Gestes et langage spirituel


La danse dans la Bible

The Dance and the Song of a Phrophetess

                                                                             Michèle Bolli

Texte intégral copyright©michelebolli  - Traduction Brenda Schwob

En français.:"Le geste et le chant d'une prophétesse",  L. Irigaray (ed.), Le souffle des femmes, ACGB, Paris, 1996

En anglais dans Féminités en Théologie,, 2022. 

En Italien, en espagnol, en allemand.

Repris dans Féminités en Théologie, Shopmybook, 2021

Miryam is one of the very few women who are given the title of prophetess in the Old Testament. We first meet her amongst the Hebrew tribes when are exchanging their situation of slavery in Egypt for a future of freedom. Although we know very litle about Miryam, at last we know her name and even the site of her burial (as with many other important figures of the Old Testament). More important however, we possess the words of the song attributed to her by those commentators who have respected the feminine tradition (Exodus 15, 20-21), and it is certain that by her words and her action, her function of prophetess was confirmed. By analysing what we know of Miryam, we can perhaps discover a message for today.

First of all, we must place Miryam's action in its context. A huge crowd of Hebrews have assembled and made camp on the seashore of the Red Sea where, despite their exhaustion, they seem happy and content. In fact they are a nation made up of men and women, young nad old, children... How is it that they are here in this isolated region with the sea behind them and in front nothing but the rock and sand of the desert stretching to the white horizon ? Hardly an encouraging prospect - and yet the atmosphere could not be happier ! After a night of terror, at dawn they discover not only the seashore but also the reality of their liberation. No more Egypt ! No more Pharaoh ! No more interminable days of slavery marked only by the rhythm of the whiplash !

They have been accompanied in their flight by a spirituel force which even before their departure Moses has recognised and named : Yahve-Elohim, the God of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Without the presence of Yahvé, this mob of escaping slaves would never have managed to reach the shore on which they now stand. The last few days they lived constantly in fear, first when they ate their last meal, later during their flight in the night, and finally when they reached the sea and heard Pharaoh's chariots thundering in pursuit. But they fond a fording place across the sea which, though wet and muddy, allowed them to reach the other shore, while their pursuers with their heavy chariots and horses were bogged down.

Now they are safe on the far shore, rejoicing that they have taken the daring step to leave Egypt and follow Moses, Miryam and Aaron, and the God to whom they listen.

Yahvé has once more proved himself to them as a God of both creation and liberation. With Miryam, with Moses and Aaron and all their follwers, God continues his long combat against one of the titanic forces in the universe : against Yam, the sea. This combat features in many ancient myths (1) where it is always placed in relation to Creation, for Creation constantly battles against Chaos which is, as we know, the reign of forces which are uncontrollable and apparently all-powerful in the universe.

It is in this context of creation that it is important to place this episode of the Hebrew people who pass from a life of slavery to that of  a nation advancing with their God. As well, we notice that after this confrontation neither the sea nor Egypt have been destroyed but their power has been seriously limited by the will of Yahve. Because the water receded, the dry land appeared ; and the Hebrews could cross without drowning; here this symbolises the prospect of new life for all the people.

Now when the Hebrews are gathered together on the shore in an atmosphere of joy, « The prophetess Miryam, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine : All the women followed her dancing and playing their tambourines. Miryam struck up a song: Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously. The horses and their riders have been thrown into the sea », Exodus 15, 2-21.

The name and the importance of Miryam

In the Old Testament the role of prophetess (sometimes called « an inspired woman ») seems to have been just as important as that of a prophet. Certainly here is also a clear link with the oriental oracular tradition. In Ancient Greece, for example, the gods expressed themselves through the words of female oracles (sybilles, pythonesses, etc.), (2). In this context it is therefore quite natural that from the birth of the Hebrew nation, women were called to serve the God of Israel and transmit his word. Certainly at this period, collaboration between the sexes in the religious sphere was far more open than in later times. For proof, we find the name of Miryam in on of the oldest texts (3) of the Old Testament (Ex. 15,20-21). where her name is placed beside thoses of her brothers, Aaron and Moses (4). As the position of a name usually indicates the rank of the person named, here we find the names placed together which seems to indicate that, at least at this time, they were considered on an equal footing. Other later interprétations may show quite a different picture.

Theses names seem to me to give at least three possible orientations :

– the God of the Hebrews expresses himself through the actions of both men and women.

– the family tie of the three leaders and their status as equals is stressed in order to prevent idolatry (and even « egolatry »).

– the instigator and power of the liberation of the Hebrew people is Yahvé and not Moses. Many later traditions insist on the name of Moses as the driving force of the liberation.

 Not only was Moses not alone, but amongst the three leaders there was a woman. Thus the plan of salvation from its inception does not oust women even at the leadership level.

We can also notice that Miryam is a sister whereas the Matriarchs (5) – Sara, Rebecca, Rachel – play their part as wives of the Patriarchs. Here Miryam is a sister and especially a specific woman ( some feminist exegesists do not mention the family tie) (6), who stands beside the two men and faces God with them. She thus holds a position of joint responsability.

 Miryam's action - gestures and words

According to some recent exegetic research (7) which breaks away from the traditional Jewish approach, it is Miryam who takes the initiative for the ceremony which will mark the significance of the event experienced by all those present. Her proposal will first be taken up by all the other women and then by Moses and the men. Miryam makes a spontaneous gesture, says a word and forms the group of women. The choir of men gathers behind them. She has thus brought all the Hebrew people together. There is no apartheid, but no amalgamation either ! In this context we see that it is possible for a woman to take a decisive initiative in difficult circumstances. She can suggest that it is possible to positivise an experience by placing it in a certain relation with God. This aspect should be emphasied and also that in the group's approval of her initiative, there is no trace of sexism.

Her action is especially interesting associating the physical human body in an act of expression and worship. We all have particular visible characteristics - blue or brown eyes, fair or dark hair, man or woman. The fact that Miryam too is a distinctive individual, with her own physical appearance, means that she is linked with each of us and also with Jesus-Christ. His incarnation not only bears witness to the importance of the human body in its individuality but also enables us to fully live our Christian engagement.

With Miryam we can learn to look afresh at both the present and the future

To understand the significance of the action of Miryam, we must remember that the text considers her as a prophetess, that is to say, that the Breath (or Spirit) and the Word of God are expressed through her. We must therefore discover this aspect in her action. Doesn't her physical gesture show both her desire to extol the God of deliverance and also the expression of God's will for his people ? This second inspiration of Miryam's language doesn't it show us the future which exceeds, overflows and even transcends the precise historical event by taking root in it, but without effacing it ?

We can best illustrate this point by discovering the double meaning of the Hebrew word « tof », which can be translated as tambourine and /or as new born child. Both readings are interesting, both are rich in meaning and they are fully complimentary.

The first reading is the factual historical one – the tambourine is an Egyptian musical instrument which was used to make music and rhythm to call first women together ans then the men. Has Egypt given the Hebrews something of tangible value - the tambourine (8).

The second reading (new born child) gives us a symbolic interpretation. Miryam takes in her hands the tambourine / new born baby. Is-n-she, the inspired, the prophetess ? Don't the baby's virgin eyes open on a new situation, a situation of freedom, far from Egypt but face to face with Yahvé ? After the trauma of delivery, the living baby embodies the hope contained within this new situation for a nation which is gradually discovering or re-discovering its religious identity. This mob of escaping slaves must experience a spiritual birth to acquire a new vision on their very existence and all that it comprises. The Hebrew people have to put their slave mentality behind them and enter into the partnership of an alliance. We are watching the first steps towards a collective awareness of a new relationship with God. It may be that in other circumstances we may be called to take a similar step. Because of this special new-born child that a woman presents to God, she too has been delivered and born to a new life. She has become the spiritual mother who expresses for the child and before the other leaders the event of liberation in its relation with transcendence.

It is not sufficient simply to hold the tambourine-baby. As the message must be expressed more clearly. Miryam initiates a dance movement accompanied by a song, using her body and her voice, her whole physical entity. At first the words are feminine, but each woman and man can take them.

In the old Testament tradition, we frequently find the songs (9) composed by women for great events, births and deaths, preparation for battle, victory or defeat. The song of Miryam is in the same style but here it is destined to celebrate the victory of Yahvé (10).

Miryam propose to dance this victory and to praise God who is both the Creator and the Liberator. Her song (v.21 is later included in the song of Moses) is one of the first, even the very first, liturgical confessions of faith ( = credo) of the Hebrews (11).

In this act of worship we notice as well that the women dance in a certain rhythm. This movement at a common time and place links both space and time which are the two dimensions in which all human life is bounded. Thus the mark of the universal is integrated into a specific human situation.

This historic episode of Miryam reminds us of another occasion in the Old Testament when David dances before the Ark of the Covenant. We too have the possibility to use gestures and dances in order to worship God. We see this dynamism in the manner of many Christians (and followers of other faiths too) who add physical movement and gestures to their prayers. The proximity of God stimulates those whom he approaches to bubble over with joy, a joy which needs to be expressed corporally.

In addition, this manner of expressing both space and time by a physical presence links us to the whole cosmos in two of its basic dimensions. The cosmos thus takes part in the worship and with and by the action of the human body joins in the reconciliation between humanity and God.

We find here one of the major preoccupations of present day churches (as we see in the Oecumenical Assemblies of Basel, Séoul, etc.) how to understand both human existence and the existence of the elements of the cosmos as integral parts of God's creation. When for a moment we can live the solidarity between the whole creation and worship together our Creator, we can then announce the possibility of a complete reconciliation of the creation with its source. Throughout the history of Israël, this element is always present in the ceremony of the Shabbath.

From our present standpoint, we can understand the strength and scope of Miryam's action. From the sandy shores of the Red Sea, her words bring with them all the traditions of her predecessors. In others countries there were the sybilles and pythonesses; in other nations and in the Hebrew history women have composed and sung similar songs.

However this is more than a mere repeat performance of the past. Miryam by a gesture of creation brings these traditions up to date and suits them to the present situation. Her action is closely associated with those of the prophets who throw a positive or negative light on the future. In addition by placing her action into an act of worship she inserts it into a specific moment where the promised fulfilment already exists.

How can such a liberation and Miryam's manner to live its consequences concern us today ? Of course we have not crossed the Red Sea, but during our life we have certainly crossed other barriers, more symbolic it is true, and probably less collective and less spectacular, but equally important both for our personal life and for the life of the communities with which we are associated. Miryam invites us to remember our past and to begin to leave behind the slave mentalities which may still exist in us. In addition we should then be capable of bearing witness to our deliverance in personal acts of creation. But what can we create ? We can create our own language and a personal manner of expression which may perhaps use corporal gestures. By this we can communicate to ourselves and to others the basic meaning of many particular moment of life.

When we learn how to examine the souvenirs and memories of our past, then perhaps we may discover in our lives the signs of a constant presence, that of the God who was known and recognised by Miryam.

Pour citer cet article : Michèle Bolli,. Traduction : Brenda Schwob

Article publié en français comme un chapitre e : Le souffle des femmes, Luce Irigaray éd., ACGF, Paris, 1996.


1. Carola Kloos, Yhwh's Combat with the Sea. Canaanite Tradition in the Religion of Anet, Brill, Leiden, 1986 ; J. Day, God's Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea. Cambridge, C. Univ. P., 1984; T. Römer, « La redécouverte d'un mythe de l'Ancien Testament : la création comme combat », ETR, 4, 1989, p.56-73.

2. Sabina Grippa, La Parola oracolare divina e femminile, thesis of  Univ. of Bologna, Bologna, 1988.

3. This dating is at present questioned, and probably most of these texts date from after the Exile. We should therefore say that the name of Miryam has been handed down through the oral tradition over the centuries.

4. This ellipsis which names indirectly Moses as the brother of Miryam and Aaron is easily understood when we remember the biblical tradition of placing these three names together, as in : Nb. 12,1; 4-16 ; 20,1 ; 26,54. Dt. 24,8-9 ; Mi. 6,4 ; 1Chr. 5,29.

5. Catherine Chalier, Les Matriarches, Cerf, Paris, 1985.

6. Helen Schüngel-Straumann, « Comment Miryam fut évincée », Foi et Vie, 5, 1989, p.90-99. This article reminds us that the family tie was sometimes used to show the subordination of the sister to the brother, for example.

7. E. Zenger, « Tradition und Interpretation in Exode XV, 20 », VTS 32, 1981, p.471ss.

8. Other texts in the Old Testament show that the use of the tambourine was later perpetuated in Hebrew religious ceremonies, for example : Jg.11, 34; 1S.11, 34; 2S.6,5; Jdt. 16,1.

9. M. Mirjer and J. Schaap, eds., Historiography of Women's Cultural Traditions, Foris, Dordrecht, Holland/Providence, USA, 1987.

10. A. Brenner, The Israelite Woman, Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative, JSOT P., Sheffield, 1985.

11. K. Westermann, Théologie de l'Ancien Testament, Labor et Fides, Genève, 1985, p.204-267.