The Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-31) is a masterpiece of Old Testament poetry because of the vivid imagery by which the song portrays Israel’s victory against the Canaanite army. Through this song of triumph, Deborah and the people of Israel celebrated their liberation from the oppression they suffered for twenty years (Judges 4:3).
The narrative section of the story of Deborah (Judges 4:1-24) presents her as a prophetess and a judge. The Song of Deborah introduces Deborah as “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). Although the book of Judges mentioned that Deborah was married to a man named Lappidoth (4:4), there is no mention, both in the narrative and in the song, that Deborah had any children.
Although verse 5:7 is difficult to translate, the verse clearly indicates that because of the oppression under Jabin, the people of Israel suffered under the Canaanite yoke until Deborah arose as a leader in Israel. Under her leadership the oppression was broken and the people were set free from Canaanite oppression. An examination of a few translations reveals the problems in translating Judges 5:7:
“The mighty men in Israel failed, they failed until Debbora arose, until she arose a mother in Israel” (LXX).
“The villages in Israel were no more, they were no more until you arose, O Deborah, until you arose, mother of Israel!” (NJB).
“There were few people left in the villages of Israel — until Deborah arose as a mother for Israel” (NLT).
“Deliverance ceased, Ceased in Israel, Till you arose, O Deborah, Arose, O mother, in Israel!” (TNK).
This verse indicates that the people of Israel were suffering greatly until Deborah arose to lead the forces of Israel against Siserah’s army. Thus, the deliverance of Israel happened when Deborah arose as “a mother in Israel.” In this act of deliverance, Barak is not even mentioned.
In Judges 5, Deborah appears as the commander of Israel’s military force. Barak, on the other hand, appears as someone who is under Deborah’s command. The superiority of Deborah over Barak is seen in the way she is portrayed in the song. In the Song of Deborah, Deborah is mentioned four times (5:1, 7, 12, 15), while Barak is mentioned only three (5:1, 12, 15). However, Barak always appears associated with Deborah, never by himself, and each time he appears in the text, he does so as a secondary character.
For instance, Judges 5:1 says that on the day of victory Deborah and Barak sang a song celebrating Israel’s victory against the Canaanites. However, the verb “sang” is 3rd person feminine, probably indicating that Deborah was the main character singing the song (although Gesenius [146g] says that the feminine form of the verb generally occurs in a sentence composed of a feminine and a masculine noun).
The preeminence of Deborah is also seen in v. 3 where the pronoun “I” appears three times (in Hebrew): “Give attention, O kings; give ear, O rulers; I, even I, will make a song to the Lord; I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The first person singular pronoun is also found in verses 9, 13, and 21.
In Judges 5:12 Deborah again is asked to sing a song calling the people into battle. In her song Deborah calls Barak to gather the people and fight against the Canaanite army.
“Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, sing a song! Arise, Barak, and lead your captives away, O son of Abinoam!”
Deborah’s song is a command to Barak to stand up and call the Israelite militia into battle. In this verse Deborah is doing the call and Barak is the recipient of the call.
In addition, the fourfold repetition of “awake” in 5:12 is similar to calls to Yahweh to fight against the enemies of Israel:
“Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD!
Awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago!” (Isaiah 51:9).
The expression “Awake, awake, O arm of the LORD!” is a cry for help in which a humiliated people in their time of trouble call on Yahweh to deliver them. In the book of Judges, Deborah receives a similar call because she was acting on behalf of Yahweh to deliver Israel. In their distress, the people call on God’s prophetess to intervene on their behalf.
This intervention happened when Deborah commanded Barak to fight: “Arise, Barak, and lead your captives away, O son of Abinoam!” Deborah’s summons to Barak motivated the leaders of the tribes and the people to come into the battlefield: “Then down marched the remnant of the noble; the people of the LORD marched down for me against the mighty” (Judges 5:13). The repetition of the expression “marched down” indicates that the people of Israel had taken refuge in the hill country and now were coming down to fight in the valley of Kishon.
Judges 5:15 indicates that Deborah was leading the army into military combat: “And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley.” This declaration that the chiefs of the clans of Issachar were with Deborah indicates that Deborah was taking the leadership of the military operation. It is at the word of Deborah that the leaders of Issachar join Barak to fight against the Canaanites.
The title “A Mother in Israel” then seems to indicate that Deborah had the primary leadership in the fight against the army of Sisera. It was to Deborah that the leaders of Issachar came (v. 15); it was Deborah who sent Barak into battle (v. 12), it was because of Deborah that the oppression in Israel ceased (v. 7), and it was Deborah who celebrated with song the victory against the enemies (v.1).
The Song of Deborah begins by declaring that the leaders of the tribes and the people answered the call to fight and offered themselves willing to take arms against the Canaanites (v. 2, 9). These two verses indicate that the Israelite army was composed of people who volunteered themselves to fight. In view of the dedication of the people to fight against the army of Sisera, Deborah said: “My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel who offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless the LORD” (Judges 5:9). Deborah’s poignant declaration that her heart went out to those who gave themselves to save their nation shows how much Deborah was personally involved in this war of liberation.
In the war ideology that existed in Israel, Yahweh was the divine warrior that led Israel into battle. Since Deborah was a mother in Israel, she was Yahweh’s representative in Israel who led the nation into war.
The declaration that Deborah was “A Mother of Israel” in 5:7 is related to the statement in 5:5 where Yahweh is called “The God of Israel.” The poetical structure of the two verses, the repetition of the phrases “before the LORD” in v. 5 and “until you arose” in v.7, and the identification of Yahweh as the God of Israel and Deborah as a mother in Israel indicate that there is a close relationship with the verses, maybe to emphasize that Deborah was God’s representative in Israel.
The expression “a mother in Israel” also appears in 2 Samuel 20:19 where the wise woman of Abel said to Joab: “You seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel. Why will you swallow up the heritage of the LORD?”
The context of this expression was Sheba’s revolt against David. Sheba, the son of Bichri, was a Benjaminite who led a revolt against David by calling on the Northern tribes to break away from alliance with David (2 Samuel 20:1-2). In response, David sent Joab to kill Sheba. Sheba took refuse in the city of Abel Beth-Maacah (2 Samuel 20:15). Joab besieged the city but the attack was halted when a wise woman confronted Joab and asked him:
“They used to say in former times, ‘Let them but ask counsel at Abel,’ and so they settled a matter. I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel. You seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel. Why will you swallow up the heritage of the LORD?” (2 Samuel 20:18-19).
Abel Beth-Maacah was called “a mother in Israel” because people went there to ask counsel and settled their disputes. In the same way, since Deborah as a judge and prophetess had the gift of mediation, people went to her to ask for counsel and to settle disputes.
Deborah became known as “a mother in Israel” because she was regarded by the people of Israel as a woman of exceptional character, a woman who used her skills to help the people and to defend her nation, a woman who identified with the people in their suffering, and a woman whose strong leadership aroused the leaders of the tribes of Israel to resist their oppressors, and whose enthusiasm inspired the people to rise up to fight for their nation.
REFERENCE: Susan Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel (The Anchor Bible Reference Library; New York: Doubleday, 1998), 27-88.
Other Studies on Deborah:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary