Haftarah for Beshalach

Deborah leads a nation in war and sings a victory song.

Commentary on Parashat Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

Most of the Bible is written as prose, though there are examples of poetry (such as in Psalms), as well as song. The two most famous biblical songs are the Song of the Sea, which is in this week’s Torah portion, and the Song of Deborah, which is in this week’s Haftarah.

Deborah is one of the Israelite leaders in the Book of Judges. She is a prophet and a judge, and she keeps court under a palm tree in the hill country, where people come for guidance.

Barak & Deborah Fight Sisera

Deborah also communicates God’s wishes to the people, and one day she calls for Barak, a general in the military, and tells him that God commands him to report to Mount Tabor, with a company of 10,000 soldiers. There, she tells him, he will meet Sisera, the commander of the army of Hazor. They will fight, and Barak will win.

Barak answers that he will go into battle only if Deborah accompanies him. She accedes to this request, but warns him that he will receive no glory if she comes, “for now the Eternal will hand Sisera over to a woman” (Judges 4:9).

Barak accepts these terms and together with Deborah and his warriors, he ascends the mountain. At once, “the Eternal throws Sisera, his chariots, and his whole army into disarray” (Judges 4:15). Sisera himself is thrown from his chariot and runs away on foot. All his troops are killed, but Sisera is kept alive. He retreats to the camp of Yael, a powerful woman who is married to one of Sisera’s allies. Yael takes him in and covers him in a blanket.

Yael Secures A Victory

When Sisera asks for water, Yael instead gives him milk, which lulls him to sleep. Once asleep, she takes a tent-peg and a mallet and drives it through his head. Then, when Barak comes searching for him, Yael shows him Sisera’s pierced head.

To commemorate this victory, and in particular Yael’s role in it, Barak and Deborah sing a song. The song dramatizes this battle, as well as others fought by Barak, and tells of the military victories of different tribes of Israel.

It concludes with a tribute to Yael, retelling her murder of Sisera in more detail than the original verses, and a plea to God to continue to support the Israelites in battle, so long as they continue to love God.

Both the Torah portion this week and the Haftarah are a curious combination of military battles and victory songs. But, while Miriam’s song in the Torah straight forwardly praises God for defeating Egypt, the Song of Deborah is a testament to both God and Israel, extolling both divine miracles and human effort.

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