Biblical Literature: Late or Early?
Modern scholarly study of the Tanach began in the seventeenth century when several critically inclined thinkers, including the famous Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, argued that contrary to the tradition shared by Jews and Christians, Moses could not possibly have written the Torah. Instead, they tentatively suggested that not only the Torah but also its sequel, the Former Prophets, was compiled almost a thousand years later, in the fifth century B.C.E., by Ezra (who probably used earlier sources).
Over the last few decades, the tendency to place biblical texts, including the Torah and the Former Prophets, closer (often much closer) to our own time than suggested by traditional authorities has been stronger than ever. Today, few scholars would argue that much of the grand historical narrative stretching from Genesis through Kings came into being more than a century or two before the Babylonian exile (sixth century BCE), and not a few would contend, returning to Spinoza and even going beyond him, that the entire corpus was created after the exile if not in the Hellenistic period that started with Alexander’s conquests in the late-fourth century B.C.E.
Nevertheless, one relatively small but well-known and liturgically important piece of the Former Prophets seems to have largely escaped the overall trend – Deborah’s Song in Judges 5. Serving as the haftarah for Parashat Beshalach (as a twin of the Song of Moses/Miriam in Exodus 15), it recapitulates, in poetic form, the events covered by the previous chapter – Israel’s oppression by King Jabin of Hazor and especially by his general Sisera, the uprising against them led by Deborah and Barak, Sisera’s defeat, and his subsequent assassination by Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Although there are, as usual, some dissenters (biblical scholars are famous for never agreeing 100% on anything), the prevailing consensus is that this text dates as far back as the 11th or even 12th century BCE.
That would not only make Deborah’s Song one of the most ancient fragments of the Tanach (in fact, this is precisely how it is routinely described in popular literature and textbooks), but also place it, in an unparalleled way, earlier than the traditional date or at least close to it: according to the Talmud, Judges was written by Samuel who purportedly lived in the latter part of the 11th century.
Such an ancient text would offer us an important glimpse into the Tanach’s historical background and its composition. But is the Song really that old?
“Deborahspeak”: Linguistic Considerations
All languages change over time. Today’s English is very different from that of Dickens and Milton, to say nothing of Shakespeare and Chaucer. And as any secular Israeli would readily confirm, being a native speaker of Modern Hebrew is no guarantee that you will understand the Hebrew of the Tanach in all its nuances. For that reason, vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of a text often come handy in determining its date, especially if other texts in the same language, belonging to different periods, are available for comparison. Where does Deborah’s Song stand in this respect?
The Hebrew text of Judges 5 is very different from that of the surrounding chapters, indeed, from almost everything in the Torah and the Former Prophets. Even to an experienced Biblical Hebrew reader, some of its diction may be barely recognizable or even completely unrecognizable, and some of its grammatical forms are very difficult. When we encounter such difficulties in English, our first instinct is to brand the text archaic. Yet, the case is not so simple with the Song of Deborah.
Several words in the Song are demonstrably late:
רֹמַח (romah) Judg 5:8. Out of 14 other occurrences of this term for “spear,” nine are in Chronicles (e.g., 2 Chr 11:12) and Nehemiah (e.g., 4:10), clearly post-exilic books, and another two are in Jeremiah (46:4) and Ezekiel (39:9) whose content makes it impossible to date them before the exile. Works that may be earlier, such as Joshua (8:18, 26) and 1 Samuel (17:6, 45), usually refer to the same weapon using the word כּידון (kidon) – as in Modern Hebrew.
רִקְמָה (riqmah) “fabric” (twice in Judg 5:30) appears mainly in Ezekiel (eight occurrences out of twelve) and again in Chronicles (1 Chron 29:2).
צָחֹר (tsachor) “light-colored,” is only attested in Judg 5:10 and Ezek 27:18.
בְּהִתְנַדֵּב, the Hithpael of the verb נדב (Judg 5:2, 9), is only used elsewhere in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles; moreover, Judg 5:2, 9, Neh 11:2, and 2 Chr 17:16 are the only places where this form means “to offer oneself,” in other words, “to volunteer.”
Thus, the distinctive vocabulary of Deborah’s Song turns out to be late rather than early. The most striking display of this trend is found in Judg 5:7, which twice employs the inseparable relative pronoun שׁ־ (she). In Modern Hebrew, it is used just as widely, perhaps even more so, as the self-standing relative pronoun אֲשֶׁר, but in Biblical Hebrew that is decidedly not the case: in the entire Tanach, שׁ־ is employed just 136 times and אֲשֶׁר more than 5,500. Even more significantly, 96 occurrences (70%) of שׁ־ are in Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, books that are widely recognized as written centuries after the exile; both employ Persian loanwords, and the word אַפִּרְיון (apiryon), “palanquin,” in Song 3:9 may even be a loanword from Greek, suggesting Hellenistic provenance.
Discussions of all things grammatical tend to become long and technical, so I will limit myself to two brief examples that suggest the late date of the Song:
עַמָמִים (‘amamim) in Judg 5:14 is the plural of עַם (‘am, which here means “people,” “clan,” or “army”), instead of the normal עַמִּים (‘ammim); the only other two places in the Tanach where this word displays the same reduplicated form are Neh 9:22, 24.
תִּשְׁלַחְנָה. In the first clause of Judg 5:26, the verb that refers to Jael, and only to her, appears as תִּשְׁלַחְנָה (tishlachna) instead of the expected תִּשַׁלַּח (tishallach). Such forms are normally reserved in Biblical Hebrew for plurals, but they are used with the singular in such books as Obadiah (v. 13), which cannot be dated early because it contains a clear reference to the exile (v. 20).
Additionally, these grammatical forms do not appear in the biblical texts that many scholars identify as relatively old, such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 or the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. “Deborahspeak”—my term for the language of Judges 5—is unusual, but there is no evidence of its being archaic. In all likelihood, it is simply poetic. That poetry can, indeed must, speak its own language, different from that of prose, has been a given in many cultures; why not in ancient Israel?
In Retrospect: Considerations of Content
In addition to language, much can be learned about a text’s date from its content – more specifically, from the realities it seems to presuppose and the facts that its creator seems to be aware or unaware of. Today a Russian pop band claims that the author of the songs they are performing died in 1981, but even a brief look at their lyrics, which mention “selfies” and “likes,” immediately exposes this as a mystification. Conversely, when Jules Verne’s characters fret about industry running out of coal in the future, we realize that his novels were written in the nineteenth century, before internal combustion engines became widespread.
The events described in Deborah’s Song – as well as in Judges 4, to which it is closely linked – are set in the period when Israel was already a distinctive group living in the land of Canaan, but had not yet constituted itself as a monarchy. There is no common authority recognized by the Israelite tribes – this is why they have to be mobilized to a war against a common oppressor not by a government decree but by a prophetic call that predictably has mixed results (Judg 5:14-18). Archeological studies broadly confirm that this was indeed the situation in the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. (the so-called Iron I period): no trace of a political state in the Israelite-populated areas exists. But does it necessarily mean that Deborah’s Song was composed around that time or could it have been composed later and set in that time?
Elites All Around
According to archeological data, all Iron I Israelite settlements were modest villages whose inhabitants engaged in subsistence farming. There are no indications that some of them were substantially richer or more powerful than others; in other words, the society lacks social stratification. By contrast, Deborah’s Song depicts a society that is chock-full of what today we would call VIPs.
Her initial summons to listen is addressed to “kings and potentates” (Judg 5:3). Her sympathy and advice go to “Israel’s lawgivers” (v. 9). The participants of the military campaign that she initiates are described as “lawgivers,” “those drawing the scribe’s staff,” and “princes” (vv. 14-15). Such titles – even if they are just metaphors for valiance (“chivalry” in modern English is not directly associated with knighthood) – presuppose a society with well-established elites, one that comes hand in hand with a full-fledged political state.
Another pointer to the dating of the Song in the monarchic period or later is Deborah’s complaint that before her rise “open villages ceased in Israel” (v. 7). This presupposes a situation in which a threat of an imminent invasion makes it unsafe to remain in an unfortified settlement. Indeed, Iron Age I Israelite locations did not have any fortifications, but in order to desert them the villagers had to have a safer place to go to – presumably, an Israelite fortress. In the 12th and 11th century BCE, there were none; their construction began only with the advent of the monarchy, in the 10th or 9th century at the earliest.
Coasts and Ships
The references to the tribe of Dan as “living on ships” (or “being afraid of ships”) and Asher as “dwelling by the seashore and residing next to its bays” (v. 17) also suggest a monarchic or later date for the Song. Iron Age I Israel was strictly confined to the slopes of the Judean mountains and adjacent valleys (such as Jezreel), with the maritime areas of Canaan controlled by other groups, most notably Phoenicians and Philistines. It was not until much later that territorial expansion under such kings as Jeroboam II of Israel (eighth century BCE) and Josiah of Judah (late seventh century) that Israelite settlement along the coastline became thinkable, in theory if not in practice.
Finally, even though the Song is put in the mouth of a woman who was a major participant in the events, at least two fleeting comments in it betray an author who lived later, perhaps much later.
- A reference to “the days of Shamgar and Jael” (v. 6) would be redundant for contemporaries or near-contemporaries (and indispensable for chronologically remote readers or listeners). In the same way, today it would be normal for a journalist to refer to the past as “the days of Hoover” but rather bizarre to report a current event as happening “in the days of Trump.”
- The characterization of Kishon as an “ancient stream” (v. 21) shows that for the writer of Judges 5 (and the audience this author had in mind) Deborah and Barak’s war against Sisera was a matter of hoary old times.
Deborah’s Song depicts pre-monarchic Israel to the best of the author’s understanding, but judging by its content, it does not come from that period.
Deborah and the Deuteronomist: The Date of Judges 5
If, as argued above, neither language nor content of Deborah’s Song places it in the 12th or 11th century B.C.E., is it possible to establish, at least approximately, when it was actually written? Crucial in this respect is the relationship between the Song and Judges 4 that offers a similar yet somewhat different account of the same events.
Ambiguous Poetry vs. Straightforward Prose
When approached on its own, Judges 5 is cryptic, at times all but incomprehensible. For example, it gushes at length over Jael’s assassination of Sisera (vv. 24-27) and his mother’s anguish (vv. 28-30), but never explains why finishing him off was so important that it made Jael “the most blessed of women” (v. 24), and why the audience is expected to experience Schadenfreude over his mother’s futile wait for him. Further, from just reading the poem, it is unclear what role the stream of Kishon played in the battle (v. 21), how Sisera survived his apparent defeat and why he ended up with Jael, why Israelite warriors were charging down into the valley (v. 15), and so on.
Judges 4 goes a long way in answering these questions. Sisera had to die – and his ignominious death was to be celebrated – because as the chief of Hazor’s dreaded charioteer corps he had been the main agent of Israel’s “harsh oppression” for 20 years (vv. 2-3). Israelite charge was directed downhill because they were encamped on Mt. Tabor (vv. 6, 15) where Sisera’s chariots would be of little use. Kishon “punched” Israel’s enemies (probably by an unexpected flood, Judg 5:21) because their staging ground was near it (4:13). Sisera managed to escape the fray because he fled on foot, while Barak got carried away chasing the chariots (vv. 15-16). And Sisera made a beeline for Jael’s tent because there was “peace” between her husband Heber and King Jabin of Hazor (v. 17). Thus, the Song of Deborah was designed for an audience familiar with Judges 4. In other words, both texts probably were created within the framework of a single project.
It may seem that on several details the Song of Deborah contradicts Judges 4, but upon closer inspection these contradictions turn out to be mere variations. One example will suffice: Judges 4 mentions only the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun as participating in the campaign against Sisera (vv. 6, 10) whereas the Song adds Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, and Issachar (vv. 14-15). However, Judges 4 singles out Naphtali and Zebulun as the tribes summoned by Barak at Deborah’s behest, not as the only ones who joined the battle; this leaves open the possibility that others joined voluntarily. One does not even have to invoke poetic license to account for such a minor tension; when ancient Assyrian and Egyptian inscriptions recount the same event in prose and then in poetry, the differences are much greater.
The Song of Deborah and the Book of Judges
Moreover, while the Song shares its story only with Judges 4, its agenda fits the broader background of the book as a whole. Throughout Judges, the narrator insists that Israel’s misfortunes always come from their worshipping foreign gods (for example, 2:11-15; 10:6-16); Deborah’s Song fully shares the sentiment (“Choose new gods, and fight is at the gate,” v. 8; see also vv. 9-11).
Another major concern of Judges as a whole that is vividly reflected in the Song is the unity of Israelite tribes against a common enemy. This concern, coming into full display for the first time when Deborah commends those tribes that answered her war call and chides those that did not (vv. 14-18), will become progressively more acute through the rest of the book – from Gideon’s and Jephthah’s conflicts with Ephraim (Judg 8:1-3; 12:1-6) through Samson’s betrayal by the people of Judah (15:9-13).
The Song of Deborah in the Deuteronomistic Composition
Most scholars believe, following the seminal 1943 study by Martin Noth, that although at least some parts of Judges may have originally emerged on their own, the book as a whole took its final shape in the framework of the entire sequence of books known in the Jewish tradition as the Former Prophets. The creator of this sequence (referred to as the Deuteronomist, or Dtr, in recognition of his clear theological dependence on the Book of Deuteronomy) is usually seen as mostly a compiler who put together disparate pre-existing materials, adding scattered links and comments. However, in our case, it is unlikely that Dtr would have in his possession two versions of the same story, in prose and poetry, with the latter so well aligned with his agenda for Judges as a whole.
It is more probable that Dtr created Deborah’s Song in order to impress upon the audience – in a more striking and therefore more memorable poetic form – his cherished ideas. It is not accidental that the poem occupies the structural center of Judges. Most of the book is a sequence of six cycles of apostasy, oppression, repentance, and deliverance, with Israel consecutively confronted by King Cushan-Rishataim of Aram-Naharaim (3:7-11), King Eglon of Moab (3:12-31), King Jabin of Hazor and Sisera (4:1 – 5:31), the Midianites (6:1 – 10:5), the Ammonites (10:6 – 12:15), and the Philistines (starting in 13:1). Throughout this sequence, theological commentary is extremely sparse. It is Deborah’s Song, appearing at the end of the third cycle out of six, that spells out the underlying message.
Israel’s deity is potent (vv. 4-5, 20-21). Abandoning it is a bad move (vv. 8-11; compare Judg 2:11-15). Its “righteous deeds” – such as its help in securing the Land of Canaan for the Israelites – are to be acknowledged and recapitulated (vv. 9-11; compare Judg 2:10; 3:1). And the entire people – helped by outsiders like Jael – should confront the oppressor as one even if ultimately the victory is assured by the deity (vv. 2, 12-27; compare Judg 2:18).
Another indication that Deborah’s Song is Dtr’s creation is its peculiar roster of Israelite tribes (vv. 14-18). Since this roster excludes Judah, Manasseh, and Simeon (despite the first two being tribes of primary importance) but includes Gilead and Machir, it is usually seen as reflecting the time when Israel had not yet taken the shape known to other biblical books. In fact, all these peculiarities fit well with the Deuteronomistic design in Judges and beyond. Judah is almost absent from the bulk of Judges: apart from the very beginning and very end of the book (1:1-19; 20:18), it plays a significant role only in 15:9-13. Simeon is implicitly incorporated in Judah already in Josh 19:1-9; Judg 1:1-3, 17 – and never heard of again in the Former Prophets. And the distinction between Machir and Gilead – probably standing for the branches of Manasseh settled, respectively, on the western and eastern banks of the Jordan – follows the Deuteronomistic Josh 13:31, where only half of the former’s children are settled in the latter, over the non-Deuteronomistic Num 32:40, where Machir receives all of Gilead.
Late- or Post-Exilic
The exact date of Dtr’s composition cannot be established with certainty, but the final, canonical version of the Former Prophets must postdate the last event reported in it – the release of King Jehoiachin of Judah from jail by Babylonian ruler Amel-Marduk (Evil-Merodach in the Tanach) in 562 BCE (2 Kgs 25:27-30). Judges 5 was then likely written in the late exilic or early post-exilic period, more than half a millennium after its conventional date. In this respect, Spinoza and similarly minded seventeenth-century scholars were not far off the mark. Rather than being an isolated relic of Israel’s early history, Deborah’s Song is a monument to the literary genius of the unknown Judean scribe who created a comprehensive – and moving – account of his people’s past that we know as the Former Prophets.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 9, 2017
November 23, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Serge Frolov is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at Southern Methodist University. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Clairmont Graduate University and another Ph.D. in modern history from Leningrad University. He is currently the editor of Hebrew Studies.
Essays on Related Topics: