Though the two accounts relate the same basic story, telling details set them apart. The prose account, probably written much later, is more traditional: Deborah is a sort of cheerleader and prophet, urging the troops into battle from the sidelines. Jael kills Sisera in his sleep after slyly convincing him to hide under a carpet.
The older "Song of Deborah," on the other hand, "shows none of this unease about women warriors," writes Frymer-Kensky. In language that is powerful even in translation (and often deeply sexual in the original, according to some scholars) the song represents Deborah as a war leader in her own right: "the peasantry prospered in Israel / they grew fat on plunder / because you arose, Deborah / arose as a mother in Israel." And Jael's murder of the enemy general Sisera is a poetic study in bravery and brutality: "He asked water and she gave him milk / she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. / She put her hand to the tent peg / and her right hand to the workmen's mallet; / she struck Sisera a blow / she crushed his head / she shattered and pierced his temple. / He sank, he fell / he lay still at her feet."
The prose version's differences may be the result of an effort to rewrite history, or at least reshape mythology. Ackerman suggests a later writer, "someone who couldn't go with the song's notion of a woman as a war leader," reshaped the tale to fit with the more conservative notions of the day.
Yet both accounts underscore what may be Judges' most important message. Over and over again, Israel's saviors are unlikely heroes. Deborah and Jael were women; mighty Samson was gullible and had a weakness for women; Jephthah was the bandit son of a prostitute; and Ehud was left-handed (things were different back then, apparently). By emphasizing the inappropriateness of the hero, readers were reminded of God's importance. "God can do whatever he wants, and if he wants to work through nonsoldiers—that is, women—he can," says Everett Fox, the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University in Massachusetts and the author of a widely acclaimed translation of the first five books of the Bible. "If you can be rescued by a housewife, it just goes to show God works in mysterious ways."