On Ps 68, God’s gifts to his people, and the place of women leaders
Psalm 68 is one of the many psalms ascribed to David. It celebrates military victory for the nation. Yet a surprising undercurrent is about female leadership.
The first verse echoes the Exodus, with the refrain the Israelites recited each time the Ark of the Covenant set out (Nu 10:35). So the Psalm is anchored in the Exodus and the reign of David – the two key defining points of Israel’s history.
Verse 11 has the Lord giving the word, to the great company of women (female evangelists) proclaiming it. The theme finds an echo in verse 25, where the young women playing the timbrels are part of the great procession of God. These verses draw on a long tradition where women are the ones who sing or recite poetry and celebrate, to tell of victories. We see it in Ex 15:20, Ju 11: 34, 1 Sam 18:6. Hannah sings when God answers her prayer and she gives birth to Samuel (1 Sam 2:1-10), and Deborah and Judith both sing to celebrate God’s victory over the nation’s enemies (Ju 5; Judith 16:1-17). Luke begins his gospel with the voices of Elizabeth and Mary, as Elizabeth praises God for his saving action, and Mary responds with her song (Lk 1:42-45, 46-55).
In all these songs, women are both announcing to the community of faith what God has done and interpreting it. They tell of both national victories in battle and also domestic events of pregnancy, as signs of God’s new action in the world. And in many of the songs, the women singing are also the agents through whom God brings salvation. They are witnesses to what God is doing, and at the same time active participators through whom God acts to bring about his purposes in the world. Richard Bauckham comments that, “What happens in the domestic and familial sphere of the woman transcends that sphere, achieving in God’s purpose, national and even worldwide significance and effect. The combination, in each song in its context, of the individual and the general, the personal and the political, the domestic and the public, is precisely the point of the song.”[i]
This psalm’s invocation of the mighty throng of women evangelists both looks back to a well-established tradition of women reciting good news to the community: and looks forward to Lk 24, where a company of women announces the gospel of the resurrection of the Lord.
Psalm 68 in particular riffs on Deborah’s song after the victory over Sisera’s army, in Ju 5. Ps 68:7-8 quotes Ju 5:4-5: Ps 68:12 is a reference back to Ju 5:16; and Ps 68:27 links to Ju 5:14-15. Deborah’s song is an exuberant celebration of Deborah’s leadership, and of Jael’s role in dispatching Sisera (Ju 5:7, 12, 24-26. It also features a less exemplar woman, Sisera’s mother, eagerly waiting for plunder, and contemptuously invoking the post-battle rape of women (Ju 5:30-31). Ps 68:5 reminds us that God defends widows – a response to Sisera’s mother’s arrogant contempt for women victims of war.
The theme of women leaders is quieter in Ps 68, they are unnamed, more suggested: but the allusions are richly evocative. Through the citations of her song, Deborah is invoked, as prophet and judge in the nation, and also military leader with Barak. The Psalm echoes Deborah’s song of the victory that she helped lead.
Jael likewise is not mentioned by name: but the reference to ‘crushed heads, the hairy crowns’ in Ps 68:21, in this context, inevitably elicits memories of the description of Sisera’s death at the hands of Jael (Ju 4:21-2; 5:26-7).
We notice a focus also on mountains: Sinai, Mt Bashan (Hermon), Jerusalem (Ps 68:17, 15-16). But there is an unexpected addition: Zalmon! (Ps 68:14).
Zalmon is only mentioned in one other place in the Bible: Ju 9:46. The surrounding account tells of the wicked leader Abimelech. He leads his men in stripping branches from the forest on Mt Zalmon, which they use to burn the tower of Shechem and all its inhabitants (about a thousand men and women). Abimilech is about to repeat the same devastation with the inhabitants of the town of Thebez, when a woman inside drops a millstone on his head as he approaches the wall, and cracks his skull. The story of that encounter was deeply engraved in Israel’s memory and understanding of military tactics (2 Sam 11:21). So mention of Zalmon would immediately evoke that account for the hearer/reader, the time in their history where another woman took the lead and single-handedly saved her community.
The account of women bringing good news to their community in Psalm 68 is allied with allusions throughout the psalm to Deborah, Jael, and the woman of Thebez. All taken together, it reads as a psalm of women’s leadership, honouring women’s roles in telling good news, and in decisive action to deliver their community.
The psalm reappears in the NT, in Eph 4:8, where Paul quotes from Ps 68:18:
Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
He gave gifts to his people.” (NRSV)
It is striking that as Paul goes on to describe his list of God’s gifts to his community in Eph 4:11-12 - apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – that it is from Psalm 68 that he has chosen to quote in introducing the list of God’s gifts of leadership – the psalm which most celebrates the place of women leaders.
[i] Bauckham, Richard. Gospel Women. Studied of the Named Women in the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002: p.54, 63.