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 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 military victories.

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.[1]

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

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

Similarly, women celebrated David’s victory over Goliath with singing, dancing, and timbrels, but 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 was a role associated with women. (See 2 Sam. 1:20). David’s words also show that mourning losses was the role of women. (See 2 Sam. 1:24).

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 [2]

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.

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 Older and Newer Testaments (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. The wailing women in Jeremiah chapter 9 also played a prophetic role. During the dark days of Judah’s apostasy when deception was rife (Jer. 9:4-6), the only people who listened to God and the prophet Jeremiah were the wailing women. God gave the wailing women a message and he 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.
L. Juliana M. Claassens, Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 27.

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.[3]

Women 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 society.[4]


Footnotes

[1] Timbrels are musical instruments similar to tambourines. They are mentioned many times in the Old Testament in the context of joyful celebrations (e.g., Psalm 68:24-26) and victories (e.g., Isaiah 30:31-32).

[2] 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.

[3] 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 hiding 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.

[4] 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.

Image

“The Songs of Joy” by 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)

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