“If life is but a song” (Audrey Heller), then what are the melodies of your life? Is your life a low, flat song – repetitive and out of key? Or, is it a concerto with musical notes rising and descending with fullness, joy, and beauty? Our lives can be either; for it is up to us, ultimately, to determine what our composition shall become. Will we use the gifts and talents endowed to us, by the Creator, to build the Kingdom of God, or squander them, or use them for our own selfish purposes and plans?
Interestingly, Scripture answers these questions for us and reveals through its written narrative, the entire landscape of humanity’s choices. We find in the Bible, those who chose obedience, sacrifice and righteousness, and those who did not. Understanding that life is complex, we also discover most of the figures of Scripture are just like us – making choices on either side of the continuum and relying on the grace and mercy of God to save us from ourselves, when we often chose the wrong way.
In the story of Miriam, we discover a complicated, gifted, and phenomenal woman who is considered by biblical scholarship to be one of the most important women of Scripture. Miriam is one of a few women of the Bible given the esteemed title of prophet. Others include Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, Isaiah’s wife, Anna, and Phillip’s four daughters.
Miriam was a dynamic leader of her community, and a member of one of the most important families of Scripture. Miriam is mentioned 6 separate times in biblical history (Exodus 2: 4-10; Exodus 15: 20-21; Numbers 12: 1-16; Deuteronomy 24:9; 1 Chronicles 5:29; Micah 6:4), highlighting her importance in the biblical narrative. Her presence, power, and prophetic standing is undeniable and remarkable.
THE PRESENCE: (Exodus 2: 4-9)
“”And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done with him. Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.
While Miriam’s name is yet to be mentioned (it first appears in Exodus 15), her invaluable presence is established in this text, as the oldest child of Jochebed and Amram. Aaron and Moses are her younger brothers. The intuitive and emboldened persona of Miriam, as the audacious and curious girl in this story is apparent. Determined, not only to oversee the fate of her baby brother; but, also to intervene, Miriam becomes the messiah (savior) to Moses – ensuring not only that his life is saved and he will be properly taken care of; but that their mother will nurse Moses and be paid for the service. With the ingenuity, foresight, and subtlety of an adult, she inquires of the princess: “Shall I go and call…..?). It is Miriam’s persuasive suggestion which prompts Pharaoh’s daughter to act on behalf of her brother, Moses. The impressive leadership skills of Miriam are at work here and grow sharper, as Miriam matures into womanhood.
THE POWER ( 1 Chronicles 5:29; Exodus 15: 1-20)
1 Chronicle 5: 27-29 ( NAB, The Torah)- 1 Chronicles 6: 1-3 (all other translations)
SPECIAL NOTE: Verses 27-41, of Chronicles, Chapter 5 are missing in most versions of the Bible. This is where the Aaronite priests and the tribe of Levi is mentioned. Here is where Miriam’s name is mentioned in Scripture, as a part of the Aaronite line. In the English translations, the story is picked up in Chapter 6: 1-3.
“The sons of Levi were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. The sons of Kohath were Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. The children of Amram were Aaron, Moses, and Miriam.”
Exodus 15: 20-21 (The Torah):
“Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum and all the women went out after her in dance with hand drums. And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to Yahweh, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
As we have discovered in the story of Dinah, the mention of a female name in biblical genealogies signals an important and unusual occurrence. The very idea of Miriam’s mention with her brothers, Moses and Aaron, in their genealogy informs us of the power of this woman. In the book of Chronicles, where Miriam’s name appears, there are 886 males and only 25 females mentioned in the Chronicle genealogies. Miriam’s is the most prominent of the female names. Most of the references to women in the Chronicle genealogies, where Miriam’s name is referenced, omit the woman’s name and tie the unnamed woman to a familial relationship of mother, wife, or concubine. Miriam is considered a stand-out here also, because the Bible does not connect her as a mother or a wife. Miriam obtains and maintains her powerful presence, as a leader, prophet, and the first female writer of Scripture, as a solo force. Again, Miriam is mentioned more than any other female figure in Scripture (The Torah – A Women’s Commentary, page 392).
The Song of Moses and Miriam, also referred to as “The Song of the Sea,” is considered as one of the oldest narratives of the Bible. Miriam is believed to be the primary writer of this song/hymn/poem. “Many modern scholars conclude that the Song [of the Sea] was created and performed by women.” (The Torah – A Women’s Commentary – page 387). This is one of the ONLY writings of the Bible attributed to a woman’s hand. (The others are the Song of Deborah and the Song of Hannah).
When the people of the Exodus, victoriously cross the Red Sea, Miriam breaks forth in song, leading the people in praise and worship. Miriam is considered the first Worship Leader of the Bible. Miriam sets the standard for the worship traditions of Israel. The Bible records that Miriam sings, dances, and plays the timbrel, as she leads the congregation, and especially the women, in praise of God.
Miriam cries out in worship with the other women: “The Lord is my strength and song and He has become my salvation (KJV)!” Miriam sings a new song of deliverance and her musical tribute to the Lord is the first recorded congregational worship experience in Scripture!
The Prophet – (Numbers 12: 1-16; Micah 6:4)
In the Torah, Miriam is bestowed the title and office of prophet. It is important to note there is no gender difference in Hebrew. She is not “prophetess,” as if this term was the female equivalent of the word “prophet.” Miriam and her brothers Aaron and Moses are the progenitors of the prophetic and priestly offices in Scripture. They are the first, as siblings, to step into these assigned and sacred roles.
Why is Miriam called a prophet? Perhaps, it is because she fits the definition as outlined by Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish theologian and Old Testament scholar: “The prophet’s use of emotional and imaginative language, concrete in diction, rhythmical in movement, artistic in form, marks his style as poetic….The prophet seldom tells a story, but casts events…..His images must not shine, they must burn.” (Abraham Heschel, “The Prophets” pages 6-7). As we read in Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea, Miriam’s words “burn” in worship to Yahweh.
The Old Testament refers to Miriam as “a prophet,” not once, but twice. Miriam was chosen by God, as a prophet, to lead her people with a style all her own. With spiritual enthusiasm, energy, and joy, her prophetic voice engages the congregation to worship the Lord and praise God’s holy acts of salvation and deliverance.
Yet, we see in the Numbers story that Miriam, like most in the prophetic tradition who followed her, Miriam was a flawed person. Being bold and charismatic often comes with a price. Miriam rails against her brother Moses’ authority and solicits her brother Aaron’s endorsement. Whether they grew envious of Moses’ role as the “exalted” one, or whether Miriam truly had a legitimate concern, the method in which the sister and brother approached the issue infuriated God.
The story takes a peculiar turn as Aaron and Miriam level a charge against Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. Unnamed in the story, the wife is assumed to be Zipporah. Zipporah, the Midianite, was of African descent. Yet, so were Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. They came out of Egypt after 400 years! (Exodus 12: 40-41)
While some scholars suppose that Aaron and Miriam were “racist,” this construct has no place in the Old Testament. As people of African descent, the better supposition is either a display of colorism or a bias towards “foreigners.” Since Zipporah had been Moses’ wife for years before this disagreement, perhaps Miriam’s level of reasoning was a ruse to challenge Moses’ authority, or simply sibling rivalry in play. Whenever the issue, it was a costly mistake on Miriam’s part.
God was enraged at the behavior of Miriam and Aaron. Their attack against Moses and his wife is seen by God as an outrageous offense. God speaks to the three siblings directly, making clear that Moses is God’s choice. Miriam is struck with a skin disease that turns her skin white. Ironically, it was the very opposite of Zipporah’s skin color. God’s action is swift and obvious.
Aaron is spared, most likely because of his office as a priest. (The skin disease would have disqualified Aaron for the sacred office, as priest).
The obvious love for Miriam is apparent, as Aaron pleads to Moses and Moses pleads to God on their sister’s behalf. Miriam is spared; but, as “zavah,” she is cut off (karet) from the camp for seven days. The people’s great admiration and respect for Miriam is presented in the text, as they refuse to leave her and wait out the seven day banishment with her.
The leadership circle of these three siblings is restored and the congregation moves on. Even Miriam’s death is recorded (Numbers 20:1). Miriam is remembered in Scripture and revered in Jewish tradition, as a prophet, a heroine, a role model and a figure of great courage, intelligence, leadership, and love for God.
Questions for our discussion and consideration:
Besides God’s obvious preference for Moses, why do you think God was outraged with Miriam and Aaron’s actions?
What can we learn from Miriam’s leadership abilities – to the positive and to the negative?
Considering that Miriam is recognized in Scripture, as a prophet (and the word in Hebrew is translated as “prophet,” why do you think most translations offer “prophetess” as the title for Miriam and other female prophets of Scripture?
“There is no redemption without affliction.” Abraham Heschel
“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“And afterward, I will put out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” – Joel 2: 28
OUR SENDING PRAYER
Oh Lord, in full confidence we come to You not only as our judge, but as our friend.
We ask You for wisdom greater than our wisdom,
For vision greater than our vision,
For strength far beyond our strength.
Befriend us anew, Oh God
That we may declare us our sister and prophet Miriam,
“The Lord has become my salvation and my song!
In the name of Jesus, the Christ, we pray.
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