Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

wailing women, Bible, Miriam, Jephthah's daughter

In the pages of the Bible we see that many women were involved in the life of their community. One public role for women was the celebration of military victories and other joyous events, and, conversely, the lamentation of defeat, tragedy, and loss. No doubt, some displays of celebration and mourning were spontaneous outbursts, but other displays were formalised.

When a significant event occurred in the community, certain women would join together to compose songs. If they were celebrating a happy event, the women would then form a procession and dance in formation, beat their hand drums (timbrels), while singing a song that related the event in their own words. If the event was a tragedy, the women would sing dirges and lead the people in laments and public expressions of grief.

Bible Women as Celebrants

The Old Testament records several occasions where women celebrated and proclaimed military victories. Jacob Wright comments on the influence of these victory celebrations.

Such performances had extraordinary political potential. The messages encoded in women’s songs and celebrations had the potential to sway public opinion far and wide. Victory is first and foremost a performance, and the song and dance of women determined to a considerable extent how triumphs and defeats were remembered. They might deflect honor from the reigning king by praising him alongside a figure who has his eye on the throne, or they might deflect honor from men altogether by focusing attention on the nation’s deity.[1]

Miriam

Miriam celebrated Israel’s escape from Egypt, and the demise of the Egyptians who were pursuing them, by leading the women with singing and dancing with timbrels.[2]

When Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and horsemen went into the sea, the Lord brought the waters of the sea back over them, but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.” Exodus 15:19-21

Deborah

The fifth chapter of Judges 5 is a victory song that was sung after the Canaanites were defeated by the Israelites during Deborah’s leadership. Judges 5:1 mentions both Deborah’s and Barak’s names, but the Hebrew verb for “sing” is feminine and singular putting the emphasis on Deborah as singer. Several women feature in the song: Deborah (Jdg. 5:7, 12, 15), Jael (Jdg. 5:24-27), Sisera’s mother and her council of wise noblewomen (Jdg. 5:28-30).

Jephthah’s Daughter

Jephthah’s daughter met her returning, victorious father with dancing and timbrels. “Timbrels” is plural suggesting that Jephthah’s daughter was accompanied by other women.

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! Judges 11:32-34b

Women and David

Women celebrated David’s victory over Goliath with singing, dancing, and timbrels, and also with lyres (stringed instruments similar to simple harps).

When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” 1 Samuel 18:6-7

David later wrote a lament when Saul and Jonathan were killed, and in the words of his song, he shows that celebrating military victories and mourning losses were roles usually associated with women:

“Do not tell it in Gath, don’t announce it in the marketplaces of Ashkelon, or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, and the daughters of the uncircumcised will celebrate.” 2 Samuel 1:20
“Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with luxurious things, who decked your garments with gold ornaments.” 2 Samuel 1:24

In Psalm 68, David again refers to singing, celebrating women:

The Lord gave the command; a great company of women brought the good news: “The kings of the armies flee—they flee!” Psalm 68:11-12a CSB.

“She who stays at home to divide the spoil” or “the lady of the house divides the spoils” in Psalm 68:12b further puts the spotlight on women. Perhaps the woman at home is being compared with the great company of her sisters who are out celebrating and publicly proclaiming the good news. (More on Psalm 68 and its allusions to Deborah’s song here.)

Judith

Women celebrated Judith’s single-handed defeat of the Assyrian general Holofernes who had laid siege to the town of Bethulia, and the heroine joins in. When Judith leads a victory dance, men also follow the procession.

All the women of Israel gathered together to see her. They blessed her, and some performed a dance for her. Then Judith took wands wrapped with ivy in her hands and gave them to the women who were with her. They all crowned themselves with wreaths woven from olive branches. Then she went before all the people in a dance, leading all the women. All the men of Israel followed, carrying their weapons, wearing wreaths of victory, and singing hymns. Judith 15:12-13 CEB [3]

Judith then sings a song in Judith 16, much like Deborah did with Barak in Judges 5 when their enemy, Jabin the king of Canaan, had been killed.

Personified Israel and Jerusalem (Zion)

Another reference to celebrating women is in Jeremiah where, after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, God promises, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:1 NIV). A response to the fulfilment of this promise is celebration, and the imagery of celebrating women is poetically applied to Israel.

“Virgin Israel. You will take up your timbrels again and go out in joyful dancing.” Jeremiah 31:4

In Isaiah 40:9-10 there is also good news worth celebrating. Jerusalem, which is also called Zion, is the messenger of the good news that God is coming with strength and power to establish his rule. The words “Zion” and “Jerusalem” are feminine nouns in Hebrew and so there is much grammatical feminine language in the Hebrew of this verse. The Common Standard Bible translates it as,

Zion, herald of good news, go up on a high mountain. Jerusalem, herald of good news, raise your voice loudly. Raise it, do not be afraid! Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Isaiah 40:9 CSB

The CSB translation makes good sense of the Hebrew. However, a few English Bibles, such as the New International Version, convey a different sense. Here Zion/ Jerusalem, as well as Judah, is the recipient, not the messenger, of good news which is seemingly given by a female herald or evangelist.[4]

You who bring good news (singular feminine participle) to Zion, go up (sg. fem. verb) on a high mountain. You who bring good news (sg. fem. part.) to Jerusalem, lift up (sg. fem. verb)  your voice with a shout, lift it up (sg. fem. verb), do not be afraid (sg. fem. verb); say (sg. fem. verb) to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” Isaiah 40:9 NIV (with the grammatically feminine language indicated).

(Different English translations of Isaiah 40:9 can be compared on Bible Gateway here.)

Whether Isaiah 40:9 is about a woman herald or not, there are a significant number of passages in the Hebrew Bible that show women proclaiming victories, usually expressed in song and dance, to Israel.

Bible Women as Mourners: Wailing Women

In Bible times, and in some cultures today, grieving was a communal activity, not just a solitary act, and it was women who usually led public displays of mourning. The Bible mentions wailing women in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament (2 Sam. 1:24; Ezek. 32:16-18; Luke 8:52; 23:27-28; cf. Matt. 11:17). Professional wailing women were invited to funerals and other sombre events to lead the community in shared expressions of grief.

Wailing women played a therapeutic role in society. In Jeremiah chapter 9, they also played a prophetic role. During the dark days of Judah’s apostasy when deception was rife (Jer. 9:4-6), it seems the only people who listened to God and the prophet Jeremiah were the wailing women. God gave them a message and authorised them to proclaim this message in his name.

Juliana Claassens, the author of the fascinating book Mourner, Mother, Midwife, writes about the wailing women in Jeremiah 9.

In Jeremiah 9:17-20 [MT 16-19], wailing women are called to lead the people in expressions of grief in response to the national tragedy that saw the destruction of Zion. These women who are called to “raise a dirge over us” are literally called “wise women.” This can also be translated as “skilled women” (Jer. 9:17 [MT16]), suggesting that the art of mourning is a skill that has to be learned. The role of the wailing woman constituted a professional trade that required training. . . . On the appropriate occasion (a funeral or a national tragedy like the one that forms the backdrop of Jeremiah 9), wailing women not only had to be able to draw on the reservoir of lament handed down through the generations, but they also had to adapt these laments to suit the particular need of the current situation. . . . Their laments represent the community’s response in the face of extreme trauma.[5]

Conclusion

Wars were a regular part of life in Bible times, and many women were directly affected by them, so their public celebrations of military victories, or lamentations of military losses and defeats, would have been sincere and heartfelt.[6]

Women publicly led their communities in expressing both joy and sorrow, and this fostered solidarity, empathy, and healing. Being an official celebrant or a professional mourner was just one way that women helped their communities.[7]


Footnotes

[1] Jacob Wright, “Genderbending Performances in Wartime: From Judges to Judith,” Friends of Asor 9.2 (February 2021) (Source: The Ancient Near East Today)

[2] Timbrels are musical instruments similar to tambourines. They are mentioned seventeen times in the Hebrew Bible and are always associated with joyful celebrations (e.g., Psalm 68:24-26) and victories (e.g., Isaiah 30:31-32).

[3] The book of Judith is regarded as scripture by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Protestants include it among the apocryphal, or deuterocanonical, works. It was originally written in Greek and is not part of the Hebrew canon of the Jews. I have more about Judith here.

[4] The Hebrew feminine participle məḇassereṯ (מְבַשֶּׂ֣רֶת) which occurs twice in Isaiah 40:9 is translated in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) with a masculine article and participle, ho euaggelizomenos (ὁ εὐαγγελιζόμενος): “the one bringing the good news” or “the evangelist.” Unlike the Hebrew text, the Greek masculine participle gives the sense that the evangelist is male, not female. Similarly, a plural masculine article and euaggel– participle is also used in the ancient Greek translation of Psalm 68:11: “the Lord will give the word ‘to those who proclaim/ preach good news’ (or, ‘to the evangelists’) …” In the Septuagint, this group is not exclusively female.
An euaggel– verb (non-gendered) occurs in 2 Samuel 1:20 where it means “announce/ proclaim good news.” But David doesn’t want this to happen: “don’t announce/ proclaim the news in the thoroughfares of Ashkelon.”

[5] L. Juliana M. Claassens, Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 27. (Source: Google Books)

[6] While women were not warriors, a few did become involved in wars and even won victories for their people. The Bible records that women risked their lives by acting as spies and by helping spies (2 Sam. 17:17, 19-21; Josh. 2:1-6). A few even killed army generals with improvised weapons: a millstone, in the case of the woman of Thebez (Judg. 9:53), and a tent peg, in the case of Jael (Judg. 4:21; 5:26). Judith cut off the head of Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian army, with a knife. Some women successfully negotiated for the safety of their towns or families from threatening armies. These women include the wise-woman of Abel Beth Maacah, Rahab and Abigail.  Deborah even went to war with Barak (Judg. 4:8-9). Though women were not part of the fighting force of the Israelite army, it doesn’t mean they were cowering at home.

[7] The custom of wailing women continues today in some countries and communities. A few of their customs are similar to those of Bible times. See here for more information.

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Image

“The Songs of Joy” by Jacques (James) Tissot (1836-1902), kept at the Jewish Museum in New York. This painting shows Miriam leading the women in a procession of celebration. (Wikimedia Commons)


Further Reading

Moyra Dale, “On Ps 68, God’s gifts to his people, and the place of women leaders,” Fixing her Eyes
Carol Meyers, “Miriam’s Song of the Sea: A Women’s Victory Performance,” TheTorah.com
Jacob Wright, “Genderbending Performances in Wartime: From Judges to Judith,” The Ancient Near East Today

Related Articles

Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Many women leaders in the Bible had this one thing in common
Huldah’s Public Prophetic Ministry
Deborah and the “No Available Men” Argument
Did Miriam the prophetess only minister to women?
Working Women in the New Testament

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