The Song of Deborah is thought to be one of the oldest pieces of literature in the Bible. Found within the book of Judges, it describes the victory of the Israelites at the battle of Mount Tabor.
The hymn was apparently sung as a duet between Barak, the Israelite general, and Deborah, the judge and spiritual leader of the nation. Praising God for the success of the battle, it covers the key events that led to the victory. This includes Deborah’s inspirational leadership, the role of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, the heavy rain that caused the enemy chariots to get stuck in the mud – and how a lone woman named Jael killed the Canaanite general, Sisera.
Jael was of the Kenite tribe, which means she was a foreigner. She invited Sisera into her tent after he had fled the battlefield. She covered him in a blanket and once he had fallen asleep, she killed him by driving a tent peg into his skull. Deborah, for her part, had already foreseen this decisive act (Judges 4:9).
Scholars have noted the strong female perspective of the song. The main people mentioned are women – Deborah, Jael, the mother of Sisera and her ladies. In ancient Israel, women often composed songs about national events (Exodus 15:20-21; 1 Samuel 18:6-7; Judith 16:1-17). These songs helped shape the way that the nation saw God’s role in their history.
This stained glass window picturing Deborah is found within the Lady Chapel of St Mary’s, Clapham. Its presence there – alongside other Old Testament women – is meant to underline the historic role of women in helping to save the people of Israel. In this scene, a richly-dressed Deborah plays the lyre as she sings her victory hymn. In Scripture, lyres were often played when people praised God in song, which is why Deborah is shown holding one, although this is not directly mentioned in the text (cf Psalm 33:1-3; 71:22; 92:1-4).
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Where to find this work of art
St Mary’s, Clapham
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On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: The Song of Deborah forms the crescendo of the story of Deborah judging Israel.
- From the New Testament: Jael driving a tent peg into Sisera’s skull, as described in the song, was traditionally seen as a mystic sign of Christ’s crucifixion at Golgotha (the Place of the Skull).