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.
The Beginnings of bonæ
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, although not ignorant of the new medium, is
encounter the familiar ancient lays in written form. Upon
examination, Simonides must
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
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
Babylonian Captivity, at last gave it written form they did record
some of the old songs in what appears to be ancient oral
xv begins with Miriam's celebrating the Red Sea victory:
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
The Song of Miriam in the 14th century B. C. The
Bible embeds it in the narrative begun in Exodus
probably from one of the authors of the Pentateuch
(Torah) some 800 years later, who captures the ancient song for us.
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. But where only a couplet remains from the
Song of Miriam, so that we must consult narrative to find out the
actual event being celebrated, Judges v preserves thirty-one ancient
verses of Deborah's Song. They must themselves constitute
something very like
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 as it 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
worker in ancient Babylon. His work is a very early example of
the task which our era came to call criticism, or 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 is in the problems
he encountered. They are the same ones with which subsequent
generations continue to struggle whenever they attach importance to
religion, or anything else handed down in writing. These
were all at one time
oral traditions. They became written ones only in more recent
Song bridges that
great divide between song and
Scholars today have coined
the term "oral culture" for
the world in which Deborah lived. 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 could have had much more difficulty with Chaucer at only
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 conveyed to me in print, which normalized and
preserved his Elizabethan English. 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
of reaching definitive answers to many of the questions it poses.
changes which time brings in language are symbolic of greater changes
which also occur 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
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,
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,
It is easy to summarize the outlines. Deborah begins with a
formulaic recital appropriate to her station as prophet and judge of
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
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
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
inhabitants of the
villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose,
that I arose a mother in Israel.
8 They chose
gods; then was war
in the gates: was there a shield
or a spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?
must now gather under the new leadership (9-11)--
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.
They fought from
heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.
The river of
Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O
my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.
Then were the
horsehoofs broken by the means of pransings, the pransings of their
The Song concludes in two
episodes, the first tells of a killing, the other views the victim from
above women shall
Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women
in the tent.
25 He asked
and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.
26 She put her
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
bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he
bowed, there he fell down dead.
28 The mother
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
answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself,
30 Have they
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).
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 we
must imagine so many details
for ourselves. Deborah's
rôle 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
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 halôm “mallet,”
probably the usual tool with which long tent pegs were pounded down
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
nâqab, the word for a
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
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
the millennia, or who
were themselves invaders,
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
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,
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
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
mnemonic features essential to oral poetry, as we observe them in
But for the literature student, the Song of Deborah
transition from song to scroll. The limited audience of the
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
view, Gottfried Herder (in the late 18th century) stressed all the
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
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
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
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
sometimes read the records of distant
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.