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The Song of Deborah, Lawrence E. Stager, BAR 15:01, Jan-Feb 1989.

mt-taborWhy Some Tribes Answered the Call and Others Did Not

The Song of Deborah (Judges 5) is one of the most powerful pieces of poetry in the entire Bible. A prose version repeats the same story, with many variations, in Judges 4. The account tells of the deliverer (Judge) Deborah and her reluctant general Barak, who do battle against an alliance of Canaanite kings. The story takes place after the Exodus from Egypt and before the institution of the monarchy, during the time we call the settlement period—in Biblical terms, the period of the Judges.

From the prose account in Judges 4, we learn that the kings of Canaan are led by Jabin, who is identified as the king of Hazor (Judges 4-2, 18, 12). Jabin’s commander is a man named Sisera (Judges 4-2). The war leader Deborah, who lived and judged in Ephraim, summons Barak of the tribe of Naphtali to muster 10,000 men and engage Sisera in battle at Mt. Tabor. Barak replies that he will respect her summons only if Deborah goes with him. Deborah agrees, but declares that the glory of victory will be denied Barak personally—the enemy commander Sisera will be delivered not into Barak’s hands, but into the hands of a woman (Judges 4-4–9). Barak musters 10,000 men of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun on Mt. Tabor, and Deborah goes there with him.

Seeing Barak’s troops at Mt. Tabor, the Canaanite commander Sisera orders 900 chariots and all his men to the Wadi Kishon, which courses through the Plain of Megiddo (one of its sources begins near the base of Mt. Tabor). There the Canaanites prepare to meet the Israelites.

Deborah then gives the signal to Barak- “Up! This is the day on which the Lord will deliver Sisera into your hands- The Lord is marching befor

“Hear, O kings! Give ear, O potentates!

I will sing, will sing to the Lord,

Will hymn the Lord, the God of Israel.

“O Lord, when You came forth from Seir,

Advanced from the country of Edom,

The earth trembled;

The heavens dripped,

Yea, the clouds dripped water,

The mountains quaked—

Before the Lord, Him of Sinai,

Before the Lord, God of Israel.

“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,

In the days of Jael [Yael], caravans ceased,

And wayfarers went

By roundabout paths.

Deliverance ceased,

Ceased in Israel,

Till you arose, O Deborah,

Arose, O mother, in Israel!

Then did the people of the Lord

March down to the gates!

Awake, awake, O Deborah!

Awake, awake, strike up the chant!

Arise, O Barak;

Take you captives, O son of Abinoam!

“Then was the remnant made victor over the mighty,

The Lord’s people won my victory over the warriors.

Then the kings came, they fought-

The kings of Canaan fought

At Taanach, by Megiddo’s waters—

They got no spoil of silver.

The stars fought from heaven,

From their courses they fought against Sisera.

The torrent Kishon swept them away,

The raging torrent, the torrent Kishon.

“March on, my soul, with courage!

“Then the horses’ hoofs pounded

As headlong galloped the steeds.

Most blessed of women be Jael [Yael],

Wife of Heber the Kenite,

Most blessed of women in tents.

He asked for water, she offered milk;

In a princely bowl she brought him curds.

Her [left] hand reached for the tent peg,

Her right for the workmen’s hammer.

She struck Sisera, crushed his head,

Smashed and pierced his temple.

At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,

At her feet he sank, lay still;

Where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

“Through the window peered Sisera’s mother,

Behind the lattice she whined-

‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?

Why so late the clatter of his wheels?’

The wisest of her ladies give answer;

She, too, replies to herself-

‘They must be dividing the spoil they have found-

A damsel or two for each man,

Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,

Spoil of embroidered cloths,

A couple of embroidered cloths

Round every neck as spoil.’

“So may all Your enemies perish, O Lord!”

Judges 5-3–31 (NJV)

Scholars are agreed that this poetic version of the story is extremely old, one of the two or three oldest passages in the entire Bible. It was composed in the 12th century B.C.1 George Foote Moore2 considered it the “only contemporaneous monument of Hebrew history” before the Israelite monarchy.b

Concerning this poem and its prose counterpart, all kinds of intriguing questions can be and have been raised—textual questions, literary questions, historical questions, theological questions, moral questions, etc. But I would like to focus here on one specific aspect of the story- Scholars have long noticed that not all of the tribes of Israel answered Deborah’s call. Indeed, only six tribes responded; four others stayed home.c

I propose to examine the social organization of the Israelites that permitted this response—and refusal to respond. In so doing, I believe we will better understand the social texture of Israelite society at the time of the Judges.

My synthesis will encompass a number of methodologies and sources of data, providing an example of what could be called the social archaeology of the Bible. This synthesis incorporates archaeological discoveries, ecological and sociological studies, as well as some textual analysis of the Biblical accounts.

In the later-composed prose account (Judges 4), Barak musters his troops from his own tribe of Naphtali and from the tribe of Zebulun. None of the other tribes is mentioned, either as providing troops or as staying away. In the poetic account, however, the poem dramatically recalls both the tribes who answered the call and those who declined.

First are listed five tribes who responded affirmatively-

“From Ephraim came they whose roots are in Amalek;

After you, your kin Benjamin;

From Machir [Manasseh] came down leaders,

From Zebulun such as hold the marshal’s staff.

And Issachar’s chiefs were with Deborah;

As Barak, so was Issachar—

Rushing after him into the valley.”

Judges 5-14–15 (NJV)

Then the poet describes four tribes who refused the call-

“In the divisions of Reuben

great were the searchings of heart.

Why did you sit beside the hearths [or sheepfolds]

listening to pipings for the flocks?

In the divisions of Reuben

great were the searchings of heart.

Gilead remained camped beyond the Jordan.

And Dan—why did he linger by the ships?

Asher remained at the seacoast

And tarried at his landings.”

Judges 5-15–17 (NJV)

Then the poet mentions Zebulun again and specifically adds Barak’s own tribe, Naphtali, bringing to six the number of tribes who responded affirmatively-d

“Zebulun is a people that mocked at death,

Naphtali—on the open heights.”

Judges 5-18 (NJV)

To what extent the story of this Canaanite-Israelite war is historical has been much debated. But whether or not it is historically accurate in every detail, the poet, in order to achieve verisimilitude, must have grounded the story in a setting and in circumstances that seemed plausible to the contemporary audience for which the poem was intended. In other words, it must have been plausible to the listeners (assuming the poem was first recited orally) that Ephraim (Deborah’s tribe), Benjamin, Machir (later called Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar and Naphtali answered the call and participated in the battle, while Reuben, Gilead (or, as it is also called, Gad), Dan and Asher did not.

Recent archaeological evidence (see map), shows that this was indeed plausible—and we can now understand, I believe, why some tribes were more willing than others to answer Barak’s muster.

At the beginning of the period archaeologists call Iron Age I, or Iron I for short (Iron I extends from about 1200 to 1000 B.C.), there was a dramatic increase in the number of permanent settlements in the central hill-country of ancient Palestine. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of these settlements belonged to Israelites settling in the highlands of Canaan.e

The contrast with the preceding archaeological period (the Late Bronze Age, 1550–1200 B.C.) is striking. Archaeological surveys and excavations have identified some 27 sites in the central hill-country during the Late Bronze Age. In this same area, which became known as the tribal territories of Ephraim and Manasseh, archaeologists Adam Zertal and Israel Finkelstein, as well as others, have found at last count 211 sites dating to Iron I, nearly an eightfold increase.3

Although fewer, the settlements in the Late Bronze Age were larger (and thus more urbanized). The Iron Age settlements, by contrast, were often small farming villages. The median size of the Late Bronze settlements was approximately 12 acres; the Iron I settlements, only a little over 2 acres. The difference is substantial.

Of the more than 200 Iron Age sites in Ephraim and Manasseh, 85 percent of them were newly founded settlements; that is, most early Israelite villages were established on previously unoccupied sites.

An overall eightfold increase (23 times in Ephraim; 4.4 times in Manasseh) of settlements in the central hills is such a dramatic increase that it can hardly be ascribed to natural growth within the highland zone itself. More in keeping with natural growth would be the doubling of the population in this same area from Iron I to Iron II. Obviously, a new population has moved into the central hill-country from about 1200 to 1100 B.C. This is entirely consistent with the Biblical record. In Joshua 17-16, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh complain that they are confined to the highlands, while the Canaanites live in the lowlands. In 1 Kings 20-23, Arameans refer to the God of the Israelites as the “god(s) of the highlands” (elohei hariym).

The Israelites” habitation in the highlands is also reflected in the Song of Deborah itself, where the poet frequently refers to the Israelites going down against the Canaanites-

“There they recited the triumphs of Yahweh,

The triumphs of his village tribesmen [przn] in Israel.

Then the kindred [literally “people”] of Yahweh went down against the gates …

Then the fugitives went down against the nobles,

The kindred of Yahweh went down against the warriors.”

Judges 5-11, 13

The Israelites not only “went down,” but they did battle “against the gates.” In an earlier verse (Judges 5-8), we also read that the Israelites “did battle with the gates.” The “gates” undoubtedly represent the fortified—that is, walled—Canaanite cities in the plains. In these cities the area most vulnerable to attack was the city gate, as we know from several archaeological examples.f

The early Israelite villages, by contrast, were rarely, if ever, fortified with free-standing fortification walls. Instead, they built their houses in contiguous arrangements on the village perimeter; these contiguous houses formed a kind of wall that afforded limited protection against attack. Most villages, however, relied primarily on their hilltop positions and surrounding terraced slopes for defense against attack. The leading protagonists among the “kindred of Yahweh” were the inhabitants (perazon) of the tribal villages (perazot). In Ezekiel 38-11, this land of unfortified settlements is described as a place where the quiet people dwell securely, even though their villages are without walls, and have “neither bars nor gates.”

The hill country was a far less hospitable environment for the primitive agriculture in which these early Israelites engaged than was the low country to the west, with its sizable tracts of arable land. In the hill country, only a few plateaus and valleys were arable initially. Much of the hill country was covered with forests, and the rocky slopes of the hills resisted cultivation.

Population pressures on this limited environment soon prompted the Israelite settlers to try to expand their food supply. The Israelite immigrants devised new strategies for increasing the agricultural productivity of the woodland hills.

Extensive deforestation was one result. Joshua speaks of it in a Biblical passage already cited-
“The highlands are not enough for us [complained the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh]. Yet the Canaanites living in the lowlands all have iron chariots [and therefore we cannot dispossess them of the land] … Joshua replied- ‘… True, [the hill country] is a woodland, but you will clear it and possess it to its farthest limits’” (Joshua 17-16, 18).

Once the forests were cleared, the Israelites created agricultural terraces on the land. This technological advance in a very real sense opened up the highland frontier to the Iron Age farmers and dramatically altered the attractiveness of the hill country to the incoming agriculturalists. The carrying capacityg of the land was increased far beyond anything that had been known there in the Late Bronze Age.4

Terracing transformed the natural slopes into series of level steps—artificially flattened surfaces or “fields”—suitable for farming. Terrace soils were anchored in place by retaining walls built of dry-laid stones. The terrace walls, which were usually built on the natural contours at right angles to the slope, countered soil erosion and, to a lesser degree, induced sedimentation.

Terracing was a highly successful adaptation to the highlands. But the new mountain ecosystem that accompanied it was just as fragile as the natural one, perhaps more so. Without regular maintenance the terraces deteriorated rapidly. The combined weight of collapsed walls and unconsolidated earth sometimes produced devastating landslides. Left in their wake were hillsides so denuded that nature alone could not reclaim them.

The examples of agricultural terraces that can be most accurately dated by archaeological evidence come from the slopes just outside and below the Iron I villages of Ai and Raddana. These small, hilltop villages sustained by terrace farming were typical of the many new settlements founded in the hills. The highland villagers were already well advanced in the techniques of terrace agriculture when they established their settlements de novo on hilltops and laid out their terraced plots on the slopes below.

These terraced fields are referred to in the Song of Deborah when it speaks of Naphtali’s meromei sadeh, traditionally translated “high places of the field” (Judges 5-18).

Two other technological advances were perhaps not as important as scholars sometimes suppose. I refer to the lime-plastered cisterns for water storage and the gradual ascendancy of iron over bronze.

It was William F. Albright who first offered a technological “explanation” for the Iron I settlement pattern in the hill country. These hill people, whom Albright correctly identified with the early Israelites, were able to establish new settlements in formerly uninhabited areas “thanks to the rapid spread of the art … of constructing cisterns and lining them with waterproof lime plaster instead of the previously used limy marl or raw lime plaster.”5

Most scholars have found Albright’s formulation compelling, especially when combined with the technological advantage that supposedly came with the introduction of iron tools and weapons into the hill country about 1200 B.C. With a superior edge on their iron axes to cut down the forests, the highlanders supposedly could increase agricultural production.6 With iron quarrying tools, they supposedly could cut tunnels through the rock for irrigation and hew out large reservoirs for water storage.7

Since Albright developed his hypothesis, however, cisterns lined with waterproof plaster have been discovered from earlier periods—at Late Bronze Taanach and Hazor (1550–1200 B.C.), and much earlier at Pre-pottery Neolithic ‘Ain Ghazal (7000–6000 B.C.) east of the Jordan River. But the important point is that lime plaster was not really necessary to waterproof most of these Iron Age cisterns in the hill country. That is because the bedrock of this region—Cenomanian limestone intercalated with chalks and marls—is impermeable. True, most residential compounds had one or more bell-shaped cisterns located beneath the floor of the house or courtyard, but by no means were they always lined with lime plaster. For example, none of the cisterns at Ai or Raddana was lined with lime plaster. At other sites, lime plaster was necessary as a “waterproofing cement,” but local geological conditions must be considered before conclusions can be drawn about the need for waterproofing cisterns with plaster.

As for iron tools, iron did not come into common use in Palestine before the tenth century B.C. Even for this later period, most of the iron artifacts have been found at sites outside the hill country. Moreover, some of the early iron tools were inferior to bronze in hardness.

In short, slope terracing was the crucial technology for the highland villagers. Lime plaster and iron tools were not.

The standard house in the Iron I period was a small rectangular building with two to four rooms entered from an exterior courtyard. (This house plan became even more popular during the Israelite monarchy.) To the right or left of the doorway were piers, or pillars in a row, often with low, thin, curtain walls between them; some of these low walls had built-in mangers or troughs, where animals could feed. The pillars, which carried an upper story, separated the main room from a narrower side room(s). A broad-room, running the width of the building, formed the back end of the house. In the so-called four-room house, the central room is usually depicted in modern drawings as an open courtyard, flanked on three sides by one or two stories of rooms. It seems clear, however, from the position of the rows of pillars and, in one instance, ceiling timbers found in the central room itself, that pillared houses (whether two, three or four rooms in plan) were designed to take a second story; thus a four-room house may, in fact, have had as many as eight rooms. It is, therefore, better to use the term “pillared,” rather than the number of rooms (in ground plan) to designate this building type.

At Ai the ceiling beams were 5.2 feet above the floor.h Such beams would have been a constant headache to inhabitants much over five feet, but human comfort was probably not a primary consideration in building these side rooms, since many of them were designed and used as domestic stables—for sheep and goats, donkeys and cattle, especially the “fatted,” or “stall-fed” calf known from Old and New Testaments (for example, 1 Samuel 28-24; Psalms 50-9; Amos 6-4; and Luke 15-23–27).i

At other sites—for example, Atar Haro‘a in the Negev—ceiling heights were between 5.8 feet and 6.5 feet, far more compatible with human stature of the period, allowing for ample clearance.
These Iron I dwellings are so small that they could have housed only a nuclear family—a father, mother and children. However, these houses—for example, those at Raddana, Ai and Tell Masosj—were built in clusters. The clusters or compounds typically included two or three individual houses, each one either completely independent or linked to another unit by one or two common walls. Each house, nevertheless, had a separate entrance, usually approached through a shared open courtyard. The compounds themselves are separated from one another by streets, paths or stone enclosure walls. Each compound probably housed multiple or extended families.

Modern ethnography, although describing a family unit in a 20th-century Arab village, probably accurately describes the family relationships in an Israelite dwelling compound of the 12th century B.C. In the Arab village built at the site of ancient Bethel, an ethnographer described the za‘ila or “joint family” as follows-

“It consists of the father, mother, and unwed children as well as the wedded sons and their wives and children, unwed paternal aunts, and sometimes even unwed paternal uncles. In short this unit is composed of blood relatives plus women who were brought into the kinship through marriage. Large as it may be, this unit tends to occupy one dwelling or a compound of dwellings built close together or often attached to one another. It is an economic as well as a social unit and is governed by the grandfather or the eldest male. The joint family normally dissolves upon the death of the grandfather. The land, which until then had been held by the grandfather, is divided among the heirs, and the male children separate, each to become the nucleus of a new za‘ila.”8

Authority over the household resided with the pater familias, who in the case of a three-generation family would be the grandfather. Sometimes, even after their father’s death, married brothers and their families would continue to live in the same compound as a single household working together cooperatively; in this case, the older brother would usually become the head of the household.
The architecture of the Iron I agricultural villages reflects the social structure referred to in the Bible. The individual male (geber) with his nuclear family lived in a single dwelling. The compound housed the extended household (bayit) or small patrilineage (beit ’ab), literally “house of one’s father.”
Several related lineages made up the mishpakhah—the much larger “family,” or clan. A group of clans or mishpakhot composed a tribe (shevet or matteh).

The most inclusive grouping was the ‘am or “people,” more appropriately translated “kindred,” which in the case of earliest Israel was known as the ‘am Yhwh, the “kindred of Yahweh” (Judges 5), and as the “tribes of Israel” (shivtei Yisrael) or “sons of Israel” (benei-Yisrael). The “sons of Israel” was simply the family writ large. In other words, Israelites considered themselves one very big family or kin group, whether there were actual blood ties or not. At the head of this “family” was God the father.

Kinship language provides the key to most major concepts not only in the Hebrew Bible but also in the New Testament. In one of the most often cited, but seldom understood, passages from the Gospel of John (14-2), Jesus says- “In my father’s house are many mansions,” by which he means that in God the father’s household (the multiple family compound; oikia = beit ’ab/’abba) are many houses (single family dwellings)- The heavenly household is patterned after the earthly one.

In the Israelite conquest described in the Bible, when the Israelites were unsuccessful in their initial assault on Ai (after their success at Jericho), they sought to identify—apparently by lot—the sinner who was responsible for their defeat at Ai. This process ultimately produced an individual, Achan, who was found to have violated the proscription against taking booty after the destruction of Jericho. To identify Achan, first the “tribe” (shevet or matteh) was chosen—Judah. Then the “clan” (mishpakhah)—Zerah. Then the “house” or lineage (bayit)—Zabdi. Finally, the “individual” (geber)—Achan! (Joshua 7).

The small Israelite village was no doubt organized along kinship lines. Compound names of early Israelite villages, such as the “Hill of Saul” (gib‘at shaul), the “Diadem of the House of Joab” (‘atrot beit yo’ab), or the “Enclosure of Addar” (khatzar ’addar), reveal something about the kin groups there- The first element in the name describes the settlement type; the second element yields the name of the founding families and later the leading lineage or lineages in the village.

Even more telling in this regard are genealogies, which often serve as social charters for kin-based societies such as Israel. For example, among the descendants of Manasseh was a great-great-grandson named Zelophehad who had no sons but five daughters, one of whom was Tirzah (see Numbers 26-29–34; Joshua 17-3). Tirzah is not just a person but also a place—in fact, a one-time capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, now securely identified with Tell el-Farah (north) and excavated by Père Roland de Vaux.

Similarly with Birzaith, which appears among the “sons” of Asher in the genealogical list found in 1 Chronicles 7-31. This person-lineage-place name can be none other than the Iron Age settlement located beneath modern Bir ez-Zeit, about 15 miles north of Jerusalem. At some point, clans from the tribe of Asher, in territory near Acco, migrated south into the central hill-country and established themselves there, much as some of the Danites migrated to the north.

Shechem was a descendant of Manasseh, who lent his name to a town and district. In fact, the famous Samaria ostracak, dated to the reign of Jeroboam II (786–746 B.C.) indicate that many of the “sons” and “daughters” (lineages and clans) of Manasseh still peopled the districts around Samaria in the eighth century B.C.

Each village probably had its own council of elders (zeqeniym). In 1 Samuel 16-4, for example, the “elders of Bethlehem” go out to meet Samuel. (See also 1 Samuel 11-3 and 30-26–31.) The council of elders was probably chosen from among the heads of household of the more prominent lineages of the village.

From these village councils of elders, the most prominent members were no doubt co-opted to serve on regional or clan councils, and so on up the segmentary ladder of representation.
As we have noted, the livestock in the villages consisted primarily of sheep and goats. The agricultural products were largely cereals—wheat and barley, although a few settlements engaged in vine and olive tree cultivation. The latter produced “cash crops”—wine and olive oil—which tend to propel the economy toward trade links with the outside world and toward dependency on interregional or even international exchange networks. But vine and olive tree cultivation was relatively rare in these Iron I villages.

The Israelites” mountain habitat as well as continued hostilities toward the peoples of the plains, whether Canaanites, Egyptians or Sea Peoples (including the Philistines), fostered what has been called an économie locale, or local small-scale economy.

Moreover, the investment in permanent quarters and pioneered land in the hills promoted independence and isolation from surrounding complementary regions, especially the “bread baskets” of the coastal plains and broad valleys.

A modern anthropologist, William R. Polk, has described the independent villagers of Mt. Lebanon in language that is probably equally applicable to their ancient counterparts among the Israelite settlers in the hill country-

“Throughout history, the natural barrier of the mountains defended the inhabitants. [Mt.] Lebanon became a refuge for such religious and ethnic minorities as the Druze and Maronites. The independent mountaineers stand in stark contrast to the humbled peasants of the Biqa Valley or the Nile Delta. The mountains provided men with the opportunity for freedom, and they realized it during much of their history. The cult of the warrior, the notion of independence of the clan, the village, and the district became integral parts of the culture of the people. Villagers marched to war under their village flags. Villagers as groups drove away tax collectors during extended periods of modern history. And perhaps most important, they were able to develop a permanence in habitation and mores which was impossible for the more exposed lowland peasant.”9

The mountain areas are traditionally “the country of small peasant proprietors, poor but free, devoting their lives to producing all their needs from their land.”10

The striking contrasts between the hills and the plains are highlighted continually by the archaeology of Palestine in the Iron I period, as the wealth of Canaanite and Sea Peoples material culture is compared with the poverty of the highland settlements of the Israelites.

Despite their independence and economic self-sufficiency (a condition scholars refer to as autarky), however, these highland villages forged significant bonds with one another, thereby creating larger and larger sociopolitical orders. The Song of Deborah itself requires us to assume tribal and even supratribal orders that extended not only to the highlands but even to their kin in the valleys and plains.

The most inclusive tribal grouping in premonarchic Israel was the confederation, a loosely structured alliance of tribes reinforced by religion and activated for mutual defense.

The Song of Deborah depicts a ten-tribe confederation—the “kindred (or people) of Yahweh”—out of which only six tribes actively participated in the battle against the Canaanites. Those tribes who failed to respond to the call suffered the scorn of those who rallied to the battle, but they could not be coerced to join the fight. There were times when “ethnic” bonding did not prevail over more compelling realities, such as those non-tribal economic and political alignments that, as we shall see, caused Dan, Asher, Reuben and Gilead/Gad to sit out the battle.

In short, I believe we can understand the responses to Deborah’s muster in economic terms—the tribes who answered the call (Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir [Manasseh], Zebulun, Naphtali and Issachar) had far fewer economic entanglements with non-Israelites than those tribes whose livelihoods depended to a large extent on maritime trade (Dan and Asher) or on specialized pastoralism (Reuben and probably Gilead).

The six tribes who answered the call were economically independent, isolated and self-reliant. The areas where these tribes lived are precisely the areas in which archaeological surveys and, to some extent, excavations have revealed a concentration of Iron I villages. Ephraim, Benjamin and Machir (Manasseh) inhabited the hill country of central Palestine; Zebulun and Naphtali, the hilly Galilee.
The location of the tribal territory of Issachar during the Iron I period is uncertain. Its traditional territory in Lower Galilee, between Mt. Tabor and the Sea of Galilee, was not densely occupied until about 1000 B.C., according to the survey of Zvi Gal.11 Gal suggests that in the 12th–11th centuries B.C. Issachar may also have been part of the central hill-country population. This would accord well with the Song of Deborah-l

“Issachar’s chiefs were with Deborah;

As Barak, so was Issachar—

Rushing after him into the valley.”

Judges 5-15 (NJV)

A closer examination of the economic circumstances of the tribes of Reuben and Gilead/Gad will explain why they failed to follow Barak.

In contrast to the tribes who answered the call, who were for the most part small-village agriculturists, Reuben and Gilead/Gad, who sat out the battle, were pastoralists—large herders, specializing in sheep and goats. Both Reuben and Gilead/Gad were well known for their large herds, as Numbers 32-1 reflects-

“Now the Reubenites and the Gadites had a very large number of livestock, and they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was cattle country [that is, a grazing range].”

The pastoralist vocation of Reuben and Gilead/Gad is also reflected in the Song of Deborah itself-

“In the divisions of Reuben

great were the searchings of heart.

Why did you sit beside the hearths [or sheep-folds],

listening to pipings for the flocks?

In the divisions of Reuben

great were the searchings of heart.

Gilead remained camped beyond the Jordan.”

Judges 5-15–17

Why does it make a difference that the tribes who answered the call were village agriculturists, while Reuben and Gilead/Gad were herders? We have already analyzed the economic independence and self-reliance of the hill-country farmers. Can’t the same be said for seminomadic pastoralists? The answer is no, as modern scholars are discovering (or perhaps I should say rediscovering).

The image of nomads and seminomads as self-sufficient, independent and solitary denizens of the desert or steppes is a mirage of 19th- and early 20th-century scholarship that has now been thoroughly refuted. Nomads and pastoralists are not autarkic; they are not economically self-sufficient. As Anatoly M. Khazanov has noted in his magisterial synthesis Nomads and the Outside World, their “specialized pastoral economy, in contrast to the economy of many comparable forms of agriculture, itself cannot provide even all of the immediate requirements of nomads.”12
The limited division of labor within the pastoralist economy makes herders dependent on farmers and townspeople not only for many food products, but also for handicrafts and other items of their material culture. Trade is essential for any type of nomadism, and pastoralists are in much greater need of it than agriculturists.13

In this understanding of pastoral nomadism, late 20th-century scholars are in fact rediscovering what the great 14th-century Arab historian, and the first sociologist, Ibn Khaldûn understood very well. In his classic Muqaddimah- An Introduction to History, Ibn Khaldûn observed that-

“desert civilization is inferior to urban civilization, because not all the necessities of civilization are to be found among the people of the desert. They do have some agriculture at home but do not possess the materials that belong to it, most of which [depend on] crafts. They have … milk, wool, [camel’s] hair, and hides, which the urban population needs and pays the Bedouins money for. However, while [the Bedouins] need the cities for their necessities of life, the urban population needs [the Bedouins] for conveniences and luxuries.”14

Accordingly, the pastoralist economy of Reuben and Gilead/Gad was inextricably intertwined with sedentary populations, leaving these two tribes far less independent than their fellow tribesmen in the hills, whose mixed economy of farming and herding made them far more economically independent. The hill-country farmers had less to lose by going to battle than their pastoralist cousins did.

Dan and Asher, who also failed to respond to the muster, present different issues. According to the Song of Deborah, they were both seafaring tribes.

The verse about the Asherites, as we shall see, is clear-cut and presents few problems. Not so the verse about the Danites. Traditionally, this verse has been translated- “And Dan, why did he abide [yagur] with the ships?”

The word translated “abide” (yagur) is related to the word ger, commonly translated “sojourner,” “stranger,” “resident alien” or the like.

As W. Robertson Smith pointed out almost a century ago, ger has its origin in kinship terminology- “The ger was a man of another tribe or district who, coming to sojourn in a place where he was not strengthened by the presence of his own kin, put himself under the protection of a clan or a powerful chief.”15

All scholars are agreed that the Danites never controlled the territory assigned to them in Joshua 19-40–48, which reached as far as Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. Ultimately, the Danites moved to the north, inland, where they conquered the Canaanite city of Laish and renamed it Danm. But before their move, the “Amorites pressed the Danites back into the hill country” (Judges 1-34, RSV). In this period, the Danites were gerim, a client-tribe under the patronage of the possessors of the land, without any landed patrimony (nakhalah). As we read in Judges 18-1- “In those days the tribe of Danites were seeking nakhalah [landed inheritance, tribal territory, patrimony] in which to settle, for to that day no nakhalah had fallen to them among the tribes of Israel.”

In light of this background, I would translate the verse about Dan in the Song of Deborah as follows- “And Dan, why did he serve as a client on ships?”

In this translation, yagur has the meaning “to serve as a client,” as a ger, rather than the traditional translation of yagur as “abide.”

By “client,” I mean an economic dependent attached to a patron, a kind of economic ward.

If this translation is correct, then we may conclude that at least enough Danites had been hired or pressed into service by the shipowners or shipping companies on the coast in the Jaffa region to inspire this saying about them. Who their patrons were we cannot be sure. If the saying dates to the period before the Sea Peoples had settled on the coast, then the shipowners were probably Canaanites. If this description applies to some time after 1175 B.C., then the Danite patrons were one of the Sea Peoples, probably the Philistines. Whatever the exact date, however, there would seem to be little doubt that the Danites were “clients on ships,” presumably while still in the south.

As we know from Judges 1-31–32, Asher “dwelt among the Canaanites” in the Acco region on the Mediterranean coast. Nestled in the hills of western Galilee, in territory traditionally ascribed to Asher (Joshua 19-24–31), Rafi Frankel has recently located a number of small Iron I villages or hamlets, which he plausibly associates with the Asherites.16 These villages in the hills overlook, and have easy access to, the rich maritime Plain of Acco. From their territorial homeland, tribesmen from Asher may have commuted to work as agricultural laborers on Canaanite estates in the plain or as seamen and dockworkers at the port of Acco. Whatever the case, these new discoveries give vivid meaning to the saying in the Song of Deborah- “Asher remained at the seacoast and over its inlets dwelt” (Judges 5-17).

The reluctance of Dan and Asher to join the highlanders in this war against the Canaanites seems more understandable in light of their economic dependence on non-Israelite groups in the maritime trade. Like Reuben and Gilead/Gad, Dan and Asher had ties to non-Israelites that proved stronger than those that bound them to their tribal confederation.

It is a tribute to the poet who composed the victory ode we call the Song of Deborah that he or she did not conceal the realities of the situation by portraying a united front against the enemy; but nevertheless the four reluctant tribes who failed to answer the call were only chided, not cursed.
The enigmatic and otherwise unknown group of Meroz is cursed for failing to join the Israelites in this battle-

“‘Curse Meroz!’ said the messenger of Yahweh,

‘Bitterly curse its inhabitants,

Because they came not to the aid of Yahweh,

To the aid of Yahweh against the warriors.’”

Judges 5-23

In contrast to Meroz, however, the Israelite tribes who declined to respond to the muster are only chided for remaining aloof from the fray with the Canaanites. Perhaps the poet recognized the ameliorating economic circumstances in the predicament of the Israelite tribes who sat out the battle.

(For further details, see Lawrence E. Stager, “The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 260 (1985) and “Archaeology, Ecology and Social History- Background Themes to the Song of Deborah,” in Vetus Testamentum Supplement, vol. 40, ed. John A. Emerton (Leiden- Brill, 1988), pp. 221–234.)

a. NJV is the New Jewish Version, The Tanakh (1985), a translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) by the Jewish Publication Society of America. Translations of Bible excerpts in this article not attributed to a particular source are by the author, Lawrence E. Stager.

b. While nearly every great Biblical scholar of this century and the last has pondered over the difficult language of this poem in Semitic literature, no one has succeeded in understanding its overall meaning and significance for the social history of premonarchic Israel as well as George F. Moore (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Judges, 1985) and Max Weber (Ancient Judaism, 1917–1919, reprinted 1952). The legacy of both will be apparent throughout my discussion. Michael Coogan has provided a very valuable stylistic analysis and felicitous translation of the Song.

c. The earliest tribal confederation of which we know may have included only ten tribes rather than the traditional twelve known from sources later than the Song of Deborah. If we assume that Gilead is related to or identical with Gad, and Machir to Manasseh, we still have three tribes missing in the song—Levi, Simeon and Judah. Levi is a special case; it was always a sacerdotal “tribe” similar to a religious order that males from lay tribes could join. Levi is sometimes omitted in later tribal lists. More conspicuous by their absence are Simeon and Judah, the latter especially so, since it is always included in the later tribal lists. It seems likely that “twelve” became the ideal number for the confederation of tribes, but that the number and composition of tribes fluctuated through time with changes in demography and geography. As fusion and fission occurred among clans, some rose to tribal status (perhaps Judah is an example after the 12th century B.C.) while others receded (e.g., Machir, which in later genealogical lists becomes a “son” of Manasseh, now elevated to full tribal status).

d. This is in contrast to the account in Judges 4 where Zebulun and Naphtali provided all the Israelite troops.

e. Because this same area becomes the heartland of Israel during the monarchy, with many of the Iron I settlements continuing into Iron II (1000–600 B.C.), it seems logical to conclude that many of the Iron I settlements were also Israelite. In other words, within the general field of survey (more than 550 square miles) many sites have to be Israelite; however, at present it is difficult, if not impossible, to point to any one particular settlement in the hills during Iron I and say this is “Israelite” rather than “Hivite,” “Jebusite,” or whatever, in the absence of textual or epigraphic evidence. They all seemed to share a common culture of such everyday items as cooking pots and storage jars (even collar-rimmed storage jars). My hunch is that when “ethnic” boundary markers, distinguishing “Israelites” from “Canaanites,” are found by archaeologists, they will relate to ideological differences, particularly in the realm of religion. Hints of these distinctions are already emerging from the pioneering work being done by zooarchaeologists Drs. Paula Wapnish and Brian Hesse in relating the presence or absence of pig to dietary taboos, such as we find in the Hebrew Bible (for example, Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnich, “Pig Avoidance in the Iron Age,” a paper presented at the American Schools of Oriental Research Annual Meeting, Boston, 1987).

f. Late Bronze Age gates have been found at Megiddo, Shechem and Hazor.

g. By carrying capacity, I mean the maximum number of people who can live on the agricultural produce of a certain area of land.

h. Joseph A. Callaway, “A Visit with Ahilud,” BAR 09-05.

i. In contrast to the central room, the stable side-rooms never had hearths, ovens or cisterns. At Iron I settlements not built directly on bedrock, the floors of the central room were frequently plastered; the side rooms were usually paved with flagstones. At Ai the side rooms were sometimes entered through small, arched passageways no higher than 2.6 feet, suitable only for sheep, goats and smaller animals. For the criteria established for stables in both public and domestic contexts, see the definitive study by John S. Holladay, Jr., “The Stables of Ancient Israel- Functional Determinants of Stable Construction and the Interpretation of Pillared Building Remains of the Palestinian Iron Age,” in The Archaeology of Jordan and Other Studies (Siegfried Horn Festschrift), eds. Lawrence T. Geraty and Lawrence Herr (Berrien Springs, MI- Andrews Univ., 1986).

j. Aharon Kempinski, “Israelite Conquest or Settlement? New Light from Tell Masos,” BAR 02-03.

k. Ostraca (singular, ostracon) are inscribed potsherds.

l. In the poetic account of Judges 5, the Israelite tribesmen descended upon the Canaanites from the highlands in general, not from Mt. Tabor in particular. Perhaps it was the specific mention of Mt. Tabor and the location of Barak’s home in Kedesh-Naphtali in Judges 4, but not in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), that led to the reduction of the tribes who participated in the battle to just two—the Galilean contingents of Zebulun and Naphtali, tribes already in the north.

m. See Hershel Shanks, “BAR Interview- Avraham Biran—Twenty Years of Digging at Tel Dan,” BAR 13-04; and John C. H. Laughlin, “The Remarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan,” BAR 07-05.

1. William F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Garden City, NY- Doubleday, 1968), p. 13; Roland de Vaux, The Early History of Israel (Philadelphia- Westminster, 1978) pp. 794–796; Michael D. Coogan, “A Structural and Literary Analysis of the Song of Deborah,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978) pp. 143–166, who suggests the 11th century B.C. as the latest possible date of the Song.

2. George F. Moore, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Judges (New York- Charles Scribner’s, 1895), p. 133.

3. For the most up-to-date survey statistics see Israel Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement, (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1988) parts I–II or pp. 25–234.

4. C. H. J. de Geus, “The Importance of Archaeological Research into the Palestinian Agricultural Terraces with an Excursus on the Hebrew Word gbi,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 107 (1975), pp. 65–74.

5. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Baltimore MD- Penguin, 1960), p. 113.

6. John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia- Westminster, 2nd ed. 1974) p. 213; J. Maxwell Miller, “The Israelite Occupation of Canaan” in Israelite and Judaean History, ed. J. H. Hayes and Miller (Philadelphia- Westminster, 1977) pp. 255–257; Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh- A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250–1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll NY- Orbis, 1979) pp. 655–656.

7. de Geus, “The Importance of Archaeological Research,” p. 69.

8. Abdulla M. Lutfiyya, Baytin, A Jordanian Village- A Study of Social Institutions and Social Change in a Folk Community (The Hague, Netherlands- Mouton, 1966), pp. 142–143.

9. William R. Polk, The Opening of South Lebanon 1788–1840- A Study of the Impact of the West on the Middle East (Cambridge MA- Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), p. 8.

10. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vol. (New York- Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 74–75.

11. Zvi Gal, “The Settlement of Issachar- Some New Observations,” Tel Aviv 9 (1982), pp. 79–86.

12. Anatoly M. Khazanov, Nomads and the Outside World, tr. J. Crookenden (Cambridge U.K.- Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), p. 70.

13. Khazanov, Nomads, pp. 202–205.

14. Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah- An Introduction to History tr. F. Rosenthal; abridged and edited by N. J. Dawood (Princeton, NJ- Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), p. 122.

15. W. Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (New York- Appleton, 1889), pp. 75–76.

16. Rafi Frankel’s survey is cited in Finkelstein, Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement, p. 97.

3 Comments on "The Song of Deborah, Lawrence E. Stager, BAR 15:01, Jan-Feb 1989."

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  1. Lal Bahadur Khatri says:

    It has been blessing after reading this Article Praise God his History and for his love toward his People

  2. Lal Bahadur Khatri says:

    God is Great and he is a gracious God

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