Devorah's Battle in Prose and Poetry
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 general 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):
- Praise of Hashem – Devorah's song opens with praise to Hashem and a description of the revelation at Sinai, all of which is lacking from the original account of the battle in Chapter 4.
- Israelite leadership – While Chapter 4 emphasizes the military leadership of Barak,1 leaving Devorah to fade into the background,2 Chapter 5 features Devorah much more prominently.3
- Participating tribes – In the prose account, only the tribes of Zevulun and Naphtali are mentioned as participating in the battle (4:10). The poetic account, in contrast, speaks also of Ephraim, Binyamin, Menashe, and Yissakhar (5:14-18).
- Reproach of non participants – Only in Chapter 5 is rebuke expressed at those tribes which did not participate in the war.
- Number of soldiers – According to Chapter 4, Barak's army consisted of 10,000 soldiers (4:6,10,14), yet Chapter 5 speaks of 40,000 men (5:8).
- Enemy forces – The only enemies mentioned in the prose version are Yavin, the king of Canaan, and Sisera, his general (4:2-3, 23-24). The song, however, includes also the "kings of Canaan" (5:19).
- Location of the battle – Chapter 4 sets Mt. Tavor and the Kishon River as the sites of the battle (4:13), while Chapter 5 mentions Ta'anakh and Megiddo as well (5:19,21).
- Hashem's role – While the prose account has Hashem causing pandemonium in Sisera's camp ("וַיָּהׇם י"י אֶת סִיסְרָא"), the poem speaks of the stars fighting and the Kishon River sweeping away the enemy (5:20-21).
- Sisera's mother – Devorah's song ends with an image of Sisera's mother worrying about her son's delay home. No equivalent is found in Chapter 4.
Several of the differences listed above can be easily explained in light of 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 near Kishon, Chapter 5, in contrast, looks through a wide angle lens, taking in the scope of the entire war:8
- Enemy forces – According to this theory, Yavin, the "King of Canaan" ruled over not just one city-state, but rather commanded an entire confederacy of Canaanite armies.9 His general, Sisera, led the forces in the main battle, as described in Chapter 4, while the Canaanite kings participated in the rest of the fronts, as depicted in the broader poetic account of Chapter 5.
- Israelite Leadership – Barak knew that his local army was not strong enough to face an entire confederation of Canaanite kings, so he asked Devorah to help him form a counter-coalition.10 While Barak, from the oppressed tribe of Naphtali, led the battle against Sisera in his own territory,11 Devorah, from Ephraim,12 garnered support from the other central tribes to fight the rest of the Canaanites in their home-regions.13 Chapter 4, which focuses on the main battle, naturally highlights Barak's role, while Chapter 5 which looks at the whole war, alternates between mention of the two leaders.
- Participating tribes – Chapter 4 mentions only the tribes of Naphtali and Zevulun since it depicts only the Battle of Kishon in the North which was fought by these subjugated tribes exclusively. Chapter 5, instead, praises also those tribes who participated in the battles with Devorah in the heartland of the country.
- Reproach of non-participants – Only Chapter 5 chastises the non-participating tribes, since it was specifically in the larger battle which attempted to rid the country of any remaining Canaanites, that the entire nation was expected to join. These campaigns were, in effect, intended to complete the Conquest begun by Yehoshua
- Number of soldiers – Though there were only 10,000 soldiers in Barak's army,14 Devorah praises all the soldiers in the entire coalition, which numbered 40,000.
- Location of the battle – It is natural that only Kishon, the site of the main battle, is mentioned in the narrow scoped prose account, while Ta'anakh and Megiddo, the sites of the other skirmishes,15 are mentioned in the more sweeping poetic account.
In summary, only through a combination of both the narrow and broad scope views provided by these 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 initiated by Yehoshua.
II. Local Harmonization – In contrast to the above approach, many exegetes resolve each individual discrepancy through local explanations:
- Number of soldiers – Targum Yonatan and Rashi16 claim that the 40,000 soldiers mentioned in Chapter 5 refers to the number of enemy soldiers.17
- Enemy forces – Radak identifies the "kings of Canaan" with Sisera and his men, but does not explain why they are called "kings". Ralbag, instead, posits that several other kings of Canaanite origin joined Sisera, hoping to recapture Ta'anakh and Megiddo for themselves.
- Location of the battle – According to Radak, though the battle actually took place in Kishon, Chapter 5 emphasizes how the enemy forces were so huge that they stretched from Ta'anakh to Megiddo.
- Participating tribes – Chapter 4 mentions just the tribes of Zevulun and Naphtali since they formed the bulk of the army. Devorah, though, speaks of everyone who participated.
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 of Non-participants||Absent||Present|
|Number of soldiers||10,000||40,000|
|Enemy forces||Yavin and Sisera||The "kings of Canaan"|
|Battle location||Mt. Tabor and Kishon River||Also Ta'anakh and Megiddo|
|Hashem's role||Wreaks havoc||The stars fight from the heavens|