beatrice_otter: Sha're in a blue veil (Shau'ri)
[personal profile] beatrice_otter

Title: To the Lord I will Sing

Written by: [info - personal] beatrice_otter

Rating: PG

Book/character: Miriam (Exodus) and Deborah (Judges)

Warnings: brief non-graphic mention of torture.

Summary: Deborah and Miriam: singing the word of the Lord in times of trial.

Word Count: 3,739

Betaed by: [info - personal] devohoneybee

Notes: Written for [community profile] in_the_beginning .  The English translation of the Song of Deborah (Judges Chapter 5) is taken from the NRSV translation.  The Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:2-21, and I am using the scholarly theory that the whole thing originally belonged to Miriam and not just the last verse) is taken from Everett Fox’s translation The Five Books of Moses.  The word of God is always a direct quote.  Verses quoted in order are: Judges 5:3, Exodus 15:2, Judges 5:11, Exodus 15:21, Exodus 15:7, Judges 4:6-7, Judges 5:12, and Exodus 15:13.  The Hebrew text is taken from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia; all errors are mine.

 

שִׁמְעוּ מְלָכִים הַאֲזִינוּ רֹזְנִים      אָנֹכִי לַ אָנֹכִי אָשִׁירָה

אֲזַמֵּר לַ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;

            to the Lord I will sing,

            I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.

 

Miriam died in the wilderness of Zin, in Kadesh, and was buried there.  She was an old woman then, white hair covered against the dirt and sand and sun, shoulders stooped by years.  To the last, she walked next to the men of Levi who carried the Ark of the covenant.  Her possessions were carried in turn by the leaders of her tribe, the Levites, who fought for the honor.  They had offered to carry her, in a travois or sedan chair or cart, but Miriam would not travel in the manner of an Egyptian prince.  So she walked on towards God’s promise, towards freedom.  Then she died and they wrapped her in all the splendor they could afford and they put her in the ground, with rocks above her so that scavengers could not dig her up.

 

That night, and for many nights after, the women put ashes in their hair and wailed, a high keening that met the wind from the desert and flew upon it, around the tents of the people of Israel, as if God himself wept for his daughter, gone down to the dust.  “We should sing the songs of Miriam,” said one old woman.  “But how can we sing in this desolate place, when our hope is dead?” said a new mother, clutching her daughter to her breast.  “She was our voice.”

 

And the men sat around their fires and said nothing.  But they thought, who will intercede for us with Miriam gone?  God speaks to Moses, but Moses is not one of us, with his Egyptian name and his princely upbringing and his foreign wife.  Aaron is too timid, and the elders do not hear God’s voice.

 

And when the funeral rites were over, they resumed their march.  But now their columns were silent, and the harsh wind blew, and the water ran low, and they quarreled with Moses, for there was no one to soothe their fears.

 

Then God commanded Moses to strike the rock, and there was sweet water for all.  And when they set out again with skins full of water, there was a song on their lips again, for they knew the Lord was with them.

 

עזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ   וַיְהִי־לִי לִישׁוּעָה

זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ  אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ

 

My fierce-might and strength is the Lord,

he has become deliverance for me.

This is my God—I honor him,

            the God of my father—I exalt him.

 

Deborah died in Ramah, in the thirty-ninth year of rest after God delivered Israel from Sisera the general of Jabin of Canaan.  She was an old woman then, hands twisted with age, and frail, though her spirit was still strong.  Each day she went out on the road toward Beth-el, to the tree which was her own, and sat below it that the people of the tribes of Israel might seek her judgment and hear the word of the Lord.  But in those days, the numbers of those who came were small, for Deborah’s strength allowed but a short time of judgment each day.  Lappidoth, her husband, asked her to remain in her home, that her strength might be conserved, but Deborah would not let the gift of the Lord lie fallow in her mouth, nor would she let the seat of judgment sit empty.  So she went out toward wisdom and discernment, towards the will of God.  Then she died and they wrapped her in the robes she wore to Mount Tabor on the day the Lord scattered the Canaanites, and they laid her in the tomb of her family, beside her foremothers and forefathers.

 

When Barak heard that Deborah had died, he cut down the tree under which she had given judgment, for he said the word of the Lord had gone from that place.

 

That day, and many days thereafter, the women tore their clothes and wailed, a wild noise that met the wind and joined with it, rippling through the grain fields, as if God himself mourned the passing of his daughter.  “What will happen to our grandchildren if the Canaanites come again?” asked one woman, whose face had been scarred by a man of Sisera’s army.  “Who will lead them into battle and show them the path to victory, now that Deborah is gone and Barak is an old man?  We have the songs of triumph, but who will lead us to sing them?  Who will tell us the word of the Lord?  Who will create a new song?”

 

“It is the Midianites we must fear now,” said her eldest daughter.  “They are a fierce enemy, and how shall we prevail against them?  I have heard they destroy the crops and flocks of their enemies.  If they come, we will starve.”  She raised her own infant son to her breast.

 

“We will starve before they come, if we do not get a fair settlement from our neighbor,” grumbled the younger daughter.  “Deborah was fair; she would have judged in our favor.  We should have tried to seek her when we had a chance.  What if our neighbor tries to bribe the arbitrator?”

 

“Our case was too small to bother her with,” their mother said.

 

“Not too small for us,” the younger daughter replied.

 

And when Deborah’s funeral rites were over, the people went back to their fields and flocks, and listened to their worries and fears instead of the word of God, and the Midianites prevailed over Israel.  And the people of Israel suffered under the yoke of their oppression, and cried to the Lord, and were delivered.  But their delight was short, for they were troubled in heart, for they feared the nations surrounding them and they feared that the word of the Lord was gone.

 

And then Samuel was born, the son of Hannah, and the people rejoiced and sang, for there was once again a prophet of the Lord in Ramah and they knew the Lord was with them.

 

מִקּוֹל מְחַצְצִים בֵּין מַשְׁאַבִּים שָׁם יְתַנּוּ צִדְקוֹת

צִדְקֹת פִּרְזֹנוֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל

אָז יָרְדוּ לַשְּׁעָרִים עַם־

 

To the sound of musicians at the watering places,

there they repeat the triumphs of the LORD,

the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

 

Then down to the gates marched the people of the LORD.

 

Miriam went to her brother at the Sea of Reeds, after the destruction of the army of Pharaoh.  “The people must rejoice,” she said, “for they have been delivered from slavery by the right hand of God.  They are free, as are their children and their children’s children.  They must give thanks to the Lord for all that he has done for them.”

 

“Then let them rejoice,” Moses said, staring at the place where the Egyptians had been and were no longer.  “For myself, I cannot.  I trained with that army, I knew its officers.  They were men no better or worse than any in Israel.  And now they are dead, by my hand and the will of God.”

 

“Will you tear your garments for them, and put ash in your hair?” Miriam asked.

 

“No,” said Moses.  “For if they had not died, our people would have.  But I cannot rejoice.  Let others do so, if they must.”

 

“You are our leader,” Miriam said.  “You are the one sent by God to bring us out of slavery and into the land given to our ancestor Abraham.  Our people must see you lead them in this, as well, or they will not have the faith in you to follow you through the wilderness to the land of milk and honey.”  When he did not respond, she took his face and turned him so that the sea was behind him.  “This is the word of the Lord to you now, Moses: Rejoice.”

 

“How can I?” he whispered.

 

Miriam smiled gently.  “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

 

And Moses her brother nodded, and stepped forward into the midst of the people of Israel, and began to sing.

 

וּבְרֹב גְּאוֹנְךָ תַּהֲרֹס קָמֶיךָ          תְּשַׁלַּח חֲרֹנְךָ     יֹאכְלֵמוֹ כַּקַּשׁ

 

In your great triumph

you smashed your foes,

you sent forth your fury,

consumed them like chaff.

 

When Deborah sent for Barak, he came quickly, for he had heard wondrous things about her.  But the journey took several days, for he had resisted the Canaanites in several places and they were looking for him to kill him.  He hid his face in a cloak and listened as she judged the people, and he was amazed at the wisdom of her pronouncements.  Barak had heard learned elders, men with years of study of God’s law, who spoke with less understanding.  And here was this woman, who possessed neither learning nor title, explaining the commandments of God for each man and woman who came to her so that each might understand and be built up in the Word of the Lord.  Many there were in the land who claimed to do the same, but their pronouncements favored their own welfare and led the people into sloth and avarice, favoring the wealthy and soothing the consciences of the guilty.  But Deborah spoke without regard for status or power, caring only for the justice and truth that come from God.

 

When the last of the petitioners had been heard (and most had left, for fear of attracting the notice of Sisera’s men with too large a gathering, and bringing his wrath down upon them,) Deborah called Barak forward.

 

“Barak,” she said, “the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you.  Step forward.”

 

“How did you know I was here?” Barak asked, pushing back the hood of his cloak, for they had never met.

 

Deborah snorted.  “Have you not heard?  I am a prophetess; I hear the word of the Lord our God and pass it on to the people of Israel.  I fashion the word of the Lord into songs that the people may have it always on their lips and in their heart.  God grants me knowledge, that it might be used for his purposes.”

 

“And does God have a use for me?” Barak asked.

 

“God has uses for all, Barak son of Abinoam,” Deborah said.  “We may choose to hear and obey him, or we may choose to run away.”  She stood, and circled him slowly with even steps like a dancer, studying each side of him.  “Do you believe that God is with us, child of Naphtali?”

 

“I believe that God will one day come to destroy our enemies,” Barak replied.

 

“And what of the time until that day?”

 

Barak looked at the tree of judgment under which Deborah stood.  “God is with you, who judge his people justly and teach them in righteousness.”

 

Deborah laughed.  “God has not forsaken his covenant, nor abandoned his people.  If I hear the word of the Lord more clearly, it is because he has chosen me to hear and to speak.  Still he listens to all, and hears the cries of his people.  And now God has a word for you: ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun.  I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’  The stars in the heavens await the battle, await the great victory when they may dance in their courses.  The mighty rivers are waiting to sing in victory; Wadi Kishon waits to sweep Sisera’s army away in its torrents.”

 

Barak gasped, for he had been waiting for God to deliver the Israelites since he was a boy.  He was greatly honored, for there were others who resisted Jabin’s tyranny, many of whom had bands larger than his.  But if God had chosen Barak, then God would surely provide him the men needed for the task.  Convincing them would be much easier with the prophet of God at his right hand.  “Will you come with me, to advise me?” he asked.  “I will need God’s help, to win against Sisera.  The Canaanite army is large and well trained, and Sisera is ruthless and canny.”

 

“Of course,” Deborah said.  “With God’s help, you will destroy the army.  But do not set your sight on Sisera himself, or on the glory of defeating the Canaanite army, because Sisera will be killed by a woman.”

 

She watched him, to see his reaction.  Barak bit his tongue and considered her words.  “Sisera is a big man, strong, and used to subduing women,” he said.  “But if God wills it, it will be so, and many women will bless the name of the one who kills Sisera.  I myself would like that glory, but the freedom of our people from the tyrant is more important.”

 

“That is why you have been chosen,” Deborah said.

 

עוּרִי עוּרִי דְּבוֹרָה עוּרִי עוּרִי דַּבְּרִי־שִׁיר

 

“Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song!”

 

When Miriam was ten years old, her mother bore a son.  This was in the time when Pharaoh feared the Israelites, and the might of their men, and so ordered all male children to be killed.  But Miriam’s parents loved their son, and so they hid him in the river and set Miriam to watch over him while they worked in Pharaoh’s brickyards.

 

At first, she watched him like a hawk, nervous that the basket of reeds which held him would be swept away by the Nile’s steady flow.  But his little ark stayed pinned by the reeds she had placed it among, and showed no sign of movement.  As the day went on and her infant brother remained in his place, Miriam’s attention was drawn by the clouds high above her head, and she amused herself by imaging shapes in them.  A breeze had come up, a cool breeze that bore on its crest the rushing sounds of the Nile and the chirping of crickets.  It seemed to ask her to dance with it, and so she did, taking joy from the free movement of her body and adding her laughter to the sounds carried on the wind.  While she was thus distracted a wave came up, higher than those that had lapped gently on the shore all day, and dislodged the basket.  Miriam saw this, but too late to reach it.  As she could not swim, she ran along the shore behind it praying that God would bring her brother back safely to her.  She ran a long time, farther than she had ever been before, out of the lands near the Hebrew camp.

 

At last Miriam’s prayers were answered.  The basket which held her brother was carried by the current to the shore, and was caught in a stand of reeds.  Miriam’s heart rejoiced within her, and she opened her mouth to sing; but she heard women speaking in the tongue of the Egyptians, and hid, for she was afraid.  And Miriam prayed that the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, who had brought her brother safely to shore, would keep him hidden from harm.

 

But the women had seen him, for one came to the water’s edge and fished him out.  Miriam gaped to see her step into the muddy bank herself, for surely a woman with a linen dress so finely woven had servants to send.

 

“It is a baby, mistress,” the woman said, and Miriam trembled at how rich her mistress must be to clothe her servants so.  “An Israelite boy.  Shall I put him back in the water, or give him to your guards?”

 

“Bring him here, first.”

 

As the servant obeyed, Miriam crept closer as quietly as she could, until she could see the party gathered by the river’s edge.  Just beyond the reeds in which her brother had been caught was a cleared area, with stone steps leading down into the water.  A woman had just come up out of the river, and several servants clothed her in a dress far finer than the first woman wore, adding jewelry and an elaborate wig.  Another woman, more finely dressed than the servants but less so than the woman from the water, sat in the shade of a palm tree.  The woman carrying Miriam’s brother waited until her mistress was clothed before presenting her burden.

 

“He is handsome and strong,” the mistress said.  “Surely this is why his family did not hand him over.  Look at those eyes—so intelligent.  Why, he almost looks wise enough to be an Egyptian, not a dirty slave.”  She smiled, and her servants laughed.

 

Miriam stuffed her fist in her mouth to keep herself from crying out at the injustice.

 

“I will keep him,” said the woman.

 

“What will your father say?” asked the woman under the palm tree.

 

“He will not refuse my whim,” the other replied.  “Perhaps I should name the baby after him—that might make him more tolerant.  But not too closely after my father—it is only a Hebrew, after all.  Not Ra-moses, but perhaps just Moses.”

 

Miriam gasped—this woman was the daughter of Ramses, the Pharaoh!  The one who forced her people into slavery and killed their children!  She was terrified, for what if they should find her, a Hebrew, in the place of Pharaoh?  Yet she could not leave, for the Pharaoh’s daughter held her brother.  She heard the words of Pharaoh’s daughter, but did not understand, for how could the Lord use a daughter of Pharaoh to save her brother from Pharaoh’s commands?

 

“And how will you take care of him?” asked the woman under the palm tree.  “This Moses of yours is not old enough to be weaned, and you cannot ask a woman of the palace to nurse a Hebrew child.”

 

“Then I will find a Hebrew woman,” said Pharaoh’s daughter.  “Surely there is at least one who has lost a child and still has milk to give.”

 

At this, Miriam’s heart swelled within her, and she felt the breeze wrap around her, drawing her forward and whispering in her ear.  Her heart beat in her ears, keeping time with her footsteps.  “I know such a woman,” she said.  “Shall I get her for you?”  Her fear left her, and in its place was hope, for surely the Lord had planned this to save her brother and surely it was he who gave her the words to say.

 

The woman under the palm stared at her with narrowed eyes, but the daughter of Pharaoh barely glanced at her before nodding.  “Bring her to the palace this evening by sundown,” she said, and turned to leave without dismissing Miriam.

 

“It will be done,” Miriam said.  She bowed as low as she could, but Pharaoh’s daughter never looked back.  Miriam turned and ran for home, the breath of God blowing around her and the songs of God on her lips, for in the midst of trouble God had saved her brother.

 

נָחִיתָ בְחַסְדְּךָ    עַם־זוּ גָּאָלְתָּ      נֵהַלְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ       אֶל־נְוֵה קָדְשֶׁךָ

 

            You led in your faithfulness

your people redeemed,

guided them in your fierce-might

to your holy pasture.

 

When Deborah was ten years old, the army of King Jabin of Canaan came to Ramah, and demanded of the Israelites there one half of the crops of their fields and one half of their flocks and all the riches they possessed.  These they took for themselves, to feed them as they marched through the land of Naphtali.  But before they left, they chose a man of the tribe to rule over the rest of his people, and left soldiers to enforce his will.

 

The man they chose was harsh, and cruel, and there was no justice in the land.  He made widows his spoil, and orphans his prey, and those who spoke for them he killed.  So it was that each morning and each night, Deborah’s family prayed to the Lord for deliverance from the hands of the Canaanites and from the man they had set as ruler over them, and each day they toiled in their fields and prayed for a good harvest that they might not starve.

 

Then the soldiers of Canaan came to house of Deborah’s neighbor, for they had heard that the family had concealed spices from the East and other precious things.  They tortured and killed the family and searched the house, and when they did not find anything they burned it to the ground.  So Deborah and her mother went to prepare them for burial.

 

“Why did they do this?” Deborah asked as they washed the bodies.  “What did our neighbors do to deserve death?”

 

“Nothing,” said her mother.  “They did nothing wrong.”

 

“Then why did God allow them to be killed?” Deborah asked.  “Why has he allowed the Canaanites to oppress us?

 

Her mother was silent for a time.  “I do not know,” she said.

 

And Deborah was silent, for she feared that God had abandoned them.

 

That night, the word of the Lord came to Deborah in a dream, and she heard the voice of the Lord saying, Do not be afraid, for I am with you.  For I have heard the cries of my people, and will not desert them.  The transgressions of the Canaanites will not go unpunished, and Israel will be free.  Those who suffer now will rejoice, and those who weep now will laugh for joy, and those who die will be safe in my house.  But until the day comes when I will destroy the Canaanites, my people will need to hear my voice.  Words of justice and mercy, and consolation.  You, Deborah, shall deliver my word to them.

 

And Deborah replied, saying O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

 

And the next day, she went down the road to Bethel and sat under a palm tree, and spoke the word of the Lord.  And people came to hear it from all over the countryside, and they sang songs of thanksgiving, for even in the midst of trouble, the Lord was with them.

 

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam …

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-02 06:09 pm (UTC)
kass: Shepherd Book; caption "The Good Book." (book)
From: [personal profile] kass
Oh, wow. This is awesome. I love the way you've interwoven the two stories. How we begin with the death of Miriam, and the death of Deborah, and then work backwards. I love that when Miriam dies, the men say nothing but even they are afraid, because who will intercede for them with Miriam gone?

I love the detail of Moses mourning the deaths of the Egyptians. He knew those men; he had trained with them; of course he had. I'd never thought of it before. The moment where Miriam turns him around so that he is no longer facing the sea, and begins Miriam's song, brought me close to tears.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-02 07:24 pm (UTC)
dragonfly: (amazing)
From: [personal profile] dragonfly
Excellent! Wow. Everything [personal profile] kass said. Those things she liked jumped out at me, too. And also, I adore that Barak was chosen because he was more interested in ultimate victory than in personal glory.

I liked how you went backwards in time, too. Most excellent.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-03 11:08 am (UTC)
lomedet: voluptuous winged fairy with curly dark hair (Default)
From: [personal profile] lomedet
This is complex and tangled and lovely and a glorious expansion of the source. Wonderful.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-05 01:06 am (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
The interplay between the two stories is so intricate. I love the way you used the language of the Bible to speak, the way you let each individual word in your scriptural quotes really breathe. I really felt the sense that in the Bible, words hold the key to power.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-10 06:26 pm (UTC)
roga: (israel walls)
From: [personal profile] roga
I read this when it was posted and didn't have time to comment, so I'm rereading it now, and it is still just as gorgeous.

I love the first two scenes, the deaths, showing us the impact these women had on the people they led, the amount of comfort one draws from knowing their leader is there and selfishly wanting to hang on to them.

The two scenes with the men were lovely -- Miriam giving Moses strength, Deborah collecting Barak to her (I love your Barak POV by the way, the respect he has for her), and then the last two -- Miriam's agitation and excitement when Pharaoh's daughter finds Moses, and finally Deborah's childhood -- what came before, which I loved. You built the details in a way that felt so real. And I'm so happy you chose to include all these different scenes from their lives -- they're like this whole collection of stories I wanted to read woven smoothly together. ♥

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