Psalm 68 has been difficult for scholars to analyze because its genre is debated. Most scholars believe that the psalm was written to celebrate a great military victory. According to the writer of Psalm 68, this great victory happened because of God’s intervention on behalf of the army of Israel.
In order to write the psalm, the biblical writer used words and phrases that are found in other songs which were composed to celebrate military victories by Israel against their enemies. For instance, the opening verse of Psalm 68 is a quotation of the Song of the Ark found in Numbers 10:35.
Psalm 68:1 says: “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him.” Numbers 10:35 says: “Arise, O LORD, let your enemies be scattered, and your foes flee before you.” In Numbers 10:35 Moses calls on God in order to assure the people that whenever they fought against their enemies they did so with the protection of Yahweh. The presence of the Ark with them was an assurance that their God was the one fighting for them.
The Ark of the Covenant was a symbol of the presence of Yahweh with his people as they went to war against their enemies. After Israel’s defeat in their war against the Philistines, the elders of Israel said: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3).
To celebrate the great victory God gave to Israel, the author of Psalm 68 used many allusions from another song composed to celebrate the great victory God gave to Israel, a song which is preserved in the Song of Deborah found in Judges 5.
Shoshana Sussman, in her article “Psalm 68: Echoes of the Song of Deborah?” wrote: “When reading through Psalm 68, one cannot help noticing that some of the phrases used by King David are reminiscent of phrases sung by the prophetess Deborah after the victory of the Israelites over Sisera, general of Jabin (Judges Chapter 5)” (p. 238). Sussman then proceeds to show several parallels between Psalm 68 and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5.
For instance, Psalm 68:12 says: “The kings of the armies, they flee, they flee! The women at home divide the spoil.” The reference to the leader of the army fleeing is a reference to Sisera: “Sisera had fled away” (Judges 4:17). The reference to the women dividing the spoil is a reference to Sisera’s mother imagining her son and his soldiers dividing the spoils after defeating the army of Israel (which they did not): “Are they not finding and dividing the spoil? — A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?” (Judges 5:30).
In his article, “Structural and Literary Analysis of the Song of Deborah,” Michael Coogan has a complete lists of words and expressions that are common to Judges 5 and Psalm 68. According to Coogan, this similarity of language and thought “suggests that the author of the latter [Psalm 68] was deliberately alluding to the song in the composition of his hymn” (p. 162). Coogan wrote:
It seems more likely to us that we may have here a rare biblical example of direct literary relationship, that the author of Psalm 68 knew the Song of Deborah (quite possibly in written form) and used it as a source for his own composition. The process of borrowing was not simply a mechanical one, however; it has an analogy in one composer’s use of another’s theme in a series of variations: echoes of the original recur through such a piece but they are often not exact quotations; rather they are more complex and reflect the borrower’s own ideas and time” (p. 161).
Psalm 68 should be understood as a song composed to celebrate a great military victory by the army of Israel. It is in this context that I want to study the expression that appears in Psalm 68:11. English Bibles differ on how to translate Psalm 68:11. Below I offer a few translations of Psalm 68:11 in order to explain why translators differ on their understanding of what this verse says.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “The Lord gives the command; great is the company of those who bore the tidings.”
Revised Standard Version (RSV): “ The Lord gives the command; great is the host of those who bore the tidings.”
New International Version (NIV 1984): “The Lord announced the word, and great was the company of those who proclaimed it.”
New International Version (NIV 2011): “The Lord announces the word, and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng.”
The Jewish Publication Society (TNK): “The LORD gives a command; the women who bring the news are a great host.”
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB): “The Lord gave the command; a great company of women brought the good news.”
English Standard Version (ESV): “The Lord gives the word; the women who announce the news are a great host.”
King James Version (KJV): “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.”
The above is only a sample of how English translations of the Bible have translated Psalm 68:11. These translations differ on how to translate the second part of verse 11. Some (NRSV, RSV, NIV 1984, KJV) translate the Hebrew word hamebaśśerôt as “company” while others (NIV 2011, TNK, HCSB, ESV) translate the same word as “the women.”
In order to understand why the versions differ on their translation of this Hebrew word, it is important that we understand how the word is used in the Hebrew Bible. The word hamebaśśerôt is derived from a Hebrew word bāśar which means “to proclaim good tidings,” “to preach.” The word occurs 30 times in the Old Testament and it is generally used in the context of “to bring news, especially pertaining to military encounters.”
The use of the word bāśar in the report of the death of Absalom in 2 Samuel 18:19-27 provides a good example of its meaning. In these eight verses the word is used several times. This is how the word is translated: “tidings” (2 Samuel 18:19, 20, 26 NRSV), “good news” (2 Samuel 18:19, 20, 26 HCSB). According to Burrows, the word bāśar is the same word behind the word for “gospel” or “good news” in the New Testament.
Martin E. Tate (one of my former professors) in his commentary on Psalms 51-100 has a long discussion of the issue of translating this Hebrew word. Tate wrote that instead of translating the word hamebaśśerôt as a Piel participle feminine plural, translators understand the word to be a collective plural and translated it as “the bearers [company] of good news.”
Schilling, in his article on bśr wrote: “The use of bśr in Ps. 68:12 (Eng. V. 11), which speaks of ‘female messengers of victory in great number,’ represents a definite transition from secular news of victory to news of victory in the sphere of salvation history grounded in Yahweh” (p. 315).
These women who proclaimed the good news of God’s salvation probably acted similarly to the women who greeted Saul and David when they came home victorious after defeating the Philistines:
As they were coming home, when David returned from killing the Philistine, the women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands’ (1 Samuel 18:6-7).
There are several other passages in the Old Testament where women celebrated great military victories with music, songs, and dancing. In Exodus 15:19-21, Miriam and the women of Israel celebrated Israel’s victory against the army of Pharaoh. In Judges 11:34 Jephthah’s daughter celebrates her father’s victory against the Ammonites with musical instruments and dancing. The declaration of 1 Samuel 18:6-7 is repeated in 1 Samuel 29:5.
The most amazing lesson from Psalm 68:11 is that when “The Lord announced the word,” it was a group of women who proclaimed it. And what they proclaimed was the good news of what God had done for his people.
There are many today who deny that God calls women to proclaim the good news. What the Bible reveals is that when God calls, women are ready to proclaim the good news of God. God called Deborah and she answered the call and preserved the story of the great deliverance in a song. God gave Huldah a message to teach and she taught that message to the men of Josiah who came to her to know the word of God. In Psalm 68:11 the Lord announced the word and many women, “a great host,” proclaimed that word to the people of Israel.
“The Lord announces the word, a great company of women brought the good news.” People do not have the right to say that, when the Lord announces his word, women do not have the right to proclaim it. The women mentioned in Psalm 68:11 proclaimed the good news of what God had done for his people.
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Millar Burrows, “The Origin of the Term ‘Gospel’” Journal of Biblical Literature 44 (1925): 21-33.
O. Schilling, “bśr” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 2:315. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.
Shoshana Sussman, “Psalm 68: Echoes of the Song of Deborah?” Jewish Bible Quarterly 40 (2012): 238-240.
Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100. Dallas: Word, 1990.