A Deeper Look at Biblical Women: Miriam
Last month I shared my reflections about the Divine Feminine and the roles of biblical women. As I continue to dig into the biblical witness, reading new sources and considering scriptural women anew, I will offer more thoughts about individual women of the bible.
Biblical scholarship is an adventure in detective work; reading and rereading sections of scripture in Hebrew or Greek looking for linguistic connections across texts and variant readings, considering historical and narrative context, piecing together clues across generations upon generations through multiple traditions and cultures. The detective work is all the more intense when looking at biblical women as they existed on the periphery for most biblical writers. Women were not the intended audience for their writings and consequently much about women’s lives and about female characters is overlooked. For example, if written for a female audience, one would expect far more information about childbirth, female friendships, mother-daughter relationships, mother-son relationships, details about a woman’s daily tasks in a household, and how women worshipped (among others) than the biblical witness offers. Nevertheless, one can still draw upon the clues that present themselves to find more than what lies on the surface. We look more deeply at Miriam, the older sister of Moses and Aaron this month.
Miriam first appears in Exodus chapter 2 within the story of the birth and adoption of Moses out of the Nile River. Things are not good for the Israelites in Egypt. There is a new, ruthless Pharaoh that is threatened by the numbers and relative power of the Israelite people. In response, he orders that all male Hebrew babies are to be thrown into the Nile River to drown. Moses’ mother is desperate. She successfully hides her son for his first three months. When she can no longer keep him hidden, she crafts a basket of papyrus, bitumen, and pitch to place him inside. She hopes for a chance at life for him if she floats him down the Nile. Moses’ mother does not take the basket to the water alone. She is accompanied by her daughter. The daughter is unnamed in chapter 2, but we know from other scripture that Moses has only one brother, Aaron, and one sister, Miriam (Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29) so, the girl mentioned accompanying her mother to the water must be Miriam.
After Moses’ mother places the basket in the river, Miriam follows it from the banks until it comes to rest among the reeds near where the Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing. Pharaoh’s daughter has the basket fetched for her and takes pity on the Hebrew baby inside. Without missing a beat and without invitation to speak or address the princess, Miriam comes out from her watchful place and speaks boldly offering to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child that the princess might keep him. Nowhere does it say that the princess was considering keeping the child! A closer look suggests that Miriam plants the idea in the princess’s head! The princess agrees and Moses is nursed by his own mother to grow into a prince of Egypt. The story hinges entirely upon Miriam’s daring suggestion. And it is certainly daring -- she speaks out of turn in direct address to the princess suggesting the precarious course of action that the princess might take the baby in and raise him as her own. This intrepid young girl of faith is not heard from again in the text until she is grown.
Miriam resurfaces after the plagues are visited upon Egypt, after Passover, and after the parting of the Red sea. On its banks, she leads the women in songs of praise that the Israelites have been delivered by Yahweh from Pharaoh’s hand. “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sand to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’” Exodus 15:20-21
This is no small thing. Miriam is one of five women -- with Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and Isaiah’s wife -- in the Old Testament given the title “prophet” (who knew there was even one???). Her status as prophet and leader of the Israelite people is further confirmed in Numbers 12 when she and Aaron question Moses’ leadership and speak directly with God to resolve the matter. Miriam is mentioned again in Numbers 20:1-2, where her death is recorded.
The record of Miriam’s death intimates a connection between her references in Exodus and in Numbers. When Miriam, whose biblical witness is associated with water – from Moses on the Nile, to the celebration of the Exodus at the Red sea, to finding the wells – dies, the water in the wilderness dries up. “And these are the three things which God gave his people for the sake of the three persons, that is the well of the water of Mara for Miriam’s sake, and the pillar of cloud for Aaron’s sake, and the manna for the sake of Moses. And when these three came to an end, those three gifts were taken away.” (Biblical Antiquities, 20:8)
The above is what we know and intimate of Miriam from scripture’s witness. There are hints, though, that the tradition surrounding Miriam may at one time have been larger than what we have now. In one fragmentary manuscript of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in an expanded text from the first five books of the Hebrew bible known as the Pentateuch, there is a psalm of praise that is attributed to Miriam. This suggests that, like David, Miriam may have been ascribed an important role in worship traditions. It also points to the possibility that there was once a body of songs and psalms ascribed to women that has not survived. (Women’s Bible Commentary 67)
It is also worth noting that Christian tradition ties Miriam and Mary, Jesus’ mother together. Both women have crucial roles bringing redemption; Miriam through Moses and Mary through Jesus (whom the New Testament describes as the new Moses). Both women also sing songs of triumphant praise. Miriam sings after crossing the Red sea in Exodus 15 and Mary after learning she will bear the Messiah in Luke 1. In a beautiful image within the tradition, these two are also tied together as Miriam is suggested as welcoming Mary into heaven with a victorious song, timbrel in hand. (De virginibus, 2.2.17)
Like so many biblical characters, especially the female but the male too, I deeply wish there were more offered about Miriam. There is a lot we do not know, but there is still much here. Miriam was a prophet who led her people in worship, song, and dance; an integral player in the cosmic drama of God’s relationship with us. Without her, Moses might not have survived to free God’s people and lead them to the Promised Land. Her bold, decisive action along the banks of the Nile are a model of loyalty, love, and faith.
"For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery: and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam." Micah 6:4
About the Author: Pastor Nicole Kelly is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.