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    Psalm 113: Is verse 9 the woman’s voice?

    The following article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple first appeared in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, July-September 2020 (Vol. 48, No. 3, Issue 191).

    On Chanukah 5780, Professor Marc Zvi Brettler published (in the online series The Torah.com[1]) an essay entitled “A Woman’s Voice in the Psalter: A New Understanding of Psalm 113”. This psalm opens the so-called Egyptian Hallel with a call to praise God, which is central to the spiritual life fostered by the psalms. The psalm utilises some puzzling Hebrew archaisms (instances of the chirik compaganis[2]). It echoes (in verses 7-8) Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2:5-8 and seems to imitate it. Brettler’s essay argues that the end of the psalm provides us with an otherwise absent woman’s voice marking the birth of a child. The JPSA version translates the relevant passage, “(God) sets the childless woman among her household as a happy mother of children,” though as we shall see this translation is faulty.

    In contrast to his earlier view[3] that none of the psalms singles out women’s experiences, Brettler now considers that Psalm 113 is the barren woman’s thanksgiving on bearing a child (“Psalm 113, or at least an earlier form of it… functioned as a psalm of thanksgiving for a woman who gave birth to a child”). Now she has had a baby she is no longer akeret habayit but em habanim semechah, “a happy mother of children”. However, despite Brettler, gender-based rejoicing is not the major point of the psalm. The psalmist shows no sign of establishing a feminist liturgy or giving the woman a hitherto lacking voice. Brettler may be right that after childbirth a woman tends to stay home and not work in the fields, but this is not why she is called akeret habayit. A better interpretation of akeret habayit comes later in this essay.

    THE WOMAN

    One can see that a childless woman feels bitter at her barrenness. Infertility is a major phenomenon in the Bible. The woman is happy (presumably ecstatic) to now have a child. She can certainly choose to praise God in the words of Psalm 113, but whether this makes the psalm the (or a) voice for women and a liturgical formality is another matter. If it were a woman’s liturgy we would probably expect it to ask God to protect the infant and to bless the parents in their endeavour to rear the child, though admittedly we do not see such requests from Sarah (Genesis 21:7) and Hannah (I Samuel 2) when they gave birth to their sons. Maybe Brettler is right that the psalm writers were “biased against representing such female rituals,” but I believe that in addressing Psalm 113 he has misread the psalmist’s mind.

    In the psalm, the birth of a child illustrates the broader theological tenet that praise is due because (as we see in verses 5-6) the Most High God looks down and affects events on earth; in verses 7-8, He shows His power by rescuing the poor and raising them up, and in verse 9, He shows His power by enabling the barren to bear children.

    Even if the Bible (including the Psalms) seems to be male-oriented, it is hard to see in Psalm 113 any hint of a female author or of the desire to enable females to praise God as women. The psalm is about God, not about females as contrasted with males. God steps into history by helping His creatures whoever they are. The beneficiaries (as spelled out in verses 7-8) are people of either gender who are given relief by a supportive God. The thinking of the psalm is that God is uniquely powerful (“Who is like the Lord our God, enthroned on high, seeing what is below?”). No other deity shares this concern for both heaven and earth. God’s intervention in events on earth is not motivated by genderism but by ethics. True, the beneficiary of His intervention in verse 9 is a woman (infertility in ancient times is not blamed on the males), but even so, depression and poverty (verse 7) afflict either gender. If it were a female author one might also expect her to reference the care of the widow as in Psalm 146:9. One wonders whether Brettler would also seek to ascribe female authorship to that psalm because of its concern to identify with the plight of a widow? If verse 9 gives a voice to women, as Brettler believes, to whom does verse 7 give a voice? Presumably no-one, since Brettler gives little attention to the poor and depressed. The categories of suffering identified in verses 7-9 need sympathy by reason of being human; their gender is irrelevant.

    The fact that Psalm 113:7-8a replicates I Samuel 2:8 is a linchpin for Brettler. He thinks both passages equate a woman who was barren and gave birth with the poor person, but he conveniently ignores I Samuel 2:5b, “The mother of many is forlorn,” a reference to Peninah, which spoils his argument. Where is the feminist thanksgiving in these words? Our psalm, and most of the text of I Samuel 2, gives no hint of female authorship or a woman’s liturgy but – as Simon[5] points out – could well be bringing in ready-made well known phraseology which was used over and over again by anyone in search of what to say in situations of thanksgiving.

    It also reiterates that God is aroused by human (not gender-based) tragedies which range from poverty and infertility to persecution and pain – frequently encountered in Psalms when innocent people are suffering because of external evil forces. As the Torah points out (Ex. 2:25), God “knows” and “sees” the suffering and responds by extending help and support, though neither always nor immediately. There is of course no suggestion that female barrenness is due to outside enemies. It might even be God’s own doing, since all that happens is under His control.

    Whatever the reason for the woman’s barrenness, God is able to “heal” it (Gen. 20:17) and open the woman’s womb. However, he is not necessarily motivated by the woman’s gender but by the fact that she is His creature and her pain reaches Him.

    In addition to the personal elements evident in our psalm, one could view the text as alluding to the national plight. The nations watch the suffering of an individual or community, and they taunt the righteous with the sneering words, “Where now is your God?” (Ps. 115:2). Responding to this taunt, the psalmist expects the “servants of the Lord” (Ps. 113:1) to reiterate His praise and acclaim His concern. This is the leitmotif of the Hallel: God who is high looks down, those who are low He raises up. Upon seeing God’s deeds, his servants rejoice. Franz Delitzsch[4] describes thus the unity of the high and the low:

    “He is the incomparable One who has set up His throne in the height, but at the same time directs His gaze deep downwards… in the heavens and upon the earth, i.e. nothing in the realm of the creatures that are beneath Him escapes His sight, and nothing is so low that it remains unnoticed by Him… It is just that which is lowly… that is the special object of His regard.”

    God’s intervention in human history is the theme of Hallel in general and of our psalm in particular.

    The psalm gives two examples. The first is in verse 7, where God “raises the poor (presumably including those who are feeling poorly because of their suffering) from the dust; He lifts up the needy from the refuse heap.” He lifts up these people and seats them with the nobility.

    The second example is in verse 9, where the woman who feels low (the verse doesn’t actually say how she feels to be barren, but we infer it from her being happy later) because of her barrenness is helped by God and turned into a happy mother with her child or children round about her.

    When our psalm speaks of the rehabilitation of the disadvantaged, whom does it have in mind? The Targum and some commentators (e.g. Rashi) give it a nationalistic meaning suggesting that the psalm is about the congregation of Israel who are likened to a barren woman who bemoans her fate. Brettler brushes this aside and thinks it obscures the original meaning of the psalm which he believes deals with personal womanly fertility, not with national salvation. He may be right that the nationalistic interpretation is a later rationalisation, but he does not really prove his contention.

    A second question is whether the psalm is merely being rhetorical – speaking of disadvantaged people in general – or alluding to actual historical figures. In line with the frequent weaving into the Psalms of events from earlier Biblical history, there is a possibility that the psalm is not simply talking theory but reflects instances and individuals drawn from Pentateuchal narrative.

    Midrashically speaking, perhaps the poor man who was brought up out of his suffering and appointed to a position of respect and a rank of honour is Joseph, the son of the patriarch Jacob. The final chapters of the Book of Genesis see him at his lowest ebb as a prisoner desperate for freedom and fair treatment. The narrative sees him taken out of prison by Pharaoh and appointed to high office in the Egyptian kingdom, concerned with the sheer survival of people who are battling famine, including his own family who come to Egypt to buy corn in time of famine. The words of our psalm seem custom-tailored for Joseph. The story is told poetically in Psalm 105:17-23, and it is possible that this is what is alluded to in our psalm.

    In relation to the barren woman, it is possible that the reference is to Hannah the mother of Samuel, since the poet makes use of the narrative of her story in formulating verses 7-8. Brettler alludes to the scholarly debates as to the relative dating of our psalm and the song of Hannah in I Samuel chapter 2 and he supports the view (on linguistic grounds) that the Samuel text is earlier. He attaches considerable weight to the argument of the Israeli scholar Avi Hurwitz in favour of ascribing a later date to the psalm.

    Alternatively, the woman who suffers infertility could be the matriarch Sarah, who is getting old and is still childless. She has never ceased yearning for motherhood, and eventually – when she and Abraham are both ageing – her prayer is fulfilled in the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21). The application to Sarah of the verse about the barren woman was suggested by the Pesikta Rabbati 180a, which says, “(It is) Sarah (who) is the happy mother of children”. The word “children” (plural) is used poetically though in fact Sarah had only one child, but she said (Gen. 21:7), “Who would have said to Abraham/That Sarah would suckle children!” The theme of the barren woman being remembered by God must have been in the mind of the High Holyday liturgists who chose the story of Hannah and Samuel as the Rosh HaShanah haftarah to parallel the Torah readings about Sarah and Isaac.

    The Talmudic sages offer another possibility. The phrase “happy mother of children” applies to a different Hannah in TB Gittin 57b, where a heavenly voice says that it was Hannah, the woman from II Maccabees 7, whose seven sons were martyred for their faith. This Hannah had “children” (plural), which allows a more literal reading of the verse from Psalm 113. The psalm text itself does not name the mother. Other sources call her Miriam. But I Samuel 2:5 speaks of a barren woman having seven children, which provides a basis for naming the mother of the seven sons Hannah, though this identification was only inaugurated in a late medieval version of Josippon 4:19.

    The rabbinic sages have a further range of homiletical interpretations of Psalm 113:9, applying the verse to a range of Biblical figures. They see Yocheved the mother of Moses as the embodiment of a happy mother (TB Sotah 12a, Bava Batra 120a). They regard the barren woman as representing the people of Israel (TB Pesachim 118b) who are ashamed of their less worthy members. As we have seen, the Targum applies the verse about the woman to the people of Israel whose Temple stands bereft, longing for the return of the worshipping crowds. The Bible itself depicts Zion as a barren woman (Isaiah 54:1, 66:8) or a woman in travail (Psalm 48:7, Jeremiah 4:31). The barren woman is given comfort in Isaiah 54:1 when she is told, “Shout, O barren one, you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused” (JPSA translation). The large number of children attributed to the barren woman in this verse suggests that though she is barren at this point, in time she will bear numerous progeny. The relevance to the historical situation is that though Jerusalem is today denuded of population, after its restoration the city will be teeming with people.

    A nationalistic interpretation is also possible for the next psalm in the Hallel series, Psalm 114 (which like Psalm 113 employs archaic linguistic forms). It continues the theme of the rehabilitation of the disadvantaged, with the suffering Hebrew slaves being redeemed by God from bondage and brought safely across the Red Sea. Once more the sages offer a midrashic connotation, seeing the psalm as an augury that the exiles in Babylon will return and rebuild themselves, like poor men awarded high status like the nobility.

    Divine intervention in favour of those who are suffering is thus a major concern of the Hallel psalms and a central feature of Biblical theology. As the Hallel proceeds we see this theme unfold again and again. We see it in Psalm 115, “The Lord is mindful of us. He will bless us” (verse 12); in Psalm 116, “How can I repay the Lord for all His bounties?” (verse 12); in Psalm 117, “Great is His steadfast love toward us” (verse 2); and in Psalm 118, a return to the rhetoric of Psalm 113: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (verse 22). The barren woman figures in this material, not because of her femininity or her need of a voice, but as an example of a good person – regardless of their gender – feeling depressed and unfortunate.

    Professor Brettler’s “woman’s voice” theory misreads the evidence.

    THE HOUSE

    The very first mitzvah of the Torah (Genesis 1:28) is procreation – p’ru ur’vu, “be fruitful and multiply”. Carrying out this mitzvah is regarded as the greatest fulfillment available to man. The birth of a child was always a moment for celebration; the earliest example is the birth of Cain (Genesis 4:1). The acclaim of the joy of parenthood cannot be left without some attention being paid to the full Hebrew phrase used in Psalm 113:9 for the (ostensibly) barren woman. If the major point was that the verse was concerned that a woman was barren, it would have been easier to call her simply an akarah instead of akeret habayit – though grammatically the phrase probably should have been akarat habayit. Whatever the vocalisation, the phrase is a hapax and we need to know what each of its elements connotes. The first point to make is that, taken literally, the phrase does not necessarily refer to a woman, barren or otherwise, though almost everyone (including Brettler) thinks it does.

    The English translations seem to follow one of two approaches – 1. the KJV, “He maketh the barren woman to keep house,” or 2. the NIV, “He settles the childless woman in her home.” Oesterley[6] has “Causing the barren woman to dwell in a house,” which makes no sense. Are we to say that a barren woman does not dwell in a house? None of these versions takes account of the grammatical form of akeret habayit, which is construct state and requires a translation along the lines of the barren woman of the house. Samson Raphael Hirsch[7] as rendered into English by Gertrude Hirschler recognises this grammatical phenomenon but does not offer a satisfactory equivalent in English. To say, as Brettler does, that she is now more or less confined to the house whilst her baby is small, is a fact of life, but childbirth must have also have brought a change in status. Whilst she was childless she must have felt ashamed and apprehensive about going out of the house; she knew that people talked about her. Because she had not fulfilled the then usual expectation of women, namely to produce issue, her home was “the house where the woman is childless”. The house was defined by the woman.

    Little merit can attach to Oesterley’s view[6] that until she gave birth the woman did not dwell in a house, which is absurd. Surely “house” is mentioned because its social status depended on whether the woman had children. If she has no children we grapple to find an English-language title that conveys the apparent stigma that attaches to her and consequently to the house. Maybe akeret habayit was an uncomplimentary idiom which the scriptural age used and understood.

    But does akeret habayit really connote barren woman? Yaakov Etzioni[8] recognises the difficulty of the root ayin-kuf-resh when we try to connect it with eker in Leviticus 25:47. In regard to Psalm 113:9, the great grammarian Jonah Ibn Janah is known to have said that akeret habayit could be ikeret (or ikrat) habayit, the wife of an eker. More importantly, Ibn Janah suggested that it means she is the ikar, the root or main part of the house – the root of the community on a national level – but the validity of this interpretation depends on whether ikar was used in this sense at that period of development in Hebrew vocabulary. Professor Blau[9] suggests that the phrase referred to a physical place in the house. He reads akarat habayit as “the ikar (interior) of the house”: God sets the poor man with the princes, and his wife (the mother of his children) – em habanim semechah – is now in the main (central) part of the house. B’reshit Rabba explains the matriarch Rachel’s supposed “barrenness” as the deficiencies of the main wife of the house and the Midrash (Gen. R. 71, Num. R. 14) also has a theory of the wife being ikaro shel bayit, the main person or mainstay of the home. These explanations remove the idea of a barren woman from the psalm altogether and leave Brettler without the nexus to an after-childbirth thanksgiving.

    NOTES

    1. https://www.thetorah.com/article/a-womens-voice-in-the-psalter-a-new-understanding-of-psalm-113. TheTorah.com is a website sometimes called TABS – Torah and Biblical Scholarship – which addresses a range of issues, with various points of view.

    2. These forms have a final yod which does not mean “my” but is a separate linguistic phenomenon. First found in Genesis, it appears five times in Psalm 113 and once in Psalm 114 and is rare in late Biblical Hebrew. Brettler says, “The author of Psalm 113 is consciously archaising his Hebrew, trying to produce classical poetry, but without fully understanding the rules of classical biblical Hebrew.”

    3. Marc Zvi Brettler, “Women and Psalms: Toward an Understanding of the Role of Women’s Prayer in the Israelite Cult”, in Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. BF Levenson, VH Matthews & T Frymer-Kensky (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), p. 47.

    4. Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary (with CR Keil), Psalms 3:205 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1889; Judaica Press reprint, 1988).

    5. Uriel Simon, Reading Prophetic Narratives, trans. Leon J Schramm (The Biblical Encyclopedia Library – Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 1997), pp. 37-39.

    6. WOE Oesterley, The Psalms (London: S.P.C.K., 1962), p. 469.

    7. English translation of Hirsch’s Psalm commentary by Gertrude Hirschler (Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim, 1978), p. 297.

    8. In Ma’amakim, a journal of literature and faith, volume 42 (http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/ktav_et/maamar.asp?ktavet=1&id=1208).

    9. Yehoshua Blau, “On Two Biblical Expressions” (Heb.) in Eretz Yisrael: Mehkarim Biy’di’at Ha-Aretz ve-Atikoteha (Israel Exploration Society), vol. 3, 1954, pp. 105-107.

    Other articles by Rabbi Apple in the Jewish Bible Quarterly:
    Psalm 22: The Esther connection
    Samson Agonistes
    Amen as response and introduction
    The English poets’ “Ritzpah”
    Psalm 34 – does the heading fit?
    Is Pesach Passover?
    The meaning of Dammesek Eliezer
    Shirat HaYam: Miriam’s Song?
    The problem of theodicy in Psalms
    Addenda to Psalm 145
    Rewarding a Mitzvah: The Etymology of Issachar
    Arami Oved Avi (Deut. 26:5): P’shat and D’rash
    Pillars of the Temple
    Psalms of the Day
    Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text (Book Review)
    Sinai upside-down: The theological message of a Midrash
    Matrilineality – letter to the editor of the JBQ
    Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants
    The happy man of Psalm 1
    The two wise women of proverbs chapter 31

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