But before we dive in, we need at least a little bit of context.
Here is an interesting idea by Mark Leuchter, from Why Tarry the Wheels of His Chariot? (2010):
Most scholars agree that the setting of the poem is the 12th century Bce, a time following the waning of Egyptian power in the area. This was also a time when lowland Canaanite culture, reeling in the wake of the Egyptian collapse, saw tremendous socio-economic instability. This condition forged alliances between highland villagers of different ethnic patrimonies that doubtlessly led to the emergence of early Israel, in contradistinction to the remnants of lowland urban Canaanite dwellers. The confrontation between Sisera and the Israel recounted in the Song of Deborah reflects upon the tension between these populations, motivated on one hand by a desire to carve out a tenable existence in the highlands and, on the other, the persistence of lowland urban groups with designs on holding control over trade routes and arable tracts of land.
What I hear from this is that our poem hearkens back to the early days of the very formation of the Israelite people, and the groups that would become known as Israelites and Canaanites are both trying to establish themselves as the dominant population in the area! I'd like to keep this thought somewhere in the background, and to take note of whether we encounter anything that supports this at all.
One more important preliminary question: What is an epic anyway?
Billy Collins of the Poetry Foundation says the following:
An epic poem is a lengthy, narrative work of poetry. These long poems typically detail extraordinary feats and adventures of characters from a distant past. The word “epic” comes from the ancient Greek term “epos,” which means “story, word, poem.”
The Pen and the Pad website for literary theory gives guidance on how to actually begin an epic, should you be interested in writing one yourself. They write that a good epic will start out with the following:
- Invocation to a Muse;
- Set the Theme and Hero;
- Begin in Media Res ("in the middle-of-things");
- Similes and epithets
Let's now, finally, start diving into the beginning of our epic, to see if and how it hits upon any of these themes:
Let's pause already and take note of what's going on here. What do you make of this verse?
below: Is this how you generally picture an ancient Israelite?
Michael Fishbane in his commentary to the Haftarot says something interesting; That this poem is written as if it is sung by the heroes themselves, along with song-leader interjections. Personally, I think that just one verse in, we already see this playing out. (Do you agree?)
Let's keep our eyes open for any other instances moving forward.
I also want to touch upon one more thing before going further; The two possible translations above. Here are two comments which shed a bit of insight:
Jewish Study Bible:
When locks go untrimmed: The translation alludes to Nazirites who dedicated themselves to warfare wearing long hair.
When bonds were loosed: The Hebrew verb can mean undoing hair or casting off restraints. In the context here, it might refer to a time of wildness in military crisis when the ordinary social and political order was in abeyance.
Let's go with "locks" on this one as we revisit the poem from the beginning and continue on through the opening section. Try to keep in mind the 4 characteristics of opening an epic and think about whether our poet is "following the rules."
If Fishbane is indeed right that there are multiple voices going on here, what are some different ways of working out the "choreography?" Imagine, for example, that a group of ancient Israelites are congregating, and this poem will be chanted in order to commemorate this historical event.
Who says what? How many "performers" are there? Is there room for audience participation?
Note the similarity of verse 3 to verse 5. Here is a really nice insight by Alexander Globe in his The Literary Structure and Unity of the Song of Deborah (1974):
The echo... provides a continuing undercurrent of praise to the Lord... celebrating the eternal, unchanging God before whom even the heavens and earth tremble in fear. Thus a literary device conveys a theological idea.
below: While this certainly looks Greek, could the Israelites have had something similar? Could a retelling of our epic find a home in such a setting:
There's something quite fascinating about mentioning the appearance of YHWH from Seir at the very start, but this is a point that is that much more appreciated once you know a little bit about the ancient Akkadian epic of Tutulki-Ninurta I, which details the Assyrian emperor Tutulki-Ninurta's military campaigns against Babylonia in the 12th century BCE!!!
Here is a great insight by P. C. Craig in his The Song of Deborah and the Epic of Tutulki-Ninurta (1969):
A similar scheme may be found in the epic. In a prayer to the sun- god prior to the battle, a covenant is called to mind which was between the king's predecessors and the god. On the basis of this covenant and on the basis of the Cassite action which was interpreted as a violation of the covenant, the aid of God was invoked for the coming battle. Before battle commenced, the warriors addressed a song of praise to the warrior king; the song called to mind the king's past influence and power and ended with a request that the sun-god would grant the king success over the Cassites. This song is followed by the battle description in which many gods take part, amongst them the sun-god. Thus the ground on which the divine aid was invoked for the battle was a past covenant with one of the gods, and a declaration of faith in the gods and in their ability to win the victory. (256-257)
I don't know about, but I find this insight to be amazing!!! Does this change your appreciation of the beginning of our poem in any way? How so?
Let's keep going, as its in the next section where things start to really heat up!
Some of the above, in both the Hebrew and the English is quite cryptic. (Not unlike the rest of the poem!)
With that; What do you make of this part? What is the purpose in mentioning caravans, open cities, new gods, and the lack of shield and spear? Any thoughts on how these images all fit together?
And finally; Are there any new elements here which fit the schema of epic poetry we saw above?
below: The Mycenaean Warrior Vase, 12th century, which would put it at the time of our poem! How many elements have been mentioned in our epic that you can find in this picture?
Let's keep going! The next few lines bring us to the very end of the first major section:
There are a few things that this poem loves to do; One of them is to introduce stark and extreme contrasts. Notice any of this in the above passage? (And if so, what might the purpose be?)
One other thing I want to bring your attention to is the Hebrew term for the leaders in Israel, the hokkekei Israel. Keep this in mind! It will soon make an ironic return.
This brings us to the end of what many consider to be the first of three major sections in our epic. So far we have seen:
- A summons to attention;
- Praising the god-of-Israel for his intervention during a time of crisis;
- Summary of the oppression;
- A summons to Israel to join in praise.
But note that we still don't really have any details about what in the world happened! We know the when (kind of): The days of Shamgar and Yael. And we know there was some kind of national emergency that required divine help from Israel's Protector, YHWH, elohei-Israel.
But beyond that, if you were telling this story to someone, could you give them any other details at all? Not too many; And that's because everything we've thus far seen could be said to make up a long and grandiose introduction. We've really seen no action yet.
Which brings us to our next section, which kicks off with the mustering of the troops before the actual battle for the Jezreel begins:
Anything strike you as... strange, from the above paragraph? (Hint: Anything missing?) Take a peek at the map of the territories of the tribes below and compare that with the location of the Jezreel Valley in the map above.
Who is praised? Who is praised excessively? Who is criticized? Can you think of any explanations?
Part of the above passage can also be characterized as one of two taunt songs we have in this epic. It is one of the hardest passages to translate, and is probably dripping with sarcasm and double-entendres - consider what the poet says about Reuben, for example. (Does the title of the tribe of Reuben remind you of anything? Also, keep your eyes open for the second of these taunt poems, which we will see by the end!)
Now that our troops have been mustered and we know who some of our heroes and our cowards are, let's push ahead into Part III, the most riveting of all!
Let's take a moment to marvel at the poetry for a second.
Note the four-fold repetition of "fought". The Kings of Canaan may have valiantly put up a good fight; Yet who can withstand the onslaught of the stars?
Also note the forward thrust, or progression/intensification, of the description of the narrative. We began here at the "waters of Megiddo" which then develops into the "raging torrent" of the Kishon that would sweep the kings away as their horses gallop, gallop away in panic. All of this provides reason for the failure to "take the spoils." Similarly, the gallop gallop develops the "march" of the preceding line.
And how about the breaking of the pattern in verse 21; March on, oh my being, in courage! What might be the function of this line? A triumphant interjection of the poet? A battle cry? It is definitely exultant in nature, keeping with the dynamic crescendo of the whole stanza (Globe, 501).
below: The horses trying to outrun the raging Kishon, which had already swept away their riders.
What a relief for the Israelites that they had such formidable allies on their side - the very forces of nature! This is yet another element that makes its way into epics in general.
In fact, take a look at this excerpt from one of the greatest epics of all, Homer's The Iliad, arguably the first great work of Greek literature that we have, and dated to the 8th century BCE... 400 years after our Epic of the Jezreel!
Beloved brother (Simoeis), let even the two of us join to hold back the strength of a man, since presently he will storm the great city of lord Priam. The Trojans cannot stand up to him in battle. But help me beat him off with all speed, and make full your currents with water from your springs. -----The Iliad, book 31.
Here's something else interesting - Ever heard of Sargon of Akkad, or Sargon the Great? He might be the very first person in human history described as reigning over an empire, ruling over the Akkadians 24 centuries BCE!!!
Here is what one of the ancient Akkadian inscription have to say about his conquests:
As Sargon made his invasion to the land of Uta-rapashtim, The very forest might have been his enemy, It cast darkness over the sunlight, the sun grew dark! (But) many stars came out and were set towards the enemy. ------from Murray Lichtenstein, Heroic Elements in in Judges 5 (2019).
below: Sargon the Great was surely deserving of his title if he was willing to stand up to such menacing forces as this tree below!
Another thing this poem loves is playing around with perspectives, which you might notice if you go back and review what we have already seen.
Look at what the next section does with this, as we suddenly find ourselves seemingly far away from the sounds and smells of the battlefield, off somewhere in a woman's tent:
If you are not rushed in your reading, then you might have paused to wonder throughout verses 25 and 26, Who is this mysterious "He?" And what does this have anything to do with anything? Until finally, at the fateful moment when hammer meets head, we get a glimpse of this man's face and recognize him to be Sisera, he who foolishly tried to take on the stars back in verse 20!
Alter's insights, as always, are worthwhile:
The entire report of the killing uses sequences of overlapping verbs, like cinematic frames one after the other: hammered, cracked, smashed, pierced... This triadic line is one of the most brilliant deployments of incremental repetition in the poem, culminating in the climactic increment "destroyed" at the end.
For me, the effect of all of these verbs is that I see Sisera's death occurring in slow-motion, as if the poet wanted us to hang on to every single detail and savor this moment.
Like Sisera above, here his mother's identity is not revealed immediately; All we see at first is a woman gazing, longingly, out of a window.
While our heart goes out to her, knowing that which she does not, this passage also comes across as yet another taunt-song. She looks forward to celebrating what her son had plundered from the Israelites, and both she and her wisest-of-ladies eagerly anticipate receiving some booty themselves; the embroidered cloth of the damsels taken by her son. But we well-perceive their foolishness, as at that moment, it was a woman, like themselves, who was orchestrating her son's demise.
As we are considering the genre of epics, let's take a look over at Homer again, where we move from the bloody and noisy battle-field, to the women anxiously awaiting the return of their husbands and sons; in this case, we share the perspective of Andromache, wife of Prince Hector of Troy, who had tried to challenge the legendary Achilles:
But the wife knew naught as yet the wife of Hector—for no true messenger had come to tell her that her husband abode without the gates; but she was weaving a web in the innermost part of the lofty house, a purple web of double fold, and therein was broidering flowers of varied hue. And she called to her fair-tressed handmaids through the house to set a great tripod on the fire,to the end that there should be a hot bath for Hector whenso he returned from out the battle—unwitting one, neither wist she anywise that far from all baths flashing-eyed Athene had laid him low by the hand of Achilles.
below: Hector of Troy being dragged around the streets by his Greek rival, Achilles. Note the gods in the clouds looking down. Like our epic, these gods also picked sides and did what they could to influence the war's outcome.
As we near the very end of our poem, the mother of Sisera is the second mother we encountered, the first one having been way back towards the beginning. (This is a literary technique called inclusio.)
Who was that first mother? Why open and close with this? Any thoughts on whether the poet is trying to convey something of significance here?
And finally, the Grand Closing!
And with this exuberant exclamation, our Epic of the Jezreel is brought to a close. And WHAT a wild and riveting journey the listeners would have been taken on... as hopefully, you have been as well!
Recap of the sections, as broken up by Globe:
- Summoning people to listen-up and join the poet in praise (2-3)
- Turn to YHWH and celebrating his appearance (4-5)
- Summarize the state of anarchy/articulate the need for divine help (6-8)
- Calling Israel to celebrate their deliverer (YHWH) (9-11).
- Mustering the troops and meeting at the gates for battle (11-15);
- Criticizing those who did not participate (15-17);
- Celebrate two tribes who distinguished themselves in battle (18).
- Recreation of the battle and the route (19-22);
- Triumph of Yael over Sisera (23-37);
- Taunting of Sisera's mother (28-30)
- Curse on enemies, blessing YHWH's beloved.