The Blog of Jack Holloway

Monday, January 31, 2011

Poem Analysis: "The Song of Deborah"

Disclaimer: I will most likely add to this as time goes by

"The Song of Deborah" (the last 8 verses) - Judges 5:24-31

Most blessed of women be Jael,
wife of Heber the Kenite,
above women in tents be she blessed.

The middle line, “wife of Heber the Kenite” is important because it shows us that Jael is not an Israelite. The Kenites were, “loosely allied to Israel and friendly to Sisera’s king.” (Carvalho, "Encountering Ancient Voices")

Water he asked, milk she gave,
in a princely bowl she brought him curds.

Here, Jael is nurturing this man, taking on the role of a mother. Instead of the water he asked for, she brings him milk. Even today, curds are very luxurious.
She brings him curds in a very nice, expensive bowl.
The Kenites were tent dwellers, they would not own many “princely” bowls. It would be equivalent to bringing out really nice china for a guest. However, there was no real reason for Jael to provide this man with such luxury. We find out in a couple verses that he was a general, but not a general for the Kenites. The general would have expected nothing more than “a horse and a little water, but he gets a bed and something of substance.” (Carvalho)
At that time, it would have been inappropriate for a woman alone in a tent to invite a man in with her. “In fact, “opening your tent” for a man was a euphemism for sexual contact.” (Carvalho)
In the narrative of this story in Judges chapter 4, it says that Jael covered him and gave him a bed. Covering him in bed was “another euphemism for sexual contact.” (Carvalho)
So, here, Jael is not only taking on a motherly role nurturing the general and providing him with the luxury a mother would provide her tired soldier, but she is also seducing him.

Her hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workman's hammer.

She hammered Sisera, cracked his head,
smashed and pierced his temple.

This is quite a drastic turn of events. One minute, Jael is nurturing and even seducing the general, and now she is killing him.
The narrative shows us that there was a time lapse, however long it was, between the second and third verse. It also tells us that he was asleep, therefore in a still enough position to be killed the way he was.
We find out here that this general is Sisera. We learned earlier that the Kenites are friendly to Sisera’s king, so why would Jael feel the need to kill him? That question will be answered later.
The imagery in verse 5 is powerful. The writer uses intensification to impact the reader and stress what is going on; hammered—cracked—smashed and pierced.

Between her legs he kneeled, fell, lay,
between her legs he kneeled and fell
where he kneeled, he fell, destroyed.

This verse compliments the imagery in the verse before it.
It makes me think of David slaying Goliath. He strung Goliath with a stone from his sling. Goliath then fell to the ground and David came and chopped off his head with Goliath’s own sword. There David stood above him and he had been defeated, destroyed.
As David severed Goliath’s head with his own sword, Jael killed a working man with a workman’s hammer. Jael defeated Sisera with a severe blow to his skull and then she stood over him as David stood over the defeated Goliath.
What really brings the Goliath image together is the word ‘destroyed.’ Jael destroyed Sisera as David destroyed Goliath to save the Israelites. They were both heroes.

There is irony here; Jael was seducing this man before and, when she kills him, he falls between her legs.

The Hebrew writing here is very strong with the repetition. It’s quite obvious and almost funny to read but it gives the event a cinematic effect, almost like slow motion.

Through the window she looked and whined,
Sisera's mother, through the lattice.

"Why is his chariot so long in coming,
why so late the clatter of his cars?"

The wisest of her ladies answer,
and she, too, replies on her own:

"Will they not find and divide the spoil?
A womb or two for every man?

Spoil of dyed stuff for Sisera,
spoil of embroidered dyed stuff,
embroidered dyed pairs for each neck as spoil?"

This is a very cinematic poem altogether. I can see three scenes in my head that cut out suddenly and throw the reader into the middle of the next scene.
Scene one: Jael is providing care for Sisera
Scene two: Jael kills Sisera
Scene three: Sisera’s mother is scene looking through the window in anticipation of her son’s return
At the height of the emotion in each scene, the writer quickly takes us to a different time (and in scene three's case, a different place). It's brilliant.
(Side note: notice how each scene begins with a triadic verse)

Each scene provides the reader with the correct emotion pertaining to the scene. In the first scene, one can really tell that Jael is nurturing a man (the writer even strengthens this feeling by not even introducing that the man is Sisera, the general)
In the second scene, the man is introduced and when Jael kills him, one can be truly impacted by the murder through the poem’s imagery.
At the height of the intensity of Jael’s murder, the writer immediately jumps to Sisera’s mother.
In this scene, one can again feel the emotion. One can feel the mother’s anticipation of her son’s return. She waits anxiously as she stares out the window.
Then, we get an idea of why Jael killed Sisera in the first place; the spoil.
For Sisera, dividing the spoil meant “a womb or two for every man.” Sisera and his army oppressed the Kenites and pillaged their livelihood by taking their goods (spoil of dyed stuff, etc.) and their women. The Kenites needed freedom from the oppression Sisera’s king put upon them. Thus, Jael was a hero. Truly she should be "most blessed" as the first verse says.
The sick thing is that the mother’s anticipation is really due to her excitement of what she is to receive from the spoil; spoil of dyed stuff—spoil of embroidered dyed stuff—embroidered dyed pairs for each neck as spoil (obvious intensification here).

I love how every scene leaves the reader with a question.
The first leaves the reader wondering who the man is and why she is nurturing him.
The second leaves the reader shocked and wondering why Jael killed Sisera, a general in which her society was friendly to.
The third leaves the reader wondering what happens next, almost asking “that’s it?”

And then the poem comes to its conclusion;

Thus perish all Your enemies, O Lord!
Be His friends like the sun rising in might.

I see "Thus perish all Your enemies, O Lord!" stating “justice was served” and then is followed by a cautionary statement.
The cautionary statement carries a double meaning; one that says “because God will perish all His enemies and grant justice to His people, you do not want to be on His bad side,” and another that says that His friends can find hope in Him and will be victorious.

1 comment:

  1. I have thought about this poem ever since I read it. Your analysis was amazing. I love how you point out how each different stanza, each line initiates a new feeling in the readers. I just can't help but ponder what Deborah felt. It was written so we would only see God's glory, His plan, and His mighty power. It had to have been a struggle for her though. What if she had begun to feel for this man while caring for him? Did she feel overwhelming false guilt after hammering a stake through his skull? Did her body tremor as his head sickeningly cracked? Did she weep when his head fell between her legs? Was she brave through it all? She obviously came out in God's hands as she started. Your analysis made me want to meet her. :)