We are your subtlest instruments:
no music branches to your breast
that does not sound in us,
no music dies away from you,
that in us lives not,
and even in your absence
your cadence journeys…
Allen Mandelbaum, Chelmaxioms
The path to freedom is often muddy. Water sloshes through your sandals and the soles of your shoes stick, clinging to the past, weighing down the future. No one said dancing in wet sand was easy. But it is very holy. Just ask the brave prophetess who celebrated liberation by dancing on the shores of a reedy sea.
Often relegated to the submissive role of sister, the character of Miriam is typically overshadowed by the triumphs of her younger brother. Like many of her canonical contemporaries, Miriam receives little attention in scripture. Her name is only mentioned twice and the story of her song is left unsung by the writers of Exodus. Yet she is there, her song hidden in the crevices of the canon, her dance demanding that we notice the ritual event of liberation, her courageous voice prophesying, leaving a legacy for all the dancing women who will follow in her intrepid food steps.
The story of Exodus involves the Israelites living in bondage, slaves to the Egyptians. We often remember Moses as the prophet who sets his people free. Scrambling through the desert with weary eyes set on freedom, his staff parts the sea of reeds and the Israelites make it to the other side (the tragic fate of the Egyptians chasing said Israelites is another topic for another time). The waters part. Those who were once slaves are now free. Moses for the win! But what of Miriam?
It’s interesting to note that before Moses—or any male, for that matter—is dubbed a “prophet,” Miriam bears the title. “Prophetess.” The first in all of scripture. During the moment of liberation, Miriam is the one who receives this honor, not Moses. The fact that this detail went unnoticed by patriarchal writers and redactors tells me that Miriam’s role in the Exodus event is probably much bigger than we originally imagined.
And it’s also worth noting that, at the moment of liberation, when the captors are hot on their heels, Miriam chooses to pause and lead the Israelites in a ritual. She sings and dances, her hand-drum the opening drumbeat in a march toward freedom. She inaugurates a liturgical event, her body and voice proclaiming liberatory praise. And all the Israelites follow her example. Can you picture it? Feet still muddy. Sweat dripping from their brows. Water lapping behind them. In that moment of liberation, Miriam chooses to dance. She chooses to sing. She chooses to stop and mark this event as something holy, something set apart, something special.
For years to come, women will follow in her dancing footsteps. In fact, it became an Israelite custom for women to exit the doors of their homes with songs and dances after war. We, too, follow in her dancing footsteps. In those moments of liberation, Miriam reminds us to pause and ritually mark our new-found freedoms. When we find ourselves on the shores of freedom, Miriam reminds us to lift a song of praise and a dance of gratitude.
As she joins my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist—Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, and Isadora Duncan—she leaps from the waters of bondage onto the shores of liberation. Her heart and her hand-drum accompany her as she cries out to us:
Dancing on the shores of freedom
Her heart sang
A song of liberty.
We remember you, Miriam, when our muddy feet dance toward liberation. We remember you when our once-silenced voices sing the songs of freedom. Even in your absence, your cadence journeys.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. In 2013, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com