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?

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How to Play With New Toys

Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died.
And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. (Judges 4:1-2 NASB)

Now she sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, “Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded, ‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun.  ‘I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.'” (Judges 4:6-7 NASB)

Then they told Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor.
Sisera called together all his chariots, nine hundred iron chariots, and all the people who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. (Judges 4:12-13 NASB)

The LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot.
But Barak pursued the chariots and the army as far as Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not even one was left. (Judges 4:15-16 NASB)

Okay, that’s a lot of the chapter, but there is something here that is probably obvious to those in “Iron Age II” Israel which completely escapes us.  As has been pointed out in previous entries, these accounts of the Judges of Israel take place in the late bronze age, right on the cusp of the Iron Age.  But as with all technological advances, iron wasn’t achieved by everyone at once.  It was used by large “empires” but not by small city states, at least generally speaking.

With Sisera though, there may be something to the 900 iron chariots.  The clue is in the name of the city in which he lives and in which his army is garrisoned, Harosheth.  The name is literally “Craftsmen of the Nations”.  You have to admit, that’s a weird name.  The word for “craftsmen” can refer to anyone working anything, wood, metal, fabric, pottery, and so on.  Since it also includes “blacksmiths”, it’s fair to say that they could have had people who could work iron.

Here’s the problem though.  In order to work iron, there would need to be some familiar with it, and those people were typically found in large empires, and the skills and people carefully guarded (see 1 Samuel 13:19-22 for a biblical reference to this historical tidbit).  If you keep this in mind, then what was done was more likely taking existing material and fixing or adapting it.  So, the craftsmen of the nations collected and maintained the various chariots gathered from the battlefields of the major kings and Pharaohs.

How familiar they were with these weapons they “inherited” becomes clear when we see they tried to take them through the river Kishon.  Heavy, horse-drawn carts, made heavier by plating them with iron, will not go through mud very well.  Every river will have some mud (some, like the Mississippi, even more so).  How does a seasoned charioteer not know their heavy vehicle will not handle mud well?  Perhaps all mud is not equal?  In any case, they tried, and failed, to move 900 chariots through a river, and were massacred by foot soldiers.

The point I gain is this: just because the problem, or person, or situation, I face looks intimidating, if my Master has led to the fight, I’ve already won.  How was Barak to know Sisera didn’t know chariots don’t float?  How am I to know what whatever opposes my work for my Master does or doesn’t know, have, can or can’t do, or whatever?  I don’t.  So, my Master calls me to trust that He knows.  Just because my opponent has 900 iron chariots (or the modern equivalent thereof) doesn’t mean my Master doesn’t know something about this opponent I don’t know.  What I see is not what my Master sees.

This means that I can fearlessly tackle my calling.  That’s not typically my way, but it can be.  It really should be, because I know the stories, I’ve read about the people, and I know their circumstances were pretty much like mine.  So, it’s time to act.  Time to make a list, and begin accomplishing the things I’m called to accomplish by my Master.  No opponent can oppose such a calling nor the work to accomplish it.  I’ve already won.

What’s your view of God through your knothole?

Pegged By a Woman

Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him; Deborah also went up with him.  Now Heber the Kenite had separated himself from the Kenites, from the sons of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh. (Judges 4:10-11 NASB)

Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.  Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.” And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug.  He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him.  He said to her, “Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.'”  But Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died. (Judges 4:17-21 NASB)

The account of Deborah and Barak would not be complete without Jael.  You simply cannot get the point without her.  We get so focused on the fact that Deborah led the Sons of Israel as a woman, that we forget that the enemy of God’s people was defeated by a woman from another people.  Not only did God keep the victory from Barak, but also from the Sons of Israel.

Also, much is made about the fact that Deborah prophesies that Barak won’t be given the victory because he asked a woman to go with him.  I think that has more to do with literary irony from the writer than some sort of indictment from God on women involved in leadership.  Deborah remains the judge, and there seems to be no problem on God’s side with her in that role.

The irony for me derives from the layered issue.  This Kenite, Heber, separates from his brethren in the south and is near Kadesh.  He is at “peace” with Jabin, the enemy of the people of Israel.  Yet his wife seems to be the enemy of Jabin and Sisera.  She pretends to be friendly, like her husband, but then secretly assassinates the general.

So, a battle ensues with the chariots being less effective than foot soldiers.  The general escapes on foot, and is killed by a woman while he sleeps.  Just when he thought he was safe, among friends, he wasn’t.  The battle followed him to the tents of his ally.  In all of this, where was Heber, anyway?

I think God’s sense of humor peeks through here.  Sure, the grisly nature of Jael’s actions is kind of gross.  But a woman driving a tent peg through a guy’s head into the ground?  When you consider he’s the chief warrior for the king of Canaan, it has to be the most embarrassing way to go.  What do you put on that tombstone?

I suppose the point for this is that God uses whoever He likes, and uses them in ways that show off His work.  A seasoned warrior killed in his sleep by a woman with a hammer and nail?  Yeah, that would be God.  Nine hundred chariots out run by foot soldiers?  Yeah, that would be God.  How does anyone else get credit?  They don’t.  They get points for participation.

So, what are we after?  Recognition?  Credit?  Kudos?  What?  God doesn’t give points for anything other than participation.  If we’re not okay with that, then there are s a few layers of problems with our relationship with God.  God has to be the Main Character, the Hero, the One in charge.  Who else can save?  Through whom, other than God, can human creatures be saved from eternal death?  If only Jesus saves, then isn’t it in everyone’s best interest that He get all the attention?

I like getting credit, for people to like me, think well of me, be impressed, and so on.  I need to get passed that.  People won’t be saved through any achievement of mine.  My best day won’t get one more person into eternal life.  Only Jesus accomplishes that.  So, let my Master use Jael, Deborah, Barak, foot soldiers, and tent pegs.  That should gain Him so notoriety, and that is the point, because that’s what brings people to Him.

So, what’s your view of God through the fence today?

A Tale of Two Puns

Now she sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, “Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded, ‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun.  I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.'” (Judges 4:6-7 NASB)

The LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. (Judges 4:15 NASB)

I was going to separate these two “puns” into separate entries, but I only have two days, and I can’t pass up the irony of Jael.  If I have time next week, I’ll continue to unpack this amazing chapter of Judges, but my group is moving through this book pretty fast.

So, two puns, two literary features typically missed in English translations, and very difficult to try to bring across.  In fact, you’d have to “accidentally” spot them with something like a Strong’s Concordance or something.  But they startled me, and I find in them this intriguing character of the author of Judges.

When Deborah sends off to Barak to inspire him to lead two tribes into battle, she quotes God as laying out a form of “agreement” before Barak.  The way that adherents to Scripture typically view things, we’d call that a “covenant”.  It has the structure of “If you do this, I’ll do that”, but with more of a command or imperative nature.  In this example, it’s the verb signifying what each party will do that provides the first “pun”.

I suppose it’s not exactly a pun, but each use stretches the meaning of the verb so it sort of jumps out as being somewhat out of place.  When the meaning is understood apart from this account, you can be left with the clear sense of God’s awareness of the reluctance on the part of Barak.  The verb is “mashak”, and it usually means “to drag off” or “to draw out”.  Even knowing that, it’s kind of hard to spot the two uses of it in this passage, no?

The first usage is not what Barak does to the 10,000 troops of Naphtali and Zebulun, but rather to himself.  It’s a singular imperative “march” in verse 6.  And it’s not in the reflexive, or passive sense either, so he’s not causing himself or being acted upon.  In other words, God is basically saying, “Get your butt out of bed and drag it over to Mount Tabor.”

The second use of this word is more clear at the beginning of verse 7.  Yet when combined, you can see that God realizes that Barak is as reluctant to go to war as his eventual victim is to die.  We’re not told the reason for Barak’s reluctance, beyond that there were 900 iron chariots opposing him.  And it’s not hard to imagine that being a inhibiting factor.

The “agreement” is that, if Barak will drag his sorry butt to Mount Tabor, God will drag his opponent out to Barak to be defeated.  Sounds like a good deal.  Barak is still reluctant, so God gives the eventual glory of Sisera’s death to a woman (another story).

But now, let’s ask why God wants Sisera to be defeated.  Look at how God describes the “troops” of Sisera.  He calls them “many troops”.  That’s pretty simple, nothing surprising or interesting in that.  But if you look up the Strong’s Concordance entry for this Hebrew word, you’ll see this.  Look at the “Root Word” and follow the link.  The root of this word has to do with a loud noise.  God is calling Sisera’s army a “noisy bunch”, not just “many troops”.

And this brings us to the other half of this second pun in verse 15. God “routed” Sisera.  How plain and uninteresting.  Unless you examine the Hebrew verb used, here.  The verb is, again, about making noise.  Both this verb, and the adjective used prior have the same root, hamah (to grumble or to roar) or hum (to disturb with noise).  In other words, God shows up Sisera’s army by revealing what real noise sounds like.

Okay, so what?  God uses a pun to point out Barak’s reluctance, big deal.  God shows a noisy opponent what a truly shocking noise sounds like, okay, so?  Relax, sit back, close your eyes, and begin to imagine you’re in the iron age, and a king of Judah rules an unruly bunch of wayward Hebrews.  Some guy is telling a story about God delivering His people being oppressed by an army with iron chariots, against which the people of God had lots of people with sharp sticks, not a fair fight.  How can the storyteller make sure you get the point?  How does the Creator and Savior of the Sons of Israel get them to understand His point?  He uses literary technique.

The first pun points out Barak’s reluctance, but also God’s willingness to use him anyway.  His lame faith is no excuse to continue to sit on the couch, behind the plowing ox, or among the sheep and goats in the field.  So, neither is ours.  The message to us (and them) is to get our butts up and drag them out to face the enemy God is dragging out to be defeated before us.  That’s pun number one.

The second pun points out the ineffectual character of those that oppose God.  Whatever they might be, God is better at that quality, more dangerous,  smarter, bigger, and, as in this case, louder.  So, whatever enemy is faced, God is better.  But that’s sort of obvious.  Notice that the choice of words used also point out they’re ‘noisy’, not truly dangerous, just noisy.

If you read this account carefully, these tactical geniuses drove their iron chariots through a river.  Clearly they knew less about these tools of war than we’d expect.  I suspect that, since Egypt and the Hittites are pretty much the only ones with the ability to work iron, these guys didn’t make the chariots, but scavenged from a deserted battle field.  The battle plains of Meggido to the south, and Charchemesh and Qarqar to the north would be excellent places to find them.  Patch them up (make the wheels round for instance), and voila, instant technological advantage.  Not that you can truly fix them, only make them functional again.  So, the troops facing these hill people of Naphtali and Zebulun looked a lot like extras from some “Mad Max” Post-Apocalyptic movie.  And having something invented by others doesn’t mean you know how to use those things.  But it does mean you appear (or sound, in this case) very dangerous.

In other words, God took them down a peg.  These hoodlums believed in the noise they made with their accumulated chariots of iron.  God showed them what real noise sounded like.  He also showed the Sons of Israel.  The had been believing the noise of the 900 chariots for 20 years.  It was time for some real noise.  Are we believing the noise of our culture over what we read in Scripture?  God can, and will, show us what real noise sounds like.  But we need to drag our butts off the couch.  The culture sounds great, but our God is greater.  Why aren’t we making more noise about Him?  Or, are you?  If you are, keep it up.

Okay, that’s my view this morning.  I know it was long, but thank you for persevering through.  What’s your view of our God through your knothole?