The Deborah, Barak & Jael Cycle has two main parts: the narrative and Deborah’s song. The narrative was written earlier and is primarily concerned with demoting Barak so that power doesn’t shift away from the tribe of Ephraim. Deborah’s song is primarily concerned with convincing the Israelites to engage in military duty. If you’d like a less technical overview, please check out my podcast episode on the Deborah, Barak & Jael Cycle. If you’re not familiar with the Northern Book of Judges and it’s cycles, be sure to check out all of the podcast episodes in that series. I used Tzemah Yoreh's work as the basis for my Northern Book of Judges Source.
Please note that the argumentation below is that of the opposing narrative that the Northern Book of Judges author (N) was addressing and is opposed to the N narrative itself.
Black: These statements are mirrors or echoes
Blue: These statements are an inferred cause/effect of a mirror/echo or connects two mirrors/echoes
Green: These statement have no corresponding mirrors or echoes but have supporting (e.g. alternates, denials) statements that imply them.
Orange: Words within a statement that could be variations of the opposing narrative
Italics are causal connectors (e.g. “because”)
[Brackets] are replacements for pronouns or changing tense for better flow.
For more information about mirrors, echoes, supporting categories and my methodology, please visit this post.
Aspect #1 Opposing Narrative
Aspect #1 N Response With Commentary
1. Israel had not done well militarily and so this caused them to start looking for a new god for the nation.
2. The Israelites saw Yahweh as a new god that wasn’t working out for them. N stresses that Yahweh had been the God (Elohim) of Israel for some time, and that He is the strong military God that the Israelites were looking for. The opposing narrative was pointing out the origins of Yahweh in Edom, which is outside of Israel. N does not deny this, but says that Yahweh traveled from there and was the same God that was from Sinai.
Aspect #2 Opposing Narrative
Aspect #2 N Response With Commentary
1. Barak was from the tribe of Naphtali, and his military leadership threatened the prophetic power center in Ephraim. The opposing narrative may have been pushing Barak's descendants and leaders over Israel or just the tribe of Naphtali in general. Since Deborah was from Ephraim, the victory narrative is rewritten so that Deborah and Barak achieve it together.
2. Since Zebulun and Naphtali had followed Barak into victory, they are the tribes most likely to pull away from what seems to be a loose confederation of tribes lead by a prophet from the tribe of Ephraim.
3. Not only did Barak defeat the Canaanites, he also hunted down and killed their military leader, Sisera. This part of the narrative is changed so that Jael kills Sisera, taking status away from Barak.
Aspect #3 Opposing Narrative
Aspect #3 N Response With Commentary
1. With Israel’s poor military record, the leaders (aka the wealthy) and the people are reluctant to join any kind of military endeavor. N responds to this by glorifying the leaders and the tribes that took part in defeating the Canaanites throughout the Song of Deborah. Those tribes that didn’t join the fight are called out, and some even cursed. N also points out that when Israel didn’t fight in the past, this would affect the trade routes and would impact the wealth of the leadership.
2. Israel being a weak military power is an issue that is addressed in each of the cycles of N. In this cycle, N uses Barak’s victory to show that Israel can be victorious. N also shows that this was no push over Canaanite army: nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. In the end, the Israelites achieve a crushing military victory:
All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.
3. King Jabin was a case in point for not volunteering for the military. Canaan had subdued the weak Israelites. N responds by telling of Israel’s crushing defeat of Sisera’s army.
4. The main concern for the Israelite leadership is that they had a lot to lose financially if things went poorly on the battlefield. They were looking to avoid getting plundered. N counters this by telling how the Canaanites obtained no plunder after their battle with Barak, and the song of Deborah tells how Sisera’s mother waits in vain for Sisera to return with plunder for her.
5. Another disincentive for going to war was the threat of Israelite women getting raped by victorious enemy soldiers. N responds by having Sisera’s mother speculate that her son is late returning because there is “a girl or two for every man”.
6. The opposing narrative uses Jael as an example of what could happen if Israel went to war and lost. Jael was raped by Sisera. N takes metaphorical sexual language and spins it to a literal sense to show that Jael killed Sisera. By having Jael married to a Kenite, who was an ally of Jabin, this would further remove Jael from being used as an Israelite woman who was raped. In the end, she is considered a blessed woman in the N narrative. N is sure to have Sisera flee on foot instead of by chariot, thereby making him too exhausted to have sex and was asleep from weariness when killed by Jael.
Jael’s encounter with Sisera is filled with sexual metaphor. Others have recognized this as well:
Bible scholars feel the sexual heat of Jael's assassination of Sisera but deny the fire. Victor Matthews says these verses are about hospitality, not sex. Mieke Bal says they are about maternity, not sex. Yair Zakovitch says they used to be about sex, but the sex has been censored out. My close reading evidences that the Jael-Sisera episode is indeed about sex—about a woman's sexual dominance over a man.
Pamela Tamarkin Reis (2005) Uncovering Jael and Sisera. A New Reading, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 19:1, 24-47, DOI: 10.1080/09018320510032420
However, it’s not about woman’s sexual dominance, quite the opposite, as the opposing narrative may have had Sisera raping Jael.
Ancient Rabbis have recognized the sexual undertones as well:
Another account, however, has Sisera lying with Jael, which is learnt from Jud. 5:27 (1917 JPS translation): “At her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; at her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk, there he fell down dead.” The words “sunk,” “fell” and “lay” recur a total of seven times in this verse, from which these Rabbis derive that Sisera engaged in intercourse with Jael seven times during their encounter.
Tamar Kadari. Jael Wife of Heber The Kenite: Midrash and Aggadah https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/jael-wife-of-heber-kenite-midrash-and-aggadah
Attempts have been made to show that Jael had sex with Sisera, but the language doesn’t quite fit with that thesis. It makes sense, however, if the opposing narrative was using sexual metaphor to say that Jael had sex with Sisera.
7. Sisera going into Jael’s tent is a euphemism for sex. N responds to this by saying that Jael actually did live in a literal tent. This is achieved by N making Jael a Kenite, who were nomadic and would naturally live in tents. Sisera’s words to Jael, "Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, 'Is anyone here?' say, 'No.'", could be N’s way of saying that Jael did not have sex with Sisera. Additionally, by having Barak also enter her tent, those who said she had sex with Sisera would also have to say she had sex with Barak, thereby forcing them to take it in a literal sense.
8. Jael covering Sisera is also a euphemism for sex. N spins this by saying that she covered with with a rug.
9. Uncovering Jael’s skin of milk is a euphemism for her breast. N responds by saying that she literally poured milk from a skin for Sisera to drink.
10. A tent peg is a euphemism for the male genitalia. You can see the resemblance in the photo below of an ancient Roman tent pegs:
N responds by having Jael taking a literal tent peg and killing Sisera with it.
11. Sisera laying between Jael’s feet is also a sexual euphemism. Not only is he “between her legs” but “feet” was used as euphemism for male, as well as female genitalia. N responds by saying that Sisera lay “still” between her feet and was dead because she killed him. Again, N takes makes it a literal sense.
12. I suspect that “temple” has some kind of sexual connotation as it is used within the Song of Solomon, which has plenty of sexual language. N responds by taking a literal sense of Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera’s temple.
13. Lack of weaponry was a concern for those trying to decide if they should participate in military warfare. N responds by saying that the Israelites achieved victory over Sisera in spite of not having the weapons they needed. The text suggests that Yahweh had made it rain, and that the battlefield had flooded, thus making Sisera’s chariots ineffective. This not only bolster’s Yahweh’s status as a war God but also as a fertility God.
Aspect #4 Opposing Narrative
Aspect #4 N Response With Commentary
1. In the Song of Deborah, N says that the Israelites followed the lead of the tribe of Benjamin into battle.
2. Ephraim would have been the traditional tribe to lead into battle as they were head over Israel (See Elohist - Joseph Cycle), and indeed, they set out from Ephraim, but N is loyal to the Benjaminite kingly line of Jonathan, so he pushes that agenda during Deborah’s song.
The spreadsheet embedded below is a list of verses used to compose the argumentation above. For further information about how these statements were categorized, please visit this post.