Poetic Theology

Hebrew Poetry is one of the most difficult types of literature to decipher in Scripture.  To be fair, translating the poetry of any culture is difficult, as is interpreting humor, and understanding colloquialisms, and idiom.  So, part of the problem is the nature of how a culture understands and uses poetry.  Another part of the problem is that some elements may be either missing, misspelled, or their meaning is lost.

In the study of Judges I concluded last year, I skipped chapter 5, the Song of Deborah and Barak.  I knew poetry would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how important this poem was to understanding the people of Yahweh, Yahweh Himself, and His work among His people.  The poem reveals things about the time of Deborah and Barak, and also, about the people and time of it’s writing.  That latter element could be difficult since there could be two times/groups if it was used, as an intact ancient source, by the “editor/author” of Judges.

To start this exploration, let’s look at the beginning, because some of our toughest problems are found in the first lines:

Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves. (Judges 5:2 KJV)

When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly– bless the LORD! (Judges 5:2 NRSV)

That the leaders led in Israel, That the people volunteered, Bless the LORD! (Judges 5:2 NASB)

The Septuagint isn’t really helpful here either.  In one version it connects “revealing” with what is “revealed”, and another version has beginnings going first.  In both instances, the attempt on the part of the Greek translator was to preserve the sound relationship over the original meaning of the Hebrew.  What I infer from that is that the translators of this Hebrew passage into Greek didn’t know what the Hebrew meant even then.  All they knew is that the two words sounded similar, and so tried to figure it out from the context.

Modern translators do something similar.  And they rely on the Hebrew, but supplement their understanding of the Hebrew with the Greek.  As the Greek texts are actually older in many cases, this isn’t a bad method.

Still, what point can be drawn from the detail that the first lines of this poem are difficult?  Well, perhaps that this isn’t Yahweh’s point.  If it were, He would have preserved something clearer.  So, let’s move on.

The second thing we learn about this defeat of Sisera and his chariots is that a wet storm seems to have come from the southeast.

LORD, when You went out from Seir,
When You marched from the field of Edom,
The earth quaked, the heavens also dripped,
Even the clouds dripped water.
The mountains quaked at the presence of the LORD,
This Sinai,
at the presence of the LORD, the God of Israel. (Judges 5:4-5 NASB)

I made the line breaks above to match the Hebrew text more closely.  In any case, a severe thunderstorm seems to have originated from the direction of the land of Edom.  I don’t know how common or uncommon that would have been, but, looking at a map, it would mean that it approached the valley this fight happened in from over Mt. Tabor, where Israel formed their ranks.  It also means that the army of chariots couldn’t see it coming.

Then, this happens:

New gods were chosen; Then war was in the gates. Not a shield or a spear was seen Among forty thousand in Israel. (Judges 5:8 NASB)

Israel chose new gods, then war was in the gates. Not a shield or spear was seen among 40,000 in Israel. (Judges 5:8 HCSB)

God chose new leaders when war came to the city gates, but not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel. (Judges 5:8 NIV)

And, to be clear (or unclearer than it already is), there are multiple examples of translations with each of these options.  Basically, we’re not sure what this line of the poem really means.  Literally, “He reviewed new gods.”  Who’s “he” and why are new gods being “reviewed in order to select”?  I suspect that “he” really is Israel, and this is a statement of repentance.  The problem beginning this account of Deborah is found in Judges 4:1, “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died.” (NASB)  Unfortunately, we’re not told the specific “evil” they did, but, from the “prelude” it seems “evil” typically had to do with worshiping other gods.  That would make the “choosing” or “reviewing” other gods make some sense as one way to describe “repentance”.

The next line about “war in the gates” would be one possible outcome of defying the “gods” of King Jabin of Hazor.  It’s not the only one, it could be simple local upheaval due to social/religious differences.  It’s a Hebrew idiom, “war in the gates”, and is a general statement of war that affects the local community(ies).

But another peculiarity I found in this poem is a reference to a sub-group within the people of Israel, “peasantry” (ala NASB).  It’s found in verses 7 and 11, and translates the Hebrew word perazon (Strong’s H6520).  Since it’s only used here in those two verses, the suspicion from the context is that it refers to “country-folk”.  The reason I find this ironic is that, among the nations left in Canaan by which to tempt and oppress Israel are the “Perizzites” (Strong’s H6522).  See the relation here?  If not, look up the Strong’s reference.  Both have PRZ as the base, and both words are thought to refer to unwalled cities, or villages.  So, Perizzites are those who live in villages, and Perazon are essentially the same thing, villagers.  This sort of, de-villifies the “Perizzites” is all.  And, who doesn’t like the village people (sorry, couldn’t help it – you were thinking it).

After this, a “role-call” of sorts is taken from the Tribes of Israel.  Some came, others were criticized for sitting out.  Throughout the poem, the fight seems to be woven into various places without much detail.  In verse 19, kings gather to fight near the waters of Megiddo (which, if you’re in an iron chariot, isn’t brilliant).  The stars are involved, like the battle is really between the spiritual forces in the heavenly realms.  And then the river sweeps them away (see why it’s not a great idea to mix iron chariots and water?).  And we have this curse on “Meroz” for not showing up.  Technically, this is the end of the “battle”.

The poem sort of slows down, and, like the author of Judges, focuses in on the gory details:

Most blessed of women is Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite;
Most blessed is she of women in the tent.
He asked for water and she gave him milk;
In a magnificent bowl she brought him curds.
She reached out her hand for the tent peg,
And her right hand for the workmen’s hammer.
Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head;
And she shattered and pierced his temple.
Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay;
Between her feet he bowed, he fell;
Where he bowed, there he fell dead. (Judges 5:24-27 NASB)

This, in poetic form, is the same thing the author does with Ehud as he assassinates Eglon.  Because of that, I’m going out on a limb here, and suggest that the author of Judges wrote the poem, rather than including a source verbatim.  I could be wrong, this could simply be a common literary device, to focus on the gory details.

The point I see in this part of the poem is that this woman, one assumed to be fairly powerless in their culture, becomes the hero.  That’s important.  God delivers His people through the hand of a woman, technically not even an Israelite.  I learn from this, that we don’t get to choose the deliverer, and the deliverer will draw attention to the greatness of God, not the deliverer.

Now the next literary part of the poem is just mean.  It uses a common element of war to drive home a point.

Out of the window she looked and lamented,
The mother of Sisera through the lattice,
‘Why does his chariot delay in coming?
Why do the hoofbeats of his chariots tarry?’
Her wise princesses would answer her,
Indeed she repeats her words to herself,
‘Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil?
A maiden, two maidens for every warrior;
To Sisera a spoil of dyed work,
A spoil of dyed work embroidered,
Dyed work of double embroidery on the neck of the spoiler?’
Thus let all Your enemies perish, O LORD;
But let those who love Him be like the rising of the sun in its might.”

And the land was undisturbed for forty years. (Judges 5:28-6:1 NASB)

This points to a woman grieving, in shock over the loss of her son, and basically gloats.  I doubt Sisera lived in his mom’s basement, and who knows if his mother was even alive or not.  It simply makes a point.  The assumption of the antagonist is that Sisera cannot lose.  And he lost.  So, let all the enemies of Yahweh perish.  May their mothers know the pain of a parent loosing their child before their time.  I can’t really think of something harsher.  The ending of this poem is “imprecatory“.  And this is what Yahweh inspired to honor Himself.  Scripture is inspired, and, therefore, so is this poem, and, therefore, so is this ending.  Oppose Yahweh, and you may receive a curse.

We would do well to remember with Whom we relate er we enter into His presence to worship.  So says this knight of the realm, servant of the King.  What say you?