Judges 4
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Chs. 4 and 5. Deborah and Barak deliver Israel from the Canaanites

The account of the deliverance exists in two versions, one in prose (ch. 4), the other in poetry (ch. 5). The two agree in the main: the chief actors are the same, Deborah, Barak, Sisera, Jael; the Canaanites are defeated with Jehovah’s powerful aid in a battle near the Kishon; Sisera is murdered by Jael in her tent. But there are some striking disagreements: in ch. 4 the oppressor is Jabin king of Hazor, and Sisera of Harosheth is his general; Deborah is connected with Ephraim, Barak with Kedesh; two tribes only, Zebulun and Naphtali, take part in the battle; Jael murders Sisera while he lies asleep by driving a tent-peg through his temples. On the other hand, ch. 5 knows nothing of Jabin, Sisera is the head of a confederacy of Canaanite kings (Jdg 5:19), and is in fact a king, his mother has princesses for attendants (Jdg 5:29); apparently both Deborah and Barak belong to Issachar (Jdg 5:15); the struggle is on a much larger scale, all the tribes are summoned to arms, and for the first time Israel acts almost as a nation (Jdg 5:13-18); Jael fells Sisera with a mallet while he is standing and drinking (Jdg 5:26 f.). Comparing the two versions there can be no doubt as to which we are to follow; the Song is obviously ancient, and may well be contemporary with the events it describes; it is not only one of the finest odes in the Hebrew language, but it possesses the highest value as a historical document. Moreover the prose narrative is not consistent with itself. How is it that Jabin has no share in the battle, and allows Barak to muster his forces at Kedesh, within a few miles of Hazor, and pass unmolested almost under its walls? Why did Sisera take refuge with Jael rather than with Jabin whose city was close at hand? It is evident that Jabin is out of place in this narrative; he must have been introduced into it from Joshua 11:1-15 JE, underlying which is probably an ancient tradition of a struggle between Jabin king of Hazor and the two tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, assembled at Kedesh for the fight, in the early days of the Israelite invasion. How this Jabin-tradition came to be mixed up with the story of Sisera we cannot exactly tell; perhaps it was because both were concerned with fighting in northern Palestine, and with fighting against Canaanites; the two were then superficially harmonized by reducing Sisera to the position of general of Jabin’s army. It is noteworthy that the combination was effected before Psalm 83:9 and 1 Samuel 12:9 (D) were written, and before the Dtc. compiler of Judges provided ch. 4 with his introduction and conclusion. The narrative of the battle between Sisera and the tribes of Israel, which remains when the Jabin-tradition is withdrawn, seems to have preserved an independent tradition where it differs from ch. 5: e.g. in the account of Sisera’s death, and of the negotiations between Deborah and Barak; while the addition of such names as Tabor, Harosheth, which harmonize with the general situation implied in ch. 5, is perfectly natural in a prose version. The hand of the Dtc. compiler reveals itself in Jdg 4:1-3; Jdg 4:23-24, Jdg 5:31 b.

And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, when Ehud was dead.
1. again did that which was evil] The compiler’s formula; see Jdg 2:11; Jdg 2:14 n.

when Ehud was dead
] According to Rd the Israelites remained faithful so long as the judge was alive to keep them in check. The verse is a continuation of Jdg 3:30, Shamgar (Jdg 3:31) being passed over.

And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose host was Sisera, which dwelt in Harosheth of the Gentiles.
2. Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor] Hazor, already a royal city in the 15 cent. b.c. (Amarna Tablets 154, 41), lay in the neighbourhood of Kedesh-naphtali (Joshua 19:36 f., 2 Kings 15:20) and to the S. of it (1Ma 11:63; 1Ma 11:67 ff.); the name (= enclosure) is preserved in Jebel Ḥaḍîreh (= sheep-fold) and Merj el-Ḥaḍîreh, W. of the lake of Ḥûleh, but the site is not known with certainty; Guthe (Bibel Atlas) places it at Ḥurçbeh, 2 m. E. of Jebel Ḥaḍîreh; in any case Jabin’s city was at least 30 m. N. of the scene of Barak’s victory. The compiler here and in Jdg 4:23-24 raises Jabin king of Hazor (Jdg 4:17, Joshua 11:1) to the rank of king of Canaan (cf. Genesis 26:1; Genesis 26:8 ‘king of the Philistines’), an anomalous title, for Canaan was not an organized kingdom under a single head, but a general name for a region of independent towns each with a chief of its own (Joshua 5:1; Joshua 9:1; Joshua 11:1 etc.). The tradition is further magnified in Joshua 11:1-15, where the struggle between Jabin king of Hazor and the two tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, a reminiscence of which probably underlies the present narrative and Joshua 11, becomes the conquest of N. Canaan by Joshua and all Israel.

the captain of whose host was Sisera] Cf. Jdg 4:7. By subordinating Sisera in this way an attempt was made to combine the two traditions. But the narrative as it proceeds makes it clear that Sisera was an independent chief; the nine hundred chariots of iron (see Jdg 1:19 n.) in Jdg 4:13 belong to him; like Jabin, he had his own capital, Harosheth, probably Ḥârithîyeh, on the right bank of the Kishon, at the S.W. corner of the Plain of Jezreel, where the chariots could be used with effect. The name Sisera, which occurs again in Ezra 2:53, is foreign, cf. the Assyr. sasur ‘progeny,’ seseru ‘child’: it may not be Semitic at all; Moore compares the Hittite names ending in -sira, Ḥtasira, Maurasira (W. H. Müller, As. u. Eur., p. 332).

And the children of Israel cried unto the LORD: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel.
And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.
4. Deborah, a prophetess] i.e. a woman inspired to declare the divine will, and on this occasion to deliver her country from oppression; as a prophetess she announces the command of Jehovah (Jdg 4:6) and the moment for action (Jdg 4:14). We are reminded of Joan of Arc; Moore also compares the German Veleda, who instigated Civilis by her prophecies to throw off the Roman yoke, Tacitus Hist. iv. 61. Other prophetesses in the O.T. are Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14). Debôrah = ‘bee,’ Lappîdoth = ‘torches.’

she judged Israel] i.e. in the sense of Jdg 2:16, Jdg 3:10 (see notes); ‘delivered Israel,’ though in the Hebr. the verb is vocalized as a ptcp. she was judging, perhaps on account of the following at that time; it can hardly mean that Deborah exercised authority as ‘judge’ before the deliverance, for everywhere else it is the deliverance which establishes the judgeship, according to the Dtc. compiler. The next verse, however, interprets she was judging in the legal sense, and therefore adds that during the period of the oppression the Israelites came up to her for judgement; it would appear that Jdg 4:5 is an explanatory insertion.

And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.
5. dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah] The marg. sat is better, cf. Jdg 6:11, 1 Samuel 14:2; 1 Samuel 22:6, lit. she was sitting, i.e. to declare the divine will in disputes and cases of difficulty; hence, it is implied, the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah (er-Râm) and Beth-el (Beitin), 5 and 12 m. respectively N. of Jerusalem, obtained its name. In the same neighbourhood, and associated with the same name, was the famous tree called Allon-bacuth, ‘tree (?oak) of mourning,’ under which Deborah the nurse of Rachel was buried, Genesis 35:8. The conclusion seems to be irresistible that we have here and in Genesis 35:8 two different ways of accounting for the name of the same tree. Of the two, that given in Gen. is perhaps preferable; for there is nothing elsewhere in the present narrative to suggest that Deborah’s home was in the S. of the hill country of Ephraim; Jdg 5:15, though it does not speak distinctly, appears to connect her with Issachar; and it is more likely that the deliverer arose where the need was the sorest, rather than from a district outside the area of the oppression. Moreover, Deborah with her head-quarters near Beth-el would have been too far apart from Barak for the conduct of the negotiations in Jdg 4:6-9.

And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedeshnaphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the LORD God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?
6. And she sent and called Barak] continues Jdg 4:4. Barak = ‘lightning’; the name is found in Phoenician, e.g. Barcas the father of Hannibal, and in Palmyrene and Sabaean (NSI., p. 299).

out of Kedesh-naphtali] also called K. in Galilee (Joshua 20:7) to distinguish it from other places of the same name; it is mentioned in the Amarna letters and in Egypt, documents; the modern Ḳades 4 m. N.W. of the lake of Ḥûleh represents the ancient site. But the presence of Kedesh in this chapter raises serious difficulties; the town was too near Hazor, and too far from the scene of the conflict with Sisera, for the muster of Barak’s troops. Probably, therefore, Kedesh is an element in the Jabin-tradition, though how much of the present narrative belongs to that tradition cannot be exactly determined.

mount Tabor] Now Jebel eṭ-Ṭûr, 1843 ft., a prominent feature in the landscape of S.E. Galilee, remarkable for its dome-like shape and apparent isolation. It was the natural rallying-place for Issachar, Zebulun, and Naphtali, whose settlements were in the neighbourhood (cf. Joshua 19:12; Joshua 19:22; Joshua 19:34, which, however, describes the boundaries of a later age); while the position of the mountain, commanding the N.E. quarter of the Great Plain and one of the main outlets to the Jordan, afforded obvious advantages for a descent upon an enemy advancing from the W. across the Plain. A further reason for Barak’s muster on Tabor has been suggested; apparently Issachar and Zebulun had a religious centre there, Deuteronomy 33:19 (the mountain is prob. Tabor); the holy war would begin with a sacrifice at the tribal sanctuary (cf. 1 Samuel 13:9-12). This is possible.

Naphtali … Zebulun] The restriction of the combatants to these two tribes seems to agree better with the Jabin- than with the Sisera-story; in ch. 5 not two, but six tribes take part in the battle.

And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand.
7. The overthrow of the enemy is predicted with prophetic authority; cf. Exodus 14:4.

the river Kishon] Jdg 4:13, Jdg 5:21, now called Nahr el-Muḳaṭṭa‘, rises from the hills near Jenin (En-gannim), and flows “in a muddy trench, unseen five yards away” (G. A. Smith, Hist. Geogr., p. 382), parallel to the Carmel range, draining the Great Plain, and empties itself into the sea near Ḥaifa. A northern branch rises to the W. of Tabor.

the captain of Jabin’s army] See on Jdg 4:1.

And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go.
8. If thou wilt go with me] By having the prophetess with him, Barak could count upon divine guidance, cf. Jdg 4:14. The LXX. cod. B and Luc. brings this out by adding ‘for I know not the day whereon the angel of the Lord may prosper me,’ which looks like the rendering of a Hebr. sentence, but is of questionable originality, and may be based on Jdg 5:23.

And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.
9. notwithstanding] Lest Barak’s hopes should soar too high, the prophetess foretells that the crowning glory shall not be his but Jael’s. It is doubtful whether any blame of Barak is implied: the words mean simply ‘thou wilt not gain the honours of the expedition.’

And Deborah arose … to Kedesh] From the neighbourhood of Beth-el the journey would take four or five days. But we have seen reason to doubt the existence of Deborah’s home in the S.; these words are perhaps a harmonizing addition; see notes on 5 and 6a.

And Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up with ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him.
10. See notes on Jdg 4:6.

and Deboṛah went up with him] i.e. to mount Tabor, Jdg 4:12; the clause seems to belong to the story of Sisera. at his feet means following him, cf. Jdg 8:5, 1 Samuel 25:27, 1 Kings 20:10.

Now Heber the Kenite, which was of the children of Hobab the father in law of Moses, had severed himself from the Kenites, and pitched his tent unto the plain of Zaanaim, which is by Kedesh.
11. Now Heber the Kenite] The verse explains, with a view to Jdg 4:17 ff., how the Kenites, who belonged properly to southern Palestine (see on Jdg 1:16), came to be in this region: the family of Heber had branched off (cf. Genesis 10:5; Genesis 10:32) from the main clan, and pitched their tents as far north as the Tree of Bezaanim (so read, as below), near Kedesh. The words even from the children of Hobab … Moses are a gloss on from Kain, probably derived from Jdg 1:16 in its original form. It is impossible to reconcile the geographical data in the narrative as it stands. Heber’s encampment is here said to be near Kedesh, which must be Kedesh-naphtali, judging from Jdg 4:17 b, where Heber is brought into relation with Jabin king of Hazor. But Jdg 4:18 ff. require a position for the Kenite tents in quite a different quarter, near the battle-field by the Kishon, on the route of Sisera’s flight. Kedesh and Hazor are elements in the story of Jabin (see Jdg 4:6 n.); while Jael, and from her we can hardly separate Heber, belongs to the story of Sisera; yet in Jdg 4:17 b Heber is connected with Jabin. The difficulty may be relieved by supposing that the writer who combined the two stories, the writer responsible for making Sisera the general of Jabin’s army Jdg 4:7, has here confused Kedesh in Naphtali with another place of the same name, and thus brought Heber into connexion with Jabin, though originally they had nothing to do with each other. Two alternatives as to the position of another Kedesh may be considered. (1) In 1 Chronicles 6:72 a Kedesh in Issachar is mentioned (but Joshua 19:20; Joshua 21:28 give Kishion), perhaps Tell Abû Ḳudçs between Megiddo and Taanach; this would suit Jdg 4:11; Jdg 4:17 a, 18 ff. Near this must be placed the Tree of Bezaanim, doubtless a sacred tree, not necessarily an oak. The name occurs again in Joshua 19:33 (see RVm.), but not in such a way as to determine its situation; it is mentioned as lying on the boundary of Naphtali, and this raises a difficulty—it could not be described as ‘near Kedesh’ in Issachar (? Abû Ḳudçs). (2) Bezaanim (so read for in Zaanannim), Βεσεμιείν Joshua 19:33 LXX. B, is identified by Conder (Tent Work, p. 68 ff.), followed by G. A. Smith (Hist. Geogr., p. 395f.), with Khirbet Bessûm on the plateau W. of the lake of Tiberias; to the W. there lies a Kedesh, 12 m. from Tabor, on the lake; not far off is Dâmiyeh, perhaps the Adâmi of Joshua 19:33. We thus obtain the required conditions; but the identifications are very uncertain, and if we accept them we must give up the identification of Harosheth with Ḥârithîyeh, which would then lie too far from the battle-field. There are difficulties in both explanations, fewest perhaps in (1).

And they shewed Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor.
And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon.
13. Harosheth of the Gentiles] See on Jdg 4:2; of the Gentiles (goyim) perhaps on account of the non-Jewish population in the district, cf. Gělîl hag-goyim, ‘the Circle’ or ‘District of the Gentiles’ in N. Palestine, Isaiah 9:1.

And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the LORD hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the LORD gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him.
14. is not the Lord gone out before thee?] i.e. to battle. Jehovah was believed to ‘come forth’ from His place on Sinai to fight for Israel (Jdg 5:4 f.), or to march against Israel’s enemies with the ark as His symbol (Numbers 10:35), or to be Israel’s leader in battle (2 Samuel 5:24; cf. Habakkuk 3:13; Zechariah 14:3; Psalm 44:9). The belief in Jehovah as ‘a man of war’ was characteristic of this period, Exodus 15:3; cf. Psalm 24:8.

went down front mount Tabor] The sudden rush down the hill threw Sisera’s forces into confusion and rendered his chariots useless. The Jews of a later day (a.d. 67) attempted by the same means to overwhelm the Roman cavalry dispatched by Vespasian, but without success; Jos., War iv. 1, 8. In the Song, the river Kishon plays a part in the tragedy not mentioned in the tradition as given here.

And the LORD discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet.
15. discomfited] lit. ‘confused,’ ‘threw into a panic.’ The word, not a common one, occurs again in the prose counterpart to the Song of Moses (Exodus 14:24), and in Joshua 10:10 just before the poetic fragment Jdg 4:12-13; cf. 1 Samuel 7:10. The words with the edge of the sword do not go well with threw into a panic; they may have come accidentally from Jdg 4:16.

But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword; and there was not a man left.
16. The Canaanites fled in a westerly direction to their base, pursued by Barak, and not one escaped; cf. Exodus 14:28.

Howbeit Sisera fled away on his feet to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite: for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.
17. Clause a taken with Jdg 4:22 implies that Sisera, as he fled from the battle, found a place of refuge close by; but according to clause b taken with Jdg 4:11 Jael’s tent was in the north, near Kedesh-naphtali, 40 or 50 miles from the Kishon valley. The inconsistencies of the narrative can only be explained by supposing that the two stories of Jabin and Sisera have been combined by a sentence designed to harmonize them, 17b. Jael certainly belongs to the story of Sisera; it has been suggested that Heber belongs to that of Jabin. But we cannot separate Jael from Heber; it would be irregular to name a prominent Bedouin woman, living in an encampment with her family, without mentioning her husband. Probably we must separate Heber from Jabin, and suppose that the connexion between them is merely editorial; see above on Jdg 4:11. The composite character of Jdg 4:17 is responsible for another difficulty. In Jdg 4:17 Sisera aims for Jael’s tent because of the friendly relations between Heber and Jabin; but in Jdg 4:18 he comes upon it while he is flying, and is persuaded by Jael to turn aside. By inserting after fled away on his feet a verb and came we gain some relief, but it is better to regard clause b as not belonging to the original form of the narrative. ‘Jael’s tent’ is mentioned because as the wife of a Bedouin chief she would have a tent of her own.

And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.
18. Turn in] turn aside, cf. Jdg 19:12; Genesis 19:2-3 etc.

rug] Only hereere. The exact meaning is unknown; no help is afforded by the versions.

And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him.
19. a bottle of milk] the milk-skin, the goat-skin in which the Bedouin still keep water, milk etc.; cf. Joshua 9:4 (used for wine). From Jdg 5:25 we gather that Jael poured the milk into a bowl. Her hospitality gave Sisera a feeling of security. Note the contrast with Jdg 5:25-27; here Sisera asks for drink, and Jael brings it after he has lain down and been covered with the tent-rug.

Again he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and inquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.
Then Jael Heber's wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.
21. a tent-pin] a wooden peg, used for fastening the ropes, and driven in with the mallet, both of them instruments which Bedouin women are accustomed to use.

and it pierced through] and it descended; the verb only again in Jdg 1:14, Joshua 15:18, where it means alight, descend from.

for he was in a deep sleep; so he swooned and died] The word for swooned is uncertain. With a slight change, but following the Hebr. accents, AV. reads ‘for he was in a deep sleep and weary; so he died.’ This makes smoother grammar. In Jdg 5:26-27 Jael murders Sisera while he is standing and drinking out of the bowl. Some have explained the different account given here as due to a misunderstanding of the parallelism of Jdg 5:26, as though peg and hammer meant two different implements, seized, the one by her hand, the other by her right hand. But it is more probable that the whole account of Jael’s action in ch. 4 is founded on a slightly different tradition, which made Jael murder Sisera in his sleep.

And, behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said unto him, Come, and I will shew thee the man whom thou seekest. And when he came into her tent, behold, Sisera lay dead, and the nail was in his temples.
22. And, behold, as Barak pursued] hardly does justice to the original, ‘lo Barak, in pursuit of Sisera’; a remarkable coincidence! cf. Jdg 11:34, Genesis 29:6. According to Jdg 4:16 Barak with his tribesmen pursued the Canaanites to Harosheth; Sisera’s hiding-place must have lain more or less on the route. On the difficulties of the narrative as it stands see above Jdg 4:17 n.

23, 24 give Rd’s conclusion of the story; Jdg 5:31 b is the finishing touch.

God subdued] Instead of God (Elohim) the narrative uses regularly the Lord (Jehovah). For subdued see on Jdg 3:30. It is generally supposed that the stories of the Judges were closed with a brief notice of the subjugation of the oppressors, before the Dtc. redactor expanded these conclusions in his own manner; perhaps the words Elohim subdued … formed part of this pre-Deuteronomic editorial work.

Jabin the king of Canaan] See on Jdg 4:2.

prevailed more and more against] bore harder and harder upon, cf. Jdg 3:10.

So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel.
And the hand of the children of Israel prospered, and prevailed against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.
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