Who Was Moses’ Successor?

Nope, not Joshua. Yes, of course, he was, but there’s another successor to Moses in dramatic ways. In the most recent fascicle of Journal for the Study of the Old Testament an article by Bruce Herzberg, at Bentley University in Waltham Mass, presents an excellent case for seeing Deborah as a successor to Moses. As he puts it, “far more similar than either traditional or modern commentators acknowledge.” [“Deborah and Moses,” JSOT 38/1 (2013): 15-33.]

You can read up about Moses for this in Exodus 14-15 and about Deborah in Judges 4-5. Here is a sampling of his article and the major lines of similarities (and Herzberg marches out all the evidence in readable fashion):

1. Both defeat better-armed forces that are equipped with chariots.

2. Both victories are followed by a song, and the two songs are seen by many to be the earliest strata of the Old Testament.
3. These are the only pairings of a narrative poem with a prose narrative of the same event.
4. Both are connected to the Kenites, descendants of Moses’ father-in-law.
5. Deborah, like Moses, is described in the Bible in the act of judging.
6. Deborah, like Moses, is a prophet who speaks the Word of God to the people.
7. Moses judged in a tent, Deborah under a tree (location specified).
8. Deborah, like Moses, orders a military leader into action, presenting herself as the voice of God, but stays behind the troops at the top of a hill to inspire rather than fight.
9. In the battles of both chariots are disabled by a sudden rush of water.
10. Both Moses and Deborah sing victory songs.

The Medieval rabbis read Exodus 14-15 with Judges 4-5 in their lectionaries.

I find this information fascinating and clearly indicative of some parallels between Moses and Deborah, a (but not the only) successor to Moses.

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  • John Turner

    David Howard, in the New American Commentary on Joshua, pp. 244-246 in the context of pp. 233-251, discusses the Songs of Moses and of Deborah (as well as Habakkuk 3:11) in relation to Moses’ other successor Joshua and his battle with the Gibeonites (when the sun was said to stand still).

  • mattDavis!

    Now that is quite interesting. Successor may be the wrong word but there seems to be a solid case for literary parallelism. The role of gender in the book of Judges, and especially the numerous examples of female subversion of patriarchy is something that has intrigued me. Thanks for posting Scot, I’ll have to keep this in mind as I do more work in Judges.

  • Hello Scott, this is a fascinating and thought-inspiring post.

    On the one hand it would be great if it were true for this would show that the extent of the opression of females in the ancient near east was diverse and some men really viewed women as equally valuable.

    On the other hand, the Mose and Deborah of the Bible were mass-murdering criminals who ordered soldiers to kill countless babies and pregnant babies.
    It would have been very hard for them to enter the pro-life section of the Republican party!
    As I believer, I don’t know what to think about that.
    Let us grant for the sake of the conversation their historicity.

    Did these people experience God but committed atrocities they attributed to their deity like almost everyone around them? But why did then God allow such a mistake?

    Maybe, the question of why God allowed ancient south-americans to massively sacrifice their children to their blood-thirsty deities is equally troubling.

    In philosophy, this is called the problem of divine hidenness: why does God reveal us so few things about Him and allows people to have abhorrent beliefs about Him?

    This is something I’m struggling with.

    Lovely greetings from France and Germany.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • D. Foster


    I haven’t read the article so I’m curious what Herzberg is asserting. Is he arguing that the Mosaic motifs in Deborah’s narrative indicate that the writer(s) of Judges is presenting her as one of the many successors of Moses (cf. Deut. 18:15)? Or is he arguing that the Pentateuch has Deborah specifically in view in some way?

  • pastordt

    Really interesting comparison – thanks for this, Scot.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Moses, Deborah and Samuel were the judge-prophets.