Notes on Judges 5:6-11
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Judges 5:6, KJV: In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through byways.
Starting with this verse, notice the pattern of Deborah’s words. She gives a pair of phrases followed by a second pair of phrases. Here, in this verse, she repeats the time factor (in the days of . . .) with a reality factor (. . . the highways were unoccupied . . .). It is not certain if there was a rhyme or play on words in the original language. Compare the poetry here with that of the Psalms and the Proverbs.
Shamgar was a judge in southern Israel, apparently, because he fought against the Philistines. His lone recorded deed was killing 600 Philistines using only an ox goad (Judges 3:31)! Deborah may have known about this, as she had been living in central Israel between Ramah and Bethel in Ephraim (Judges 4:5). Barak might have learned of this when he came in response to Deborah’s message (Judges 4:6).
Deborah also mentions Jael in her song. These two ladies may have met in person, if Deborah was still accompanying Barak in this campaign; otherwise, Barak may have told Deborah about what Jael had done to Sisera.
The language of this verse seems to imply nobody was using the highways and travelers walked through the byways. This may indicate that not only was God not protecting Israel, allowing them to be oppressed in many ways, but also that bandits and robbers were in the land. Later, the men of Shechem robbed travelers during the days of Abimelech, son of Gideon (Judges 9:25).
This problem was still real in the days of Jesus—He made mention of thieves in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Paul spoke of his problems by being “in perils of robbers (2 Cor. 11:26)”.
7 (The inhabitants of) the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.
It is not certain what Deborah meant by stating the “inhabitants of the villages ceased”. One thought is that because Israel had been under oppression, the population had fled to larger settlements for protection. With chariots of iron available at any time, Sisera’s army could and perhaps did engage in what is now called psychological warfare, sending in chariots to literally make a statement. This apparently kept happening until Deborah began to judge Israel.
8 They chose new gods; then (was) war in the gates: was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?
This is a chilling verse, stating that the Israelites apparently chose new “gods”—meaning, most likely, they had forsaken the God of Israel and accepted either the gods of Jabin and Sisera or some of the nations
She also spoke of what may be the shortage of weapons: “was there a shield or spear . . . ?” Later, the Philistines made it very difficult for Israel to even sharpen a tool, let alone have weapons (1 Sam 13:19-22). Perhaps the Canaanites kept the Israelites basically unarmed during this period? The text does not mention any of the weapons used by the Israelites in the battle in the last chapter.9 My heart (is) toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the LORD.
Deborah expresses gratitude for the “governors” of Israel (however defined: were they tribal leaders or some other level of supervision?) and how they “offered themselves willingly among the people.”10 Speak, ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, and walk by the way.
Apparently the donkey (suitable synonym per https://www.dictionary.com/browse/donkey?s=t ) was the animal of choice for travel. Balaam was famous for the trip he took riding his donkey (Numbers 22) and the Shunammite woman rode a donkey when she was trying to find Elisha the prophet (2 Kings 4:24-28). A white animal like this seems to have been rare, valuable, or both. This is the only mention of these animals in the whole Bible.
Horses were seldom mentioned except in the context of war: Exodus 15 has three verses mentioning horses, used by Egypt to pursue the Hebrews; later, Israel and Judah seemed to use horses in battle as well (1 Kings 10:26, 22:35; 2 Kings 9:28; 2 Chron. 35:24, e.g.).
Deborah had judged Israel when she lived in Ephraim’s territory but there is no mention she rode an animal when she traveled north to assist Barak (chapter 4). It is not clear what she means by those who ride on white donkeys, sit in judgment, and walk by the way.11 (They that are delivered) from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, (even) the righteous acts (toward the inhabitants) of his villages in Israel: then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates.
This may refer to the wells or other places, perhaps near streams, where people could draw water. Archers could certainly cause grief by shooting arrows at unsuspecting people from a good distance away. Deborah mentions that those who were delivered from the archers, and their noises, will speak of the deeds which the LORD had done.
It is not certain what Deborah meant by the people going down to the gates. One thought is that, in her song, she had mentioned that people had left the villages but now they could go back through the gates of the cities.
Scripture quotations from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)