Silencing Miriam: Prophetess, Liberator, and Leader By Michele Stopera Freyhauf
The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, while all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing; and she led them in the refrain: Sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.”(NAB, Exodus 15:20-21)
The Song of Miriam is not a story of death and destruction, but rather liberation. It is a poetic celebration of God’s liberation of the Israelites from the oppressive Egyptians, which, according to Bernhard W. Anderson in “The Song of Miriam Poetically and Theologically Considered,” marks the beginning of the Israelite tradition (292). Phyllis Trible in “Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows” states that this act marks the end of the Exodus, which was started by Miriam, not Moses (169, 172). The act of liberation reveals God’s action in humanity. Gerald Janzen in Exodus believes this act also moved the Israelites “to fear the LORD and believe in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (109). The uniqueness of this passage is that the most unlikely person leads – this person is not a man but rather a woman.
This brief passage in the Hebrew Scriptures is revelatory – Miriam is revealed for the first time. She is a prophetess, Aaron’s sister, and the role of leader of the victory dance to honor the Divine Warrior.
At the beginning of the story of Exodus, a young girl, who is never identified by name, but by her actions protecting Moses and ensuring his safety, is assumed to be Miriam (Exodus 2:4, 7-9). It is not until fifteen chapters later, that her identity is confirmed and indeed, we find that this anonymous girl’s name is Miriam.
The Song of Miriam, attributed to the J author, consists of two lines and is the oldest literary unit in the Hebrew Bible dating to about the tenth century BCE. Frank Moore Cross, Jr. and David Noel Freedman in Studies in Yahwistic Poetry asserts that this fits the style and strophic structure of old Canaanite and early Hebrew poetry (32). The Song of Miriam is separate from the Song of Moses, though many scholars use these two titles interchangeably.
Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes believes that Miriam’s song was the original song and that the Song of Moses emerged from there (200-201). The Song of Miriam appears as a two line antiphonal response to the Song of Moses in vv 1-18 with a couple of variations. According to Carol Meyers in “Miriam, Music and Miracles,” the Song of Moses a later addition by the E and P authors which managed to take the focus away from Miriam and place it on Moses (28).
On its face, it appears that Moses led the men and Miriam led the women in this victory dance; or so it would seem. In fact, Gerald Janzen in “Song of Moses, Song of Miriam,” the Song of Moses shows Moses and the people of Israel singing to the Lord (193). The Song of Moses was written for performance after reciting the Exodus account. On the other hand, the Song of Miriam opens with an imperative verb to summon the community to praise Yahweh. According to William Brueggemann in the Interpreter’s Bible, “Sing to Yahweh” is an imperative summons to praise (802). Trible further points out that “Sing to Yahweh” also appears with gender-neutral pronouns, like “them” (171). Gerald Janzen in “Song of Moses, Song of Miriam” agrees with Trible in that the call goes out to male and female to worship and celebrate) found in v21 (192). This gender-neutral pronoun indicates an inclusivity of the call of Miriam to the entire community. What this means, according to Trible, is that Miriam did not lead the women in dance and celebration, but the entire community; men and women (171). Janzen points out that her opening call to sing is met with the antiphonal response of “I will sing” (193).
According to Martin L. Brenner, the Song of the Sea and the Song of Miriam was one unified piece used as a victory song in the celebration of Passover Liturgy in temple and required male and female voices (19). The females were the refrain (the Song of Miriam) and danced in a chorus. Thomas L. Thompson in “The Joseph-Moses Traditions and Pentateuchal Criticism” believes that these songs and passages were used in order to lay the foundation of the tradition and is ultimately engrained as part of Israel’s history (174). Martin Noth states in Exodus: A Commentary, that The Song of Miriam is a victory song and dance in praise of God that is often used in liturgical ceremonies to celebrate the basic themes of tradition like Israel’s liberation and God’s deliverance (121). Further support for this theory comes from William Brueggemann, who in “Exodus,” points out that the Exodus liberation became a stylized liturgical event and the Song of Miriam with its dancing became a staple in the celebration that remembers and hopes for the oppressed (803).
Carol Meyers in “Mother to Muse: An Archaeomusicalogical Study of Women’s Performance in Ancient Israel,” states that these drum-dance-ensembles like in the Song of Miriam would be performed publically by women (53). Meyers in “Miriam, Music and Miracles” also states that these drum-dance ensembles would be performed with highly ecstatic and emotional movements which were common in ancient Phoenicia, Canaan, and Israel (31). In Exodus, Meyers supports this theory from the archaeological discovery of small terra-cotta figures from the Iron Age that represented musicians; only women were depicted as drummers (117). This is a leadership role that mediates God’s word to the community and vice versa, which is consistent with other prophetesses of that time.
Cross in “Notes in Canaanite Psalms in the Old Testament” states that the Song of Miriam is like the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:2-31) because it is a song of triumph (20). Carol Meyers points out that Deborah and Miriam share a unique position in the Hebrew Scriptures as prophetesses and appear as exceptions to the Israelite gender roles as subservient wife-mothers. According to Carol Meyers in “Miriam, Music, and Miracles,”if the date of this passage is truly the oldest in the biblical text, then a strong possibility exists that the first biblical “theologians” were women (41).
Controversy also surrounds the authorship of the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam. Feminist theologians, like Phyllis Trible, speculate that the placement of the Song of Miriam at the end of this grand Song of Moses was done intentionally; to put Moses in the forefront and highlight his importance over Miriam’s role and song. Phyllis Trible asks the question why does the conclusion of the Song of Moses overpower the Song of Miriam so much so, that it looks out of place and looks as if it was put there as an afterthought. It causes the reader to wonder why it was put there at all (171-172). Admittedly, because the contributions of women have been rendered invisible or trivialized (Carol Meyers, “Guilds and Gatherings: Women’s Group in Ancient Israel,”155) and rarely are women seen in leadership roles in the Hebrew Scriptures, this assumption is logical. Anthropologically, it has been discovered that women who have access to women’s groups exercise a control of themselves instead of being controlled in a male dominated world. The women’s group, and specifically those who participated in these drum-dance-song ensembles, gives women an elevated status. (See Carol Meyers, “Drum-Dance-Song Ensemble,” 65 andCarol Meyers “Of Drums and Damsels: Women’s Performance in Ancient Israel,” 24).
The oddity of Miriam being mentioned at all, let alone in a leadership position, lends to the authenticity of the passage. Miriam’s role is yet another veiled attempt to deny the leadership roles women had in antiquity. Miriam, as with so many brave women in the Hebrew Scriptures functioned as a leader in their society, yet they continue to be overlooked or their role diminished in favor of male leaders and heroes.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of “the Americas” focusing on Religion, Gender, and Culture. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Instructor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf. Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.