[b-hebrew] Judges 4:21 and Song of Deborah

Noam Eitan noameitan at yahoo.com
Sun Nov 20 23:45:39 EST 2011

The syntax of this verse has bothered me for a long time, and I thought I’ll use this thread to bring it up. Judges 4:21:

כא  וַתִּקַּח יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת-חֶבֶר אֶת-יְתַד הָאֹהֶל וַתָּשֶׂם אֶת-הַמַּקֶּבֶת בְּיָדָהּ, וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו בַּלָּאט, וַתִּתְקַע אֶת-הַיָּתֵד בְּרַקָּתוֹ, וַתִּצְנַח בָּאָרֶץ; וְהוּא-נִרְדָּם וַיָּעַף, וַיָּמֹת.

The problem is the last 3 verbs. The JPS 1917 Edition translates: “for he was in a deep sleep; so he swooned and died”. So נִרְדָּם is “he was in a deep sleep”, וַיָּעַף is “so he swooned”, and next he is kaput. It preserves a syntax we can live with at the expense of stretching the meaning of וַיָּעַף – does it really refer here to his state after being assaulted? 

The new JPS doesn’t think so. They translate “When he was fast asleep from exhaustion, she approached him etc. Thus he died.” There is no nice temporal sequence. נִרְדָּם וַיָּעַף is “fast asleep from exhaustion”, his condition before the assault, next comes וַיָּמֹת not reflecting the sequence of events that is reconstructed in their (new) translation. 

What I’m reading into the new JPS is that they think this sequence of 3 verbs is poetic. There is a long prelude in this verse that is entirely devoted to what the heroine of this epic is doing. Her victim, a man, is done and finished off in 3 verbs that constitute a climax and highlight his shameful demise – by a woman. She is active, he is shamefully passive. 

The song of Deborah does over several verses what the one above does in one. First it goes to great lengths to glorify Jael and her actions by detailing them repeatedly and presenting her as the active party. Then it proceeds to underline with exuberant schadenfreude her victim's demise by salvos of staccato fired verbs that reflect both the glee of the song teller or singer, as well as the passivity and the facility with which the victim, a man, is dispatched.

Could it be that verse 4:21 above reflects in its syntax the memory of another Song of Deborah that uses much the same poetic devices like the one we know today as Song of Deborah?  

Noam Eitan,
Brooklyn, NY

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list