Deborah
or
The Beginnings of bonŠ litterŠ

        What do we mean by "literature," and where does it begin?  Storytelling goes back to times immemorial, parents calming their children, warriors singing their trials and triumphs.  But literature, strictly speaking, would have to use letters, and writing came along only a few thousand years ago, after people had settled down and learned to grow crops--and to record their taxes and contributions to the temple.

        In her novel The Praise Singer Mary Renault depicts Simonides, a wandering poet of ancient Chios.  When Simonides comes to Athens the Tyrant Peisistratus proudly displays a collection of Homeric verses
to him, written down on parchment.  Simonides is astonished to encounter the familiar lays in this strange new medium.  Upon examination, Simonides must concede that the scraps do represent genuine Homer, and he sadly concludes that this new art of writing has brought an end to poetry.  Renault's novel appeared in 1978, but her depiction of the preliterate singer conforms with that of more recent scholarship, e.g., Andrew Dalby, Rediscovering Homer (2006), except that today one might even argue that, precisely because Simonides was preliterate, we can scarcely compare what he recognized as authentic Homeric song with our written Iliad and Odyssey.

     Our Bible, on the other hand, does seem to offer many an authentic glimpse into preliterate times.  Much of the Old Testament had, like Homer, been passed down as song or saying over many generations.  But when learned Hebrews, perhaps during their Babylonian Captivity, at last gave it written form they did record some of the old songs in what appears to be ancient oral state.  Exodus xv begins with Miriam's celebrating the Red Sea victory:

I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously
The horse and the rider hath He thrown into the sea.

Bible scholars imagine this to be a spontaneous chant taken up by a jubilant crowd with Miriam as their leader.  The Pharaoh whose defeat she celebrates has been said to be of the 18th dynasty.  That might date The Song of Miriam in the 14th century B. C. 
The Bible embeds it in the narrative begun in Exodus xiv, probably from one of the authors of the Pentateuch (Torah) some 800 years later, who captures the ancient song for us.

        The histories Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are believed to have been assembled at about the same time as the Torah.   The Book of Joshua takes its name from Moses' military leader who brought the Israelites over into the Land of Canaan; the Book of Judges goes ahead to tell about Israel's heroes active after Joshua.  Judges iv tells how a Canaanite invasion is repulsed by the Prophet Deborah. This chapter is followed then by Deborah's Song (Judges v), which must have originated in immediate witness to that battle.   Like the Song of Miriam, Deborah's Song (probably dating from the 12th century B. C.) is several hundred years older than the text that we have in
Judges iv.  But where only a couplet remained from the Song of Miriam, so that we had to consult narrative to find out the happy burden of her song, Judges v preserves thirty-one ancient verses of Deborah's Song.  They must themselves constitute something not unlike the material on which the story in Judges iv is based.  That would mean that the narrator of Judges iv is actually acting as critic and interpreter as he attempts to restore and comprehend a song already in his day several centuries old.  We might compare him with the mythical compiler of Peisistratus' Homer fragments, working at about the same time in Athens.  In the case of the Bible story, however, the song still lies before us.  Judges v retains what was handed down to the sixth century.  We can lay the two pieces side by side, song and narrative.  Each of us is free to judge the success of that critic in ancient Babylon.  His work is a very early example of the task which our era came to call philology.  Modern Bible scholarship distinguishes him as "the redactor," "historian," or identifies him with the "Deuteronomist," thus associating him with the centuries-long task of collating the ancient sources for the history: Judges through Kings.

      Whatever we choose to call the effort, it is still a very important discipline in our own day.  Therefore our main interest in this early critic of Deborah's Song goes to the problems he encountered.  They are the same ones with which subsequent generations continue to struggle whenever they attach importance to poetry, law, religion, or anything else handed down in writing.   These had all at one time been oral traditions.  They became written ones long afterward.
Deborah's Song bridges that great divide between song and scroll.  Scholars today have coined the term "oral culture" for the world in which Deborah presided.  They make much of the radical difference between "orality" and the culture of letters.  It is true that writing was just one product of the so-called Neolithic revolution, after nomadic hunter gatherers had become the settled farmers of future millennia.  In this sense, the origin of literature coincides with the origin of civilization.

     Obviously, the most serious problem facing the 6th-century interpreter of Deborah's 12th-century song was its very age.  He found the Song's language at best archaic, in part quite incomprehensible.   Spoken tongues develop very rapidly; letters exert their conservative influence.  Sometimes only songs, riddles, and children's rhymes preserve an otherwise forgotten archaism.  Even in relatively modern times, note how easily I can read Shakespeare, who lived more than four hundred years ago; Shakespeare would have had much more difficulty with Chaucer at only half that remove.  Chaucer’s work first circulated in a world where print was not yet dominant, so that oral English remained in flux; but Shakespeare’s plays are handed down to me in an Elizabethan English normalized and preserved by the press.  To comprehend a distant language is often the critic's first chore, yet one which can never be more than partially accomplished--as is eloquently illustrated by comparing the King James rendering of Deborah's Song with more modern ones.  Despite the constancy of the song's beauty and appeal, it has been subject to the most varied understandings.  Specialists may despair of reaching definitive answers to many of the questions it poses. 

    The changes which time brings in language are symbolic of greater changes which have occurred in attitude and in the things people take for granted.  The critic who first tried to comprehend and recast Deborah's Song was no longer a bronze age barbarian, but belonged to a civilization with far different life style and assumptions.  Understanding Deborah's distant world placed demands more subtle than those of language alone.  Still, he could recognize that what lay before him was an artistic composition.  Baruch Halpern,
The First Historians.  The Hebrew Bible and History, 1988, laid a groundwork for analyzing this remarkable poem.  Andrew Dalby's summary of work with Homer might only lend more emphasis to the Song's reliance on tropes like Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes, with which it begins, and continues, reminiscent of Homers' winged words like the wine dark sea, fleet footed Achilles, rosy fingered dawn, etc.

     It is easy to summarize the outlines.  Deborah begins with a formulaic recital appropriate to her station as prophet and judge of Israel:

3 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.
4 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.
5 The mountains melted from before the Lord, even that Sinai from before the Lord God of Israel.


The Lord God had led His people into a land remote and desolate.  When they followed strange gods, and were beset with war, He gave them a leader.

7 The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.
8 They chose new gods; then was war in the gates:  was there a shield or a spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?

Resistance must now gather under the new leadership  (9-11)
--

12 Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.

The Song apportions praise and blame among the tribes of Israel in accordance with their participation
(14-23).  The actual battle takes place along the river Kishon, but in the heavens as well.

19 The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; they took no gain of money.
20 They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.
21 The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon.  O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.
22 Then were the horsehoofs broken by the means of pransings, the pransings of their mighty ones.


The Song concludes in two episodes, the first tells of a killing, the other views the victim from a distance.

24 Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent.
25 He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.
26 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.
27 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.
28 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?
29 Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself,
30 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?


The conclusion is the triumphal formula, So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord (31).

        As we attend these verses, epic scenes arise before our mind's eye.  Perhaps the images are at first distinct; but soon they resolve themselves into a plot.  Each of us probably envisages a different story, because w
e must imagine so many details for ourselves.  Deborah's r˘le remains enigmatic in any case, as does her relationship with Barak.   Who, incidentally, is Jael?  How do she and Sisera come into the same tent?  The Lord God of Hosts appears now as thunderstorm and earthquake, now as the flood that sweeps His enemy away.  Can we reconcile this nature god with Father Abraham's monotheism?  Some of us may at last pity Sisera, but the singer goes ahead to mock his corpse by showing us his ladies back at court awaiting their prizes of dainty Israelite needlework.  Shall we pity the ladies?  The disparate verses evoke, even demand varied combinations, possible interpretations opalesce.  We can turn back to Chapter iv, of course, where the narrator has pre-empted some of the questions. Has he information from some independent source?  He knows about Sisera's commission and equipment (iron chariots), about Jael's tribal affiliation, etc.  He is able to elaborate on the relationship between Barak and Deborah.  And there may be some things he does not know.  The Song uses Hebrew hal˘m “mallet,” probably the usual tool with which long tent pegs were pounded down into the sand.  The task of pitching and staking the tent was woman's responsibility, so Jael was familiar with such implements.  The narrator, perhaps limited by his urbanity, uses nÔqab, the word for a perforating hammer..

        The author of Judges iv was by no means the last critic to place an interpretation on Deborah‘s Song.  As can be said of many Bible passages, every epoch has brought its own findings to bear, and used them to buttress more expansive interpretations as times and mores change.  Deborah's battle plan has been analyzed by military historians; archaeological digs have shed light on prophecy and politics; the Dead Sea Scrolls clarify old language problems and propound new ones.
And each reader will still discover something new.  Those familiar with weather patterns, how moisture laden clouds come in from the sea to rise above a coastal mountain range, will not be surprised that Deborah sees the Lord of the thunderstorm coming from afar, and includes Him in her strategy.  The historian of metallurgy will appreciate, as Deborah does, the advantages and perils of "iron chariots" when the bronze age Israelites roar down from the hills to join in with their Lord God over the marshes of the Kedesh.  The many peoples who have been despoiled over the millennia, or who were themselves invaders, will continue to provide manifold understandings for Canaan's women awaiting return of their men.  Each of us will attend Deborah's Song with individual sympathies.

        In addition, current personnel policy of academic institutions
motivates minute examination and comprehensive comparisons, as in recent books which set aside a chapter for Deborah:  Christiano Grotanelli, Kings and Prophets.  Monarchic Power, Inspired Leadership, & Sacred Text in Biblical Narrative, 1999.  Feminists also bring their important perspective on Deborah's triumph, on Barack's participation, as well as on Jael's hospitality (Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible. A New Interpretation of Their Stories, 2004).   I find the Doubleday Anchor Bible a handy repository for modern scholarship and interpretation, but it is now dated, as academic papers proliferate.  Thomas F. McDaniel, The Song of Deborah.  Poetry in Dialect.  A Philological Study of Judges 5, Translation and Commentary (2003) can be read online, and offers references to  other recent critiques.  So far as I can tell, none applies Deborah's Song in the popular framework of the Documentary Hypothesis, or the theory of older sources.  Richard Friedman, who has gone so far as to reconstruct one of these (The Hidden Book in the Bible, 1998), proclaims it to be the first "great" work of prose.  Thus Friedman might seem to exclude a stage incorporating the mnemonic features essential to oral poetry, as we observe them in Deborah's Song.

         But for the literature student, the Song of Deborah illustrates this transition from song to scroll.  The limited audience of the singer becomes a new art before all humanity.  Over time, each reader in every various culture and every successive epoch must discover the sense of her song.   Explaining such a view, Gottfried Herder (in the late 18th century) stressed all the human circumstances which feed a myriad distinct understandings.  He claimed that we are all  indispensable for appreciating, or for doing justice to any work.  Every individual interpretation is inadequate by itself, he said.  This kind of an attempt to understand the past places an obligation upon each of the living.  Every reader of Deborah bears an individual duty to the artist to bring one point of view to bear, to draw upon one unique situation for that meaning which no one else can provide.  Herder's concept of "humanity" makes clear how disgraceful it would be for one to seek out and select works because they seem to flatter one's particular views--and how despicable, to impose one's own peculiar truth upon another culture or even to judge its art in terms of our own proud but alien values.  We come to Deborah, and indeed to history, for her wisdom, not in order to schoolmaster her with our own.

      The corollary to Herder's expansive conception of "humanity," of course, is that the wisdom of  any one people or epoch  may be correspondingly restricted.  Individuals to whom religious truth or scientific insight
have been revealed sometimes read the records of distant cultures--even those compiled in ancient Babylon--as insufferably wrong headed.  For them, the classics of literature may not be so readily accessible, but wherever the records do survive they offer a window on the world.

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