The Song of Deborah, found in Judges 5, is widely thought to be of great age, even by those who otherwise are reluctant to accept early composition dates for books of the Old Testament. However, Deborah's enumeration of the tribes often causes debate - some are said to have fought, others to have stayed away, and a few are not mentioned at all. This page explores several aspects of the episode.
The following additional links may be helpful:
Translation of Deborah’s Song, Judges 5
An exploration of Tribal lists and geography
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The places and people are mentioned are shown in the following drawing:
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Key places of Judges 4 and 5:
This colour indicates a place of importance to the narrative. Deborah's court was situated between Ramah and Bethel. Jabin reigned from Hazor. Barak, selected by Deborah to confront Jabin and Sisera, came from Kedesh in Naphtali. Barak's instructions were to wait for Sisera at the Kishon River, where Deborah would lure him. Deborah's song relates that the battle was fought at Taanach, near Megiddo.
This colour indicates the tribes that Deborah praises for joining with Barak in the fight against Sisera.
This colour indicates the tribes that Deborah criticises for failing to join with Barak.
This colour indicates the tribes that Deborah does not mention at all.
Observations from the passage
Judges 4 opens with the Israelites oppresed by Jabin, a Canaanite king ruling from Hazor. His general is named as Sisera. Deborah, a prophetess holding court in the hill country of Ephraim between Ramah and Bethel, sent for Barak son of Abinoam of the tribe of Naphtali, to instruct him that he had been chosen to free Israel from this oppression. Barak's hometown, Kedesh, was only a short distance from Hazor, so the choice was logical. However, Barak's instructions were not to take Sisera on in battle near Hazor, but to wait near the Kishon River for Deborah to lure Sisera and his army there. The means by which she was to achieve this is not clear. In the light of Barak's reluctance, Deborah accompanied him to Kedesh where he raised an army from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun (also close to Hazor). Sisera indeed took his army to the Kishon where he was defeated near Taanach and Megiddo by Barak's army. Sisera himself fled on foot to seek refuge with the Kenite clan of Heber, but was killed by Heber's wife. The closing verses seem to indicate that although this episode was a humiliation for Jabin, he was not completely defeated. His final downfall appears to have been the endpoint of a protracted campaign on the part of the Israelites.
Deborah's song forms chapter 5. The first 12 verses set the scene. Israel is referred to as having "leaders" in verse 2 (the root word pera
having the sense of "beginning" and hence leadership). Thus we are dealing here with a time before the Israelites had a monarchy, though clearly Deborah is familiar with the fact that other nations have kings. Other names used for Israelite leaders include "governors" (from chaqaq
, suggesting those who make decrees), "nobles" (addir
connoting majestic), and "princes" (sar
, suggesting a chiefain). The word "king" (melech
) is never used of the Israelites, though it is of the Canaanites. Her brief historical review harks back to the Exodus (vv. 4 and 5) before jumping to the immediate build-up to the battle.
Verses 13-18 list the tribes who did and did not help. Her listing of tribes is highly structured. First comes a group of those who attended. Then follows a shorter list of thse who did not. Finally, as a climax, are the two tribes who are mentioned in the narrative part of Judges 4 and were closest geographically to the oppressors in Hazor - Zebulun and Naphtali. Within each group she lists the tribes in a broadly south-to-north order. So, amongst those who came we have Ephraim and Benjamin first, followed by Manasseh, and finally the northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Amongst those who did not come we have Reuben first and Asher last. Naphtali - at this stage the northernmost tribe as well as being Barak's own tribe - is mentioned last. An explanation of the assumption Makir=Manasseh and Gilead=Gad may be found at the bottom of this page. Three tribes are not mentioned at all - Judah, Simeon and Levi. The absence of Levi is readily understood in that they fulfilled a religious role in Israel and were dispersed amongst all the tribes rather than having a specific tribal homeland. Simeon's allotted area was within the boundaries of Judah (Joshua 19), and extended into the Negev. Both these tribes, then, were geographically furthest removed from the northern citadel of Hazor. Their absence from Deborah's list has been explained in several ways, including:
- a deliberate slur because of rivalry,
- the southern tribes regularly had difficulties with desert tribes, and this may have precluded their involvement in this war
- editing by a northern author in the divided monarchy period, wanting to remove positive references to the southern tribes.
These explanations, however, may be more elaborate than necessary, and simple geography may provide the answer. What is interesting is that the Judges 4 narrative only explicitly refers to Zebulun and Naphtali, and although these get pride of place in the Song, four other tribes are listed as participating. The clue here may be in the suggestion of the closing verses of chapter 4, that the struggle against Jabin took a protracted time. Naphtali and Zebulun may have carried out the initial defeat of Sisera, but conceivably the others joined in to diminish and finally destroy Jabin.
Continuing with the Song, verses 19-23 briefly summarise the battle, and from there to the end describe the aftermath. Verse 19 suggests that several Canaanite kings were at the battle, something not made explicit in Judges 4. It is not clear whether these kings were fighting on Jabin's side as his allies, or against him and allied with the Israelites (or indeed a mixture of both). It has been proposed that "Meroz", cursed in verse 23, is a town close to Kedesh and now known as Khirbet Marus
. Such close proximity to Barak's home-town, with failure to support him by attending, could explain the vehemence of the response.
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The internal dating of the Judges era has difficulties, as discussed in a
collection of companion pages
It is not clear to what extent there are overlapping blocks of time in the various descriptions, and this obviously affects the overall duration. According to the lengths of times of freedom and oppression mentioned in Judges up to this point (interpreted at face value), Deborah's time is a little over 200 years from that of the initial Conquest. Exactly when this relates to in terms of wider events depends on the chronology for the Exodus itself. There are three main possibilities:
- A "late" Exodus in Egyptian New Kingdom, typically the time of Rameses II, using conventional dates. This puts the Exodus shortly after 1300, and extreme compression of Judges is required to fit all events in before the time of Saul and David in the period 1050-1000 BCE. Most of the internal spans of time have to be set aside, and there are few features to commend this plan. In this view, Deborah and Barak would be placed near 1100 BCE, in other words within the 20th dynasty before Rameses X.
- A conventional chronological scheme, with an Exodus as suggested by 1 Kings 6.1 around 1450 BCE. The internal dates now fit more comfortably (with only a small amount of compression being required), and Deborah and Barak would be placed soon after 1300. This would place them alongside the reign of Rameses II. He did indeed campaign in his 8th year through parts of Galilee,
- A conventional chronology, with an Exodus at the end of the 13th dynasty (around 1640 or thereabouts). This requires no compression of the Judges dates - indeed some expansion rather than contraction is needed - although an alternative explanation must be found for the 1 Kings 6 figure. Deborah and Barak are now alongside the early-mid 18th dynasty, approximately level with the reign of Thutmose III.
- New Chronology dates, with a c.1450 Exodus at the end of the 13th dynasty. 1 Kings 6 is retained and Judges requires some compression. Deborah and Barak are set alongside the Late Hyksos period.
- New Chronology dates with an Exodus around 1650-1600 (at the end of the 12th dynasty). As in (3) above, the 1 Kings date needs additional explanation but Judges forms a linear - though incomplete - sequence. Deborah and Barak are now placed opposite the early Hyksos rulers of the 15th dynasty. There are difficulties with this suggestion.
The merits of the various proposals above, as considered from several angles, are reviewed
in the companion pages
For the purposes of this study, it should be noted that there are appealing features about the schemes which place Deborah and Barak beside the early 18th dynasty. We know that Thutmose III campaigned into Canaan and fought a consortium of Canaanite rulers near Megiddo. Does the wider battle portrayed in 5:19 capture a memory of this, when Israelites took advantage of an Egyptian campaign to secure their own liberation as well? This possibility is explored in a page reviewing
the account of Thutmose III at Megiddo
Both Thutmose III and Amenhotep III mention Hazor amongst their city lists, and there was a Late Bronze destruction of the city by fire after which large sections were not reoccupied. The textual and archaeological data known about Hazor is reviewed on the
city records pages
(select the Hazor
link on the left-hand side of the page).
Deborah's song fits well in a pre-monarchy Israel in which individual tribal or clan chiefs controlled their own people and regions. The tribes she names as assisting or remaining absent make geographic sense in terms of their land apportionment. Those she does not mention - Judah, Simeon and Levi - are reasonable omissions, the first two because of distance and the last because the Levites were dispersed widely amongst all the people. A chronological scenario in which Deborah and Barak were contemporary with the early-mid 18th Egyptian dynasty makes good sense in terms of other known historical events.
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Appendix - Makir/Manasseh and Gilead/Gad
Alone of the children of Jacob, Manasseh is recorded as having only one son - Makir. In keeping with other similar genealogies, it is possible that Makir as a tribal leader was a sole descendant
rather than literal son (1 Chronicles 7.14 appears to support this interpretation). At the time of the Exodus and Conquest, legitimate tribal leaders seem to have been considered more important than actual offspring of the original sons. But the main point is that there was a single descent line Manasseh --- Makir. Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges seem to use the terms Makir and Manasseh interchangeably when referring to the allocation of land (for example Deuteronomy 3:12-16). After this, the use of Makir in this sense rapidly dies out (except in the early genealogical section of 1 Chronicles which is presumably based on earlier records). From the books of Samuel onwards (with this sole exception), Manasseh is used exclusively. However, Makir evidently retained popularity as a name in the transJordan area - 2 Samuel 9.4 and 17.27 relates David's association with Makir son of Ammiel who he met in Mahanaim (in east Gilead). So Deborah's use of Makir reflects a common early tendency which had disappeared by the time of the monarchy.
Gilead is used predominantly as a geographic term throughout the Old Testament, though Makir's son was also named (or perhaps renamed) Gilead. Gad and Gilead are often paired together, whereas Manasseh and Gilead are only paired through the family name. It may be fair to say that to some extent the three transJordan tribes (Reuben, Gad, and one half-tribe of Manasseh) gradually lost their individual identities and became referred to simply as Gileadites. Deborah evidently uses "Gilead" to emphasise the description "beyond the Jordan". Perhaps the transJordan tribes failed as a group to assist, in which case "Makir" of verse 14 would refer to the half tribe of Manasseh living west of the Jordan in Canaan, and "Gilead" of verse 17 would refer collectively to the Gadites and transJordan half-tribe of Manasseh.
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