BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Who Was Miriam?

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.

A mosaic from the Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem depicting Miriam with her tambourine as she sings a song of victory

A mosaic from the Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem depicting Miriam with her tambourine as she sings a song of victory. Artist RadbodCommandeur; photo by DerorAvi/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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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Miriam is only mentioned four other times in the Hebrew Bible: Deuteronomy 24:9, where her name serves as reminder of the dangers of leprosy; Numbers 26:59 and Chronicles 6:3, where alongside Moses and Aaron, she is described as a decedent of Levi; and a curious passage from the Book of Micah. In Micah 6, we find an oracle that mentions not one great leader of the Exodus but three—Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. In light of the aforementioned passages, this declaration seems a bit strange. Moses and Aaron are synonymous with the events of the Exodus and play primary roles in the narrative (e.g., Exodus 6:25–27). Miriam, by contrast, is hardly mentioned, except for singing a song and, later, for being a quarrelsome busybody who deserves divine chastisement for speaking out. Not even her family and descendents are named in the biblical text. That said, Micah 6 likely preserves an older tradition in which Miriam the prophetess held a much more important role for the people of Israel than simply being Moses’s sister. What that role was, and whatever great deeds she was thought to have accomplished, were ultimately stricken from the record in favor of pushing Moses and Aaron to the forefront.

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.

For more on Miriam’s legacy, see “Miriam Through the Ages” by Hanna Tervanotko, published in the Fall 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article, “Miriam Through the Ages” by Hanna Tervanotko, published in the Fall 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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Women in the Bible

The Biblical Moses

What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

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1 Responses

  1. James says:

    I think the article writer misunderstands what happened in Numbers 12. It is true that Miriam was upset about the marriage but her public complaint in verse 2 is parallel to the complaint in Numbers 16:3.

    Just like Korah, Miriam was challenging God’s right to choose. Moses had not chosen himself. God had chosen him. God had also chosen to speak through Miriam but He had not given Miriam the same position which He had given Moses.

    I suspect that both Korah and Miriam thought that they were complaining about man but the truth was — they were complaining about God’s right to choose.

    The sermon Stephen preached before he was killed centered around the subject of God’s right to choose and man’s rejection of God’s right.

    1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 is centered around teaching in accordance with the language which God has chosen and the fact that many of those who reject God’s message do so because of what God has chosen. (See especially 1:27-29 and 2:13.)

    Being content with God’s choices is still a vital aspect of Faith in God.

Write a Reply or Comment

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1 Responses

  1. James says:

    I think the article writer misunderstands what happened in Numbers 12. It is true that Miriam was upset about the marriage but her public complaint in verse 2 is parallel to the complaint in Numbers 16:3.

    Just like Korah, Miriam was challenging God’s right to choose. Moses had not chosen himself. God had chosen him. God had also chosen to speak through Miriam but He had not given Miriam the same position which He had given Moses.

    I suspect that both Korah and Miriam thought that they were complaining about man but the truth was — they were complaining about God’s right to choose.

    The sermon Stephen preached before he was killed centered around the subject of God’s right to choose and man’s rejection of God’s right.

    1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 is centered around teaching in accordance with the language which God has chosen and the fact that many of those who reject God’s message do so because of what God has chosen. (See especially 1:27-29 and 2:13.)

    Being content with God’s choices is still a vital aspect of Faith in God.

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