Exodus 15:20–21

The Song of Miriam

Commentaries by Siobhán Dowling Long

Works of art by Luca Giordano, Wilhelm Hensel and Unknown artist

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Unknown artist

The Dance of Miriam and Preparation for Seder, from the Golden Haggadah, c.1320–30, Illuminated manuscript, 245 x 190/195 mm, The British Library, London; Add MS 27210, fol. 15r, © The British Library Board (Add MS 27210, fol. 15)

The Frame Drum

Commentary by Siobhán Dowling Long

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The Golden Haggadah is a Hebrew service book for the celebration of Passover Eve that originally belonged to a wealthy medieval Jewish family. Richly illuminated, the manuscript was produced in Catalonia in the early fourteenth century. Each full-page miniature comprises four panels meant to be read from right to left (beginning at the upper right)—as when reading Hebrew.  

This is the Golden Haggadah’s final fully-illuminated folio, and its first panel shows Miriam’s victory song (Exodus 15:20), followed by the preparations for the ritual Seder in the three accompanying panels: the distribution of matzoh and horoset to children at the upper left; the cleaning of a house by the women in preparation for the Passover at the lower right; and the slaughter of the Passover lamb and the purification of utensils at the lower left .

It is interesting that the decision was made to highlight Miriam’s Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:20) in this folio rather than the song recited by her brother Moses (vv.1–19). In making this choice, the focus of attention is directed to her ritual leadership of a religious and politically significant ceremony: the celebration of the deliverance of the Israelites from their enemy.

Miriam is depicted as a young maiden, clad in an elegant medieval gown. She holds a small square frame drum (adufe) decorated with an Islamic motif, alongside three other female musicians who play a lute—an instrument associated with the female form (Dowling Long 2011: 108–113)—a circular frame drum (pandero), the cymbal, and clappers.  

Interestingly, in many cultures, the adufe or frame drum is a woman’s drum, associated with female sexuality. Often it is the only drum that women are permitted to use (Montagu 2007: 29)—a tradition that continues in parts of Portugal and Spain today (Cohen 2008). Doubleday (2008: 13) notes that the drum is ‘a symbol par excellence of the womb’, with the drum skin signifying ‘the unbroken hymen’, and the women’s drum playing ‘likened to sexual intercourse’ (ibid: 28).  

It is no wonder that the artists of the Golden Haggadah included it in their depiction of Miriam playing her ‘timbrel’, alongside other scenes of Jewish domestic life, where a women’s role, as a mother and a homemaker, are considered pivotal in nurturing and sustaining the religious life of the community.   



Cohen, Judith R. 2008. ‘“This Drum I Play”: Women and Square Frame Drums in Portugal and Spain’, Ethnomusicology Forum, 17.1: 95–124

Doubleday, Veronica. 2008. ‘An Overview of Musical Instruments and Gender’, Ethnomusicology Forum, 17.1: 3–39

Dowling Long, Siobhán. 2011. ‘Musical Instruments in Biblical Art: Evaristo Baschensis’s Still Life with Musical Instruments’, in Bible, Art, Gallery, ed. by Martin O’Kane (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix), pp. 97–121

Montagu, Jeremy. 2007. Origins and Development of Musical Instruments (Lanham: Scarecrow Press)

Saulter, Cia. 2010. The Miriam Tradition: Teaching Embodied Torah (Urbana: University of Illinois)

Luca Giordano

The Song of Miriam, Late 17th century, Oil on canvas, 152 x 230 cm, Private Collection; Photo: © Agnew's, London / Bridgeman Images

Prophet and Musician

Commentary by Siobhán Dowling Long

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After the crossing of the Red Sea, marking their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Miriam the Prophet (něbī’āh)leads the Israelite women in worship, singing to the accompaniment of her ‘timbrel’ (Exodus 15:20).

The Song of Miriam by Neapolitan baroque artist Luca Giordano (1634–1705), and based on Exodus 15:20, depicts her clad in a heavenly blue cloak, with eyes raised in ecstatic praise of the Lord, as she directs the women’s choir with her drumstick (cf. Philo, Moses, 1.180 and Ephrem, Commentary on Exodus, 15.3).

Drorah Setel (1998: 36) notes that:

Miriam’s designation as a prophet and her unquestioned leadership of the victory celebration in Exodus indicate that ancient Israelites were also familiar with forms of female authority that did not exist into later periods.

And, much earlier, Augustine suggested a parity in the separate leadership roles of Moses and Miriam in the liturgical life of their community: ‘This is what Moses sang and the sons of Israel with him, what Miriam the prophetess sang and the daughters of Israel with her’ (Sermon, 363.4).

Early Christian writers likened Miriam to the female biblical prophets: Deborah, Huldah, Judith, Mary, Elizabeth, Anna, and the daughters of Philip (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 8.1.2). In addition, she was regarded by the Church Fathers as a type of Church—for example in Ambrose's description of her ‘as a virgin [who] with unstained spirit joins together the religious gatherings of the people to sing divine songs’ (Concerning Virgins, 1.3.12). They also understood Miriam as a type of Mary the Mother of Christ. Notable among these was Peter Chrysologus who drew a parallel between the two women’s names, Miriam (Hebrew: Miryam) being the same as Mary (Greek: Mariam) (Sermon, 146). Giordano, who painted many representations of the Virgin Mary, might well have intended to represent Miriam as a type of Mary, given the similarity of Miriam’s attire in this rendition to the Virgin’s attire in his many other paintings.  

This typological approach is further seen in the Church Fathers’ allegorical interpretation of Miriam’s frame drum—with stretched skin across its wooden frame—as a type of the Cross (Augustine, Sermon, 363.4), and its lack of moisture as a reference to Mary’s virginity:

For as the tambourine produces a loud sound, having no moisture in it and being quite dry, so also virginity is clear and noised abroad and has nothing in itself of the life-preserving moisture of this life. (Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity ,19)



Lienhard, J. T. (ed.). 2001. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, 3 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), pp. 82–83

Rotelle, J. E. (ed.). 1995. Works of St Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-First Century (Hyde Park: New York City Press)

Schaff, P. et al. (eds). 1994. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2.10 (Peabody: Hendrickson)

Setel, Drorah O’Donnell. 1998. ‘Exodus’, in The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster/John Know Press), pp. 30–39

Wilhelm Hensel

Miriam's Song of Praise, 1836, Oil on canvas, 190.1 x 190.2 cm, Royal Collection Trust; RCIN 408985, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Composer of Songs

Commentary by Siobhán Dowling Long

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In this portrait Wilhelm Hensel depicts his composer wife Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–47) as the Miriam of Exodus 15—the sister of Moses and Aaron. Alongside Miriam/Fanny, Hensel included his wife’s younger sister Rebecka (a singer), and their sister-in-law, Albertine, who is carrying the double pipes.

As the sister of the celebrated composer Felix Mendelssohn (and granddaughter of the eminent Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn), Fanny was an ideal model for the biblical musician who led the Israelite women in their Song of Praise by the Red Sea.

In Hensel’s painting, we see Miriam beating her frame drum as an accompaniment to her song, ahead of the other women musicians who ‘went out after her with tambourines and dancing’ (Exodus 15:20). Hensel embellished the biblical narrator’s account of the women’s music-making by showing them playing a variety of ancient and medieval instruments.

Although Fanny Mendelssohn was a prolific composer, she remained in the shadow of her more famous brother with some of her compositions misattributed to him. Queen Victoria, who loved to sing, praised Felix Mendelssohn for his composition of her favourite song Italien (op. 8, no. 3) which she sang for Mendelssohn when he visited Buckingham Palace in 1842. Only then did she find out that this song had been composed by his sister Fanny. Similarly, down through the centuries, Miriam the Prophet (něbī’āh) has resided in the shadow of her brother Moses.

Despite living in the shadows of their brothers, Fanny Mendelssohn and the Prophet Miriam take centre stage in Hensel’s Miriam’s Song of Praise (1836) at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, London. Appropriately, it was presented by Hensel as a gift to Queen Victoria in 1843.



Brooke, George J. 1994. ‘Power to the powerless: A Long-Lost Song of Miriam’, Biblical Archaeology Review, 20.3: 62–65

Kugel, James L. 1997. The Bible as It Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Paton, John Glenn (ed.). 1992. 24 Songs: Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (Van Nuys: Alfred Publishing)

Russell, Brian D. 2007. ‘An Exegetical Analysis of Exodus 15:1–21’, in The Song of the Sea: The Date of Composition and Influence of Exodus 15:1–21 (New York: Peter Lang), pp. 19–44

Setel, Drorah O’Donnell. 1998. ‘Exodus’, in The Women's Bible Commentary, ed. by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press), pp. 30–39

Unknown artist :

The Dance of Miriam and Preparation for Seder, from the Golden Haggadah, c.1320–30 , Illuminated manuscript

Luca Giordano :

The Song of Miriam, Late 17th century , Oil on canvas

Wilhelm Hensel :

Miriam's Song of Praise, 1836 , Oil on canvas

Praise Him with Timbrel and Dancing

Comparative commentary by Siobhán Dowling Long

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Luca Giordano’s Song of Miriam, Wilhelm Hensel’s Miriam’s Song of Praise, and Folio 15r from the Golden Haggadah each shed interesting interpretive light on the story of Miriam’s music-making in Exodus 15:20, after the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea and deliverance from slavery out of Egypt.

They highlight the significant role played by Miriam and her band of female musicians in liturgical worship in ancient Israel. Indeed, many of the instruments depicted in all three works reflect the variety of instruments found in the Old Testament. They include stringed instruments such as the lyre, wind instruments, such as the pipe, the trumpet, and the horn, and percussion instruments such as the timbrel (otherwise known as a frame drum), the cymbal, and the castanet (clappers) (Rowley 1967: 207). The combination of wind and string instruments in these works evokes the sound of instruments of praise from Psalm 150:3–5:

Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,

  Praise him with the harp and lyre,

Praise him with timbrel and dancing,

  Praise him with the strings and pipe,

Praise him with the clash of cymbals,

  Praise him with the resounding cymbals.

The timbrel, or frame drum, which features in all three images, is an instrument that is still associated with women today. Symbolically, it points to their virginity, fertility, and (by inference) to motherhood itself. The shape of the frame drum (like that of the lute), its skin, and how it is played, all symbolize the female reproductive system. In this light, the symbolism of the frame drum as a type of cross (Augustine) calls to mind God’s words to Eve in Genesis 4:16:

I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;

in pain you shall bring forth children.

Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,

but he shall rule over you.

Both Hensel and the illuminators of the Golden Haggadah underscore Miriam’s youth, virginity, and fertility, as well as her talent as a musician. The inclusion of children in the Golden Haggadah and Giordano’s Song of Miriam celebrates the role of women as homemakers and as mothers.

In portraying Miriam elevated on higher ground as she leads a chorus of women in song with her raised drumstick, Giordano may have intended to draw attention to her role as a prophet and as a leader of the women in religious worship. Meanwhile, by clothing her in a vivid blue cloak that is very akin to that traditionally worn by the Madonna in Italian painting, Giordano seems to have intended to present her as a figural type of Mary. Such typological interpretation is common in the writings of the Church Fathers, who interpreted Miriam’s timbrel allegorically as a representation of Miriam’s/Mary’s virginal state.

In the received version of Exodus, most of the Song of the Sea (15:1–20) is attributed to Miriam’s brother Moses. But by portraying his composer wife as Miriam, Hensel may have intended to imply his support for Miriam’s probable composition of the entire song. If so, he anticipated an issue that would become of significant interest to later biblical scholars.

In the Golden Haggadah, a service book that recounts the deliverance of the Israelite people from slavery out of Egypt, Miriam’s role as a prophet (něbī’āh) and as an instrumentalist and singer are brought to the fore to highlight the significance of the women’s music-making and their domestic preparations for the festival of Passover. To this day, before the Seder meal at the start of the Sabbath and every holy day, it is traditional for the women of the household to light two candles in honour of the holiness of the day and to recite/sing the traditional Blessing.

All three artworks call to mind the accounts of music-making by other named and unnamed biblical characters, and especially women. There are women who played musical instruments in celebration of the homecoming of Israelite warriors—among them Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34), and those who rejoiced at David’s victorious battle against the Philistines (1 Samuel 18:6–7). There are songs like Deborah’s war song with her son Barak (Judges 5), Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:1–10), Judith’s song (Judith 16:13–17), and the Song of Mary (the ‘Magnificat’, also known as the Canticle of Mary, and in Byzantine tradition, as the Ode of the Theotokos: Luke 1:46–55).

The Canticle of Miriam and the Canticle of Mary are both included in the Divine Office of the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches. This place of honour in the Liturgy of the Hours reflect Miriam’s great contribution as a musician, and as a composer of the Song of the Sea.



Rowley, H. H. 1967. Worship in Ancient Israel: Its Forms and Meaning (London: SPCK)

Next exhibition: Exodus 16

Exodus 15:20–21

Revised Standard Version

20Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: 

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”