February 11, 2006
Deborah\’s triumphant song of praise to God is an ode to God\’s redemptive powers in saving His people. The language of this song, however, is neither easy nor straightforward and, as a consequence, elements of this song are open to radical differences in interpretation. Even the very first words of this song provide fodder for a variety of different interpretations. The New Jewish Publication Society translation of the opening verse of Deborah\’s song is as follows: \”When locks go untrimmed (befroah p\’raot) in Israel; when people dedicate themselves – bless the Lord.\” (5:2) This translation interprets the word \”perah\” to mean \”untrimmed\”, associating Deborah\’s dedicatory verse with the commandment of \”nazirut\” (see Numbers 6:5) where people dedicated themselves to God, in part, by dedicating the growth of their hair to God. This interpretation, which is based on the grammatical research of the Spanish grammarian, Rabbi Yonah ibn Janach (11th century), in Sefer Shorashim (Book of Roots), is affirmed by modern research into ancient Near-Eastern languages to represent the plain meaning of this verse. It assumes that Deborah proclaims, in part, the success in overcoming Israel\’s enemies was based on the people\’s dedication to God by specially dedicating themselves, perhaps as nazir-warriors. (Yaira Amit, Shoftim, Mikra b\’Yisrael, p. 95-6)
This verse, however, presented difficulties to previous interpreters. Two different manuscripts of the early Greek translation, the Septuagint, translate this verse differently. The Alexandrian manuscript translates these words: \”When they sang songs in Israel\”; while in the Vatican manuscript, it is translated: \”When revelation was revealed in Israel\”. (Ibid.) Targum Yonathan, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets (~7th century) has an entirely different take on this verse: \”When the House of Israel rebelled against the Torah, the nations came upon them and troubled them from their cities; but when they returned to the Torah, they overcame their enemies and expelled them from their borders.\” This translation reads a lot into these two words. Its intent is to tie Israel\’s allegiance to the Torah to its fate. This message, while not explicitly expressed here, is a major theme of the book of Judges. Rashi, who bases his interpretation on the Targum, explains the basis for its interpretation. He asserts a connection between the words \”perah\” and \”pritzah\” which means \”breach\”: \”When a breach [by their enemies] came on Israel, when their enemies \’breached\’ against Israel for leaving the Torah; then the people of Israel volunteered to repent…\”
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provance), on the other hand, linked the word \”perah\” to the later Aramaic word \”poranuta\” meaning \”vengeance\” and so translated the phrase: \”When they avenged the vengeance\”. Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (14th century France), a philosopher, chose a rational approach to defining this phrase: \”When Israel became paralyzed and negligible in strength because of the onslaught of Sisera, King Yavin\’s general, this quality of weakness made it appropriate for God to bless them when they volunteered to make war. In lieu of their weakness in facing Sisera\’s strength, God\’s blessing was a very great wonder.\”
The different possible interpretations of this verse illustrate how difficult it is, at times, to discern the meaning of a text. What is clear from this exercise is that interpretation is very much a product of the interaction between the interpreter, his or her understanding of the text, concerns and worldview. This symbiosis makes the text a living entity from which every generation can garner meaning.