When I read the Lectionary readings for Sept 11, 2011 and the passage from Exodus 14:19-31, 15:1b-11,20-21 with its very familiar story of a miraculous escape from Egypt by some 600,000 slaves, their dependants, belongings, and livestock, the thing that struck me was that anybody would have bothered recording the little bit at the end about Miriam and the other women singing a little short song after the great extensive song of Moses. Not only is it included, but for some reason it seems to make more of an emotional impact than the longer song. From all the times I have heard the story, I always remember the part about the women singing and dancing, but I retained no real recollection of the Song of Moses which comes first in the account as we read it today. Women are often not even mentioned in Biblical accounts unless they are giving birth or being given in marriage. I was intrigued and no matter how much I looked at the Lectionary readings in Romans and Matthew, I couldn’t get this oddity out of my head. In internet searches under Miriam there are more mentions of this song than any of her other appearances in the Exodus story. Miriam, it would seem, is remembered most often for this short song.
The Old Testament contains many songs of various types. These include songs of; triumph, ascent, Sabbath sacrifice, love poems from Song of Songs, celebration, prophetic oracles, and Psalms. The New Testament uses the terms hymns, psalms, and odes, which all refer to songs of praise. Most of these songs are recorded with no mention of their sources. There are, however, several named songs among which we find; The Song of Moses, The Song of Miriam, The Song of Deborah, The Song of Hannah, Songs of David, Song of Solomon, and from the New Testament the Song of Mary which is also called the Magnificat. While women were not involved at all in the music of the Temple, they were frequently depicted with their drums, singing in religious celebrations and processions. Indeed, women with drums took the second priority in the order of processions, just behind the singers. This seems significant given that so little attention and respect are paid to women in this time.
The people of the Exodus were refugees. Sometimes I think that escapes our notice as we tend to think of them as a nation, but they were refugees. Think of the video or photo coverage you have seen of the refugee camps in countries around the world today. On the road to the camps we see groups of refugees, some driving small carts or piled into trucks, but mostly plodding along by foot moving with their loved ones in sometimes vain hope of finding a place of safety, of peace. Right now in East Africa this tragedy is added to by the fact that these people are near starvation as well. They end up, if they are lucky enough, in big dusty areas in the middle of nowhere filled with tents and far more people than is probably sanitary for the amount of space. Children are running everywhere, the people line up for hours to receive some small share of the food aid which is
provided, and often walk great distances to find fire wood and fresh water to drink. It must be exhausting just living in such a state of chaos, away from everything with which they are familiar, clinging to their families and praying for the chance to go home. Technically the Israelites were heading home, that is to the ancestral lands which God had given. In reality, there was no one still alive in Egypt who had ever lived in this much talked about place. They had all heard about Abraham and the whole story of God’s promises to their people, but what was familiar, what was home, was behind them with the Pharaoh and his army.
Miriam was “a somebody” among the Israelites of the Exodus. She stood with her brothers Aaron and Moses in leadership over the group. She was a prophet, not common for women, and people listened to her. Along with the more extraordinary traits, she was the daughter of a family in slavery. She was used to the harsh treatment which was by this time being meted
out on her people. She was there when the Nile turned to blood, when locusts filled the land, when the midwives were instructed to kill all the male infants at birth, when the order went out from the Pharaoh to take every Israelite boy who was born and drown them in the Nile. She was there also when Moses returned to his people and began the negotiations with Pharaoh to release the people to return to their own land. She was there the night of the Passover when all the Egyptian first-born sons were struck down. Along with all the other women she had quickly gathered all she could, including the bread, not yet risen, and set off on foot to an unknown place at a moment’s notice. Twenty-four days from that hurried departure, exhausted from stress and anxiety and still in the middle of nowhere, Miriam sang and danced, leading all the women in thanksgiving and celebration of a narrow and miraculous escape from likely death or re-enslavement.
It is not too late to have your donations for the crisis in the horn of
Africa doubled by the Canadian Government. All donations received by September 16th will be matched. You may give through any of the registered charities one of which is Presbyterian World Service and Development. You can donate by visiting http://presbyterian.ca/pwsd