Sparks and the age of the Song of Deborah

Beginning in April of 2005 I blogged for several weeks about Kenton Sparks’ book, God’s Word in Human Words.

Sparks has now made available on the Internet his paper “Religion, Identity and the Origins of Ancient Israel”, which was originally published in Religious Compass in 2007.  The paper is here.

I remember from having read his book that he covered some of the same material there.  However, I want to focus on a particular issue.

The main thrust of his paper is that after a period when the consensus of scholars seemed to be that the Israelites who settled in the central highlands of Canaan around the 12th century BCE were Canaanites, many scholars were pushing back and reconsidering that the Israelites may have been semi-nomads from the east after all. Sparks marshals some of the evidence for this idea that the Israelites were more Shasu than Canaanite.

The issue I want to focus on is Ancient Hebrew poetry, in particular the dating of the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.

From David Noel Freedman, I had received the notion that old poems in the Bible showed certain marks of archaic or paleo Hebrew, and could often be dated to the period before the monarchy.  In Freedman’s article “Canon of the OT” in the supplementary volume of the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, he gave a list of these old poems and their probable dates:

…Exod. 15, Judg. 5, and Ps. 29 (twelfth century B.C.) ; Gen 49, Deut. 33, and the poetic portions of Num. 23-24 (eleventh century B.C.) ; I Sam. 2, II Sam. 1, II Sam. 22 (=Ps. 18), II Sam. 23:1-7, and Ps. 2 (tenth century B.C.)  ; and Deut. 32 and Pss. 68, 72, and 77 (ninth century B.C.).

His grounds for these dates depended on his expertise in philology and ancient Near Eastern languages, particularly Ugaritic.  There was a lot of criticism of this attempt to date the poetry.  Some claimed Freedman was just using intuition rather than a rigorous statistical method.  More recently Avi Hurvitz has defended linguistic dating and attempted to develop a better method.

Since my own expertise in Hebrew consists of knowing the alphabet and knowing how to use a lexicon, I cannot evaluate the linguistic argument.  If you want to get into the weeds about this stuff, I recommend taking a look at David Steinberg’s E-book, here.

However, in regard to Judges 5, I agree with Freedman’s date based on a number of non-linguistic factors.  And Sparks, in “Religion, Identity and the Origins of Ancient Israel” helpfully reminds me of several of these.

1.  The southern tribes of Judah and Simeon do not appear among the ten tribes of the Song of Deborah.  Some of these tribes, Machir and Gilead, also do not match the developed tradition. So the Song of Deborah reflects a situation prior to and independent of the narrative of the twelve tribes with Judah as predominant.

2.  The Pentateuch tells the story of how the tribes branched off from a single patriarchal family.  The Song of Deborah, however, seems to tell of the joining together of disparate tribes in the face of a threat.

3. The archeological evidence from Megiddo shows that the city fell to the Philistines no later than -1130, so the Judges 5 battle must have been before that.

4. The song puts the tribe of Dan at their pre-migration location near the Mediterranean.  But archeological evidence shows that their migration to the north happened not long after -1200, perhaps even before.

5. The religious language about YHWH  as a storm God coming from the southeastern mountains and deserts seems to fit a more primitive theme than that of the main Torah narrative.

Sparks got from Egyptologist, Donald Redford, the idea that the name Sisera might be a nickname for Pharaoh Ramses II.   This association would put the battle in the late Bronze Age.

This, in my opinion is very weak and hurts the case Sparks is trying to make. Even as fiction, the idea that a woman drove a tent peg through the Pharaoh’s head makes no sense..  (There is a tentative identification of Sisera that has some archeological backing.  See here.)

Sparks’ main point is that the Song of Deborah supports the idea that a group of nomadic tribes from the east with a common bond to the non-Canaanite deity, YHWH, formed the league of ancient Israel.  In the process he reiterates some of the reasons to think that the Song of Deborah gives us a window on Israel in it very early days.

A bonus idea from me, not Sparks: even among the other poems that Freedman thought were very old, the Song of Deborah is the one that speaks of the “God of Israel” but does not mention Jacob.  Could Jacob have been more identified with Judah?  Might the occasion for uniting the Israel and Jacob traditions have come after the time of Deborah?


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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One Response to Sparks and the age of the Song of Deborah

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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