Chapter 5

                                                                           Biblical Poetry


Chapter 5 is the poetical version of the Deborah story. Many scholars[1] are convinced that it is one of the oldest parts of the Bible, and it was composed prior to the prose version in chapter 4. Like the poetic version of Joshua’s battle in Joshua 10, the song version is filled with poetic hyperbole, such as the stars fighting for the Israelites, and with ambiguities, conflicting statements, and repetitions. Biblical songs are like poems that are filled with ancient illusions designed to prompt comparisons and arcane words that most readers do not understand. They are like eulogies that aren’t offered to reveal the truth but to praise, and give thanks. They also resemble famous speeches such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the final two speeches by Pericles to his city-state Athens during the first and second year of the twenty-seven-year Peloponnesian War against Sparta in 431 and 430 BCE: Lincoln and Pericles wanted to make their people feel good about their history and be inspired to prevail.   

Special rule for the writing of this song

The Talmud[2] states that Deborah’s song should be highlighted by writing it in columns, as is Moses’s song in Exodus 15. This distinction is not given to the other songs in Scripture. The biblical songs are: Moses’s description of the miracle at the Red Sea in Exodus 15, Joshua extolling his victory at Gibeon in Joshua 10:12 and 13,[3] Deborah’s victory opus in Judges 5, King David’s lament over the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan in II Samuel 1:17-27 and for General Abner in II Samuel 3:33 and 34, and King Solomon’s praise and thanks at the dedication of the temple in I Kings 8:12 and 13. The consensus is that these compositions were created near the time of the events, perhaps long before the prose narratives of the events were composed. It is believed that they were originally transmitted orally.[4] It is possible that a collection of such songs appeared in a book called Sefer Hayashar[5] from which the authors of the prose narratives drew them.

Some scholars add to the list of songs the entire Book of Psalms. Others include the psalms of Hannah in I Samuel 2:1-10, King David in II Samuel 22- 23:7 and I Chronicles 16:8-26, and of King Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:10-20.


Who sang the song?

The thirty-one verses begin “Then sang Deborah and Barak” just as Exodus 15 starts “Then sang Moses and the Israelites.” Virtually all commentators agree that neither Barak nor the Israelites were involved in the composition. At most the passage is saying that many people joined Moses and Deborah in offering praise and thanks. Barak is given close to no credit for anything in chapters 4 and 5; although the New Testament ignores Deborah and considers him one of the judges in Hebrews 11:32.



There are many ambiguous and obscure statements in chapter 5, in almost every verse. For example, 5:20-22’s description of Sisera’s military’s defeat is unclear: “stars in their courses fought against Sisera,” the “brook Kishon swept them away,” “then did the horses’ hoofs stamp.” Does this mean that Sisera’s chariots were in the Kishon when it suddenly overflowed and were drowned as Pharaoh’s forces at the Red Sea in Exodus 14; or were they on ground near the Kishon when the water overflowed its banks and mired the chariots in mud so they could not move; or something else? Does the mention of stars suggest poetically that God was involved in the battle, serve as a substitute word for heaven, or reflect the primitive notion that stars are the source of rain (which flooded the brook Kishon)?

What is the meaning of 5:2’s “When men let grow their hair in Israel,” describing what occurred just before the battle; does it mean they grew hostile, reminding us of Samson’s long hair and the practice of the military Greek Spartans who grew their hair long.

What is the significance of depicting God anthropomorphically coming from Seir and Edom, the earth trembling, and the heavens dropping water in 5:4-5? Could this be a symbolic dramatic portrayal of the Israelites entering Canaan from the south?

“You are cursed Meroz, said the angel of the Lord” (5:23) seems to be Deborah’s curse because Meroz did not come and aid the Israelites. Who is Meroz? Is it a city or person? Is it or he an Israelite or an Israelite ally? Who is the “angel”? Is it Deborah? Is the non-Israelite Meroz mentioned to contrast with the non-Israelite Yael who did help the Israelites?



Verse 19 is an example of the poem’s poetic repetitions: “Kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan.” Although the Bible abounds with poetic repetitions, even in prose sections, there are scholars who insist that the addition is supplying more information; in this case, that other Canaanite kingdoms joined Sisera to aid in dispelling the Israelite tribes from Canaan.

Verse 21 reads: “The torrent of Kishon swept him away, the torrent barred his flight; the torrent of Kishon.” This may be a poetic repetition. However it may also be a conflicting account: the first describes a flooded stream sweeping away Sisera’s forces, but the second phrase seems to say they were unable to flee because their retreat was cut off.


Conflicting statements

Deborah tells Barak to take ten thousand men (or, ten units) from two tribes, Naphtali and Zebulun, and fight Sisera in 4:6. Yet 5:8 mentions forty thousand and 14-18 states six tribes participated in the action while four others failed to respond and Deborah castigates them for failing to participate.

These verses seem to imply that the victory was the result of human valor, but 20-23 seems to speak of a divine miracle involving heavy rain.

Some scholars[6] see verses 26 and 27’s seven-fold emphasis that Sisera sank down and fell at Yael’s feet as a description of Yael hitting him while he was standing and drinking from a bowl. If so it seems to conflict with 4:21, she “drove the peg into his skull as he lay sound asleep.”



Judah (and Simeon, which was at this time part of Judah) is not included among the tribes that participated or failed to participate in Deborah’s song. This may be another of many indications in Joshua and Judges that Judah did not consider itself part of the other tribes, ultimately leading to a Judean kingdom under King David from which the remaining tribes seceded after the death of Solomon. However it is possible that Judah’s absence was due to this battle being part of a northern action in which Judah and Simeon, located in the south, had no interest.


Ehrlich on Judges 5

Arnold Ehrlich makes two tantalizing statements among his other comments. He asks: why does chapter 5 focus on Sisera’s mother mourning her son rather than Sisera’s wife. He answers that it is natural for a mother to mourn a son’s loss more strongly than a wife mourning for her husband. However it is also possible that the song’s author wanted to contrast her with Deborah who is called a mother in verse 7. The former sings joyfully while the latter laments.

Ehrlich also focuses on how Yael killed Sisera. She did not execute him with his sword piercing his heart or cutting his neck, which would have been a more honorable warrior’s death, but with a tent-peg and hammer that pierced his temples.


[1] For example, R. G. Boling in The Anchor Bible’s Judges.

[2] Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 3:8 and Mesechet Sophrim 12:9-11.

[3] While Deborah pointed to the stars as metaphorically helping the Israelites, Joshua used the sun.

[4] This could account for the errors that I will discuss shortly.

[5] See the discussion of Sefer Hayashar in chapter 10.

[6] J. D. Martin, The Book of Judges.