Devorah's Battle in Prose and Poetry

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Introduction

The tale of Devorah and Barak's clash with the Canaanite forces bears the distinction of being the only battle in the entire book of Judges described in both prose (Shofetim 4) and poetry (Shofetim 5).  Despite the difference in genre, the two accounts share much in common and clearly tell the same overall story.  In several instances the chapters supplement each other, each providing details lacking in the other.  In other cases, however, the lyrical retelling diverges significantly from the original narrative, even appearing to contradict its version of events.   

Points of Contrast

There are several points of contrast between the stories (these are summarized in the chart below):

Analysis

Several of the differences listed above can be easily explained via the different genre and purpose of the two narratives.  Since Chapter 5 is a song of thanksgiving said after the victory, it is not surprising that it, rather than Chapter 4, contains praise of Hashem.  Similarly, it is fitting that Chapter 4's prosaic mention of facts such as the enemies' confusion or the death of Sisera are replaced in the poem with literary images such as warring stars4 and the mourning mother of Sisera.5  Many of the other differences, however, are more difficult to explain, as they are not merely poetic flourishes but conflicting facts, incongruous with the description of Chapter 4. Attempts to explain these are discussed below:

I. Different Perspectives6   This approach suggests that the war of Devorah and Barak was much broader than originally assumed and included both a main battle against Sisera, and a series of smaller battles against other Canaanite pockets that were left in the land from the time of the Conquest.7 The discrepancies between the two accounts can be explained in light of this double war.  While Chapter 4 looks at the battle through a zoom lens, focusing on only the central battle of Barak in Kishon, Chapter 5, in contrast, looks through a wide angle lens, taking in the scope of the entire war:8

In summary, only through both the narrow and broad scope view provided by the two chapters can a reader really understand the import of Devorah's battle.  This was not just a clash against a subjugating power, but the culmination of the Wars of Conquest begun by Yehoshua. 

II. Local Harmonization – In contrast to the above, many exegetes resolve each individual discrepancy through local explanations:

Summary Chart of Differences

Chapter 4 Chapter 5
Praise to Hashem Absent Present
Israelite leadership Barak's role in the battle is highlighted Devorah is emphasized more than Barak
Participating tribes Zevulun and Naphtali Also Ephraim, Binyamin, Menashe, and Yissakhar,
Rebuke at Non-participants Absent Present
Number of soldiers 10,000 40,000
Enemy forces Yavin and Sisera The "kings of Canaan"
Location Mt. Tabor and Kishon River Also Ta'anakh and Megiddo
Hashem's role Wreaks havoc The stars fight from the heavens
Sisera's mother Absent Present
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