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Monday, May 27th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
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Bible Commentaries
Judges 5

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-5

The Song of Deborah: The Praise of the Lord (5:1-5)

We turn here from prose to poetry. The story is much more vividly told than in the prose record. It carries all the marks of an eyewitness account, has a high degree of dramatic interest, and conveys a feeling of the very battle itself. The noise of the chariots of war, the wild war music, the thunder of the storm, and the rush of the flood resound through its verses. Further, the poetry demonstrates by its structure that the Hebrews had already, by the time it was written, attained a good understanding of psalmody. This song is the most characteristic example of early Hebrew poetry. We can see the structure quite clearly. Hebrew poetry was built upon the twin ideas of parallelism and rhythm. By parallelism is indicated the dual line structure of the poetry, in which the second line either repeats in another form or image the idea of the first line, or moves beyond the idea of the first line amplifying and extending it, or expresses the antithesis of the idea in the first line. Verses 19 and 20 give good examples of the first type:

The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, From heaven fought the stars, from their courses they fought against Sisera. Sometimes this structure is built up in three lines rather than two, as for example in verse 7: The peasantry ceased in Israel, they ceased until you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.

Rhythm means that the accent on the Hebrew words forms a structural pattern, which is repeated in the successive lines. We notice that the principle of rhyming, characteristic of Western poetry, is not found in Hebrew versification. The poem demonstrates its early nature by the presence in it of archaic forms and outmoded spellings.

The song opens with a sounding forth of praises to the Lord. He is pictured as dwelling on Mount Sinai, the place where he had shown himself to Moses and covenanted with his people. He comes from Seir and he marches through Edom, the Hebrew parallelism identifying the two, since Seir and Edom are names for the same region (see Genesis 32:3). The next verse declares that he comes from Sinai and that the mountains shake before him. Evidently the author of the song connects Sinai with Seir, a connection also found in another early poem, the Song of Moses:

The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us (Deuteronomy 33:2). This would seem to place the holy mountain in Midian.

The thought that God’s presence was localized in Sinai must not be taken to indicate a failure to grasp his universal nature, although it is true that at this early stage in the revelation the Hebrew had not grasped much that is meant in our technical term "omnipresence." Throughout the period of the Old Testament revelation there was retained, however, alongside the growing realization of God’s all-pervading and universal presence, an emphasis on his special presence in specific places for the furthering of his purpose. His presence on Sinai’s height was matched later by his presence in the Ark on the mercy seat between the cherubim, his special dwelling in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, his choice of Zion as his footstool, and his manifestation in the Temple through the presence of his glory or his "Shekinah." All this was a prefiguring of the Incarnation, for Christian faith believes both in the universal presence and immanence of God and in his special presence in the God-man, Christ Jesus, for us men and for our salvation. Furthermore, the special presence of God on Mount Sinai and in the Temple is matched by the special indwelling of his Spirit in the Church, which is the Body of Christ.

It may well be that in her own distinctive way and within the limitations of her thought, Deborah, if author she be, is endeavoring to convey the truth that the God who is fighting for his people is the God who showed himself specially and savingly to them in the manifestation on Sinai’s height.

The passage is reminiscent of a later passage by a prophet in Isaiah 63:1-6 where God is pictured as coming to avenge and redeem his people as a mighty warrior from Edom, glorious in his apparel and traveling in the greatness of his strength. The whole presents a picture of God as a man of war whose purpose is the deliverance of the people whom he has chosen. This figure of war and conflict is one which repeats itself in the New Testament as well as in the Old. Our Lord is portrayed by Paul as doing battle with the powers of darkness, principalities, powers, the spiritual rulers of darkness in high places, in order to set free those who trust in him. In the Cross he made a show of these powers openly and triumphed over them (Colossians 2:15). Their seeming triumph in the Crucifixion was turned into defeat on the Resurrection morning. The Book of Revelation has the picture of Christ as a victorious warrior who has descended from heaven, going forth to fight for and deliver his people (Revelation 19:11-16). Jesus himself sees his task as a conflict with the Devil and his demons, and as his disciples announce the success of their mission he triumphantly declares that already he sees Satan fall like lightning out of heaven (Luke 10:18). Christ’s victory on the cross and in the empty tomb is almost impossible to express in cold, rational language, but it conveys the truth that he sets men free from sin and death by an act in which he triumphs over the demonic forces that hold men in thrall. No longer as God’s people must we fight against Canaanites and earthly foes, but the story of the Old Testament prefigures the deeper conflict in which we wrestle with spiritual rulers of darkness in high places and in which we are delivered by the Word made flesh.

Verses 6-8

The Song of Deborah: The Pre-War Situation (5:6-8)

The song also portrays the apostasy of Israel and the disastrous results in lack of security. Farming and travel were alike impossible. Because the Israelites went after the gods of the Canaanites they lost their vision and their strength. The Canaanites dominated them so that they walked in fear. Verse 8 suggests that the Israelites were, poorly armed. They had been deprived of weapons as well as of spiritual dynamic and the courage to resist. In such conditions God raised up Deborah. (For "Shamgar," see the comment on 3:31.)

Verses 9-18

The Song of Deborah: Praise and Reprimand (5:9-18)

The first three verses of this section are obscure in the Hebrew text. The chiefs and princes are summoned along with the travelers to rejoice at the way God has used the humble villagers of Israel to triumph over the prosperous Canaanites. The text suggests that the people are called to rehearse the triumphs of God to the accompaniment of music, the last part of verse 11 picturing Israel as it assembles in response to this call.

There follows a list of those tribes which participated and those which did not participate in the battle, praise and scorn respectively being accorded to them. Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (the principal clan of Manasseh), Zebulun, Naphtali, and Issachar gave direct support. A glance at the map shows that these tribes cover the area of northern Canaan most affected by Sisera’s domination. Reuben was as ever indecisive, a mood reflected also in the Joseph story (Genesis 49:4). Gilead or Gad stayed across the Jordan, Asher remained by its seashore, and Dan refused aid. The latter reference speaks of the Danites abiding in their ships. Later in Judges (ch. 18), the story of the Danites is given in more detail. We shall see that, at some period, the tribe migrated from the central position to their final location in the north. They do not appear to have dwelt on the coast at any time, but in their northern location they may well have had contact with the Phoenicians, who were a seafaring people, and may have been employed as sailors. Asher was in the hills above the coastline, which was inhabited by the Phoenicians. It has been suggested that the reference indicates that some Asherites had found homes in the Phoenician cities of the coastal belt.

Verses 19-22

The Song of Deborah: The Battle Scene (5:19-22)

The battle has already been considered, but the added details in this song are significant. The location was Taanach, about four miles from Megiddo. It is implied that the Brook Kishon, which is called "the waters of Megiddo," was turned into a raging torrent resulting from a storm. The poetess sees this storm as a sign that God was using the elements of nature to fight for his people, a picture in keeping, as we have already noted, with the association of God’s appearance with storm phenomena. The picture of God coming from Sinai across Seir and Edom may be an attempt to portray the advent of the storm sweeping up from the southland as a sign of God’s presence with his people. God rode on the storm cloud as on a chariot (see Ezekiel 1). There follows a portrayal of the army of Sisera in complete rout, punctuated by the beat of the fleeing horses. The confusion of battle, the raging storm-swollen torrent of Kishon, the chariots of war in desperate flight — all rise up before our eyes in these vivid verses.

Verses 23-27

The Song of Deborah: The Failure of Meroz and the Feat of Jael (5:23-27)

In verse 23, Meroz, a village in the line of Sisera’s flight, is cursed for not apprehending him. The story of Jael is told in detail, and blessings are called down on her. We have already discussed the ethical problems raised by this story.

Verses 28-31

The Song of Deborah: The Palace of Sisera (5:28-31)

The song finishes with a dramatic portrayal of the mother of Sisera watching expectantly for the return of her son in triumph and showing impatience at his delay. Her ladies seek to comfort her by picturing the rich spoil that he is busy dividing and with which he will return laden. There is a kind of pitiless gloating here, as the song portrays the impatience of the mother, the comfort of the ladies of the court, the mixture of hope and fear which pervades the atmosphere of the palace, while all the time Sisera is dead. Evidently Sisera is no mere captain of hosts but a king in his own right.

We note the addition by the editor of the Book of Judges, recording that the land had peace for forty years.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Judges 5". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/judges-5.html.
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