(Part III of a potpourris of perspectives of our Blessed Mother Mary — prepared for discussion at a pre-concert lecture for Polyhumnia, St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, NYC) . . . more reflections to follow:
Mary’s Magnificat: In the History of Hebrew Women’s Songs of Deliverance
Mary’s Magnificat follows in a Hebrew tradition of five biblical songs of God’s deliverance sung by women — beginning with the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 sung by Miriam (another Mary, this one Moses’ and Aaron’s sister). The Song of Deborah in Judges 5, the Song of Judith in the Apocrypha and the Song of Hannah in First Samuel also anticipate the New Testament Magnificat.
In the second chapter of Exodus an unnamed sister of Moses helps deliver him from the Nile River where he was hidden in a floating basket. Many commentators identify her as Miriam, who first appears by name in the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod 15:20–21). Miriam is called a prophetess, and although the meaning of the term prophet here is not clear, Miriam is the first woman ever to receive the title. At the scene of the crossing she leads other Hebrew women in singing, dancing, and playing drums.
The biblical text leads us to believe that Miriam’s one stanza song at the sea is merely a short answer to the lengthy song attributed to Moses. Historical and literary studies show, however, that the long version is actually the Song of Miriam. Most scholars believe that this poem is one of the oldest parts of the Scriptures.
Excerpt from The Song of Miriam/Moses (Exodus 15)
‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
‘Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendour, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them.
‘In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
. . .
Terror and dread fell upon them;
by the might of your arm,
they became still as a stone until your people, O Lord, passed by,
until the people whom you acquired passed by.
You brought them in and planted them
on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O Lord, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established.
The Lord will reign for ever and ever.’
The Song of Deborah is found in the 5th chapter of Judges. It also is recognized as one of the oldest parts of the Bible, dating somewhere in the 12th century BC judging from its grammar and context. It is a victory hymn, sung by Deborah and Barak, about the defeat of Canaanite adversaries. The Song of Deborah stands outs out among the victory hymns in the Old Testament because it celebrates a military victory that is aided by two women: the prophetess Deborah, and the prophetess and Jael.
The Christian Church has seen similarities between the Virgin Mary and both Deborah and Jael. First, Deborah as Mother of Israel, calls her children to walk in the way of the Torah. Likewise, Mary, in the Gospel of John, exhorts the servants at Cana to do whatever Jesus tells them (Jn 2:1-5). In the Song of Deborah, Deborah calls Israel to glory in the Lord — water is the symbol or means of victory. This parallels Jesus changing the water into wine, thereby manifesting his glory leading his disciples to believe in him.
In the victory song, Jael is praised as “Blessed among women.” – the same phrase addressed to Mary both by Elizabeth during her visitation and by the angel Gabriel in the Annunciation.
At critical moments in the lives of both Deborah and Mary the Holy Spirit is said to overshadow or rest upon them. The Holy Spirit inspires Deborah’s remarkable leadership and the gifts of prophecy and wisdom. Although Mary does not enter into the realm of judging, she manifests the gift of practical wisdom and speaks in the prophetic words of the Magnificat.
Excerpt from The Song of Deborah (Judges 5)
‘Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
to the Lord I will sing,
I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.
‘Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled,
and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water.
The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,
before the Lord, the God of Israel. . .
‘Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, utter a song!
Arise, Barak, lead away your captives,
O son of Abinoam.
Then down marched the remnant of the noble;
the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty. . .
Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent-peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead . . .
So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.’
The Song of Judith is part of a larger song that concludes the story of Judith’s decapitation by Assyrian invaders. But Judith’s canticle, which Christians sing in the Daily office, praises God for the defeat of the enemy. Powerful as it is, has been cut off from its connection with the wider context of Judith’s. In the complete version, The Song of Judith follows the form and content of Miriam’s Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah in Judges.
Excerpt from A Song of Judith (Judith 16)
Strike up a song to my God with tambourines,
sing to the Lord with cymbals;
Improvise for him a new song,
exalt and acclaim his name.
For the Lord is a God who crushes wars;
he sets his encampment among his people;
he delivered me from the hands of my pursuers. . .
I will sing a new song to my God
for you are great and glorious, wonderful in strength, invincible.
Let the whole creation serve you,
for you spoke and all things came into being.
You sent your breath and it formed them,
no one is able to resist your voice.
Mountains and seas are stirred to their depths,
rocks melt like wax at your presence.
But to those who fear you,
you continue to show mercy.
No sacrifice, however fragrant, can please you,
but whoever fears the Lord shall stand in your sight for ever.
Walter Brueggemann suggests that the Song of Hannah paves the way for a major theme of the Book of Samuel, the “power and willingness of Yahweh to intrude, intervene and invert.” Hannah’s experience of reversal was a pledge of how God “would also lift up and glorify his whole nation, which was at that time so deeply bowed down and oppressed by its foes.” In her Song, Hannah praises Yahweh, reflects on the reversals he accomplishes, and looks forward to his king.
In Judaism the Song of Hannah is regarded as a primary model for how to pray. It is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The poem has several features in common with the Magnificat, including the themes, and the order in which they appear; some textual scholars believe that the Magnificat is essentially just a copy of the Song of Hannah, together with part of a previous prayer of Hannah referring to herself as a handmaiden –the Magnificat being a paraphrase of Hannah that is more succinct.
These quotations taken from the Song of Hannah appear in the Magnificat :
Hannah says ‘My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” while Mary says “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Hannah says “He raises up the poor from the dust. . .to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. Mary says: “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.”
Hannah says: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” And Mary: “ He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away.”
When Mary sings, “He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden” it may be an allusion to Hannah’s prayer for a child: “O Lord of hosts, if Thou wilt in-deed look on the affliction of Thy maidservant and remember me, and not forget Thy maidservant.” To these basic themes in Hannah, Mary has added an additional collection of Hebrew scriptural quotations and allusions, especially references to the Psalms.
Hannah’s Song (Samuel 2:1-10)
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
‘There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.’