By March 30, 2016 Read More →

Power to the Powerless—A Long-Lost Song of Miriam

power to the powerlessAccording to the Book of Exodus, after the miracle at the Red Sea—the Israelites have passed through dry-shod and the Egyptians have drowned—Moses and the Israelites sing a victory hymn (Exodus 15:1–19). Immediately following the Song of the Sea, as it is called,a is the Song of Miriam:

“Then Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them” (Exodus 15:20–21a).

The Song of Miriam, however, is a mere half verse—Exodus 15:21b. It is not only truncated, it is simply a repetition of the first lines of the Song of the Sea:

“Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

As the Biblical text now stands, that is all there is to the Song of Miriam.

Scholars have long suspected that either the complete song was somehow suppressed or that the Song of the Sea was originally Miriam’s song and only later was it put into the mouth of her brother Moses.b

A recently published Dead Sea Scroll fragment1 suggests that in one tradition at least Miriam did indeed have her own song, which was different from the Song of the Sea, and that this tradition survived at least until the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (This particular manuscript is dated to about 75–50 B.C.E.) Moreover, this new text can best be appreciated as part of a genre of women’s songs that not only celebrates God’s victories, but in which God accomplishes this by a kind of reversal: The victory is brought about surprisingly through the weak and downtrodden; God’s victory is shame for the proud, the arrogant and the mighty, and victory belongs to the powerless.

The new text is on a single fragment of a single text that is part of a group of manuscripts labeled Reworked Pentateuch.2 They seem Biblical, yet they are different. The Biblical passages are reworked to a greater extent than we would expect of a Biblical text.

The text that sparked this article is part of one of these Biblical reworkings, 4Q365. The largest fragment of this manuscript, fragment six, contains 15 lines in two columns; it is made up of three so-called subfragments, designated a, b and c. Fragment a contains the end of Exodus 14, just before the Song of the Sea. Then there is a break, after which fragment b contains the last three verses of the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:16–18), a narrative comment (Exodus 15:19) and then continues with the introduction to the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:20). Then we go back to fragment as, which has a second column that contains the beginnings of seven lines. We will be looking at these seven lines more closely in a moment. Fragment c joins fragment a and continues the second column of the text for an additional eight rather complete lines. These eight lines follow immediately after the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:22–26).

What this means is that column one breaks off just before the Song of Miriam as we know it; and column two contains seven lines before getting to the Biblical text that follows the Song of Miriam. There may have been additional or alternative material in the Song of Miriam in the missing part at the bottom of column one but all that survives of the Song of Miriam is preserved at the top of column two—seven broken lines of text—until we get to the text following the Song of Miriam as we know it. And although we have miserably little from the beginning of the lines at the top of column two, nevertheless there is enough of a hint even in these broken seven lines to enlighten us.

The surviving text in these seven lines is printed in the box at upper right. They are enough to tell us that it is a poetic piece addressed to God as savior. Some of the words and phrases are closely related to the Song of the Sea, but the poem is not simply a restatement of this song. This suggests that in one tradition Miriam had her own song that matched but was not the same as the Song that Moses and the Israelites sang.

The similarities can be seen in the words and phrases in these seven lines that were picked up from the earlier Song of the Sea. The phrase “in the mighty waters” in line 5, for example, is an imitation of Exodus 15:10 (“they sank like lead in the mighty waters”). The word “triumph” in lines 2 and 7 is an echo of Exodus 15:1 (“for he has triumphed gloriously”). Perhaps the motif of exaltation is also taken from the Song of the Sea: “And I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). In line 3 God is addressed in the second person (and probably also in line 1), just as he is addressed in the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:11–17).

But there are also some remarkable differences between the two songs. Even in these few fragmentary lines we can detect the implication that, together with the triumphant recollection of military victory, there is the dramatic portrayal of a complete reversal in which not only is God victorious, but he acts through the weak rather than through the strong. Admittedly, there are only tantalizing hints of this. Two items involve God. In line 1, “you despised” suggests that God (who is probably referred to by “you”) is deriding Israel’s enemies. In line 3, God is extolled as “great, a savior.” Then, in line 6, after the repetition of the mighty military victory, God’s greatness seems to be echoed in the exaltation of a feminine figure: “and he exalted her to their heights.”3 God is apparently extolled for elevating someone of lowly status and giving her a sense of triumph. The military victory is thus accompanied by a reversal of some kind, quite possibly for Miriam, since the suffix is feminine.

As I pondered whether this suggestion might be too speculative, I discovered additional support in a number of other songs attributed to women in which the same themes appear. This buttresses my overall interpretation.

That God is great is a common enough expression in ancient Israelite literature. But sometimes he protects the weak not by the hand of the strong among the Israelites, but by the hand of the weak. That is less common, however—and those are the instances we will look at.

Take the victory hymn in chapter 16 of the apocryphal Book of Judith that celebrates the heroine’s role in saving her people from the Assyrians—an accomplishment she achieved by cutting off the head of Holofernes.c Of course this hymn includes a tribute to God’s greatness with the very same phrase (in italics) now found in the new Song of Miriam: “I will sing to my God a new song: O Lord, you are great and glorious, wonderful in strength, invincible” (Judith 16:13). And of course a theme of the song is the struggle of the weak against the mighty. But because Judith is a woman, this theme becomes the focus of a reversal of an unexpectedly forceful kind. The men of Judith’s town did not know how to respond to the Assyrian threat; Judith, a woman alone, stood against the Assyrians:

“The Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman, for their mighty one did not fall by the hands of the young men … the sons of Titans … or tall giants; but Judith the daughter of Merari with the beauty of her countenance undid him” (Judith 16:6–7).

The oppressed and weak people are victorious with the Lord on their side.

The point is not just that God rescues his feeble people, but those who supposedly are strong amongst his people and should be able to protect them, or at least should attempt to do so, are shown “by the hand of a woman” to be inadequate. The victory hymn in Judith is thus revolutionary in a twofold way. Not only does it show that God protects the weak, but that he protects the weak through the weak.

This text should frighten not only the mighty outside oppressor, but also the community insiders who would like to dominate the life of the community!

The combined motifs of the greatness of God and the elevation of the weak are also found in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46–55, placed in the mouth of Mary. It is often said that the Magnificat is modeled on the Song of Hannah (another song of a woman) in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. Both are recited by women grateful for a child—one already born, the other to be born; in Hannah’s case, Samuel, in Mary’s case, Jesus. But the Magnificat goes much further than the Song of Hannah: The Song of Hannah, which is probably a separate composition inserted into the text at this point, praises God for the victories he has inflicted on his enemies:

“And Hannah prayed:
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
I have triumphed through the Lord.
I gloat over my enemies;
I rejoice in Your deliverance.
There is no holy one like the Lord,
Truly, there is none beside You;
There is no holy one like the Lord,
Truly, there is none beside You;
There is no rock like our God.’”
But the victory is to be achieved through powerful Israelite leaders:
“The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
He will give power to His king,
And triumph to His anointed one.”

The Magnificat, while it acknowledges the greatness of God, goes further; his enemies will be destroyed, but the weak shall be raised: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the weak” (Luke 1:52).

Some scholars have argued that the Magnificat is a pre-Lucan composition that Luke or his source used for his own purposes.4 In any event, it seems that these three compositions—the Magnificat, the victory hymn in Judith and the Song of Miriam as preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls—all present us with variations on the same theme.

One cannot help wondering whether their revolutionary celebration of God’s victory for the weak through the weak is linked with various leading women in order not only to prove the point but also to tame the force of the message.

In addition to these songs variously linked with women, two sections of the famous War Scroll found in Qumran Cave 1 (1QM) also echo these same motifs. These two sections (1QM11, 14) are replete with stock Biblical phraseology, reciting how God’s victory has been assured from of old. But the section also contains a set of poetic phrases describing how God works through the poor and those of beaten spirit. God abandons “into the hands of the poor the enemies from all the lands, and by the hand of those bent in the dust You will make low the mighty of the peoples.” The powerful are brought low by God’s action through those who are lowly. Though the text is not explicit, there is obviously an implied reversal of status for the poor and downtrodden.5 The second section describes how God has raised up the despondent and the dumb, the humble in spirit and the perfect of way.6 I do not make any claim to literary dependence between the War Scroll and the fragment from the Song of Miriam, although, as endnote 6 suggests, there may be a common source that lies behind the Lucan Magnificat and these sections from the War Scroll; but it does appear that there was a common theme relating to the exaltation of the weak that makes our interpretation of the fragmentary Song of Miriam more plausible.

The survival of this theme in songs associated with women may reflect an effort on the part of the then-current power structure—defenders of the status quo, as it were—to marginalize the threat of these poems. This is especially understandable in the political context of the time—the emerging stability of the text of the Torah, which supported the status quo. Hence the Song of Miriam did not survive in the authoritative text of the Torah.

The challenge of these texts to status quo authority is similar for the social structures within the emerging early Church, especially those for whom Luke’s infancy narrative would have had the greatest significance: The well-to-do in the early Christian community would undermine themselves every time they read the Magnificat. The message it imparts is that God’s victory is assured, but that the reversal this entails might just topple those who thought they were most secure.

Posted in: The Exodus

Comments are closed.