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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

Deborah at the SBL Conference

Deborah appeared in different formats at the SBL conference. Sometimes she was the subject of the presentation. Sometimes she was mentioned as part of a presentation where she was not the main subject. Sometimes other figures in the Song of Deborah were the focus. In this post, I will review her presence at the conference mainly from a tribal perspective. Various tribes appear in the Song and they are part of the tribal story addressed in the previous posts about Amalekites, Edomites, Kenites, and Midianites (Tribes and the State at the ASOR and SBL Conferences and Cosmos and Chaos at the SBL Conference: The Kenites and the Amalekites).

S20-120 Joshua-Judges
Pamela J. W. Nourse, Claremont School of Theology
Into the Hand of a Woman: Deborah and Jael in Judges 4–5

Among the themes in the Book of Judges are marginalization and anxiety regarding the stability of Israel’s covenant and the nature of Israel’s leadership. These themes are at play in the unexpected gender roles highlighted in Judges 4 and 5. Whereas most women in the Hebrew Bible are defined by their identities as wives, mothers, or daughters, both Deborah and Jael are shown acting as leaders and heroes of both the prose narrative in chapter 4 and the poetic song in chapter 5. Although both women are presented in a positive light, however, their depictions are quite different from one another. The verbs which describe Deborah’s actions are rare, and sometimes unique, when applied to women; the verbs which describe Jael’s actions are those which are expected of women, yet they produce shockingly unexpected results. This paper will analyze the language used in the text to show that, while Deborah is acting in a manner which appears to transcend the gender norm, Jael’s actions are expressed in verbs appropriate to women’s traditional gender identities, but which are nonetheless subverted and perverted in a manner that produces an unanticipated narrative result.

I begin with the final paper of the conference. I do so because of the general issues it raises regarding two of the women in the Song. It does not mention the third. According to Nourse, Deborah is presented as a public figure and not in a domestic context. She is unique as a female judge and prophet. Moses and Samuel are her male counterparts in these dual functions. Her identity as a wife and mother within the context of the story may be misleading. Her husband’s name is not a personal name but a feminine noun translated as “women of torches” meaning a “fiery woman.” In the Song, Deborah is identified as a “mother in Israel” but has no children. Nourse asks if the term is used metaphorically. The same metaphorical question can be asked about Jael and Sisera’s mother.

Nourse notes that the heroism of Deborah and Jael are not unexpected. In other words, the audience is not expected to react in surprise to their roles in the song and story. Nourse adds that Deborah transcends her gender role while Jael does not, she reverses it. As to what else she said about Jael, I do not know since that is when I left to catch my plane.

S18-112 Archaeology of the Biblical World
Theme: Bronze and Iron Age

Kyle H. Keimer, Macquarie University
Ritual Action or Military Preparation? Interpreting Israel’s Muster at Mizpah in 1 Sam 7

According to 1 Sam 7:5-6 Samuel told all Israel to gather at Mizpah so he could judge them and intercede with YHWH for Israel. What is portrayed as a ritual event is interpreted by the Philistines in 7:7 as strategic military action. This paper offers an explanation for the Philistine response to Israel’s actions through consideration of the geographic reality of the Central Benjamin Plateau. In particular, I will address what it is about Mizpah, specifically, that prompts the Philistines to mobilize against Israel, and whether or not the identification of Tell en-Nasbeh as biblical Mizpah is appropriate. This latter matter will be informed by my work on the unpublished Iron Age I materials from Tell en-Nasbeh.

This presentation was not directly about Deborah. It was another one of the presentations highlighting the Iron I/10th century BCE period in Israelite history as covered in previous posts (Where Is the Tenth Century BCE?: The ASOR and SBL Conferences and The Tenth Century BCE and the SBL Conference). It seeks to link archaeology and text. Keimer claims that the Iron I site of Tell en-Nasbeh or biblical Mizpah was a site of ritual and military preparation. He refers to Judges 4:5

She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.

He interprets the verse to mean that Deborah judged at Mizpah. It was a mustering site in Judges 20:1 and 3 for the Israelite tribes against Benjamin. Most of the paper was about the specific incident involving Samuel and the Philistines. In this regard, Samuel represents a continuation of the use of the site as Deborah had used it. The idea that tribes in Iron I had an assembly point for cooperative military actions seems reasonable enough. The questions raised are what tribes, who had the authority to call tribes to battle, and how is it that a woman could hold that position? Those questions were not the subject of the presentation.

S18-127 Hebrew Scriptures and Cognate Literature
Lauren Monroe, Cornell University
New Light on the Curse of mērôz in the Song of Deborah

The curse of mērôz in Judges 5:23 has long been an interpretive crux in the Song of Deborah. The term mērôz is widely understood as an otherwise-unattested place name, a reading understandably conditioned by reference to “its inhabitants”. However, as a toponym, it is unclear why mērôz is singled out for cursing when the non-participating tribes in verses 15b-17 are not, a problem compounded by an inability to locate the town, or ascertain its political affiliations or allegiances within the context of the Song. This paper offers a new explanation for the term, analyzing it as cognate to the Akkadian term râṣu, “to come to the aid of”, attested at Amarna and elsewhere, and the more well-attested noun rēṣu, meaning “ally”. Remarkably, this meaning for the term is provided within the biblical verse itself: “‘Curse mērôz!’ said the messenger of Yahweh, for they did come to the aid of Yahweh, to the aid of Yahweh among the warriors.” I suggest that the curse of mērôz is directed against the non-participating tribes mentioned earlier in the poem; that is, the tribes of Reuben, Dan, Asher and Gilead. These tribes constituted mērôz, or “auxiliary forces” that were expected, but failed to appear for battle. The idea that Yahweh would curse tribes that later are considered part of “Israel” lends greater complexity to our understanding of the socio-political landscape that underlies this most ancient of biblical poems, and illuminates the raw materials out of which the authors of Judges 4-5 constructed their vision of a unified Israelite past.

I was unable to attend this presentation as it conflicted with the previous one. Therefore the abstract will have to stand on its own. Her definition of the term mērôz is consistent with the approach I took in a pre-conference post (Montenegro and Early Israelite History: Lessons from NATO). I suggested that the NATO alliance provided a better model for the relationship among the Song of Deborah tribes than a pre-monarchical Israelite tribal one. Instead of thinking of them as part of a single people, one should think of them as part of an Israelite-led alliance against Egyptian hegemony including the vassal Canaanite cities. As with NATO not everyone shows up when called. The transformation of this tribal alliance into an Israelite polity will be addressed below.

S19-117 Historiography and the Hebrew Bible
Zev Farber, Project TABS –
The Kenite Redaction: A Supplementary Approach to the Hovav and Kenite Accounts

In his talk on the Kenites previously discussed (Cosmos and Chaos at the SBL Conference: The Kenites and the Amalekites), Farber suggested that Heber the Kenite was inserted in the Deborah story. In my notes, I do not have any information as to whether Farber also said Jael was inserted or not.

Daniel E Fleming, New York University
Exodus 15 without the Exodus: Yahweh and the People of the Southern Highlands

Although most of the narrative from Genesis through Kings is devoted to Israel’s distant past, before the time of biblical writing, the project of its application to historical reconstruction is fraught. The most useful material is often what contrasts with the finished Bible, as with the Song of Deborah’s failure to include Judah and the south in its account of battle with “the kings of Canaan.” In the collection of old poetry identified by Albright, Cross, and others, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 stood as an independent exodus account, yet its continuity with Jerusalem-oriented poetry in the Psalms and Isaiah 40-55 has led recent European scholars to date it to the 6th century or later. Indeed, the combination of southern geography and shared vocabulary in a hymn to Yahweh suggests composition for Jerusalem worship. Yet the Song’s detail indicates secondary association with the prose exodus narrative rather than inspiration from it, and Jerusalem poetry could be composed during the monarchy. In fact, Exodus 15’s historical usefulness has been obscured by its reference to Pharaoh and incorporation into the Moses story. Egypt is defeated by an act of God, Yahweh himself sinking its chariotry as they were transported across a body of water. Yahweh’s own people, named nowhere in the Song, are not present for the catastrophe that opens the southern highlands for their occupation. While the Song may well have been composed in monarchic Jerusalem, it shows no interest in its institutions or Davidic heritage, instead hearkening back to a time before these. For reconstruction of history, of greatest significance is the combination of Egypt’s removal and identification of the beneficiaries only as “your people, Yahweh” (v 16), a phrasing much like “the people of Yahweh” who unite in battle in the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:13). We are left to explore the historical significance of two early biblical texts, south and north, that recount formative events for “people” defined by relation to Yahweh in a time before kings.

Fleming’s presentation was mainly about the Song of the Sea and not the Song of Deborah. In terms of the latter, I take issue with one oft-repeated claim made about the Song of Deborah, that it does not include the tribe of Judah. True the tribe is not present by name and was not part of the Iron I NATO tribal alliance led by Israel. However, one can make the claim, as Mark Smith has, that in the original version of the Song, both Israel and Yahweh were not present either. Those additions occurred precisely when the NATO tribal alliance was transforming into a polity led by David, king of first Judah and then Israel.  Only then did the non-Israelite tribes of the alliance start to think of themselves as Israelite and that Yahweh was their god. Identifying the deity as coming from Seir provided a link for the Calebite/Shosu to be part of the victory and kingdom of Israel.

The Songs of Deborah and the Sea contain another commonality: the prose versions of both seek to explain the poetry. The difference between the poem and the prose can be seen in Sisera entering the tent of Jael. In the song, it simply happens without explanation because the two historical people are being used metaphorically: they are symbols of the peoples in conflict somewhat like Uncle Sam and the Bear. In the prose an explanation is given. The author is trying to understand how it could have happened that Sisera would do what he did. The author’s best guess is an alliance between them because that is the only way he can make the story work in the prose world. He may not have known the original meaning of the metaphorical scene and have been trying to understand it physically literally. Similarly, the J portion of Ex. 14 attempts to provide a real-world portrayal of how the crossing at the waters in Ex. 15 could have occurred. Whether he is right or not is secondary to recognizing that a single author sought to make sense of the poetic heritage of the Israelite people at t time when Israel became a kingdom. He wanted to understand what actually happened even if he was not an historian.

There were two other presentations in this session

Andrew Tobolowsky, College of William and Mary
The Full Land: Writing Biblical History amidst Contestations

Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, Providence College (Rhode Island)
Boundary Crossing and Boundary Blurring in the Bible’s Tales of David and Gath (covered in Where Is the Tenth Century BCE?: The ASOR and SBL Conferences).

Afterwards there was a general discussion on the topic of tribes including the Song of Deborah. In a follow-up to a question on the Amarna Letters, I commented that those letters were between Pharaoh and Canaanite kings and not to any tribes. I then noted that it was precisely those Canaanite kings who are the enemies of the Canaanite and Transjordan tribes in the Song of Deborah. I did not add that it is those very Canaanite cities which were the last Canaanite peoples to become part of the Israelite kingdom. And they did so unwillingly unlike many Canaanite people symbolically represented by Rahab.

S19-222 Historiography and the Hebrew Bible
Quinn Daniels, New York University
The Politics of the Song of Deborah: The Enduring “Root” of Ephraim in Amaleq (Judg 5:14a)

The Song of Deborah (Jdgs 5) comes to us as one of the earliest biblical texts describing the muster of different peoples for battle; it praises those who join and condemns those who fail to come (vv. 14-18). By naming these peoples, the text has power to reveal old, collective political configurations that existed prior to the Israelite and Judahite monarchies. The Ephraim people, in particular, should hold our attention as the first-mentioned name on the list, partially because of its unexpected connection to another name, Amaleq. The line that crucially defines the relationship between the two: “From Ephraim, their root in Amaleq” (v. 14a), has not been satisfactorily explained, and any way forward demands better understanding of the decisive word “root,” or šōreš, in this context. As English speakers, it is common to assume that “root” conveys a sense of the past or origins. However, when we examine the range of social and political applications for the word šōreš, along with its Semitic cognates, we find that it instead refers to a patrilineage, or line of male kin, that was to extend indefinitely into the foreseeable future. This future-oriented redefinition unlocks a new possibility in our difficult verse – namely, that Ephraim had a patrilineal leader who led Amaleq into battle as part of the Ephraimite fighting force. Ephraim’s “root,” in this case, would be the current and subsequent generations of leadership. A second text, Judges 12:13-15, locates Ephraim and Amaleq together, and although it does not use the word šōreš to define the relationship, it describes a similar political relationship. Here, an Ephraimite patrilineal leader, Abdon son of Hillel, was buried “in Pirathon, in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amaleqites.” Abdon is commemorated as an elite, almost royal figure, who successfully perpetuated his lineage while he was alive. His burial at a gravesite defined by both Ephraimite and Amaleqite peoples comprises a second, independent memory of Ephraim’s link with Amaleq. Abdon’s elite multi-generational family (v.14) is the type of patrilineage that matches the definition of šōreš. As a result, Abdon represents the Ephraimite patrilineal leader among the Amaleqites – much like the Ephraimite šōreš in the Song of Deborah. The cooperation of Amaleq with Ephraimite leadership in the list of groups (vv.14-18) shows that Amaleq was one component of Ephraim’s larger group “muster” – with Benjamin perhaps another component through its inclusion in the parallel line: “after you, Benjamin, among your peoples” (5:14a). The Ephraim people had a patrilineal leader among the Amaleqites, and was followed by Benjamin – itself a constitution of many peoples. All of these groups participated in a battle in the distant north – a conflict in which nearby groups like Reuben, Gilead, Dan, and Asher refused to participate (vv.15b-17). The fronted placement of the Ephraim-led collaboration perhaps recognizes – even celebrates – the accomplishment of mustering such a variegated fighting force across a long distance.

Daniel’s position is that although Amaleq is employed in a negative sense elsewhere (see Yigal Levin’s presentation in Cosmos and Chaos at the SBL Conference: The Kenites and the Amalekites) that depiction does not apply in this oldest text. His presentation raises many questions regarding the configuration of the tribes in the Iron I period: who they were, where they were, how did they relate to each other, and how did they muster. I am not ready to sort all this out but I do note one major missing ingredient in the analysis: the Merneptah Stele. Merneptah does not mention any tribes save perhaps for Israel itself. He did not succeed in destroying Israel’s seed but Egyptian hegemony did not end either. Israel’s opposition to Egypt and its survival after an Egyptian attack would have been observed by the peoples in the land of Canaan. It is in the aftermath of Merneptah’s failure against Israel that the anti-Egyptian Israelite-led NATO alliance with a possible mustering location at Mizpah would have been emerged. Nourse’s insight about Jael reversing gender roles is relevant here. The symbolic use of the historical wilderness woman Kenite Jael smiting Pharaoh Sese-Ra III/Sisera reversed the Egyptian smiting Pharaoh motif. It announced the presence of a new player in the political arena. Later those tribes decided to become part of the kingdom of Israel.

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you that led out and brought in Israel; and Yahweh said to you, `You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.'” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before Yahweh, and they anointed David king over Israel. (2 Samuel 5:1-3)

It was only after these non-Israelite tribes in the Song of Deborah chose to become part of the kingdom of Israel under David that Jacob came to the fore, that Jacob became Israel, and Jacob genealogy stories were needed.