Poetics in Judges 4: Deborah and Barak

By Daniel L. Sonnenberg 

Through the use of structural elements and poetic techniques in the narrative of Deborah, the writer of Judges demonstrates that God is at work in the world to accomplish his covenant purpose and is pleased to use what we might consider the weak things of this world to confound the strong that all may know he is the LORD.


In the story of Deborah and Barak we find a seven part chiastic structure like that of the previous narrative of Ehud in Judges 3 and like that of the following narrative of Gideon in Judges 6-8. Framing the Deborah narrative (A and A’ below) is an inclusio in which the narrator tells us explicitly that the LORD is at work from beginning to end. In verses 1-3 (A) we are told that the LORD responded to the sin of Israel by raising up Jabin, King of Canaan, to oppress Israel so that they might once again cry out to the LORD for deliverance. In the final frame, verses 23-24 (A’), we learn that God delivered Israel from oppression by fully subduing Jabin. Not only that, we find that in contrast to Jabin’s oppressing Israel at first, at the conclusion of the narrative Israel “grew stronger and stronger” oppressing Jabin “until they destroyed him.” Moreover, here we find a summarization, a synopsis of what has been treated more fully earlier,  “On that day, God subdued Jabin…before the Israelites.” Verse one serves also as a janus, looking back to the previous story of Ehud and ahead to the story of Deborah, “After Ehud died, the Israelites did evil in the sight of the LORD.” We also find the typical formula for opening a new section of narrative in Judges: Israel again does evil in the eyes of the LORD, he gives them into the hands of an oppressor, and Israel cries out to the LORD for help. The point of the inclusio is that the LORD both initiates the work and terminates the work in order to bring his covenant people back to him.

The center of the chiasm forms the turning point of the story (X below) further highlighting the point that God’s hand is at work here. In verses 14-15a the LORD, through Deborah, promises to give Sisera into Barak’s hands, promises to go ahead of him into the battle and then does in fact rout Sisera and all his armies: “…the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword…” The narrator once again tells the reader explicitly that the LORD is at work throughout this entire story. The structure of the entire narrative can be outlined as follows adapted from Dorsey (1999):

Structural Outline: Judges 4 – Deborah

A   Oppression begins (1-3)

-Israel sins and is oppressed by King Jabin of Canaan

B   Deborah predicts that a woman will kill Sisera (4-9a)

-Strong woman (Deborah) interacts with weak military man (Barak)

C   Gathering of troops (9b-13)

-Sisera gathers his troops for battle

-Barak goes up to Mount Tabor

X   Turning point: The LORD brings victory (14-15a)

C’  Scattering of troops (15b-16)

-Sisera’s troops are scattered

-Sisera goes down out of his chariot

B’  Deborah’s prediction comes to pass: Jael kills Sisera (17-22)

-Strong woman (Jael) interacts with weak military man (Sisera)

A’  Oppression ends (23-24)

-God ends oppression of King Jabin, Israel oppresses Jabin, destroys  him

Sections B and B’ form the second pair of the chiasm. In B, verses 4-9a portray Deborah’s prediction that a woman will kill Sisera. In B’, verses 17-22, Deborah’s prophecy comes true when Jael (a woman) kills Sisera. Jael’s treacherous killing of Sisera is the climax of the story from a dramatic standpoint. After this, the report that Israel eventually destroyed Jabin serves simply as a denouement. In this pair, Deborah, in response to Barak’s weak faith, tells him that he will not receive the glory when Sisera is killed. Instead, a woman, typically a symbol of weakness, will accomplish the task. The reader is not sure of the identity of this woman until later in the story when Jael drives a tent peg through Sisera’s skull to kill him. This pair brings out a comparison and a contrast. The similarity consists of the two strong women, Deborah and Jael, interacting with two weak military men, Barak and Sisera respectively. Deborah calls Barak, Israel’s military leader to go to war with the Canaanite armies. However, he is reluctant. We are told earlier that his opponent, Sisera, has nine hundred iron chariots, likely to make us aware of the source of Barak’s fear. Only after Deborah agrees to accompany him and reassures him that God is with him does he go. She offers him protection in war. Similarly, Jael calls to Sisera. However, in contrast, she offers protection from war in her home. He is in a weakened state because he no longer rides his iron chariot or commands his army. She reassures him of protection just as Deborah had reassured Barak. Deborah leads Barak to victory. In contrast, Jael leads Sisera to defeat by killing him while he sleeps.

The symbolism of these four characters’ occupations brings out an even more striking contrast. Both the women are normally occupied in making peace while the men are occupied as warriors. Deborah is a true judge of Israel who settles disputes thus making peace. Jael is a home maker who provides sustenance and warmth thus bringing peace to her household. In contrast, the men are Generals of their respective nations accustomed to making war. However, in this instance God turns the tables. The women are masters in war through the LORD, while the men are weak willed in the case of Barak and weakened by defeat in the case of Sisera. However, we see yet another contrast between the men. The faithful, albeit reluctant man (Barak) is granted grace at the hand of the first woman and thus the LORD, while the evil oppressive man (Sisera) is granted no mercy at the hand of the second woman and again thus by the LORD. Here we also see the symbolism of the women. Traditionally, women are symbols of weakness and defenselessness. In this case, empowered as they were by the LORD they are nothing of the sort. Deborah commands armies and they go to war. Jael murders an oppressive Canaanite General in his sleep with cunning and seemingly no fear. These women put the men to shame while they glorify God who uses the weak things of this world to confound the strong and thus to show that he is the LORD.

Sections C and C’ form a third pairing in the chiasm in which first Sisera’s troops are gathered for war against Barak (9b-13) and second at Barak’s advance Sisera’s troops are routed by the LORD and scattered (15b-16). The gathering and scattering of Sisera’s army is paired for contrast. Gathered into one place, at first he appears invincible with his nine hundred iron chariots. However, in the face of Barak’s army led by the LORD, he is put to flight along with his army. He is personally forced to abandon his chariot and strike out on foot. His chariot, a symbol of strength comes to naught before the strength of the LORD. However, we might have anticipated the outcome which likely was foreshadowed when the LORD gathered Barak’s army up on Mount Tabor and Sisera’s army below at the Kishon River. The relative heights of the mountain and the river valley would seem to indicate the advantage of those on the mountain. In this way it should not be surprising when Barak comes out victorious over Sisera. Another writer has suggested another contrast: that of Barak going up to the mountain and Sisera later going down out of his chariot. This seems similar to the previously mentioned contrast. Symbolically, Barak is arising and Sisera is going down. In the three-story universe of the ancient near eastern world, these two symbolize going up toward heaven, the dwelling of God and place of life and light and going down toward Gehenna and the place of darkness and death. It might be added that later Sisera went down further when he lay in the tent of Jael which brought about his death. Sisera  thus descended stepwise from his position of strength in the chariot to a weakened position on foot to a weaker position lying down asleep to a position of ultimate weakness in death.

As we can see, the structural elements, implicitly and explicitly tell us that the LORD is at the beginning, at the turning point and at the conclusion of such battles, and further that he is wont to use the weak things of the world to confound the strong in order to glorify himself and prove that he is the LORD.


This leads to a discussion of other poetic features in the text at hand. As has already been pointed out, the structure shows us that the LORD is at the heart of everything that happens in the narrative. This is borne out as well by the repetition of references to “God” and “the LORD” as a keyword. The name LORD (hwhy Yhvh) appears a total of eight times in seven verses. The name God (~yhil{a/ elohim) appears one time in the penultimate verse of the pericope, netting a total of nine references to the Deity in twenty four verses. In nearly every case the LORD is the subject of the sentence. He is carrying the action of the narrative: “The LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin;” “The LORD…commands you…Go…;” “…the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman;” “Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?;” “…the LORD routed Sisera…;” and “God subdued Jabin…” In one instance the LORD is the object of the sentence, “…the Israelites…cried to the LORD for help…” This also indicates his activity of convincing the Israelites after twenty years of oppression under Jabin and Sisera. They concluded that only the LORD could help them so they cried to out for his help. He is also cast in the first verse as the evaluator of the actions of Israel as the object of a preposition when we are told that “the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD.” Some have suggested that the unique use of God in the penultimate verse refers to his role as creator in this summarizing phrase. He is both the covenant LORD of Israel and the creator God of the universe. Thus the LORD evaluates the situation with Israel, he causes them to cry out to him by raising up Jabin, then he delivers them from Jabin so that they might know that he is the LORD and God.

Another keyword seems to be “go.” This word appears ten times in five verses between verse six and fourteen in the exchanges between Deborah and Barak. When Deborah calls him, Barak appears to be afraid when he tells Deborah that he will go only if she goes with him. After she agrees and they go up to Mount Tabor together to face Sisera’s army, Deborah once more repeats her command to “go.” However, he still does not move until she assures him that the LORD has gone ahead of him. The point seems to be that we must go in response to God’s command in faith that he will go before us. Here we find a bit of irony as well. Because of Barak’s reluctance to go, Deborah tells him that he will not receive the glory in this campaign. Instead, a woman will receive the glory.

A third keyword or phrase is “iron chariots” of Sisera. These chariots, referred to quantitatively as nine hundred in verses 3 and 13 seem to be a symbol of human strength possessed by Sisera’s army. By contrast, the three references to chariots in verses 15-16 show them fleeing before the army of Barak. Not only that, Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot. Reference to the next chapter in the Song of Deborah tells us that the chariots are being swept away in the Kishon River, possibly in a flash flood no doubt brought on by the LORD. The LORD’s command in verse 7 tells Barak that God will lure Sisera to the Kishon River where he will be given into the hand of Barak. Ironically, the chariots, the vehicle of Sisera’s strength, his symbol of power, is powerless when confronted by the power of the LORD. Iron chariots are nothing compared to God’s strength and resources. One cannot help but recall how during the Exodus the chariots of Pharoah suffered a similar fate while in pursuit of Israel through the Red Sea. God’s strength has prevailed over human strength once again.

Scenic depiction ties the two women of the story together. Deborah was said to hold court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel. Jael is said to reside by the great tree in Zaanannim. These references to trees may symbolize oases (whether metaphorically or not) of refuge and refreshment. Deborah, as a true judge, normally settled disputes and thereby dispensed peace. Ironically, to Sisera, Deborah does not dispense peace, but war. Likewise, Jael’s home is normally a place of hospitality and refreshment. Equally ironic, for Sisera it is a place of death.

The introduction of Heber the Kenite in verse 11 comes at a surprising place in the story serving a foreshadowing and dramatic function. We learn only later in verse 18 of  Jael as she comes out to meet Sisera in his distress and even later in verse 21 that she is Heber’s wife. The first report of Heber, however, appears in the middle of the section describing the gathering of the troops. It comes just after the report of the gathering of Barak’s troops and just before the report of the gathering of Sisera’s troops. This position does not readily indicate which side Heber might be on even if the reader were aware that his clan might play a role in the war. It does, however, serve a more dramatic function to introduce a mysterious character here than to give this background information later in the story when it is drawing to a climax. That is not the time for background information. By the conclusion of the narrative the reader understands that Heber’s clan does play a role on the side of the army of the LORD. His wife Jael strikes the final blow against sleeping Sisera.

Another example of foreshadowing occurs in relation to Jael in verse 19. Sisera asks her for water, but instead she gives him goat milk. This is a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Some writers refer to the “strongly soporific effect” (Burney in Boling, 96) of such a tonic. The readers of that day might suspect what was going to happen, though the modern reader may not. In any case, the fulfillment of the foreshadowing comes in verse 21 with Sisera in a deep sleep as a result of drinking the goat milk, Jael drives a peg through his head to kill him.


By his use of various structural and poetic techniques, the writer of the Deborah narrative not only tells us the history of Israel during this period of Judges, but also evaluates the situation theologically. He not only tells us selectively what happened but he also relates the meaning of what happened. Through this story, the reader understands that the covenant LORD is jealous for the affection and obedience of his chosen people. As a jealous God he actively pursues Israel and will go to great lengths to bring them back to himself. Moreover, he is pleased to use weaker vessels to do so in order to confound the strong of this world and so that all will know that he is both LORD and God.

Works Cited

Dorsey, David A. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis – Malachi. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

Boling, Robert G. The Anchor Bible: Judges. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975.

Categories: Papers

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