Examining Miriam the prophetess in the Bible
Who was Miriam the prophetess in the Bible? It sounds like a simple question with a simple answer—Miriam was Moses’s sister. But as is often the case with anything having to do with the Hebrew Bible, the question is much more complex than it first appears.
In her first appearance in the Book of Exodus, the sister of Moses goes unnamed (Exodus 2:4). This is most likely a conscious decision on the part of the author of the birth narrative, since the only person named in the entire episode is Moses. Even so, the sister appears to be the unsung hero of the tale. After her mother abandons baby Moses to the river, the dutiful sister remains at a distance to discover the fate of her brother. Once the Egyptian princess finds the baby and seems inclined to keep him, the sister shrewdly steps forward to hoodwink the princess into employing the baby’s own mother as his wet nurse. Not only was the baby safe from Pharaoh’s murderous decree, but the throne was now paying for childcare! And it was all thanks to the craftiness of the unnamed sister.
Miriam is first mentioned by name in Exodus 15:20, when she is called “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron,” and with tambourine in hand she leads a chorus of women in a victory song following God’s victory over the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Curiously, only Aaron is mentioned as being her brother, not Moses. The scene of a prophetess leading a victory song calls to mind the “Song of Deborah” of Judges 5, which is arguably one of the oldest passages of the Hebrew Bible, as is the so-called “Song of Moses” or “Song of the Sea” that directly precedes Miriam’s introduction. It is likely the victory song following the crossing of the Red Sea was originally ascribed to Miriam and then only later credited to Moses.
Unlike Moses and Aaron, Miriam isn’t mentioned again in the biblical text until Numbers 15, when she and Aaron “spoke out against Moses” for marrying a Cushite woman. That this was some sort of attempt to expose Moses to public ridicule, and that Miriam was the primary instigator, seems to be implied by the severity of her chastisement and punishment. As in the golden calf episode (Exodus 32), Aaron just seems to be doing what he’s told and nothing happens to him. Miriam, however, is stricken with leprosy and shut out of the camp for a week. This strange episode only serves to inform the audience that Moses, “the meekest person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3), was God’s extra-special servant and deserved the utmost respect. Reading between the lines, we can see that Miriam held a place of spiritual authority among the people of Israel and that she heard the voice of God through prophetic visions and dreams. Even so, this story serves to discredit Miriam’s authority in the minds of the audience and she isn’t mentioned again until she dies at Kadesh (Numbers 20:1).
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Later Jewish traditions, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud, and other Midrash, sought to restore some of Miriam’s prominence and give her back some of the honor that was seemingly taken away from her.
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