The Israelites behave badly, so Yahweh turns them over to cruel occupation by a Canaanite general. An Israelite prophetess convinces one of her countrymen to muster an army. The Israelites win the battle, and the foreign general flees on foot, eventually hiding in the tent of a nomad woman who murders him as he sleeps. The oppressor is gone, and the land enjoys a period of peace.

These are the bare facts of the story of Judges 4–5. It wasn’t told this way, in summary fashion, but it might have been. The story of Othniel (Judg 3:7–11) is treated this way, and Shamgar (3:31) gets just one verse: He killed 600 Philistines with a cattle prod and saved Israel. Period.

But the story of Deborah and Barak is so good they told it twice, once in narrative (Judg 4), and again in poetry (Judg 5). The two versions of the story play off one another in terms of genre, time, and viewpoint.

Prose VS Poetry

Judges 4 is a conventional narrative: a series of declarative sentences strung together to communicate information that advances the plot. It’s not that the sentences always proceed in chronological order; rather, events are recounted at the point in the story where they best drive the narrative. For example, Heber the Kenite’s relocation to Kedesh may have happened before Sisera’s occupation (for all we know), but it doesn’t become important to the story until 4:11.

Judges 5, on the other hand, is exemplary Hebrew poetry: short parallel lines, carefully crafted to evoke rather than explain. The story is told not as a series of plot points but as an artfully arranged selection of images: Yahweh thundering at Sinai (5:4–6; see Exod 19:16–20); the stars themselves fighting by Israel’s side (5:20; see Job 38:7); an army of chariots washed away by a flood (5:21; see Exod 14); a once-mighty warrior fallen at a woman’s feet, exhausted—dead (5:27).

Then VS Now

According to Judges 5:1, Deborah’s song (Judg 5:2–31) was composed the day Sisera was defeated, making the song itself an event in the story it tells. Where Judges 4 looks back on historical events, the song exists in the moment, at the scene. From there, Deborah looks back, forward, and sideways through time—hearkening back to the Exodus, blessing helpers and cursing shirkers in the present day, and then leaping forward to Sisera’s mother waiting for her son. Ironically, Deborah, physically bound within her own time, is free to let her version of the story roam through time and space. But the narrator, speaking from above and beyond the events, must keep his version firmly rooted within the temporal bounds of the plot.