Notes on Judges 5:12-23

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Judges 5:12, KJV: Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.


Note the different actions in this verse: Deborah uttered a song; Barak, son of Abinoam, led the army of Israel against Sisera’s forces. This verse may imply that Sisera had taken some Israelites captive but the text does not confirm this.

13 Then he made him that remaineth have dominion over the nobles among the people: the LORD made me have dominion over the mighty.

It is not certain what Deborah means in this verse. One thought is that this is a Messianic prophecy, when a “greater than Barak”, so to speak, will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords!

14 Out of Ephraim (was there) a root of them against Amalek; after thee, Benjamin, among thy people; out of Machir came down governors, and out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer.

The first part of this verse may speak of the battle against Amalek in Exodus 17, where Joshua—of the tribe of Ephraim—led Israelite forces against Amalek.

She next mentions Benjamin but in no detail. She may be referring to the deliverance of Israel when Ehud, a left-handed Benjamite, killed Eglon, king of Moab and then led men from Benjamin and Ephraim to a military victory (Judges 3:12-30). Even though this event had happened nearly 100 years before, the memory was apparently still fresh in Deborah’s mind.

Machir was the son of Manasseh and grandson of Joseph. He settled in Gilead, the east side of the Jordan River (Deut. 3:15, Joshua 13:31, e.g.). Again it is not certain what Deborah meant by “governors” because no one from Manasseh had ever judged Israel by this time, according to the text,

She finishes this verse by mentioning those “out of Zebulun” that handled the writer’s pen. Again it is not certain what she means by this. It is true, however, that Zebulun provided some of the soldiers, along with Naphtali, to fight against Sisera’s forces.

15 And the princes of Issachar (were) with Deborah; even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley. For the divisions of Reuben (there were) great thoughts of heart.

This is another difficult verse: the text has no mention of Issachar’s involvement at all in the battle. Barak was indeed “sent” into the valley, at Deborah’s urging or, perhaps, command (see 4:14).

It is also uncertain why Reuben is mentioned in this verse and the next. They lived across the Jordan along with the tribe of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 32:1-5, 33). Logistically it would have been difficult to march to the closest river crossing and then march further to Kedesh-Naphtali, the scene of the battle. Ironically, the ancestors of these tribes had promised to support the other tribes in the conquest of Canaan some years or decades before, so the reluctance to help at this time is puzzling.

Does Deborah mean by “great thoughts of heart” that there were thoughts of assistance as well as non-involvement among the Reubenites?

16 Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben (there were) great searchings of heart.

She may still be talking about the Reubenites. Is she giving them a reproof or rebuke for, perhaps, thinking more about their livestock than their brothers under Canaanite domination?

17 Gilead abode beyond Jordan: and why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the sea

shore, and abode in his breaches.

Dan was originally given their inheritance on the Mediterranean coast, near Joppa, but later some if not all of them moved to the farthest north of Israel (Joshua 19:40-48, also Judges 18 for a more detailed story of the tribe’s migration). If the tribe of Dan was still living in the original, seaside, territory they would certainly have had the opportunity to develop a knowledge of ships and shipping. There is no record of this in the text and it seems that maritime trade didn’t receive much emphasis until the days of Solomon (1 Kings 9:26—but this fleet was built and apparently docked at Eziongeber) and later. Jehoshaphat tried to build a fleet but they were “broken” at Eziongeber, 1 Kings 22:48.

One irony is that the prophet Jonah came down from Gath-Hepher to Joppa, leaving the northern kingdom for the southern in order to run away from the Lord (compare 2 Kings 14:25 with Jonah 1:3)!

18 Zebulun and Naphtali (were) a people (that) jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.

These were the two tribes who provided the 10,000 soldiers for the battle. “Jeoparded their lives” is an apt phrase: the enemy had chariots of iron and any number of foot soldiers (infantry); the Israelites had few weapons, apparently, but they used what they had and won the battle with God’s help!

19 The kings came (and) fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; they took no gain of money.

It is uncertain who Deborah describes here. The text does not mention any other kings coming to Israel’s aid in the battle. Mount Tabor is indeed close to Megiddo.

20 They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera. 21 The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.

Here Deborah describes God’s involvement in the battle. From this description, it seems there was a sudden rainstorm, perhaps resulting in a flash flood. Regardless, chariots and horses would have a very difficult time trying to fight in, let alone cross over, fast moving waters. When they abandoned the chariots, they became relatively easy targets for the Israelites. Details are found in Judges chapter 4.

22 Then were the horsehoofs broken by the means of the pransings, the pransings of their mighty ones.

Deborah again may be using poetic language to describe some of the battle. One idea is that the horses literally broke their hooves by running or galloping over rough ground. Another idea is that the horses were perhaps terrified of the flash flood (verses 20-21) and lost their footing by trying to get away from the rising waters. The exact meaning may never be known.

23 Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the LORD, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty.

This is a recorded curse as quoted by the angel of the LORD, not by Deborah, Barak, or any other person. Meroz is most likely a place somewhere in the region, otherwise they would not have been cursed for not supporting the army of Israel.
Note that the angel of the LORD did not appear, according to the text, but gave a message to Deborah to be included as part of her song.

Scripture quotations from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV

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