1,000 Years of Biblical Literature (pt. 2): From Deborah …

In my last post, I discussed some of the implications of the Bible’s having been written over the course of 1,000 years. Now, let’s look at the bookends of that millennium—Deborah and Daniel.

The way we ordinarily read—in fact, the chronological way in which we experience life—predisposes us to assume that Judges 4 tells us the story of Deborah’s victory and Judges 5, following it, is a song celebrating the outcome of the story we’ve just read. But the language of the two chapters paints a different picture.

Judges 4 is written in Standard Biblical Hebrew, the language in which most of the material in the books of Genesis through Kings is written—the language of the kingdom of Judah. (I’ll have much more on the varieties of Biblical Hebrew in a later post.) What’s more, the chapter includes material from the period when the Book of Judges itself was put together, added by the editor of what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History—the books of Joshua through Kings. (I’ll go into more detail about this in future Beginner’s Guides to Judges and to the Deuteronomistic History.)

Chapter 5, by contrast, is not in Standard Biblical Hebrew at all, and not even in prose, but in poetry. In fact, it is one of the three passages that traditional Hebrew Bibles set in poetic lines rather than prosaic paragraphs. (Eventually—patience!—I’ll have a Beginner’s Guide to Biblical Poetry, and will link to it from here. Ideally that will pave the way for a whole series of posts on poems from the Bible. My ultimate goal is to publish a book one day teaching biblical poetry.)

You’ll note, if you look carefully, that the fit between Judges 4 and Judges 5 is loose rather than snug. In Judges 5, Deborah and Barak are a team (see vv. 1, 12, and 15); in Judges 4, Deborah must shame Barak into fighting (see vv. 8-9). In Judges 5, Sisera is standing when Jael kills him (see v. 27); in Judges 4, he is sleeping (see v. 21). The scene with Sisera’s mother (Jud 5:28-30) and the intra-Israelite squabbling (Jud 5:15-17) are missing from Judges 4.

But the chapter’s fit with the overall story of the Israelites is also less than perfect. The most glaring discrepancy is the tribe of Machir. We recognize the names of the other tribes—they are named after Jacob’s sons, just as we expect. But Ephraim’s co-tribe is not Manasseh, but Machir. He is the son of Manasseh according to Gen 50:23 and elsewhere. The 12 tribes will eventually settle down into the lineup that’s familiar to us—all right, the two lineups familiar to us, with either Joseph and Levi or Ephraim and Manasseh; more on this in a future post—but at this early stage it is Machir who is mentioned with the others, not Manasseh.

In short, Judges 5 is likely to be the earliest Israelite text we have. At a rough guess, let’s date it to the early 12th century BCE. It most likely survived (despite its difficulties) first, through its memorability; second, because it retained its meaning for Deborah’s people (the tribe of Ephraim); and third, because Judges 4 “explained” it in a way that integrated it into the “big picture” story of the Israelites. Yet it remains a little island of mystery within that story.

In my next post, I’ll look at the mystery at the far (chronological) end of our Bible anthology—the Book of Daniel.

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3 Responses to “1,000 Years of Biblical Literature (pt. 2): From Deborah …”

  1. Shamgar the Mysterious (Biblicist’s Holiday) | The Bible Guy Says:

    […] song is probably the most ancient text in the Bible (see my earlier post on it here). Some scholars think that Judges 4 is simply a prose retelling based on the well-known poem in […]

  2. John Says:

    I like your Bible exegesis,can i be added to your mailing list or however how can i continue to get post from you.thank you
    Regards

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