Miriam – how to approach her; given that we have already mentioned her (see Jochabed – the mother of Moses)?
We glimpse Miriam’s first appearances in Exodus as the older sister of Moses, the Jewish boy whose very birth placed him in immediate danger in Egypt, and of Aaron. They lived with their parents Amram and Jochabed, both of the tribe of Levi.
In reflecting on the story of Miriam, we can see that, although young, perhaps about 8 years old, she was very involved in the family enterprise of ensuring the safety of her baby brother and then the subsequent engineering of his birth mother as his nurse, carer and protector, which ensured that although he was brought up as a son of Pharoah, he would know the history of the people that he came from. The boy who would grow up to be leader of his people owed his existence to his mother and sister.
We are told that the family hid Moses at home for three months. Presumably, given her later active involvement, his older sister was very involved with making sure that this younger baby brother was kept safe from Pharoah’s soldiers. Then her mother came up with a plan to save her brother – constructing a basket to put the baby in – “a moses basket” and putting baby and basket in or beside the River Nile with his sister to keep watch. Reflecting on this story, it seems to me that this was not an abandonment of the baby, but a very cleverly thought out plan. Mother and daughter must have observed that the place they had chosen to leave the baby was near a popular bathing spot for the daughter of Pharoah and her attendants. Miriam had only to hide and then pop out when the baby was discovered to offer the services of her mother as wet-nurse for the baby. There is a lot unsaid in this story – Pharoah’s daughter doesn’t comment on the fortuitous availability of a conveniently at hand wet-nurse. She has noticed that the baby is Jewish and she must have had an inkling that the handily-provided nurse was his mother.
Miriam’s role is pivotal in ensuring the safety of Moses and maintaining his connection with the Jewish people, rather than becoming an assimilated Egyptian. Moses, of course, grows up to become the great liberator of his people. He is chosen by God to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt and towards the land promised them.
Miriam’s next appearance is following the miraculous escape of the Israelites across the Red Sea to the other side – the Wilderness, which they will spend the next forty years living and journeying towards the Promised Land.
“And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand and all the women went out after her, with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam led them, ‘Let us sing to the Lord; for gloriously he has been glorified; horse and rider he has hurled into the sea.”
What an image we have presented to us – Miriam “the Prophetess” leading the rejoicing of the nation at their liberation from Pharoah. A multi-tasker too – she could sing, play and dance, along with other women. However she is set apart as a leader and Prophetess. We do not hear more about her role as prophetess, but there is an acknowledgement of her importance. Some have commented that she is only named as the sister of Aaron and not of Moses. In a way this emphasises her importance amongst her contemporaries – she is not “just” the sister of their great leader, but fulfilling an important role, using her own gifts.
Our next encounter with Miriam, takes place many years later, during that time in the desert. At its heart the incident reveals the very real operation of family politics. Moses, it seems, had taken a second wife – a Cushite, from Ethiopia and therefore not from amongst his own people. The conflict caused is reflected in Miriam’s comment that God doesn’t just speak to Moses, but to her and Aaron as well. I think that the implication is and “we always live our lives as we should do”. God, however, does not take kindly to this comment and He summons the three siblings to the “Tent of Witness”. He informs them that to prophets he speaks in visions and dreams, but that Moses being “faithful to my entire house, I shall speak to him face to face and in visible form”.
God seems to be on “Team Moses” and Miriam has been struck down with leprosy. Aaron pleads for the cure of his sister to Moses, asking that Moses forgive them for their doubt of Moses’ leadership. Moses, her baby brother that she was instrumental in saving, now pleads on her behalf to God, for a cure. God hears Moses and the upshot is thus: “And Miriam was in quarantine outside the camp for seven days and the people did not set out until Miriam was declared clean.”
Finally, we come to the death of Miriam, mentioned in Numbers (which amplifies and duplicates the Book of Exodus):
“The whole community of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month and the people settled down in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there.”
That’s it – no commentary, but it is, I think, a recognition of Miriam’s significance that her death is at least mentioned.
One of the later prophets Micah has no hesitation in recognising the leadership of the three siblings:
“I brought you out of Egypt; I rescued you from the land of bondage; I sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead you.”