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The Bible
Songs and dances to preserve the history of Israel

Miriam’s hand-drum

 Il tamburello di Miriam  DCM-009
01 October 2022

The first of many women the Bible calls a prophet is Miriam, known for saving her baby brother Moses from being drowned in the Nile River, leading her people out of slavery in Egypt, and even challenging Moses’ authority in the wilderness. Miriam is also credited for preserving ancient Israel’s history through song and dance. Exodus 15:20-21 recounts, “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a hand-drum in her hand; and all the women went out after her with hand-drums and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’” The Hebrew is archaic, and thus the Song is among the Bible’s earliest passages.

According to Exodus 15:1-19, “Moses and the Israelites sang this song to YHWH: ‘I will sing to YHWH, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. YHWH is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will praise him, my father’s G-d, and I will exalt him….’”. While its placement in the text suggests that Miriam’s song echoes that of Moses, it is more likely that the song originated with Miriam and the other women who were, as we shall see, the ones who preserved Israel’s history and celebrated the victories of G-d with musical instruments, song, and dance. Exodus 15 would not be the only time that a man received credit for a woman’s composition. A scroll from the Dead Sea (4Q365 or 4QRP), called the “Reworked Pentateuch”, credits an alternative version of the song to Miriam.

Judges 5:1 begins, “Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day,” but the Hebrew verb for “sang” is in the feminine, and the song that follows, expressed in the first person singular, gives us only Deborah’s voice: “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the LORD I will sing, I will make melody to the LORD, the God of Israel” (Judges 5:3). In her song Deborah blesses another woman, “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed” (Judges 5.24), for Jael had assassinating the enemy general.

In Judges 11, we read the tragedy of the judge Jephthah, who rashly vow that, were he to win his battles, he would sacrifice to G-d the first to come out of his house. Victorious in battle, “Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with hand-drums and with dancing” (Judges 11:34). Jephthah fulfills his vow, and Judges 11:40, the last verse in the chapter, records, “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite”. To lament means to sing dirges. In song, the women of Israel both celebrate victories and remember the innocent victims of war.

When David defeats the Philistine champion Goliath, 1 Samuel 18:6-7 reports, “women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with hand drums, with songs of joy, and with triangles (i.e., three-stringed instruments).  And the women sang to one another as they made merry, ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands’”. Their lyrics signal that David will claim Saul’s throne.

Finally, celebrating Judith’s victory over the enemy general Holofernes, “All the women of Israel gathered to see her, and blessed her, and some of them performed a dance in her honor”. Judith then “took ivy-wreathed wands in her hands and distributed them to the women who were with her; and she and those who were with her crowned themselves with olive wreaths. She went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women, while all the men of Israel followed, bearing their arms and wearing garlands and singing hymns” (Judith 15:12-13).

There are several notable connections among these scenes. First is the association of singing, dancing, and drumming with women. Not only women’s voices but also women’s bodies become sites of celebration. 

Second, many of these women are single, and many of the scenes depict them in independent performance.  They are important not because they married well, because they were from the nobility, or because they are rich. They are important for their fidelity to G-d’s covenant with Israel, for having courage to act in times of crisis, for making political statements. The Bible does not record a husband or children for Miriam. Deborah is traditionally identified as the “wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4), but the Hebrew (eshet lapidot) could be translated “woman of flames”. Jephthah’s daughter and the women who mourn her are all young and unmarried.

Third, the songs and the dancing primarily celebrate the power of G-d to save his people. The focus of this salvation is not on getting into heaven; it is a decidedly earthly concern: to save from war, from poverty, and from despair. At the same time, and as the story of Jephthah’s daughter makes clear, that women offer this celebration is a reminder of how women are often both the unsung heroes and the unacknowledged victims of violence. 

Fourth, women’s singing, dancing, and music-making can also be for the entire community, and thus they share their talents. While only women participate in the dirges that recall the life of Jephthah’s daughter, the Hebrew of Exodus 15 states that “Miriam sang to them (masculine plural): ‘Sing (masculine plural) to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously’”. Miriam leads the song, but she encourages both men and women to follow her.  Judith is accompanied by Barak the military general. We read, “Judith began this thanksgiving before all Israel, and all the people loudly sang this song of praise” (Judith 15:14).

Fifth, the women represent all ages, from the young girls who mourn Jephthah’s daughter to the older women. Jewish tradition suggests that Miriam was 86 years old at the time of the Exodus. 

Sixth, in singing, dancing, and perhaps especially in drum playing, unites women across cultures. From the Ancient Near East, archaeologists have found numerous terracotta figures of women with hand-drums.

Finally, the women set the stage for Israel’s joyous worship. Psalm 68.25 envisions “the singers in front, the musicians last, between them young women playing hand-drums”; Psalm 150.4 exhorts, “Praise him with hand-drum and dance; praise him with strings and pipe,” and we can imagine the women in the first part of the verse, the men in the second. Jeremiah 31, the famous passage that describes the “New covenant,” predicts the time when, “O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your hand-drums and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers” (31:4) for “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry” (Jeremiah 31:13a). When women dance and sing, memory is preserved, the horrors of war recalled, the bodies of women are sites of celebration, and the victory of God is proclaimed.

by Amy-Jill Levine

*For a reflection on Miriam the sister of Moses in relation to Mary the Mother of Jesus, see Amy-Jill Levine, “Myriam, Life and Destiny: At the Origin of the Name the Words Bitterness and Rebellion”, Woman Church World 102 (July 2021).