Deborah’s duet with Barak
Long-haired leaders let the hair fly1 When the fighting was over and it came time to celebrate, Deborah and Barak, son of Abinoam, sang this song.
When Israel’s leaders let their long hair fly
And devoted people follow their lead,
Thank the good LORD.
I’ll sing to the LORD. Yes, I will.
Thanks to the LORD, Israel’s God.
4 LORD, when you came down to Seir,
When you touched down on Edom,
The ground shook and the rain poured,
As clouds released their water.
5 The mountains shook at Sinai, too,
At the touch of the LORD of Sinai,
At the touch of Israel’s LORD and God.
Dangerous days in Israel6
When Shamgar lived, son of Anath,
When Jael lived as well,
Roads ran empty
As travelers took the hidden trails.
And closed for business
Until Deborah came along,
As a mother to our nation.
8 When Israel chased new gods
War showed up at the city gates.
Too bad. Israel didn’t have one spear or shield
Not among 40,000 of her people.
9 I’m so proud of Israel’s leaders
And all the people who volunteered.
Thank the good LORD.
10 Rich folks, sing this song.
Tell this story as you ride your white donkeys
And as you sit on your comfy saddle blankets.
11 Make it louder than music at the watering holes.
Tell stories of how our LORD helped Israel.
That’s when people of Israel met at the city gate.
12 Wake up, Deborah, wake up!
Wake up and sing your song.
Get up, Barak.
You’ve got captives to capture.
Refugees go to war13
Former refugees join their rulers,
The LORD’s people, every one of them.
They march into battle against powerful enemies.
Marching into the valley below.
Troops from Benjamin came as well.
With captains from Makir
And generals from Zebulun.
15 Issachar’s leaders, with Deborah and Barak,
Charged down the hill, to the valley.
But Reuben’s tribe didn’t come,
They struggled over what to do.
Tribes that didn’t defend Israel16
Why did you stay home to watch your sheep
And listen to the whistling shepherds?
Reuben’s tribe, from town to town,
Struggled over what to do.
Dan stayed down by the sea.
Asher didn’t leave the coast,
But loafed and lingered in the coves.
18 Zebulun’s people ridiculed death.
Naphtali fought at the front.
Canaanites die in a flood19
Kings came from Canaan to fight in the battle
At Taanach, near the Springs of Megiddo.
But they carried away no silver,
Or anything else from us.
Joined forces to fight against Sisera.
21 A flash flood from Kishon swept them away.
Raging, raging, the Kishon flood.
Charge! Be brave and stay strong!
22 Thundering hooves hammered the ground
In the frenzy of the flood and retreat.
23 “Damn the Meroz!” said the LORD’s messenger.
“Damn and doom them all.
They didn’t come to the LORD’s people.
They didn’t send warriors to help in the fight.”
High praise for Sisera’s killer24
Honor Jael, wife of Heber.
Bless that Kenite woman of the tents.
Sisera asked her for water,
She gave him milk,
A beautiful bowl full of yogurt.
A hammer in the other,
Then she hammered his head to the ground
With a stake she drove through his temple.
27 He dropped into sleep
As he lay at her feet.
He died where he dropped
At her feet.
Too bad for Sisera’s mother28
Sisera’s mother stared out of the window,
And from behind the lattice, she cried.
“What’s taking his chariots so long?
Why haven’t we heard the hammering hooves?”
It’s one she keeps telling herself.
30 “It must take them time to take what they want,
A woman or two for each man.
Dyed clothing for Sisera to bring back home,
Embroidered, colorful cloth,
Enough embroidery for every neck they risked in war.”
31 LORD, may all your enemies die like Sisera.
But may all your friends rise with the force of the sun. People in the land lived in peace for the next 40 years.
First, in any Bible translation, there’s a lot of guessing going on with this ancient poem. That’s because many of the words and phrases are unclear. That’s the case here. The Hebrew words here take some guessing to produce a translation. The idea is devotion, most scholars seem to agree. The long hair could conjure up a word picture of Deborah standing on top of Mount Tabor, yelling “Charge!” Or it might refer to the kind of super devotion people express toward God when they take the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6), which includes not getting a haircut.
“Seir” is another name for “Edom.” Hebrew poetry is famous for repetition. What rhyming is to English poetry, parallelism is to Hebrew poetry. However, God came down to Mount Sinai, not to a mountain in Edom. This mention of Seir and Edom could refer to God preparing the way for the Israelites by convincing the people of Edom to let the Israelites pass through their land. People of Edom were descended from Esau, Jacob’s big brother. So the Israelites, descended from Jacob, were related to the people of Edom.
The writer doesn’t call out rich people this directly, but the rich probably came to mind. Donkeys were expensive and a symbol of wealth, much like some cars are today. White donkeys, a little yellowish usually, were especially expensive.
The meaning of this line is uncertain. That’s why Bible versions go in many different directions. This interpretation joins with those that guess the writer was talking about sounds at places where people and animals gather for water—wells and springs and streams. The sounds might be of people singing or perhaps of shepherds calling their flocks as several shepherds prepare to take their turn at watering their livestock.
The city gate, like a village well, was a common meeting place. Towns often held official meetings or conducted trials at the entrance into the city.
Ephraim was Deborah’s tribe.
Some correctly translate the Hebrew word ‘mlk (the ancients skipped vowels as they wrote, as a shorthand way to save time and space on scrolls) as Amalek. That leaves scholars guessing about what Amalek has to do with this story. Other suggest the possibility of a copying mistake. They say ‘mk, the Hebrew word for “valley,” makes more sense because the battle was fought in the Jezreel Valley.
They were whistling signals to their sheep, and probably not whistling Psalms.
Meroz is unknown. This is the only time the name appears in the Bible.
Some Bible versions call the emissary an “angel.” But the Hebrew word mal’ak means “messenger” or “representative,” or “envoy.” The messenger could be human or celestial. It seems a celestial known as the LORD’s angel led Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 23:20; 32:34). But the messenger could have been a human God called on to deliver the message. God later called on Amos, a fig farmer from Tekoa, to deliver his message to the king of Israel, who was about to lose his country (Amos 1).
Do you think most Christians really buy the idea that Deborah and Barak sang a duet? Or that they had anything to do with writing the song?
The song starts: “When Israel’s leaders let their long hair fly” (5:2). It’s anyone’s guess what the long hair refers to. Go ahead and guess, like a good biblical scholar.
The song is so ancient that scholars have to guess about how to translate many of the words. Scholars call it authentically ancient. It’s not one the prophecy excerpts that some date to more than a millennium later. If it is history, what do take from what Sisera’s mother, and the wise woman say about the late return of turns out to be the late Sisera?
The lyrics of the song cover a lot of territory. Which lines catch your attention most of all? What lines would work in a worship service today? And what lyrics would get nixed by the Church Music Minder?