Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be-Shalah 5768/ January 19, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



“I, Deborah” – Two Remarks on the Haftarah of Be-Shalah


Professor Moshe Zipor, Emeritus


Department of Bible



1.  Archaic (outdated) words

In her song, Deborah describes the sorry state of security and the depressed atmosphere “in the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Yael”:  the roads were empty, no one daring to travel; people withdrew into their towns, behind fortifications, and for fear of enemies there remained no unwalled cities.   Such were the conditions, she sang, “Till I arose [shakamti], I, Deborah, till I arose, a mother in Israel!” (Judges 5:7).

On this, Rav Judah cited Rav (Pesahim 66b):

A haughty person … if he is a prophet, he loses his power of prophecy. We learn this from Deborah; as it is written, “Deliverance ceased, ceased in Israel” (Rashi’s comment: this was her haughtiness, putting down her predecessors and glorifying herself), and subsequently we find, “Awake, awake, O Deborah!  Awake, awake, strike up the chant!” ([Judges 5:12] on which Rashi comments:   “[she had to be awakened] for she had become silent; her power of prophecy had left her”).

However, “I, Deborah” can be interpreted differently.   In the haftarah of Parashat Va-Yera it is written, “At this season next year, you [spelled a-t-y, read in the margin as at] will be embracing a son” (II Kings 4:16). Further on, in verse 23, we have “Why are you going [pointed in the margin: at holekhet, but consonantally written as aty hlkhty, which can be mis-read as halakhti, “I went] to him today.”

One should not necessarily think that the grammatical form that is given in the margins as the way the word should be read (kri or kre) is necessarily the correct one and that the spelling in the text (called the ketiv) is a corruption, for this verb form with final yod for the second-person singular feminine appears elsewhere, as in Jeremiah 3:4:   “Just now you called [written qrty, which can be vocalized as qarati, a first-person form that makes no sense in context] to Me, ‘Father’” and a marginal remark gives the proper reading as qarat (= you called).  Likewise, in Jeremiah 31:20, we read:   “Keep in mind the highway, the road that you traveled” [written hlkhty, as if first-person halakhti, but the kri in the margin is halakht = you traveled, as occurs later on in the same verse), and many other instances.  

This form with final vowel /ī/ is used for the second-person singular feminine in Arabic and other Semitic languages.   In other words, the form that appears in the biblical text is proper, but archaic, having been superseded by the form without a final vowel.  This would also seem to be the explanation for Jeremiah 2:20:   “For long ago you broke [shavarti] your yoke, tore off [nitaqti] your yoke-bands, and said, ‘I will not work,’” in which passage the prophet compares Israel to a rebellious animal (cf. Jeremiah 5:5). Note that in Jeremiah 2:20 the vocalization is in first-person as we have given it, the ostensible meaning being ‘I have broken your yoke, torn off your yoke-bands’, the speaker being the prophet; therefore there is no alternative marginal reading, the kri, since it is possible to explain the verse even if the verbs are taken to be in the first-person, although such a reading is somewhat far-fetched. In fact, what we have here are two archaic forms for the second-person feminine, which is why we translated “you broke your yoke.”

Perhaps the verses in the Song of Deborah can be explained similarly.  The words, “Awake [uri], awake, O Deborah,” are a call of encouragement by the audience hearing Deborah’s song, and immediately afterwards comes the rallying call to Barak, the warrior:  “Arise, O Barak, take your captives, O son of Abinoam!”  In antiquity it was common for the audience to join in as the poet sang.   In the same way one can explain Judges 5:7 which follows the description of the depressed state the country was in.  The audience then responded, “[All this was the condition] till you arose [shaqamti], O Deborah, till [you] arose, O mother, in Israel,”   using the archaic form for second-person feminime singular, shaqamti. Perhaps also the verse in the Song on the Sea (Ex. 15:16), which is very similar to this verse, is also a chorus of the Israelites (cf. Ex. 15:1):  “Till Your people cross over, O Lord, till Your people cross whom You have ransomed.”

If we accept this interpretation, then there is no issue of Deborah being haughty or self-aggrandizing here.   Perhaps in her song she intended only to praise the warriors, including Yael for her brave deed, and not to say a thing about her share in the battle.  She may have seen herself merely as the one transmitting the word of the Lord and encouraging the people to go to war, and now she was singing a song of deliverance.  Only after the battle had concluded as it did, with Yael and not Barak (or another of the warriors) being the one to kill Sisera, Yavin’s army commander, did her earlier words to Barak become clear (she essentially gave a prophecy without truly knowing what it was about):  “For then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (Judges 4:9).   At that time, before the battle, one might have thought that the “woman” would be Deborah herself, whom Barak had asked to go along with him. In fact, it was Yael.

2.  The battle of Deborah and Barak – A Second Splitting of the Red Sea

The narrative of Barak’s battle against Sisera and the Song of Deborah, in Judges, chapters 4 and 5, corresponds in many ways to the narrative of the splitting of the Red Sea and the Song on the Sea (Exodus 14-15).  In the chart below we present the similar wordings that occur in both passages (to show the parallels, the phrases are not necessarily presented here exactly in the same order as they appear in the English translation), several of them being phrases that are shared by these two passages and do not occur elsewhere in the Bible:

Judges 4-5

Exodus 14-15

Sisera was informed [va-yugad] (that Barak … had gone up to Mount Tabor)

So Sisera ordered all his chariots – nine hundred iron chariots

and all the troops (‘am) he had

When the king of Egypt was told [va-yagidu] that the people had fled,

ordered his chariot … six hundred of his picked chariots

and took his men (‘am) with him

“They must be dividing the spoil they have found”

The foe said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil

And the Lord threw … into panic


Sisera and all his chariots and army

The Lord looked down … and threw… into panic

the Egyptian army … all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen

This is the day on which the Lord will deliver Sisera into your hands

The Lord is marching before you

Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians

(The Lord went before them, 13:21); the angel of G-d, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army

The stars fought from heaven, … fought against Sisera

For the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt

Not a man was left

Not one of them remained

… had fled on foot

Let us flee from the Israelites

On that day God subdued

King Yavin … before the Israelites

Thus the Lord delivered …  that day

Israel  from the Egyptians

On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang

I will sing, will sing to the Lord

Then Moses and the Israelites sang

I will sing to the Lord

Hear, O kings!

(The peoples hear)

Advanced from the country of Edom

(the clans of Edom)


The book of Judges, it seems, wishes to portray the Lord’s deliverance in the battle of Barak and Deborah as a reenactment of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians (cf. “the torrent Kishon swept them away,” 5:21). [1]

[1] The future deliverance of Israel is also modeled after the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea; cf. Is. 11:15-16.