How Old Is the Song of Deborah? by Serge Frolov

The Hebrew Bible credits Deborah not only with starting an uprising that freed Israel from oppression but also with composing and performing a song that celebrates the victory. Many scholars claim that this song, found in chapter 5 of the book of Judges, is one of the oldest existing biblical texts. They often date it to the 11th or even 12th century B.C.E., hundreds of years earlier than the rest of the book of Judges. But is there any evidence that Deborah’s song is really that old?

One possible window on the text’s date is its language. Take a quick look at the U.S. Declaration of Independence or Constitution, and you will see how different American English was just two centuries ago. Deborah’s Hebrew is also different from much of the rest of the Hebrew Bible: for example, she uses the Hebrew prefix she- instead of asher for “that” or “which,” and romah rather than kidon for “spear.” But if we map the distribution of these rare terms, she- will mostly show up in Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs and romah in Chronicles and Nehemiah. All these books were definitely written after the Babylonian exile, at least five hundred years after the song’s supposed date.          

Another clue is what the text says, intentionally or unintentionally, about the author’s world. The U.S. Constitution was clearly written for a country that practiced slavery. Deborah’s song just as clearly has a monarchic political state in mind. It addresses “kings” and “potentates”; describes those who answered her battle cry as “princes,” “holders of the marshal’s staff,” and “lawgivers”; and portrays Sisera’s mother as a royal figure, complete with “princesses” waiting on her. Archaeology tells us that ancient Israel first became a monarchy in the 10th or perhaps even the ninth century B.C.E. Before that, its population simply had no concept of such aristocratic titles as “prince” for Israelites.

The views that the text expresses are also telling. Importantly, Deborah’s song agrees on several major issues not only with the rest of Judges but also with the Former Prophets (the books of Joshua through Kings) as a whole. For example, Deborah blames the people’s difficult condition on their decision to “choose new gods” and proclaims that they will be able to defeat a much stronger oppressor if they bless the deity and acknowledge its righteous deeds. This idea is central in Joshua-Kings and especially in Judges, where Israel repeatedly finds itself oppressed due to idolatry and liberated when it repents and abandons foreign worship. The song also shares the cautiously positive attitude toward kingship of Joshua-Kings in general and Judges in particular. By stressing the reluctance of some tribes to join the liberation struggle, it helps to convince the reader that Israel badly needed a central monarchic government and in that way to prepare for the rise of kingship in Samuel.

In sum, while some scholars think Deborah's song was written quite early, there are many arguments in favor of dating it to the same time as the rest of the Former Prophets, probably around the time of the Babylonian exile

Serge Frolov, "How Old Is the Song of Deborah?", n.p. [cited 28 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/how-old-is-the-song-of-deborah

Contributors

Serge Frolov

Serge Frolov
Associate Professor, Southern Methodist University

Serge Frolov is associate professor of religious studies and Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at Dedman College, Southern Methodist University. He is the author of The Turn of the Cycle: 1 Samuel 1-8 in Synchronic and Diachronic Perspectives (de Gruyter, 2004) and Judges (Eerdmans, 2013) and of more than 200 articles. He is editor of the journal Hebrew Studies.

Judges 5, a poetic account parallel to Judges 4 and attributed to the prophetess and judge Deborah.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

A document written during the American Revolutionary War that stated and justified America's political independence from Great Britain.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which form the first half of the Prophets, the second of three sections of the Hebrew Bible.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

The foundational document of the United States, which outlines the structure and powers of the government as well as the rights of US citizens.

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