, wake up, Deborah!
Wake up, wake up, sing a song!
Get up, Barak!
Capture your prisoners of war, son of Abinoam!
5:13 Then the survivors came down to the mighty ones;
the LORD’s people came down to me as warriors.
5:14 They came from Ephraim, who uprooted Amalek,
they follow after you, Benjamin, with your soldiers.
From Makir leaders came down,
from Zebulun came the ones who march carrying an officer’s staff.
5:15 Issachar’s leaders were with Deborah,
the men of Issachar supported Barak;
into the valley they were sent under Barak’s command.

Clearly, the names of the tribes who turned up for battle correspond to the names of the sons of Jacob (later to become the tribes of Israel), Gen 29-30.

They are: Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulun, Issachar, Naphtali.

Makir is probably Manasseh (Nu 26:29, Jos 13:31 & 17:1).

Among the clans of Reuben there was intense heart searching.
5:16 Why do you remain among the sheepfolds,
listening to the shepherds playing their pipes for their flocks?
As for the clans of Reuben—there was intense searching of heart.
5:17 Gilead stayed put beyond the Jordan River.
As for Dan—why did he seek temporary employment in the shipyards?
Asher remained on the seacoast,
he stayed by his harbors.

Tribes that did not answer the call to battle: Reuben, Gilead (probably Gad, see 1 Sam 13:7), Dan, Asher.

In the case of Gilead (Gad), Dan and Asher, clues are given of their geographical location which accords well with the information given in Josh 13-18.

Gilead stayed put beyond the Jordan River – the territory of this tribe east of the Jordan (Joshua 13:24–28; also 1 Samuel 13:5, Jeremiah 49:1–6).

Dan—why did he seek temporary employment in the shipyards? – the territory of this tribe included a section of coastline, Joshua 19:40–46; also Judges 13:2, Judges 18:2).

Asher remained on the seacoast, he stayed by his harbors – This territory also included a coastal strip, Joshua 19:24–31; also Judges 1:31).

The listing of tribes which did, and those which did not, turn up to fight intriguingly omits to mention Judah, Simeon and Levi.  One explanation is that Judah (and Simeon, which was landlocked within Judah) didn’t exist as tribes at the time.

See this article, which draws the following conclusions:

  • The majority of the tribes of Israel that we read about throughout the Hebrew Bible are mentioned in a song written down around 1100 BCE not long after the events it narrates.
  • The song expresses an expectation that various people groups would turn up for battle when called, implying some sort of loose alliance between them.
  • These people groups have names very similar to those of the later tribes of Israel.
  • Where the song provides geographical information about the tribes it mentions, it matches the location given for those tribes in parts of the bible written much later.
5:18 The men of Zebulun were not concerned about their lives;
Naphtali charged on to the battlefields.
5:19 Kings came, they fought;
the kings of Canaan fought,
at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo,
but they took no silver as plunder.
5:20 From the sky the stars fought,
from their paths in the heavens they fought against Sisera.
5:21 The Kishon River carried them off;
the river confronted them—the Kishon River.
Step on the necks of the strong!
5:22 The horses’ hooves pounded the ground;
the stallions galloped madly.
5:23 ‘Call judgment down on Meroz,’ says the LORD’s angelic messenger;
‘Be sure to call judgment down on those who live there,
because they did not come to help in the LORD’s battle,
to help in the LORD’s battle against the warriors.’
5:24 The most rewarded of women should be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite!
She should be the most rewarded of women who live in tents.
5:25 He asked for water,
and she gave him milk;
in a bowl fit for a king,
she served him curds.
5:26 Her left hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workmen’s hammer.
She “hammered” Sisera,
she shattered his skull,
she smashed his head,
she drove the tent peg through his temple.
5:27 Between her feet he collapsed,
he fell limp and was lifeless;
between her feet he collapsed and fell limp,
in the spot where he collapsed,
there he fell limp—violently murdered!
5:28 Through the window she looked;
Sisera’s mother cried out through the lattice:
‘Why is his chariot so slow to return?
Why are the hoofbeats of his chariot-horses delayed?’
5:29 The wisest of her ladies answer;
indeed she even thinks to herself,
5:30 ‘No doubt they are gathering and dividing the plunder—
a girl or two for each man to rape!
Sisera is grabbing up colorful cloth,
he is grabbing up colorful embroidered cloth,
two pieces of colorful embroidered cloth,
for the neck of the plunderer!’

‘A girl or two for each man to rape!’lit. ‘a womb, two wombs for every man’.

‘Rape in warfare has been and continues to be a common practice. But what is especially shocking is that here women accept it and even excitedly expect it.’ (UBCS)

5:31 May all your enemies perish like this, O LORD!
But may those who love you shine
like the rising sun at its brightest!”
And the land had rest for forty years.

What does it mean to love the Lord? – ‘The modern western understanding of love is fraught with sentimental drivel that has nothing to do with the biblical idea of loving the Lord. The expression must be interpreted against the backdrop of covenant: To “love the LORD” means to be faithful to covenant commitment(s) to the Lord.’ (UBCS)