Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The song of Deborah is one of the grandest outbursts of impassioned poetry in the Bible. It is a song of victory, or what the Greeks would have called an Epinician ode. Attempts have been made to show that it cannot have been the work of Deborah, but must belong to a later age, because it contains certain forms which are asserted to be of late occurrence. It is now, however, generally admitted that these may be provincial or colloquial usages of great antiquity, though they only found their way later into the written style. The peculiar splendour and intensity of the poetic passion which breathes throughout the ode, the archaic simplicity of its structure, and the fact that it refers to many circumstances not preserved in the parallel prose narrative, leave little or no doubt as to its perfect genuineness.
It has been arranged in various ways; but the arrangement adopted by Ewald (which may be seen in Dean Stanley’s Jewish Church, ii. 334), with some modifications, seems to be the most satisfactory. It consists there of a prelude, followed by three main sections, each divisible into three unequal strophes, and ended by a triumphant aspiration, as follows:—
The Prelude (Judges 5:2-3).
The Significance of the Victory (Judges 5:4-11).
α. Israel’s glorious Redemption of old (Judges 5:4-5).
β. Israel’s recent Degeneracy (Judges 5:6-8).
γ. The Crisis of Deliverance (Judges 5:9-11).
II. Second Prelude
Second Prelude(Judges 5:12).
The Muster and the Battle (Judges 5:13-21).
α. The Gathering of the Loyal (Judges 5:13-15 a).
γ. The Victory (Judges 5:19-22).
The Issues of the Victory (Judges 5:24-30).
α. The Faithless City (Judges 5:23).
β. The Avenger (Judges 5:24-27).
γ. The Mother’s Frustrated Hope (Judges 5:28-30).
The Cry of Triumph (Judges 5:31).
Although the structure of the ode may not have been intended to be exactly regular, the above scheme fairly represents it. It is characterised throughout by an intense and scathing irony and passion, which gains fresh force from the alliterative form in which it resembles the old Scandinavian and Teutonic poems. There are similar Epinician odes in Exodus (Exodus 15.), Numbers (Numbers 21:27-30), Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 32), 1 Samuel (1Samuel 18:7), and 2 Samuel (2 Samuel 1); but this is incomparably finer than any of those, and has never been equalled, much less surpassed. In energy, scorn, and pathos it rises immensely above the loftiest flights of the “Theban Eagle” (Pindar), whose odes were regarded as unequalled in Greek poetry.
TRANSLATION OF THE SONG OF DEBORAH.
THE PRELUDE (Judges 5:2-3).
2.For the leading of the leaders of Israel,
For the self-devotion of the people—praise ye the Lord.
3.Hear, O kings; attend, O princes; I to the Lord, even I, will sing, I will sound the harp to the Lord, the God of Israel.
ISRAEL’S GLORIOUS REDEMPTION OF OLD (Judges 5:4-5).
4.Lord, in Thy going forth from Seir,
In Thy marching forth from Edom’s field,
The earth trembled; yea, the heavens dropped:
Yea, the clouds poured down water.
5.The mountains flowed away before the face of the Lord:
This Sinai before the Lord, the God of Israel.
ISRAEL’S RECENT DEGENERACY (Judges 5:6-7).
6.In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, In the days of Jael, the highways ceased, The wayfarers walked in winding ways.
7.Ceased the warriors in Israel, ceased Until I arose—Deborah—
I arose, a mother in Israel.
THE CRISIS OF DELIVERANCE (Judges 5:8-11).
8.They chose new gods;
Then was there war in the gates.
Shield nor spear was seen
Among forty thousand in Israel!
9.My heart is with the reformers of Israel,
With the self-devoted of the people—Praise the Lord:
10.Ye that ride on bright she-asses,
Ye that sit on rich divans,
Ye that walk in the way,
Think of it!
11.Instead of the hallooings of the archers
Among the water-drawers,
Then let them praise the righteous acts of the Lord;
The righteous acts of His governance in Israel.
Then to the gates went down the people of the Lord.
NEW PRELUDE (Judges 5:12).
12.Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake; utter a song!
Up, Barak! lead captive thy captives, son of Abinoam!
THE MUSTER AND THE BATTLE (Judges 5:13-22).
THE GATHERING OF THE LOYAL (Judges 5:13-15).
13.Then came down to battle a valiant few of the nobles of
the people; The Lord came down to me among the heroes;
14.Out of Ephraim (came) those whose root is in Amalek Behind thee (came) Benjamin, among thy people; Out of Machir came masters;
And from Zebulon chieftains, with the marshal’s staff-
15.And the princes of Issachar, with Deborah, Even Issachar, as well as Barak, Rushed down at his heels into the plain.
THE MALIGNERERS AND THE BRAVE (Judges 5:16-18).
16.By the streams of Reuben was courage of word.
Why stayest thou within the sheepfolds,
To hear the sounds of shepherds’ flutes?
By the streams of Reuben was cowardice in deed,
17. Gilead beyond Jordan lingered,
And Dan, why did he cower in ships?
Asher sat by the shore of the sea,
And by his rocky bays reposed.
18. Zebulon-a people flinging its soul to death!
And Naphtali—on the heights of the field.
THE VICTORY (Judges 5:19-22).
19.They came-the kings they fought;
They fought, the kings of Canaan.
In Taanach, on Megiddo’s waters,
No dust of silver did they win.
From heaven they fought;
The stars in their courses fought against Sisera!
21.The torrent Kishon swept them away;
The torrent of slaughters, the torrent Kishon.
Trample, my soul, on strength!
22.Then stamped the hoofs of the steeds
With the plungings, the plungings of the mighty ones!
THE ISSUES OF THE VICTORY (Judges 5:23-30).
THE FAITHLESS CITY (Judges 5:23).
23.Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord;
Curse ye with a curse the inhabitants thereof;
Because they came not to the help of the Lord,
To the help of the Lord among the heroes.
THE AVENGER (Judges 5:24-27).
24.Blessed among women be Jael,
Heber, the Kenite’s wife;
Among women in the tent blessed be she.
25.Water asked he, milk she gave:
In a bowl of the nobles she brought him cream.
26.Her left hand to the tent-peg she stretched forth,
And her right hand to the workman’s hammer.
And she hammered Sisera, shattered his head,
And battered and crashed through his temples.
27.Between her feet he writhed, he fell, he lay;
Between her feet he writhed, he fell;
Where he writhed there he fell down—dead!
THE MOTHER’S FRUSTRATED HOPES (Judges 5:28-30).
28.Through the window looked forth and wailed
The mother of Sisera, through the lattice-work,
“Why lingers his chariot to come?
Why tarry the pacings of his chariots?”
29.The wise of her princesses answer her;
Yea, she repeats their words to herself—
“Are they not finding? Are they not sharing the spoil?
A maiden, two maidens, to each man.”
30.Prey of dyed robes for Sisera,
Prey of red robes, of embroidery;
One dyed, two of embroidery, for the neck of the princess.
31.So perish thine enemies, O Lord!
But let those who love Thee be as the sun’s rising in his
Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying,(1) Then sang Deborah.—She was a prophetess, I and the word for “prophet,” like the Latin vates, involved gifts which were closely allied to those of the poet.
And Barak.—Doubtless Deborah was the sole author of the song, as is implied by the singular verb (Judges 5:3); but no doubt Barak joined in antiphon when it was sung, just as Moses, at the head of the warriors, and Miriam, at the head of the women, sang the song of Moses, in Exodus 15. As the English version requires some correction, I have appended a translation at the end of the chapter, which must be regarded as a kind of running commentary.
Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves.(2) For the avenging of Israel.—The Hebrew word peraoth cannot have this meaning, though it is found in the Syriac and implied by the Chaldee. The word only occurs in Deuteronomy 32:42, and there, as here, implies the notion of leading; so that the LXX. are doubtless right in rendering it, “In the leading of the leaders of Israel.” God is praised because both leaders and people (Judges 5:9; Judges 5:13) did their duty. Peraoth is derived from perang, “hair”; and whether the notion which it involves is that of comati, “nobles, who wear long hair” (comp. Homer’s “long-haired Greeks,” and Tennyson’s “his beard a yard before him, and his hair a yard behind “), or “hairy champions,” or the hair of warriors streaming behind them as they rode to battle (“His beard and hoary hair streamed like a meteor to the troubled air”: Gray), leadership seems to be the notion involved.
When the people willingly offered themselves.—Comp. Psalm 110:3 : “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.”
Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the LORD; I will sing praise to the LORD God of Israel.(3) Hear, O ye kings.—There were no kings or princes in Israel, but the appeal is to the “kings of the earth,” as in Psalm 2:10; for which reason the LXX. render “princes” by satraps. The Chaldee refers it to the kings allied with Jabin.
LORD, when thou wentest out of Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water.(4) Lord, when thou wentest out of Seir.—See Psalm 68:7-9; Habakkuk 3:3-12. The majority of commentators, both ancient and modern, suppose that the reference is to the promulgation of the law on Sinai, as described in Exodus 19:16-18, Deuteronomy 33:3. But the mention of Seir and Edom seems to show that this is not the case, and, indeed, the imagery is different, and the context requires a more pertinent allusion. It the thunders and lightnings of the fiery law are alluded to, we can only suppose that a contrast is intended between the glory which Israel derived from that revelation and their recent abject condition; but the train of thought is clearer if we explain the allusion of the march of Israel from Kadesh Barnea to their first great conquest on the east of the Jordan. This march seems to have been signalised, and the battles of Israel aided, by the same majestic natural phenomena as those which had helped them to defeat Sisera, as though Jehovah Himself were the leader of their vanguard. Though the earthquakes and rains which made so deep an impression upon them are not recorded in the Pentateuch, the memory of the circumstances is preserved in these three passages.
The mountains melted from before the LORD, even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel.(5) Melted.—Literally, flowed away—a powerful poetic image. (Comp. Isaiah 63:19; Isaiah 64:3; Psalm 97:5—“melted like wax.”)
Even that Sinai.—Rather, even this Sinai, as though Deborah actually saw the sacred mountain before her. The boldness of the expression leaves no difficulty in supposing the meaning to be that “even as Sinai was moved” (Psalm 68:8), so the mountains of Edom seemed to melt away before the march of Jehovah and the banners of Israel.
In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through byways.(6) In the days of Shamgar.—In this and the two next verses is described the misery and dejection of Israel; and the names of Shamgar and Jael are mentioned to enhance the glory of Deborah, by showing that even the presence among the Israelites of two such heroic souls as Shamgar and Jael was unavailing to deliver them until Deborah arose. That Shamgar is thus (apparently) alluded to as a contemporary of Jael has an important bearing on the chronology; for it at least shows that simultaneous struggles may have been going on against the Philistines in the south and the Canaanites in the north.
In the days of Jael.—It has been thought so strange that Deborah should mention the name of the Bedouin chieftainess as marking the epoch, that some have supposed “Jael” to be the name of some unknown judge; and some have even proposed to read Jair. Others render it “the helper,” and suppose that Ehud, or Shamgar, is referred to. But (1) Jael is essentially a woman’s name (see Judges 4:17; Proverbs 5:19); (2) she is mentioned prominently in this very song as having put the finishing stroke to the victory of Israel; and (3) she may have been—and various incidents in the history lead us to suppose that she was—a woman of great importance and influence, even independently of her murder of Sisera.
The highways were unoccupied.—Literally, kept holiday. This had been foretold in Leviticus 26:22. The grass grew on them; there was no one to occupy them. “The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth” (Isaiah 33:8). “The land was desolate after them, that no man passed through nor returned” (Zechariah 7:14). (Comp. 2Chronicles 15:5; Lamentations 1:4; Lamentations 4:18.)
Travellers.—Literally, as in the margin, walkers of paths. Those of the unhappy conquered race whose necessities obliged them to journey from one place to another could only slink along, unobserved, by twisted—i.e., tortuous, devious—bye-lanes. A traveller in America was reminded of this verse when he saw the neutral ground in 1780, with “houses plundered and dismantled, enclosures broken down, cattle carried away, fields lying waste, the roads grass-grown, the country mournful, solitary, silent.”—(Washington Irving’s “Life of Washington,” ch. 137)
The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.(7) The inhabitants of the villages ceased.—The one Hebrew word for “the inhabitants of the villages” is perâzôn. The rendering of our version is supported by the Chaldee, and by the meaning of the analogous words in Deuteronomy 3:5.1Samuel 6:18, &c. But this cannot be the meaning in Judges 5:11; and it is far more probable that the LXX. (Cod. B) is right in rendering it “princes” (dunatoi; Vulgate, fortes), though the difficulty of the word is shown by its being simply transliterated (phrazon) in the Alexandrine MS. The meaning probably is “warlike chiefs” (comp. Habakkuk 3:14). Luther renders it “peasants.”
They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?(8) They chose new gods.—The Chaldee and the LXX. agree in this interpretation, which is strongly supported by Deuteronomy 32:16-17. The Syriac and Vulgate render it “God chose new things,” or “wars” (nova bella elegit Dominus, Vulg.); but this gives a poorer sense, and is open to the objection that Jehovah, not Elohim, is used throughout the rest of the song. It alludes to the idolatry (Jeremiah 2:11) which brought the retribution described in the next clause. Ewald and his pupil, Bertheau, render “gods” (Elohim) by “judges;” but this is very doubtful, though the word has that meaning in Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:7-8.
Then was war in the gates.—The Canaanites drove the Israelites from the city gates, where judgments were given, and expelled them from their towns; so the Targum explains it to mean, “the storming of gates,” and so too Rabbi Tanchum. One MS. of the LXX. and the Syriac and Arabic versions have the strange rendering, “they chose new gods like barley bread,” which Theodoret explains to mean, “as though after eating wheaten bread, men would voluntarily descend to coarse barley bread”; but this is only due to an inferior reading.
Was there a shield or spear.—This is usually, and not unnaturally, explained to mean that there had been a general disarmament (comp. Judges 3:31; 1Samuel 13:19); we must then assume that the Israelites had only bows, slings, and swords. But (1) there is no indication whatever (but rather the reverse, Judges 4:15) that Barak’s army—which, moreover, consisted of 10,000, not 40,000—was unarmed; and (2) the context seems to favour the meaning that, in spite of these degradations, there was not a warrior in all Israel who dared to put on his armour.
Among forty thousand.—Even if the number is meant as a round or general number, it is remarkable. It is true that though Barak only had 10,000 men with him, the contingents of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh are not counted; but even then the number shows that Israel was weakened and disunited, for the Transjordanic tribes alone had sent 40,000 men to help Joshua in the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 4:13).
My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the LORD.(9) My heart is toward the governors of Israel.—The fact that even in this extremity Israel had men (literally, law-givers) who were willing to brave any danger to rescue their people fills Deborah with gratitude to them and to God.
Among the people.—When the leaders moved, the people moved with them.
Speak, ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, and walk by the way.(10) Speak.—Rather, Think of it. or, perhaps, “Meditate the song.” It is placed in the original in far more forcible position at the end of the verse.
Ye that ride on white asses.—That is, nobles and wealthy (Judges 10:4; Judges 12:14). The word can hardly mean “white,” because there are no such things as white asses. It means rather “bright-coloured” (Ezekiel 27:18), “glossy-skinned,” or “dappled” (super nitentes asinos, Vulg.). These were the more valuable sort of asses, and were used by the rich and great. It is only because this was not understood among the Greeks and Romans, who despised the ass, that the LXX. and Josephus so often disguise the word in writing for Gentiles, using pōlon, “steed,” or the general word hupozugion, “beast of burden,” instead. No incident was more derided among the Gentiles than the riding to Zion of her king, “meek and sitting upon an ass” (Zechariah 9:9), (see the Life of Christ, 2:197). Here though the Alexandrine MS. of the LXX has “on female asses of the South “—i.e., of Ethiopia—we find in other MSS. “on beasts of burden.”
Ye that sit in judgment.—Rather, ye that sit on rich divans, though our version follows the Vatican MS. of the LXX., the Chaldee, and the Vulgate. The Hebrew is, “ye that sit on middin,” and some Jews understood it to mean “at Middin”—i.e., ye inhabitants of the town Middin (which is mentioned in Joshua 15:61, and which they suppose may have been peculiarly oppressed and insulted by the enemy). Others, again, suppose that middin is saddle-cloths (comp. Matthew 21:7). The Alexandrine MS. of the LXX. has epi lampênôm—i.e., on sedans or covered chariots. There can be little doubt that it means “bright carpets” (compare mad in Psalm 109:18).
And walk by the way.—Rather, ye that walk in the way. Deborah appeals (1) to the wealthy, riding through the safe highways: (2) to those of all classes who now sit at ease on divans, bright with carpets, of which Easterns are so fond: and (3) to foot-passengers in the ordinary life—to join in the thought and song of praise. On the phrases “sitting at home and “walking on the roads” to describe the ordinary avocations of life, see Deuteronomy 6:7 : “When thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way.”
They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel: then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates.(11) They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water.—This is usually explained to mean that in the time of oppression the shepherds and the women could not go to the wells to draw water without being disturbed by the enemy’s archers; and the construction in that case is changed in the middle of the verse, to remind them that they can now sing God’s praises by the safe well-sides. The meaning is highly uncertain. The “they that are delivered” is a conjectural addition of our version. The Hebrew only has “from the noise.” The Vulgate renders it, “where the chariots clashed together, and the army of the enemy was strangled.” The LXX. (some MSS.) connect the clause with the last verse: “Sing;” or “tell it from (i.e. by) the voice of those who strike up their tunes in the midst of the water-drawers.” The Chaldee is here utterly vague. Ewald renders it, “from the shoutings of the spoil-dividers between the water-troughs.” Amid these uncertainties we have nothing better to offer than the conjecture of our translators.
Righteous acts.—Where these words first occur, the Hebrew is Tsidkôth; but in the second recurrence of the English words, “even the righteous acts towards the inhabitants of the villages”—in which they are guided by the Chaldee Targum—we have only the Hebrew words, Tsidkôth pirzônô. Here, as in Judges 5:7, the versions were perplexed by the word perâzôn; but it is now generally agreed that the meaning is either “the righteous acts of his governance in Israel” (Ewald), or “towards the leaders in Israel” (Rosenmüller, &c.).
Then shall the people of the Lord go down to the gates.—After singing the just deeds of God, they resumed their usual pursuits, unabashed and un-terrified.
Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.(12) Awake, awake, Deborah.—The prophetess rouses herself in this verse—which forms an introduction to the second section of the song—to describe the loyalty of the tribes and the grandeur of the victory.
Lead thy captivity captive.—Lead in triumph thy long train of captives. For the expression, comp. Revelation 13:10.
Then he made him that remaineth have dominion over the nobles among the people: the LORD made me have dominion over the mighty.(13) Then he made him that remaineth have dominion.—The translation, reading, and punctuation of this verse is uncertain. The MSS. of the LXX. vary, and the Vulgate merely gives a paraphrase. The Alexandrine MS. of the LXX. may be correct: “Then descended a remnant against the mighty.” Ewald renders it, “Then descended a remnant of the nobles of the people.” They were only “a remnant,” because at least six of the tribes—Judah, Simeon, Dan, Asher, Reuben, Gad—held aloof.
The Lord made me have dominion over the mighty.—Rather, Jehovah descended to me among the heroes. The LXX. (Cod. B) and others connect “people” with this clause: “The people of Jehovah descended,” &c., and perhaps correctly.
Out of Ephraim was there a root of them against Amalek; after thee, Benjamin, among thy people; out of Machir came down governors, and out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer.(14) Out of Ephraim was there a root of them against Amalek.—The LXX. and Vulgate render it, “Ephraim uprooted them in Amalek.” But the meaning seems to be, “Out of Ephraim (came down to the battle) those whose root is in Amalek,” or, “among the Amalekites.” Ephraim had firmly rooted himself (comp. Isaiah 27:6; Psalm 80:10) in the country which had been the stronghold of the Amalekites. (See Judges 12:15.)
After thee, Benjamin, among thy people.—Ephraim is here addressed by a sudden change of person (comp. Isaiah 1:29; Isaiah 42:20. &c). After thee, O Ephraim, came down Benjamin, mingled with thy people. The forces of “little Benjamin” are overshadowed by, and almost lost in, the crowded ranks of its powerful neighbour-tribe. In after days Benjamin clung to the skirts of Judah, but at this period his fortunes were more allied with those of Ephraim. “After thee, Benjamin,” seems to have become (perhaps from this allusion) a war-cry of the tribe (Hosea 5:8).
Out of Machir came down governors.—Machir was the only son of Manasseh (Genesis 1:23; Numbers 27:1), and is here used for the Western Manassites (Joshua 17:5). The Eastern half-tribe, no doubt, held aloof with Gad and Reuben. The silence respecting Judah is remarkable. We may conjecture that Judah and Simeon were sufficiently occupied in keeping off the Philistines, or that, having secured their own territory, they remained in selfish isolation. The word rendered “governors” (LXX., “searchers out”; Vulgate, “princes “) is more strictly “law-givers” (Sym-machus, entassontes).
They that handle the pen of the writer.—Literally, they who draw with the staff (shēbet) of the scribe (sophēr). Sophēr may mean scribe (literally, “one who counts “), and the verb rendered “handle” is, literally, “draw;” but shēbet can hardly mean “pen”; nor is it easy to say of what special use “the pen of the writer” would be in the gathering of clans to battle; nor have we the faintest indication that Zebulon had any literary pre-eminence. There can be little doubt that the meaning is, “They who lead (so in Latin, traho sometimes has the meaning of duco) with the staff of the marshal.” The sophēr is the officer (2Kings 25:19) who musters, and therefore naturally counts and enrols, the host ( Jeremiah 52:25), and the staff: is his natural “rod of power,” or ensign of office; just as it-was (vitis, Plin., H. N. xiv. 1, § 3) of Roman centurions (Vulgate, De Zebulon qui exercitum ducerent ad bel-landum).
And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley. For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart.(15) And the princes of Issachar.—The ordinary reading of the Hebrew gives the meaning, “And my princes in Issachar (came down to battle) with Deborah.” If this be the right reading, Deborah calls them “my princes” with a touch of pride, and hence some have assumed that she belonged to the tribe of Issachar, not to that of Ephraim. But a very slight change gives the meaning of “the princes in Issachar.” Deborah did not take actual part in the battle, like Boadicea or Joan of Arc, but seems to have been close at hand, in the rear, to encourage the combatants, as the ancient British and German women used to do, and as Arab women do to this day.
Even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley.—Rather, even Issachar, as well as Barak, rushed down at his feet (i.e., after Barak) into the plain (emek).” It is a pity that the verse does not end here, for the next clause begins the description of “the malingerers,” whose cowardice or selfishness is triumphantly contrasted with the heroic daring of Zebulon and Naphtali in Judges 5:18.
For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart.—The word for “divisions” (pelagoth) might mean “families” or “clans,” as the LXX., or “factions,” as the Vulgate seems to have understood it; but it almost certainly means streams, as in Job 20:17 (margin, “streaming brooks”), where alone it recurs. The allusion is to the Jabbok and its numerous affluents. “Thoughts of heart” only occurs elsewhere in Isaiah 12:1. where it is rendered “decrees,” with the epithet “empty,” or “vain.” Possibly, therefore, an ironic contrast is intended between the magnanimous “decisions” (chikekey lēbh) of Reuben and his evanescent “projects”( chikerey lēbh). The play of words is almost certainly contemptuous, and there may be some lurking scorn in the word pelagoth to imply either “rivers” or “factions.” Reuben debated and stayed at home on frivolous pretences, as Sparta did in the days of Marathon. But even then the sting of the reproach lies in the taunting question of the next verse.
Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.(16) Sheepfolds.—Literally, hurdles (mishpethaim), the dual form being due to some method of their construction. Hence the Vulgate renders, inter duos terminos.
The bleatings of the flocks.—Rather, the sounds of shepherds’ flutes or pastoral pipings (“Shepherds delighting in syrinx-pipes,” Hom., Il. xviii. 525). There is a contrast between these peaceful flutings and the battle-horns to which they ought to have been listening. It is as though Deborah would say to Reuben—
“Sound, sound the clarion, shrill the fife;
To all the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.”
For the divisions.—It should be, as before, “By the streams of Reuben.”
Searchings of heart.—Reuben sent magnanimous debates and promises, but they only ended in sloth and vacillation. They decided to go, and—stayed at home.
Gilead abode beyond Jordan: and why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the sea shore, and abode in his breaches.(17) Gilead abode beyond Jordan.—Gilead was the son of Machir, and grandson of Manasseh. The name is here probably meant to include Gad, as well as the half-tribe of Manasseh. The word “abode” means “stayed quietly” (Psalm 16:9), and is rendered qniesce-bat in the Vulgate.
Why did Dan remain in ships?—The sudden question is very picturesque. The other rendering, “Why did Dan fear the ships (of the enemy)? “is untenable. The possession of Joppa. one of the few seaports of Palestine, naturally influenced the pursuits of the tribe (Joshua 19:46; 2Chronicles 2:16; Ezra 3:7); but whether they are here reproached for absorption in commerce, or for cowardice in taking refuge in their ships, is uncertain. The word rendered “remain” often involves a notion of “alarm” (Deuteronomy 32:27). If the Danite migration (Judges 18) had by this time occurred, it is almost impossible that they should not have rendered some assistance to the revolt of the northern tribes. The fact that it is not here alluded to shows the extremely early date at which this narrative must be placed.
Asher continued on the sea shore.—Aslier was the other great maritime tribe (Joshua 19:28-29). The word “continued” is, literally, “sat.”
Abode in his breaches.—The word rendered “breaches” is, literally, “clefts,” or “fissures.” The Chaldee curiously paraphrases it by “rebuilt and ¡ dwelt in the cities which the Gentiles destroyed.” Le Clerc renders it, “Sits in his precipitous rocks,” referring it to that part of the coast known as “the Ladder of Tyre;” and this is perhaps meant by the diakopas of the LXX. (Cod. Alex.). The Vulgate renders, in portibus. Probably the “creeks” of the margin of our Bibles is the correct rendering.
Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.(18) Jeoparded their lives.—Comp. Judges 9:7; Isaiah 53:12. The courage of Zebulon and Naphtali is contrasted with the empty debates of Reuben, the sloth of Gilead, the cowardly selfishness of Dan and Asher.
The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; they took no gain of money.(19) The kings.—Comp. Joshua 11:1. Jabin did not stand alone.
In Taanach.—See Judges 1:27. The word means “sandy soil.”
By the waters of Megiddo.—The affluents of the Kishon, or the swollen waves of the river itself. There is a copious spring at Lejjûn, the ancient Megiddo, which in rainy seasons rapidly turns the plain into a morass (Thomson’s Land and Book. ch. 29).
They took no gain of money.—Literally, fragment of silver they did not take. They had doubtless hoped, if not for much actual spoil, at least for ransom from the numerous captives which they expected to win, or from the gain derived by selling them into slavery.
They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.(20) They fought from heaven.—The “they” is impersonal—the powers above. (Comp. Luke 12:20, Greek, and for the fact, Judges 4:22.)
The stars in their courses.—This is probably a general reference to the providential storms which had secured the victory to Israel. To understand the “stars” as meaning “angels” is a mistaken inference from Job 38:7. There is a striking parallel in Claudian’s poem on the Consulship of Honorius:—
“Oh nimium dilecte Deo, cui militat aether
Et conjurati veniunt ad classica venti.”
Similarly, Æschylus represents “water and fire, in ruin reconciled,” fighting against the Greek fleet.
The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.(21) The river of Kishon.—Judges 4:7; Psalm 83:9. Either from this massacre, or that of the Baal priests of Elijah, the Kishon is now called the Nahr Mukatta, or “river of slaughter” (1Kings 18:40).
That ancient river.—The Vulgate renders this, “the torrent Kedumim,” and the LXX. (Cod. Vat.), “the river of the ancients” (comp. Deuteronomy 33:15). The Chaldee paraphrases it, “the torrent on whose banks illustrious deeds have been done from the ancient times of Israel.” As the Plain of Jezreel has been in all ages the battle-field of Israel, the Kishon must always have played an important part in these struggles, as when the Turks were drowned in its swollen waves on April 16th, 1799. We know, however, of no ancient fame of Kishon before these events; and some render it. “the torrent of meeting armies,” or “of slaughters” (Ewald), deriving Kedumim from an Arabic root; or “the torrent of succours,” connecting the word with Kiddeem (see Psalm 79:8, &c., Heb.). Aquila renders it by “the torrent of siroccos” (Kausōnōn); and Symmachus, “the torrent of goats” (wild waves, egers, and bores).
O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.—These sudden exclamations, which break the flow of the poem, add greatly to its fire and impetuosity. The verb may be an imperative, and the Vulgate renders it, “Trample down, O my soul, the mighty.” The word “trample” recalls the image of treading the vintage.
Then were the horsehoofs broken by the means of the pransings, the pransings of their mighty ones.(22) By the means of the pransings.—Rather, the stampings. In crossing the Kishon after moderate rains, I had an opportunity of observing by personal experience how easily a horse might be hopelessly disabled in the muddy morass formed by the river. The word is forcibly repeated by the figure known as anadiplosis.
Their mighty ones.—The great lords in their iron chariots, trying to goad their frightened steeds through the flood. There is a scathing taunt in the words. Their “might” was exhibited in valiantly running away. It may, however, mean the strong steeds themselves (comp. Jeremiah 8:15; Jeremiah 51:11). Vandevelde speaks of the Kishon as being the most dangerous river of the land, from its quicksands.
Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the LORD, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty.(23) Curse ye Meroz.—The guilt of Meroz was worse than that of the tribes which held aloof, because, whatever may have been its exact site, it was evidently in the very heart of the country which had been thus inspired to strike a blow for freedom. Possibly it would have been in the power of the inhabitants at least to cut off the retreat of the enemy. We may conjecture, from the ban thus laid on Meroz, that it felt the vengeance of the victorious Israelites, and was destroyed or punished like Succoth and Penuel. Their crime was detrectatio militiae, which the ancients regarded with special indignation. The case of Jabesh Gilead, in Judges 21:9-10, may account for the difficulty of ascertaining the site of the town; it is not mentioned elsewhere. By some it is identified with Kefr Musr, a village to the south of Tabor (5 Raumer); by others with Marussus, north of Bethshean. It has been conjectured that the true reading may be Merom, and Dr. Thomson identifies it with Marom, as Eusebius alludes to it under the name Merran, and Jerome calls it Merrom. They, however, place it near Dothan, twelve miles from Shechem—a very unlikely locality.
Said the angel of the Lord.—The Maleak Jehovah, as in Judges 3:1. Here, as in that passage, some (referring to Haggai 1:13; Malachi 2:7) suppose that Deborah is herself the angel or messenger of the Lord. However that may be, she certainly speaks as the mouthpiece of Jehovah’s messenger (Judges 4:4).
Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent.(24) Blessed above women.—Jael would be regarded as a patriotic heroine, whose daring had secured to Israel the fruits of their victory. The morals of that early age were not sufficiently enlightened to understand that treachery and assassination are never justifiable, however good may be the end in view. But, as serious moralists, even in the nineteenth century, have held up to admiration the murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday, and have even given to her the title of “the Angel of Assassination,” we can hardly be surprised that Deborah should exult in Jael’s heroism, and her choice of the right side, without expressing—perhaps even without the degree of later moral enlightenment which would have led her to feel—any moral reprobation of the means by which the end was accomplished. But to compare this outburst of patriotic approval for such a deed with the salutation of “Blessed art thou among women,” addressed by the angel to the blessed Virgin Mary (as is done by some commentators), seems to me a most dangerous way of handling the mere words of Scripture, apart from their context and true significance.
Above women in the tent.—The honour paid to her because of her deed would raise her far above the common mass of ignorant and downtrodden nomad women. Instead of a Kenite woman, she would be lauded and honoured as a heroine of Israel.
He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.(25) Butter.—Rather, curdled milk.
In a lordly dish.—Rather, in a dish of the nobles: sephel, a splendid bowl, reserved for great occasions. All this was done to lull his suspicions into a false security.
She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen's hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.(26) Nail. . . . workmen’s hammer.—See on Judges 4:21.
Smote off his head.—Rather, shattered his head. The Hebrew is onomatopoetic, i.e., the sound echoes the sense, recalling the smashing and crashing blows of the hammer. The repetition of these terrible alliterative verbs, “hammered,” “shattered,” “battered,” “transfixed,” the signs that the imagination of the prophetess seems to revel in the description, have been ascribed to “the delight of a satisfied thirst for revenge.” This is hardly a right view of her character. It must be remembered that the feelings of modern times are far more refined and complex than those of previous ages. The sense of tenderness, the quickness of compassion, the value set on human life, are immeasurably increased, and with them the power of realising by universal sympathy the position and sufferings of others. In ancient days no close moral analysis was applied to acts of which the general tendency was approved as right and beneficial. Caesar was not inherently a cruel man, yet he records without a shudder the massacre and misery of multitudes of Gaulish men, women, and children at Alesia; and he suffered the brave Vercingetorix to be led away from his triumph, to be strangled in the Tullianum, without the slightest qualm of pity. Deborah, in the spirit of her day, seems to regard with pitiless exultation the wild throes of Sisera’s death, and the agonising frustration of his mother’s hopes. only because she views those events in the single aspect of the deliverance of Israel. The tenderness of the Mother of Israel was absorbed in the thought of her own long-afflicted, but now rescued, race. “She was a mother in Israel, and with the vehemency of a mother’s and a patriot’s love, she had shot the light of love from her eyes, and poured the blessings of love from her lips on the people that had jeopardised their lives unto the death against the oppressors, and the bitterness awakened and borne aloft by the same love she precipitates in curses on the selfish and cowardly recreants who came not to the help of the Lord against the unjust” (Coleridge); and we may add, on all connected with the cruel oppressor.
At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead.(27) At her feet.—Literally, between her feet, as though the dauntless woman had stridden over him as he lay in the dead sleep of weariness.
He bowed.—The word means that he suddenly curled up his knees in one contortion of agony.
He fell.—Rolling, perhaps, off the divan on which he was resting.
He lay down.—Motionless in death, after that one convulsive movement.
Dead.—Rather, slaughtered, or murdered. With this one terrific word the scene ends, as with a blow.
The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots?(28) The mother of Sisera.—With a bold poetic impetuosity the scene is changed, and the prophetess, with a few broad touches, sets before us the last scene of the strange eventful history. The mother of Sisera and her attendant princesses had looked for the triumph and return of the host as confidently as the ladies of Spain expected the return of the Armada, or as the ladies of Aberdeen sat, “with their fans into their hand,” looking out for the sails of Sir Patrick Spens. We have a similar scene in the Persians of Æschylus, where the great Atossa wails over the miserable flight of her defeated son Xerxes. In that, however, there is more of pity and less of derision, though, no doubt, the spectacle was meant to be pleasing to the victorious Athenians. This exulting description of the cruel but blighted hopes of the women of Sisera’s family is an inimitable touch of genuineness; it shows a woman’s authorship (Ewald).
Looked out at a window.—Watching for the first glimpse of her son’s return. In Eastern courts the queen-mother is a more important person than the wife.
And cried.—Rather, wailed (Vulgate, ululavit, an onomatopœia, like the Hebrew yabhabh). It is the wail of impatience passing into anxiety.
Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself,(29) Her wise ladies.—Literally, the wise of her princesses. There is unconcealed scorn in this, showing that the wisest were most utterly mistaken. Their “wisdom” is the seductive flattery of delusive hopes.
Answered her.—The verb is in the singular, implying that one spoke after another. The Vulgate renders it. “One of his wives, wiser than the rest, answered.”
Yea, she returned answer to herself.—The meaning of the clause is very uncertain. It may be, “yea, she repeats their answer to herself,” accepting their flattering surmises; or, on the contrary, “but she repeats her words to herself,” entirely unconsoled; or, again—but this is less likely—“yea, she retracted her own (anxious) words.” The anxious foreboding or the inextinguishable hope would be equally true to nature, according to the temperament of the Canaanite princess.
Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera a prey of divers colours, a prey of divers colours of needlework, of divers colours of needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take the spoil?(30) Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey?—Literally, Are they not finding? are they not dividing the spoil? Is not the wealth of their booty the cause of their delay? (Comp. Exodus 15:9 : “The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil.”)
A damsel or two.—Literally, a maiden, two maidens; only that the word used is strongly contemptuous, as though a captive Hebrew girl could only be described by a term of scorn. In these internecine wars the men were killed and the women reserved as slaves (Numbers 31:17-18). Commentators quote a remarkable parallel from Gibbon (2, ch. 11), where he says that two or three Gothic female captives fell to the share of each of the soldiers of Claudius II. (“Tantum mulierum cepimus,ut binas et ternasmulieres victor sibi miles possit adjungere.”—Trebellius Pollio, 8) The reading of the Peshito is, “a heap, two heaps,” as in Judges 15:16.
Of divers colours.—Literally, of dyed robes.
Of divers colours of needlework.—Of dyed robes of embroidered webs.
Of divers colours of needlework on both sides.—A dyed robe, two embroidered webs.
Meet for the necks of them that take the spoil?—Literally, as in the margin, for the necks of the spoil. As this gives no good sense, our version follows those which here understand “spoil” as equivalent to “spoiler.” The old versions take “spoil” in apposition to the rest of the sentence: e.g., the LXX. have, “dyed robes of embroidered webs for his neck, as spoils,” and a similar meaning is involved in the loose paraphrase of the Vulgate. Others explain it to mean that the dyed robes are to be carried on the necks of the female slaves and the captive cattle. Ewald reads shegal (“queen “) for shellal (“prey “)—a brilliant and probable conjecture; for if the booty of the soldiers and the general is mentioned, the royal ladies would be hardly likely to forget themselves. In any case, the mother of Sisera is characteristically described (as Bishop Lowth has pointed out) as talking neither of the slaughter of the enemy nor the prowess of the warriors, but only of the gay and feminine booty. (Comp. “Faemineo praedae et spoliorum arderet amore,” Æn. xi. 728.) Nothing can exceed the power and skill with which in a few words the vanity, levity, and arrogance of these “wise princesses” are described, as they idly talk of colours and embroidery, and, as it were, gloat over the description; while, at the same time, an unwomanly coarseness (racham, for “maiden”) mingles with their womanly frivolity. Only we must bear in mind that they too, like Deborah and Jael, though in an ignobler way, are the creatures of their age and circumstances.
So let all thine enemies perish, O LORD: but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might. And the land had rest forty years.(31) So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord.—The abrupt burst in which the song rushes, as it were, to its conclusion, is very grand. The total frustration of the hopes of the princesses is all the more forcibly implied by the scorn with which it is left unexpressed. The one word “so” sums up the story in all its striking phases; and this passionate exclamation accounts, in part, for the intensity of feeling which runs through the whole poem, by showing that Deborah regards the battle as part of one great religious crusade. The completeness of the overthrow caused it to be long remembered as an example of Israel’s triumph over God’s enemies (Psalm 83:9-10; Psalm 83:12-15). When the Christian warriors of the first crusade were riding deep in the blood of the murdered Saracens, after the capture of Jerusalem, they were fully convinced that they were “doing God service;” and so filled were they with religious emotion, that at vesper-time they all suddenly fell upon their knees with streaming tears. The general dissemination of a feeling of pity—pity even for our worst enemies—is a very modern feeling, and still far from universal.
But let them that love him.—This is probably the right reading, though it was early altered into “they that love thee.”
And the land had rest.—This is not a part of the song, but concludes the whole story (Judges 3:11; Judges 3:30; Judges 8:28). This is the last we hear of any attempt of the Canaanites to re-conquer the land which they had lost, although we see a small and spasmodic outbreak of this race in the story of Abimelech (Judges 9.).