January 26, 2002
The Song of Devorah, which celebrates God’s hand in the victory over Sisera and his army, opens with the following image; “O Lord when you came forth from Seir, advanced from the country of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens dripped, also the clouds dripped water; the mountains quaked before the Lord, Him of Sinai, before the Lord, God of Israel.” (Judges 5:4-5)
This image is interpreted in two different ways. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish interpreter, takes the approach of the “pashtanim” – those who search for the plain meaning of the text. He interprets this verse according to its context. He explains that these images recount the battles that God fought for the children of Israel in their conquest of the land. (His explanation is found in the commentary of Radak, the 13th century Provencal commentator. Note, too, that Rabbi Joseph Kara, the 12th century French interpreter and student of Rashi, independently follows a similar line of thinking.)
The earlier approach to the interpretation of this verse seems to have been midrashic. Since the imagery found in this verse is reminiscent of language used to describe the giving of the Torah (see Deuteronomy 33:2), the Mechilta links this verse to the revelation at Sinai: “ ‘I am the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20:2): When the Holy One Blessed be He stood up and said: ‘I am the Lord your God,’ the earth trembled, as it is said: ‘Lord, when you go out from Seir, when You march out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled.’ (Judges 5:4) And it goes on to say: ‘The mountains quaked at the presence of the Lord’ (Ibid., v. 5)… (Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Bahodesh, Chapter 5)
This interpretation was adopted by Rashi and Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed 3:9). Rashi points out that this interpretation is contextually difficult because it is not clear why images of the giving of the Torah should find a place in Deborah’s song of victory. He attempts to resolve this problem by using the interpretation of Targum Yonathan who asserts that the image of the giving of the Torah was included by Deborah, the prophetess, to teach the following lesson: “It is difficult to depart from the Torah and much better to cling to it, for it was given with awe and might. The children of Israel are given over to their enemies because of their disloyalty to the Torah and will eventually be saved from their enemies when they are again loyal to God and the Torah.” (adapted from Rashi) This explanation combines the interpretation of the midrash with the basic theological tenet of the book of Judges, namely, that sin and disloyalty to God cause catastrophe and the return to God brings about salvation.
We may consider this claim theologically unsophisticated and it may make us a little uncomfortable. However, its intent is to inspire loyalty and responsibility on the part of the Jewish people. These are qualities that continue to deserve encouragement.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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