Miriam: Mother of Prophets
Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” (Exodus 2:7)
And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:21)
Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife,for he had married a Cushite. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this. (Numbers 12:1-2)In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin,and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 20: 1-2)
A Courageous Love
Many of us, whether we grew up religious or not, are too familiar with the famous story of Moses. His humble beginnings as a baby put in a basket whose fate rests in the hands of women, and his rise to influence as God-chosen leader of the Hebrew people. What we typically aren’t taught, or often miss when we read this story, is the central necessity of Miriam and how God used her to lead, provide, and care for the Hebrews just as profoundly, if not more so. Afterall, if it wasn’t for her courageous actions as a child by the Nile, who knows what would have become of baby Moses to begin with. The writers and editors of Exodus and Numbers give us many clues into Miriam’s importance and influence, and provide us insight into her courageous love that guided the Hebrew people. Miriam was a leader to her people equal in importance as Moses and Aaron. She was a controversial woman who regularly exercised courageous love both for her family and for her people. The Bible gives us enough clues about her life to grant us the ability to piece together her story despite centuries of patriarchal interpretations that have attempted to lessen her role in history. What emerges from a close look at scripture is a portrait of a controversially bold woman, who was not only deeply loved, but a woman who loved deeply as an admired leader and prophet.
A Courageous Girl
Our introduction to Miriam in Exodus centers around the fate of baby Moses, who is still alive due to the defiance of the midwives, Sipharah and Puah, who in an act of resistance, refused to obey Pharaoh's orders to kill him (Exodus 1:15-17). Miriam’s mother then courageously hides Moses for three months before placing him in a papyrus basket at the Nile’s edge. Moses’ story begins due to the boldness of misbehaving women. Miriam stands guard, as we could imagine a big sister would, likely fraught with sadness, possibly confusion and anger as she sees the injustice in her life unfolding in a deeply personal way (Exodus 2:1-4). God intercedes, and Pharaoh’s daughter enters the scene, and in an act of bold defiance Miriam decisively and heroically conceives a plan with the Egyptian princess to save Moses’ life. For Miriam to have acted on her impulse to engage with royalty as a slave girl is a testament to her assertive and courageous nature. Here we see Miriam’s first act of faithful prophetic resistance which we will continue to see as her story unfolds.
Water and Song
Not much is said about the majority of Miriam’s life including her young adult years. We know that Miriam is the first woman to be given the title of prophet, (Exodus 15:20), alongside her brother, Aaron (Exodus 7:1). Scripture does not pick back up on Miriam’s story until Exodus 15, as she accompanied her brothers Moses and Arron in leading the Hebrew people across the Red Sea. This is the second time we have a recording of her prophetic actions, and it again happens at the water's edge (Exodus 15:21). It is widely agreed upon by scholars that verse 21 has likely been moved around in scripture, that it was Moses who repeated Miriam’s song, and that it was for all people and not just women. This is not hard to imagine given Miriam’s prophetic gifting and Moses’ lack of verbal confidence (Exodus 4:10-17). Given this insight, we are now able to recognize Miriam’s role as the first person in scripture to sing a song of liberation and praise for God’s acts of salvation.
Miriam’s association with water continues in the last two places where Scripture makes her presence known. Although she is silent through the wilderness in the rest of the book of Exodus, we know she was there, where scripture has denied us visibility to her story, we can be assured her leadership and presence among her people continued as her story picks back up in Numbers 12.
Miram is once again bold and controversial in her actions as she and Aaron team up to approach Moses regarding an issue they see with Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman. The Cushite woman is not mentioned anywhere else in scripture and we are not told if the issue is about racism, or lineage or cultic purity. Holes in the story lead us to draw only guesses of what could be going on here, however it is clear that both Miriam and Aaron are exercising their God-given prophetic roles as they question Moses. Feminist scholar Phillis Trible points out that what the narrator of the story has succeeded in doing is to place woman against woman (Miriam vs. the Cushite woman) and has spared the male (Aaron). Although scripture records both Aaron and Miriam standing before God, and God’s anger burned against them, it is only Miriam who receives the leprosy for their actions (Numbers 12: 9-10). Why did Miriam receive the harsher punishment? Was it because she was the bigger threat? The more assertive one? Because she harbored jealousy? Can we go as far as to consider that perhaps the narrator attempted to undermine her leadership and voice as a woman? Scripture does not record the details of why Miriam and not Aaron. Some details curiously seem to be missing here, and it is important to pause and consider the possible ‘why’. Although concrete answers to these questions may never come, what we do see and what shouldn’t be ignored is Aaron’s pleading on Miriam’s behalf and the Israelite’s love for Miriam despite her shameful condition of leprosy. Aaron saw what he felt was unjust and begged Moses to ask God for mercy on their sister’s behalf. Miriam is restored after seven days outside of the camp which would have required ritual cleansing involving water (Numbers 12:13-14). Miriam’s people refused to leave the camp until Miriam had reunited with them. This is a significant detail easily passed over, but one that gives us insight into her prominence as a leader and as loved friend by the people. As a sibling in the triadic leadership, outspoken and bold, Miriam took on the punishment for whatever sin she had committed, suffered alone for a week, and then rejoined her people.
The importance and necessity of Miriam’s presence is further implicated in the record we have of her death in Numbers 20. Miriam was the people’s source of water, when Miriam died, the water, their source of life, also dried up. With her death, the people rebelled against Aaron and Moses. They feared death and Aaron and Moses sought God for answers. God replied and the community was nourished by water flowing from a rock after God tells Moses to strike it (Number 20: 9-11). Symbolic of Miriam, the water represents the life and refreshment that Miriam provided for her people. In rabbinic tradition, the Torah teaches that Miriam was the literal source of water for her people, that she carried around a supernatural well with her that provided refreshment and hydration for the people of Israel in the journey through the desert. Whether literal or metaphorical, Miriam’s well was a source which was necessary for the people of Israel's to thrive. When Miriam was gone, so was the security of their survival.
Miramic leadership today and an invitation
Phillis Trible has coined the term “Miramic leadership” to describe the kind of hope-filled, worshipful leadership style that Miriam exhibits, the first in a long line of female prophets to come who will faithfully resist power and privilege. Miriam fully engaged her life and ministry physically. She places her young body at risk as she approaches power at the Nile’s edge, she then physically embodies joy and worship as she leads the people in the Song of the Sea, and she physically takes on leprosy in her body as punishment. She has a voice which she uses, but her entire being is fully engaged in her leadership. I imagine her as a passionate woman not easily ignored, although restricted by cultural obligations, Miriam is an example of how women’s voices and bodies have been expressed and used with authority to lead well. Miriam’s story isn’t told neatly in scripture, but it is there, in pieces scattered around and woven within the more familiar narratives that the church has historically taught. The many biblical redactors and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, (Old Testament), have provided for us a story that didn’t erase Miriam’s story completely but have left us with just enough information to celebrate, admire and emulate this courageous mother of prophets.
About the Art
Miriam is intentionally portrayed as a young woman in this portrait, the age which she was where she is most silenced in scripture. Although we can guess she had a significant role in both Moses and Aaron's life to stay so well connected to them into adulthood. Miriam’s background texture of waves symbolizes the importance of water in her life which supports her story, and the warm dessert behind her contrasts with the cool blue waves. Miriam’s halo represents that of a music equalizer, a nod to her musical gifting as worship leader.
- What was new and/or surprising in this story for you?
- In what ways has learning about Miriam’s leadership been inspiring or challenging?
- Write your own version of Miriam’s Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:21).
An example from Philis Trible:
“Sing to the Lord, most glorious deity!
Patriarchy and its horsemen God has
Hurled into the sea.”
- Preachers and teachers use their voice but an effective speaker also uses her/his body as well. In what ways could God be calling you to more fully embody your calling/mission/ministry as Miriam did?
- Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 98.
- Phyllis Trible, “Bringing Miriam Out of the Shadows,” Bible Review 5:1 (February 1989): 6, https://www.baslibrary.org/bible-review/5/1/3 (accessed February 20, 2020).
- Gafney, Womanist Midrash, 98
- Trible, “Bringing Miriam Out of the Shadows,” 8.
- Ibid., 10.
- Boesak, Allan A. “The Riverbank, the Seashore and the Wilderness: Miriam, Liberation and Prophetic Witness against Empire.” Hts Theological Studies 73, no. 4 (2017): 1–15. doi:10.4102/hts.v73i4.4547, 1.
- Nancy Lammers Gross, Women’s Voices and the Practice of Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 2.
- Trible, “Bringing Miriam Out of the Shadows,” 12.