Judges 4 & 5: Champions there were none.


Judges 4 and 5 both tell the tale of Deborah, Barak, and the assassination of Sisera. Each chapter is a unique take on the same story: the first being prose, the second being poem or song. The tale is set in Ephraim, part of the northern Kingdom of Israel. (Ephraim is Joshua’s tribe, if you’re paying attention to such things.) Deborah was a “prophetess” who dwelt under a palm tree, and apparently she’s counted as a judge. (IMHO, a lot of Hebrew folk-heros were simply retconned as “judges” by the editor.)

As the prose tale begins, the Israelites are again in trouble, again finding themselves oppressed. This time by a Canaanite king. The “big bad” is his general, Sisera. Needing guidance, the Israelites go to Deborah and ask her for help. She grabs some guy named Barak (he’s not well introduced) and declares that if he musters 10,000 men against Sisera’s troops at a certain river, she will personally “deliver them into your hands.” Good deal. But Barak is suddenly all like:

4:8 ‘If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go, neither will I.’

Codependent much? So Deborah is all like OKAY FINE,

4:9 ‘but this venture will bring you no glory, because the LORD will leave Sisera to fall into the hands of a woman.’

Hmm. So Deborah and Barak go off to war with 10,000 troops and on the eve of battle Deborah declares to Barak:

4:14 ‘Up! This day the LORD gives Sisera into your hands. Already the LORD has gone out to battle before you.’

But God won’t be smiting with hailstones or brimstone. What’s up his sleeve?

On the battlefield, Barak swiftly kicks some Canaanite ass. His army charges; he chases the enemy down and puts them to death. But! In the fray, Sisera had dismounted and slunk off. He goes to the tent of one Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. It’s probably important to know that Heber had parted ways with the other Kenites, who are the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother in law. I’m sure all these details were incredibly meaningful to the original author. But the most pertinent fact I take away is that Heber is on friendly terms with the Canaanite King. Sisera should find safe harbor.

And so he does. Jael invites Sisera in, secrets him in a rug, and when asked for water she goes the extra mile and gives him milk. Then, plot twist, she STABS HIM IN THE HEAD WITH A TENT PEG. What the hell? Why? WHY?

4:21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent-peg, picked up a hammer, crept up to him, and drove the peg into his skull as he lay sound asleep. His brains oozed out on the ground, his limbs twitched, and he died.

Then Barak shows up, and Jael goes “here’s your guy.” So Deborah’s pronouncements suddenly make sense. God has indeed delivered Sisera into their hands. Via Jael, who’s actions make no real sense otherwise.

As far as tales of the Bible go, this one isn’t bad- the plot is tight, the details are gruesome. I’m surprised this story isn’t more well known. We are never given Jael’s motivation; what are we to make of her actions? Are we to understand God was acting directly through her? I’m curious how theologians interpret this.


Framed as a song sung by Deborah and Barak, chapter 5 is actually just an older, poetic version of the previous story. The OSE editors describe it thusly:

This song is the oldest surviving extended fragment of Hebrew literature. At places the text is corrupt and almost unintelligible.

Neat-o! It does have an archaic flavor, with many obscure references. The first section, 4:3-11, is a long introduction, not concerned specifically with this tale, but invoking Deborah:

5:6 In the days of Shamgar of Beth-anath,
in the days of Jael, caravans plied no longer;
men who had followed the high roads
went round by devious paths.
Champions there were none,
none left in Israel,
until I, Deborah, arose,
arose, a mother in Israel.

Odd translation note: it’s either “I, Deborah” or “you, Deborah”. Man I need to learn Hebrew.

Here is it’s version of the story’s violent conclusion:

5:24 Blest above women by Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite;
blest above all women in the tents.
He asked for water: she gave him milk,
she offered him curds in a bowl fit for a chieftan.
She stretched out her hand for the tent-peg,
her right hand to hammer the weary.
With the hammer she struck Sisera, she crushed his head;
she struck and his brains ebbed out.
At her feet he sank down, he fell, he lay;
at her feet he sank down and fell.
Where he sank down, there he fell, done to death.

This is fairly close to the chapter 4 version. The curds were not mentioned there. The rug is not mentioned here. The sudden, inexplicable tend-pegging is basically the same. I don’t believe the prose was based off the poem; they seem to be alternate versions of the same traditional story. It’s often said the Bible was based on an oral tradition; I think that’s possibly the case for this pair. The poem definitely reads as a retelling of a familiar story; there is very little set-up. The prose version is a little more fleshed out as a “story”.

The last bit of the poem has Sisera’s mother peering out her window, wondering where her son is. It ends rather enigmatically. Given the excessive length of the introduction, and the odd ending, I’d like to think this poem is just a fragment of a longer work.

Part of my goal with this blog is to recommend the parts of the Bible that are worth reading. Chapters 4 and 5 of Judges are the first stories I can put in the “read it!” category. Sorry I spoiled the plot twist.

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