The Biblical text is filled with stories about men’s lives. The women who are prominent in the Bible draw notoriety from their scarcity. Their role in praise, specifically, is sidelined. Every year when we read about the Children of Israel crossing the Reed Sea, I cringe at the disparity of richness between the men’s song – the Song of the Sea – and the few words relegated to the women’s song led by Miriam. Where is women’s praise in the Bible?
The quintessential ceremonial praise in synagogues today is the Hallel prayer, a set of Psalms and other readings which are read at every new month and holiday. The concept of reciting Hallel is first noted in the Mishna (3rd century CE), but when the individual psalms were composed remains a subject of debate. Examining the first section, Psalm 113, may give a hint at an older version of a psalm which was said specifically by women.
Hallelujah! Praise, Servants of God. Praise the Name of God.
May the Name of God be blessed from now and forever.
From the rising of the sun until its setting, praise the Name of God.
God is above all nations; His glory is on the heavens.
Who is like our Lord God, who surely sits on high,
Who looks down and sees — in heaven and in earth.
Who raises the weak from the dust, from the dunghill He raises the needy.
That He may seat him with princes; with the princes of His people.
He who surely returns the barren women to her home – a happy mother of children: Hallelujah!
One song of praise by a woman that is well known is the Song of Hannah which was composed after bearing Samuel (I Samuel 2). Psalm 113:7-8 almost exactly mirror a verse 8 from Hannah’s Song. A few differences can be noted. Hannah’s song is written in Classical Biblical Hebrew whereas Psalm 113 is in Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) from the Babylonian exile. There are other markers of LBH including the phrase in verse 6: “In heaven and in earth”, which is not found commonly earlier. The reference to royalty in the Song of Hannah (v.10) is also absent from this psalm hinting at a Babylonian experience post-monarchy.
The overall themes of this song which are in keeping with Hannah’s experience are the praise of God, His greatness and His ability to change the fate of the lowly. The explicit mention of a woman who was childless becoming a mother fits in with these ideas, especially within the context of verse 9. “He who surely returns the barren woman to her house – the happy mother of children.”
Throughout history, women worked outside of the home. What returned a mother to her house? Having children. And so, being home was a sign of having children. Those mothers who were working in the fields either had no children or had older children.
This psalm also ends with hope. From one child born to a barren women, we move to her being a mother of children. This prayer then includes both thanksgiving and request – both past and future. Verses 4-9 seem to be a psalm written during post-exilic times for women’s life cycle event – the birth of a child.
The first verses, v.1-3 are separate from the rest of the psalm. They refer to God as the “Name of God”, a designation which does not exist in the rest of the psalm. In fact, this introduction shifts the focus off of the woman to the “servants of God” mentioned in the first verse. These three verses are likely an addendum to the entire section of psalms that are read as part of the Hallel service. The barren mother then becomes a metaphor for the entire nation.
By carefully examining the linguistic and stylistic elements of Psalm 113 we can rediscover a Women’s Psalm embedded within it. By adding the 3 introductory verses, the original function of this psalm is lost. The idea presented in the Psalm of a woman’s return to her home as a positive – a celebration of the birth of a child – is also lost and becomes a metaphor for Israel returning to it’s land.
Sometimes we see something as a negative and don’t see the inner happiness. Similarly, a woman’s return to her home, which was seen an occasion for joy, in today’s world is at times portrayed negatively. Our job is to see beyond modern stereotypes and to see also women’s thankfulness in the Biblical text.
Make sure you have your Miriam’s Cup ready for the Seder.