Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Echols, Charles L., “Tell Me, O Muse”: The Song of Deborah (Judges 5) in the Light of Heroic Poetry (LHBOTS, 487; New York, London: T. & T. Clark, 2008). Pp. xiii+241, Hardcover. £65. ISBN 9780567026941.

Echols' recent publication is a revision of his 2005 doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Cambridge. In this work Echols argues that the “Song of Deborah” in Judges 5 (hereafter the “Song”) was composed as a profane “heroic victory song” that “was adapted secondarily to a religious context” (pp. 12, 64 respectively). Echols' book covers ten chapters of varying length, which are divided into two main parts or “stages.” Chapters 1–6 (i.e. Stage 1) deal with textual and linguistic arguments, whereas chapters 7–10 (i.e. Stage 2) deal primarily with genre classification and conclusions.

Echols begins his book by giving a general introduction to his thesis in chapter 1. This is followed by the author's annotated translation of Judges 5 in chapter 2. His meticulous textual work, covering twenty-seven pages, draws upon not only the primary textual witnesses but also the conclusions and debates of numerous linguistic and Judges scholars from the past 150 years or so.

In chapter 3 Echols discusses the possible terminus ad quem and terminus a quo of the Song by examining key archaeological, historical, linguistic and literary factors evident in the passage. Throughout this discussion Echols relies heavily upon the work of scholars in these fields. For example, his linguistic argument utilizes the work of key scholars such as Burney, Rendsburg, and Waltisberg, while in his literary analysis he cites Diebner almost exclusively. Echols concludes that the majority of the arguments do not preclude a pre-monarchical date, which he considers fitting to the Song and its content (pp. 62–63).

Chapter 4 explores the arguments for and against the unity of the Song. Echols notes that the “debate is, in large measure, between literary-critical arguments in support of the Song's unity and form-critical arguments against it” (p. 13). The former position includes arguments predominantly from style, structure, comparative analysis of ancient Near Eastern texts, unifying themes and some form-critical positions (e.g. Weiser and Gray who posit a liturgical setting for the entire Song). As for the latter form-critical position, Echols examines the arguments of numerous scholars who point to late vocabulary and glosses, tensions in syntax, themes and speech, and form-critical arguments based primarily upon liturgical texts as evidence that the Song includes secondary material. After reviewing the two positions, Echols opts for the “greater probability” (p. 90) of the latter position based on the liturgical nature of select verses in the Song, which he sees as later additions. Echols thus concludes with “reasonable confidence” that the original “profane” Song included vv. 6–30 with the exception of v. 9c (ברכו יהוה “bless Yahweh”) (p. 92). His emended text removes eight of the occurrences of the Tetragrammaton with two more being questionable (p. 93).

Based upon his emended text from chapter 4, Echols explores the portrayal of God in the Song in his fifth and sixth chapters. In chapter 5, Echols does a comparative textual analysis of the Song with Judges 4; Exodus 15; 2 Samuel 22 (= Psalm 18), and Habakkuk 3, which he states are of similar “genre, occasion, and date” (p. 13). Based upon his comparative analysis of these Hebrew texts, Echols concludes that they present Yahweh as the primary deliverer thus showing that the Song is distinct or, as he words it, “enigmatic” and “anomalous” (pp. 116, 117 respectively). In chapter 6 Echols examines arguments that suggest that Yahweh's role is more than implicit in the Song. He begins by presenting the positions of Hauser and O'Connell, whose arguments Echols discredits. Hauser's position relies on verses in the Song that Echols deems “secondary” and O'Connell marshals support for his position from Judges 4, which Echols insists is methodologically problematic. Echols finishes the chapter by looking at the works of Craigie, Dempster, and Taylor who all suggest the possibility of Ugaritic mythological influences on the Song. Echols rejects their arguments, averring that these arguments rely too heavily on “allusion,” “implication,” and “circumstantial” evidence (pp. 130–131).

Chapters 7–10 (i.e. Stage 2 of Echols' thesis) build upon the conclusions of Stage 1 that the Song is substantially different from other Hebrew texts. Echols therefore attempts to identify the genre of the Song through comparative cross-cultural textual analysis. Throughout these final chapters of his book, Echols relies heavily upon the works of H. M. and N. K. Chadwick and Cecil M. Bowra (p. 135). In these chapters, he carries out comparative analyses of the Song with heroic narrative poetry, lyric genres, and victory songs (respectively). Echols meticulously and methodologically works through texts from a wide range of cultures systematically eliminating each proposed genre as a match for the Song. It is the final genre, viz., victory songs, that Echols finds most suitable to the Song. However, he gleans the concept of “heroic” from the heroic narrative poetry genre and applies it to the victory song genre as the best description of the Song (cf. chapter 9). Chapter 10 is reserved for general conclusions and implications. Echols concludes that Judges 5, in its “original” form represents a heroic victory song praising its human characters who take “center stage” while “Yahweh remains largely off in the wings” (p. 202). Nevertheless, Echols does suggest that those who heard the original Song would have recognized Yahweh as the “director” of the events portrayed.

Aside from a couple of minor typographical errors and awkwardly worded sentences (e.g., p. 90, line one under Conclusion C; p. 151 line 29; p. 184, the first line of the second paragraph), Echols' book has many positive qualities and insights that make it a “must read” for anyone working on Judges 5. In typical dissertation style, Echols' work is very detailed and meticulously researched almost to a fault. As one would expect, the first half of his book is more technical and perhaps of more interest to linguists and scholars in this particular field, compared to the second half, which any reading audience can follow. His use of past and present scholarship and primary and secondary sources throughout his argument is exemplary and nearly exhaustive. He uses copious footnoting to bolster his position and inform the reader of bibliographic data for further exploration of focused and tangential topics. This in its own right is a rewarding feature. He handles the vying scholarly positions and issues carefully and judiciously, often drawing his conclusions from several strands of evidence (e.g., the dating of Judges 5 in chapter 3). Echols handles the text diachronically while employing several methodological approaches (e.g., form and literary criticism, cross-cultural text analysis). For the most part, his use of these methods is appropriate for his stated task.

The main difficulties I have with Echols' work rest on his methodological approach in three areas: 1) his comparative analysis of Hebrew texts in chapter 5; 2) his application of cross-cultural text analysis; and 3) his focus on textual emendation of Judges 5.

First, in chapter 5 Echols' line of argument is somewhat unclear when he postulates that the lack of Yahweh's presence in the Song “presupposes” the dominant presence of Yahweh in Israelite texts of similar “genre, occasion and date” (i.e., Habakkuk 3; 2 Samuel 22; Judges 4; Exodus 15) (pp. 93, 13). If Hebrew texts of similar “genre, occasion, and date” repeatedly accredit “Yahweh as deliverer, implicitly and explicitly” (p. 115) then why should we expect any less from Judges 5? Yet Echols propagates exactly the opposite position. He concludes that Yahweh as explicit deliverer in these texts proves that the lack of Yahweh's presence in the Song is “enigmatic” (pp. 115–116). It seems most logical to argue the opposite position of Echols, viz.; Yahweh should be present in the Song as deliverer, which indeed is the case in the canonical text. Therefore, Echols' emended “original” text for the Song presented in his fourth chapter appears to go against the common Israelite literary trend of the period as presented in his fifth chapter.

Next, while Echols is careful in his assessment of the role heroic genres play in texts from a wide range of cultures, most of the examples he employs to formulate the “characteristics” of a given genre throughout chapters 7–9 are often removed from the Song. In some cases they are separated not only culturally and through language differences but also by centuries. I would find his argument more compelling if he had focused on texts germane to the region and closer to the date of the Song.

These two issues aside, my greatest difficulty with Echols' hypothesis lies in his emendation of the canonical text. His desire to label eight of the fourteen appearances of the Tetragrammaton as “secondary,” thus excising them from the “original” text, appears suspect in light of his overall argument (cf. pp. 81–92). Indeed, it is only after assigning secondary status to many of the pertinent verses where Yahweh is the focus that Echols can aver that Yahweh, as deliverer, is only “implicit” in the “original” text (p. 94). While many of his arguments for excising certain texts are based on conclusions of other scholars (cf. chapter 4), it appears that such an approach lends little credence to an ongoing argument that falls unless such a drastic measure is taken (cf. p. 119). Echols himself acknowledges that there is “no consensus over which material is secondary among those who argue against the Song's unity” (p. 89). Even Echols' comment that “the majority of scholars who claim that the Song has been revised agree on vv. 2–5 and 31a as secondary” (italics mine), offers little assurance of an unbiased agenda. Moreover, in this section Echols proposes that the removal of the “secondary” material still “leaves a dramatic story with a coherent plot” (p. 91) yet this was often the argument used in Pentateuchal source studies of the early twentieth century which is all but abandoned today.

Furthermore, the “original” text, as posited by Echols, has several honoured earthly “deliverers”/“heroes” (i.e., Deborah, Barak, Jael, Zebulun, and Naphtali, p. 187) yet no one individual stands out as the prominent deliverer (p. 116). Ironically, it is Jael, a foreigner, who has the most text devoted to praising her actions (vv. 24–27). This raises the question: why would an Israelite heroic victory song devote so much space to a foreigner? Even if Echols' conclusion that the text is a “heroic victory song” is correct, I would argue that he does not need to remove the focus from Yahweh as deliverer. I believe that Echols' emendations have created this tension by removing the real focus, viz., Yahweh.

In the ancient Near East, rarely was a military victory not attributed to the work of one's god(s). Ancient Near Eastern texts much earlier than the date attributed to the Song prove this fact (cf. any of the Hittite, Assyrian, or Babylonian war annals; e.g., The Ten Year Annals of Great King Murshili II of Hatti). In Israel one would expect such attribution even more so from an early period based on Echols' own conclusions in chapter 5. Could it be that the original text included most, if not all, of what we have today? Thus, the beginning verses, which Echols assigns as “secondary,” set the proper stage for who is the true deliverer, Yahweh. From this perspective, one can see that the Song tells of how Yahweh used: 1) a godly woman (v. 7), 2) an unarmed army (v. 8), 3) fearful Barak (v. 12), 4) incomplete numbers of the tribes (vv. 16, 17, 23), 5) the supernatural (v. 20), 6) the natural (v. 21), and 7) a foreign woman, in order to bring victory. The combination of all these variables (many negative from an ANE and patriarchal perspective) points to a divine deliverer/hero more so than acknowledged by Echols.

Regardless of the difficulties I have with Echols' presentation, I am sure that many scholars will find his work stimulating and a valuable asset in researching Judges 5. Indeed, I am pleased to have his book on my shelf.

Brian Peterson, Wycliffe College