The story of Deborah, the prophetess and judge, is one of those biblical stories told to us twice, first in a prose narrative and then in a poetic celebration (the Exodus crossing of the sea in Ex 14 & 15 provides another example).
In this case the details, what Western minds call “facts” and worship above all other sorts of information, are strikingly different between the two tellings:
- In chapter 4: there is a focus on Canaanite oppression of the people of Israel, the battle concerns particularly the tribes of Naphtali & Zebulon, the victory is assured when Yahweh “confused” the Canaanites, in telling Jael’s killing of Sisera (the Canaanite general) her actions are presented as a parody of motherhood: “don’t be afraid” she says, then fed him milk and tucked him up.
- In chapter 5: the issues at stake seem to concern the free passage of trade, Yahweh ensures Canaanites’ defeat by sending a storm, various (Northern) tribes are involved, including Ephraim, Benjamin, Issachar etc. as well as Naphtali and Zebulun, the telling of Jael’s actions stresses her hospitality, giving him milk, even cream, instead of just water etc.
Another reminder that the focus of the tellers of Bible stories was not on the information content (that we focus on) but more on the relationships and especially on the primary relationship between us (as hearers of the telling) and God. Both tellings are full or irony, and both upset our notions of appropriate gender roles, as well as our stomachs. Stories in Judges are always disturbing.