A Women’s Voice in the Psalter: A New Understanding of Psalm 113
The Hallel, from the root ה.ל.ל meaning “praise,” is a collection of six psalms of praise (Pss 113–118) recited on the three pilgrimage festivals, the new moon, Chanukah, and in many communities, Yom Ha‘atzmau’ut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (the day celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967).
The earliest evidence for a prayer with this name is the Mishnah (Pesahim 5:7), though its exact composition is not noted there, and we need to be cautious in identifying that Hallel with the six psalms of which this liturgy is currently comprised. The framing of these six psalms by acrostics—paired acrostics in 111–112, and the eight-fold acrostic psalm that follows Hallel (Psalm 119)—may form an outside inclusio of sorts, suggesting that the middle psalms form a unit, though the individual psalms 113–118 differ widely in theme and style.
The Date of the Psalms
Classical Jewish sources, following the Talmudic tradition (see b. Bava Batra 14b), attribute the Book of Psalms as a whole to David. Yet it is surprising that, when it comes to Hallel, the Babylonian Talmud offers a variety of attributions, including to post-exilic figures such as Mordechai and Esther or Daniel’s three friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. It is striking that the rabbis considered dating the Hallel this late, and this may point to the late authorship of this group of psalms. Modern biblical scholars do not date Psalms as a whole or Hallel in particular to David. Rather, they date different psalms to many time-periods and geographical locations. And, as we shall see, there are good reasons to date Psalm 113 to the postexilic period.
The dating of Psalm 113, the first psalm of what now comprises the Hallel, is significant not only for its own sake, but in order to determine the relationship between it and the very similar Song of Channah (Hannah) in 1 Samuel 2:1–10.
What Is Earlier: Psalm 113 or Channah’s Song?
Psalm 113 and Channah’s song must be related. Here is the clearest example of this similarity:
1 Sam 2:8
מֵקִים מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן לְהוֹשִׁיב עִם נְדִיבִים
He raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the refuse heap, to set them with nobles,
מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן. לְהוֹשִׁיבִי עִם נְדִיבִים עִם נְדִיבֵי עַמּוֹ.
He raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the refuse heap to set them with the nobles, with the nobles of his people.
The relative dating of these two compositions is debated extensively, but the Israeli Bible scholar Avi Hurvitz has brought definitive evidence that the language of Psalm 113 is later than that of Channah’s Song: While Channah’s Song is written in Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH), Psalm 113 shows signs of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), the dialect that began to be used in the Babylonian exile, and established itself strongly in the exilic period.
One example of LBH here is the expression בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ, “in heaven and on earth” (v. 6). The strongest sign of the psalm’s late composition, however, is its unusual use of the -i suffixes.
The Strange –i Endings
The author of Psalm 113 is consciously archaizing his Hebrew, trying to produce classical poetry, but without fully understanding the rules of classical biblical Hebrew, as seen in the repeated suffix ִי (v. 5 הַמַּגְבִּיהִי; v. 6 הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי; v. 7 מְקִימִי; v. 8 לְהוֹשִׁיבִי; v. 9 מוֹשִׁיבִי). Identical in form to the first-person pronominal suffix (“my”), its use here is called a ḥireq compaganis (binding together), and the medieval Jewish grammarians already realized that it should not be translated, since translating all of these suffixes as “my” yields no sense.
As Hurvitz noted, it is inappropriate to use the ḥireq compaganis with the definite article (note v. 5 הַמַּגְבִּיהִי; v. 6 הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי), what a later imitator of the earlier language would not have realized—just like someone trying to mimic Shakespeare might misuse the word “thou.” Thus, this use in Psalm 113 indicates that the Psalm is archaizing (trying to look archaic) rather than (genuinely) archaic.
Consequently, given the very strong connections between Psalm 113 and the Song of Channah, and the likelihood of a postexilic date for Psalm 113, the author of this psalm must have known Channah’s Song, rather than vice versa. In addition to helping us date Psalm 113, as we will see, the use of Channah’s Song by our psalmist is also an important clue for the original use of Psalm 113.
Other Signs of Late Biblical Hebrew in the Psalm
The introductory verses of Psalm 113 show additional markers of Late Biblical Hebrew:
- The emphasis of the “name of YHWH” (שֵׁם יְ־הוָה) rather than YHWH (vv. 1, 2, 3) fits the late period.
- The phrase (v. 2) “to bless the name of YHWH”—namely the verb ב.ר.כ taking as its direct object שֵׁם יְ־הוָה—is late.
- The phrase (v. 2) מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם, “now and forever” is typically late.
- The imperative of ה.ל.ל (“to praise”) is late. Most uses of this form are found in the Psalter in Psalm 104 and after, namely in the last two books of the Psalter, which are mostly post-exilic.
In sum, we can be confident that Psalm 113 is a postexilic composition. But what was its original purpose?
The Function of Psalm 113
Twenty years ago, I stated, “No psalm singles out women’s experiences.” As a result of my more recent engagement with the Psalter, especially Psalm 113, I believe that I was wrong; Psalm 113, or at least an earlier form of it (see below) functioned as a psalm of thanksgiving for a woman who gave birth to a child.
The Search for the Psalm’s Sitz im Leben
Especially from the time of the great German biblical scholar Hermann Gunkel, biblical scholars have searched for the Sitz im Leben (literally, “setting in life,” more loosely, “social setting”) of individual psalms. My suggested Sitz im Leben of Psalm 113 is based on the fact that the key verses of our psalm are a reuse of 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Channah’s Song of thanksgiving after bearing Samuel; these verses refer to a reversal of fortune, where a previously downtrodden person become the happy mother of children.
Placed at the beginning of the book of Samuel, which describes the rise of kingship in ancient Israel, this song also refers in its last half-verse to kingship (1 Sam 2:10b): וְיִתֶּן עֹז לְמַלְכּוֹ וְיָרֵם קֶרֶן מְשִׁיחוֹ, “He will give power to His king, And triumph to His anointed one.” Our psalmist removed all the royal references in the song found in Samuel—these did not fit the new context and aim, and retained only the references to God’s greatness, and God’s ability to change the fate of the lowly, since these can incorporate the act of God facilitating a barren woman giving birth.
It is quite easy to imagine a woman who has given birth, especially if she has just given birth to a first child after a long period of infertility, reciting Psalm 113:4–9—its emphasis on YHWH’s greatness and ability to overturn fortunes, and its explicit mention of childless who became a happy mother in v. 9, are totally appropriate to that context.
We should not be surprised that Psalms includes a prayer that a woman, or women, would have recited. The Bible attests elsewhere that women prayed; this is in fact clearest in 1 Samuel 2, which does not reflect the history of a real woman named Channah, but the reality of an author who could recognize a woman like Channah offering a poetic prayer of thanksgiving, just as 1 Samuel 1:11 recognizes the possibility of a childless woman offering a prose petitionary prayer. Contrary to what is often said, in 1 Samuel 1, the priest Eli is not surprised that Channah, a woman, is praying—his rebuke to her is because he thinks she is drunk (1 Samuel 1:14).
In fact, it is surprising that the Psalter does not contain more prayers that reflect specific women’s lifecycle events; perhaps one or more of its editors were biased against representing such female rituals.
The Meaning of the Psalm’s Climactic Conclusion
The Psalm’s final verse—מוֹשִׁיבִי עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת אֵם הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה הַלְלוּ־יָהּ—is difficult. The NJPS translates “He sets the childless woman among her household as a happy mother of children. Hallelujah.” This, however, would seem to be mistaken.
One key to understanding the meaning of the verse is noting that הַבַּיִת, which NJPS renders as “household,” here has its more typical meaning of “house.” Furthermore, the difficult and unique phrase עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת (NJPS: “the childless woman among her household”) is better rendered, “the [formerly] childless one to the house,” i.e., הַבַּיִת refers to the place where the woman is located, and should not be translated with the preposition “among” before it.
The idea that the formerly childless woman who now has a child is now in the house reflects the reality that new mothers were typically at home; women who were not mothers or whose children had grown up would help out in the fields. Psalm 113:9a should thus be rendered: “He makes the [formerly] childless mother reside in the house,” reflecting this woman’s new status as mother.
The second part of the verse also reflects on female fertility, אֵם הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה, “as a happy mother of children.” Given the ancient Israelite understanding of biology, where YHWH opens a woman’s womb and it then remains open, it would not be presumptuous for a woman who has given birth to her first boy to consider herself a likely “mother of children [plural].” The plural בָּנִ֥ים, “children” may also serve as a reminder to YHWH that more children are desired and expected. Thus, after Channah has her first child, the book of Samuel notes:
שמואל א ב:כא כִּי פָקַד יְ־הוָה אֶת חַנָּה וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים וּשְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת.
1 Sam 2:21 For YHWH had remembered Channah, and she later conceived and gave birth to three sons and two daughters.
In other words, once Channah was remembered by YHWH and gave birth to Samuel, her womb remained open to produce additional offspring.
Raising the Poor Man and the Childless Woman
The final two verses are closely tied together: They both open with the root י.שׁ.ב in the hifil conjugation, “to set” or “seat,” emphasizing the high-low theme of the original composition: The poor will be seated with the nobles, and the formerly childless mother in her home like other happy mothers.
In terms of the sounds used, verse 8 prepares us for the “mother,” ʾem, introduced in verse 9. Twice verse 8 uses the preposition ʿim, “with,” and it once refers to the nation, ʿam. These references anticipate and highlight the mention of the ʾem in the climactic verse 9, and thus that this psalm is about motherhood.
In short, Psalm 113:4-9 was originally meant to express the joy a mother feels upon giving birth to a child, especially a woman who went through a period of barrenness. This function has been obscured by a supplemental introduction that recasts the entire psalm in a different light.
The Introductory Supplement in Psalm 113
Several overlapping pieces of evidence show that vv. 1-3 are different than vv. 4-9, suggesting that originally Psalm 113 began in what is now verse 4, and that vv. 1–3 were appended to it later.
YHWH’s Name—The most significant difference is that the focus of vv. 1–3 is on YHWH’s name (שֵׁם) while the rest of the psalm simply refers to YHWH:
תהלים קיג:א הַלְלוּ יָהּ הַלְלוּ עַבְדֵי יְ־הוָה הַלְלוּ אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה. קיג:ב יְהִי שֵׁם יְ־הוָה מְבֹרָךְ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם. קיג:ג מִמִּזְרַח שֶׁמֶשׁ עַד מְבוֹאוֹ מְהֻלָּל שֵׁם יְ־הוָה.
Psalm 113:1 Hallelujah. O servants of YHWH, give praise; praise the name of YHWH. 113:2 Let the name of YHWH be blessed now and forever. 113:3 From east to west the name of YHWH is praised.
קיג:ד רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם יְ־הוָה עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ. קיג:ה מִי כַּי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַמַּגְבִּיהִי לָשָׁבֶת. קיג:ו הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ. קיג:ז מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן. קיג:ח לְהוֹשִׁיבִי עִם נְדִיבִים עִם נְדִיבֵי עַמּוֹ. קיג:ט מוֹשִׁיבִי עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת אֵם הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה הַלְלוּ־יָהּ.
113:4 YHWH is exalted above all nations; His glory is above the heavens. 113:5 Who is like YHWH our God, who, enthroned on high, 113:6 sees what is below, in heaven and on earth? 113:7 He raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the refuse heap 113:8 to set them with the great, with the great men of His people. 113:9 He makes the [formerly] childless mother reside in the house as a happy mother of children. Hallelujah.
There is complete consistency here: vv. 1, 2 and 3 each contain the phrase שֵׁם י־הוה, “the name of YHWH,” while vv. 4 and 5 use the tetragrammaton, YHWH, alone; the term, “the name of YHWH,” is lacking in vv. 4–9. The person who added the first three verses preferred to speak of YHWH’s name instead of using the tetragrammaton alone; this is likely related to the tetragrammaton avoidance found in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and perhaps reflected in the Second Temple book of Chronicles (דברי הימים), which sometimes, but not always, replaces the tetragrammaton with “God” (אלהים). See for example:
2 Samuel 6:9
וַיִּרָא דָוִד אֶת יְ־הוָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אֵיךְ יָבוֹא אֵלַי אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה.
David was afraid of YHWH that day; he said, “How can I let the Ark of YHWH come to me?”
1 Chronicles 13:12
וַיִּירָא דָוִיד אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר הֵיךְ אָבִיא אֵלַי אֵת אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים.
David was afraid of God that day; he said, “How can I bring the Ark of God here?”
This avoidance of God’s name continues in later Judaism. From some point in the Second Temple period, the tetragrammaton (YHWH) was no longer pronounced, and was replaced with various surrogates, eventually, typically with ’adonai (“my master”). This name became too sacred, and many replaced it with hashem, “the name [of God]). Similarly the name YHWH became written as י'י (and other variants), and when that became viewed by some as too sacred, 'ה and even 'ד were often used as replacements. In other words, the tendency to avoid writing and speaking “YHWH” began already in the late biblical period, and continues even now (which is why TheTorah.com puts a maqaf in the tetragrammaton [יְ־הוָה] which it is used on the site).
Name versus Glory—In contrast to verse 3, which says that YHWH’s name (שֵׁם) is praised throughout the earth, v. 4 says that YHWH’s glory (כָּבוֹד) is higher than the heavens. These reflect different concepts of how YHWH is manifest or should be worshipped: through his name or through his glory. The former concept is typified by the Deuteronomic corpus that YHWH causes his name (שֵׁם) to dwell or reside in the chosen place, as seen for example in Deut 12:11:
וְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם שָׁמָּה תָבִיאוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם.
And it will be that the site where YHWH your God will choose to make his name dwell, there you must bring everything that I command you.
The latter typifies the Priestly corpus (and the related book of Ezekiel), as illustrated, for example, in the story of the completion of the wilderness tabernacle (מִּשְׁכָּן) in Exodus 40:34:
וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle.
Praise—First, vv. 1–3 focus on YHWH’s praiseworthiness: the root ה.ל.ל (to praise) is used four times in vv. 1–3 but is absent in vv. 4–9.
Spatial Contrasts—Verses 4–9 concentrate on high-low spatial contrasts, while this theme is totally absent in vv. 1–3. This spatial emphasis begins with the very first word of v. 4, רָם, “high,” and is especially evident in vv. 6-7:
קיג:ו הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ. קיג:ז מְקִימִי מֵעָפָר דָּל מֵאַשְׁפֹּת יָרִים אֶבְיוֹן.
113:6 He sees what is below, in heaven and on earth. 113:7 He raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the refuse heap.
Literary correspondences—The many correspondences in Psalm 113 with the Song of Channah are only in vv. 4–9.
Archaizing Hebrew—Similarly, the archaizing Hebrew noted above appears only in verses 4–9; the initial verses of our psalm show no such archaizing tendencies.
The Original Opening—Verse 4, declaring God’s incomparability, is a fitting opening for a psalm; Psalms 48 and 76, after their superscriptions, open:
- Psalm 48:2
גָּדוֹל יְ־הוָה וּמְהֻלָּל מְאֹד בְּעִיר אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַר קָדְשׁוֹ.
YHWH is great and much acclaimed in the city of our God, his holy mountain.
- Psalm 76:2
נוֹדָע בִּיהוּדָה אֱלֹהִים בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל גָּדוֹל שְׁמוֹ.
God has made Himself known in Judah, His name is great in Israel.
- Psalm 113:4 is similar:
רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם יְ־הוָה עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ.
YHWH is exalted above all nations; His glory is above the heavens.
This overlapping evidence suggests that vv. 1–3 are an addition, and the original psalm was comprised of vv. 4–9.
Psalm 113:1–3: The Introduction to the Hallel
Why was the introductory section added? I suggest that it was not meant to modify Psalm 113 alone, but to introduce the entire Hallel section. As noted above, we know little about when and how Psalms 113–118 were perceived as a unit, but once this happened, an editor wrote an introduction to them, now found in Psalm 113:1–3. These verses have all the hallmarks of an introduction.
Similar calls to praise YHWH are found in the opening of other post-exilic psalms (see e.g. 117, 135, 148). The person who composed 113:1–3 may have even modeled his introduction after the opening words of Ps 117:1, הַלְלוּ אֶת יְ־הוָה, “Praise YHWH,” which is part of the collection; he then expanded this short single phrase into the double (bolded words are reused from 117:1):
הַלְלוּ עַבְדֵי יְ־הוָה
הַלְלוּ אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה.
Give praise, O servants of YHWH;
Praise the name of YHWH.
The reference YHWH’s name ties 113:1 to the following 116:4, 13, 17; 118:10, 11, 12, 26, functioning just as an introduction should. Most of verse two, יְהִי שֵׁם יְ־הוָה מְבֹרָךְ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם, “Let the name of YHWH be blessed now and forever,” anticipates 115:18, וַאֲנַחְנוּ נְבָרֵךְ יָהּ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם הַלְלוּ־יָהּ, “But we will bless YHWH now and forever. Hallelujah,” also part of the collection.
By using phrases from the following psalms, these introductory verses serve as an appropriate beginning to the entire collection that follows.
Obscuring the Meaning of the Original Psalm
The addition of Psalm 113:1–3 obscured the original function of 113:4–9, causing them to be understood differently. They moved the poem from a psalm about a barren woman to one about Israel, imagined, as is often the case, as a woman. Once vv. 1–3 were added, the nationalizing interpretation of the entire psalm that we find e.g. in the Targum [the Aramaic translation] of v. 9 is natural:
מיתיב כנישׁתא דישׂראל דמתילא לעקרא דיתבא מוריקא לאינשׁי ביתה מליא אוכלוסין היך אימא די על בניא חדיא הללויה.
Who makes dwell the congregation of Israel, who is likened to a barren woman who sits beholding the men of her house, full of people, like a mother who rejoices over her sons.
This understanding is also favored by some medieval (e.g. Rashi and Meiri) and several modern commentators. It is clear, once 113:4–9 are in their current context, why this interpretation should arise, and this is a reasonable interpretation given the current shape of the Psalter, but this should not be retrojected as the original meaning of the original six verses—nothing suggests that they refer to national salvation rather than personal fertility.
Recovering Women’s Liturgy and the Early Origins of Hallel
Two important implications emerge from this brief exposition of Psalm 113:
- In ancient Israel, psalms were written for events in a woman’s lifecycle, but these were by and large not preserved; Psalm 113:4–9 is an important exception.
- Already in the pre-rabbinic period, Psalms 113–118 were viewed as some type of unit; this is the best way to explain why the new introduction to Psalm 113 (vv. 1–3) was written in its current place.
These observations only come into view from a careful analysis of the different styles in Psalm 113, and attempting to understand the psalm before and after it was supplemented. This nitty-gritty technical work is not an aim unto itself, but helps us understand the psalm and its history in a fundamentally new way, as well as recovering the lost liturgy—and lived experience—of ancient Israelite women.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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