Women in the Bible
The Woman Whose Jealousy Brought Judgment
Exodus 15:20, 21; Numbers 12:1-15; 20:1; 26:59; Deuteronomy 24:9; Micah 6:4
Name Meaning—As a name Miriam belongs to a family of words having different root-form, all of which suggest “bitterness,” Mary, Maria, Mariamne. Miriam, then, the same as Mary, meaning “bitterness,” “rebellion” was apropos, for because of her jealousy, Miriam’s fate was one of extreme bitterness.
Family Connections—Miriam was the eldest child of Amram and Jochebed, and the sister of Aaron and Moses. Says Bulwer, “I honour birth and ancestry when they are regarded as incentives to exertion, not title deeds to sloth.” Miriam owed much to her ancestry. She was the daughter of godly parents and the sister of two of Israel’s greatest figures. Josephus in his Antiquities informs us that Miriam became the wife of another well-known leader in Israel namely, Hur, one of the judges of the people when Moses was on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:14). This would make Miriam to be the grandmother of Bezaleel, the famous artist in the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:2). The Biblical narrative, however, suggests that Miriam remained in single blessedness all her days. “Miriam stands before us in an absolutely unsexual relation,” says George Matheson: “There is neither marriage nor courtship. Her interests are not matrimonial! -they are national. Her mission is not domestic, it is patriotic.... Miriam the unmarried is a heroine in an age when female celibacy was not a consecrated thing, in a Book where the nuptial tie is counted the glory of womanhood.”
Some of the grandest women to benefit mankind were content to remain unmarried. Was there ever such a ministering angel in human form as Florence Nightingale, “The Lady of the Lamp,” whose sacrificial work among the suffering soldiers during the Crimean War laid the foundation for the great reformation that took place in the hospitals of the world? Many noble women do not marry from sheer choice, as the biographies of some female missionaries and nurses testify. We see Miriam—
As a Clever Girl on the Banks of the River Nile
In dealing with Miriam’s mother, Jochebed, we saw how Pharaoh had commanded all the male babies of the Israelites to be drowned in the Nile and how Jochebed took every possible precaution for her beautiful baby’s safety. Out of the common reeds grown along the banks of the river she fashioned a small basket-boat, and making it watertight by an inside covering of clay and an outside protection of bitumen, laid the baby in its boat by the edge of the stream which she knew was frequented by the princess and her female court.
The anxious mother took the wise precaution of leaving the baby’s sister, Miriam, nearby to mount guard over his safety (Exodus 2:4). Whether Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the stream or wash her clothes in it, we are not told. Among the reeds the little boat with its precious cargo was spotted and brought to the princess who, seeing the child, loved him. As he was lifted up, he cried. He wanted feeding. But who was to nurse the mite? This was young Miriam’s opportunity. Out of the shadows she stepped forth so innocently, and appearing to be curious at the screaming baby and puzzled princess, to ask if she would like her to try and find a Hebrew nurse? Miriam kept her silence and did not reveal her relation to the baby and the nurse she secured.
Thus the ready wit of Miriam, a girl of ten to twelve years old, saved her brother, whom the Princess called Moses, which literally means, ‘drawn from the water.’ When he subsequently became the great hero and deliverer of Israel, how Miriam must have been grateful for her share in preserving her baby brother from the cruel fate of other Hebrew infants.
As a Gifted Poetess and Prophetess at the Red Sea
Miriam appears for the first time by name when she is called a “prophetess,” and is identified as the sister of Aaron. Both her words and work were full of the inspiration of God and she is seen as a leader and a role model to the women of Israel. Prophets and prophetesses are those raised up by God and inspired by His Spirit to proclaim the will and purpose of God. It is at the Red Sea that we see Miriam standing out so prominently, proclaiming, and singing the power and faithfulness of God. She, it was, who led the Israelite women in dancing and instrumental accompaniment as she sang the ode of praise and victory (Exodus 15:20, 21). By this time Miriam was well past middle life. If she was about 12 years of age when Moses was born, and he spent 40 years in Egypt, then another 40 in the land of Midian before the dramatic episode of the Red Sea, then Miriam was an aging woman in that time when longevity was normal.
After the plague that fell upon Egypt, Pharaoh let God’s people go. Moses, leader of the almost two million people, with his brother Aaron as high priest, and his sister Miriam as his chief singer, set out for the land of promise. God caused the waters to roll back and the Israelites passed through on dry ground, but as soon as they were through the waters rushed back and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. Miriam, the first poetess in the Bible, led the joyous acclamations of the multitude, and using her timbrel, sang;
“Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.”
The Song of Moses and Miriam has been referred to as one of the oldest and most splendid natural anthems in the world. Although we cannot be absolutely certain whether Miriam composed the poem or not, the probability is that she did. What we do know is that she wove the matchless, mighty ode of victory into the conscious life of the people.
Henry Van Dyke reminds us that, “The spirit and movement of the song are well expressed in the English verse of Thomas Moore’s paraphrase:”
Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt’s dark sea!
Jehovah has triumphed,—His people are free!
Sing—for the pride of the tyrant is broken;
His chariots, his horsemen, all splendid and brave,—
How vain was their boasting! the Lord hath but spoken,
And chariots and horsemen are sunk in the wave.
Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt’s dark sea!
Jehovah has triumphed,—His people are free!
Praise to the Conqueror, praise to the Lord!
His word was our arrow, His breath was our sword.
Who shall return to tell Egypt the story
Of those she sent forth in the shew of her pride?
For the Lord hath looked out from His pillar of glory,
And all her brave thousands are dashed in the tide.
Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt’s dark sea!
Jehovah has triumphed—His people are free!
This is a powerful verse. But there is even greater majesty and force in the form of the ode as it stands in the Book of Exodus. How grandly the antiphonal ascriptions of praise to Jehovah come into the description of the overthrow of Egypt’s pride and power!
Jehovah is a man of war:
Jehovah is his name!
Thou didst blow with thy wind:
The sea covered them:
They sank as lead in the mighty waters.
Who is like unto thee among the gods, Jehovah?
Who is like unto thee?
Glorious in holiness!
Fearful in praises!
As the first of the sweet singers of Israel, Miriam sang for God, using her gift for the elevation of human souls into a higher life. A dreary wilderness faced the children of Israel, and Miriam knew that they would march better if they sang. So her song was one of cheer and full of the memory of all God had accomplished for His people. “The greatest stimulus for the crossing of Jordan is the fact that we have already crossed the Red Sea,” wrote George Matheson. “It was wise in Miriam to begin with that Sea and over its prostrate waves to sound her first timbrel.”
A Jealous Sister in the Wilderness
What a faithful mirror the Bible is of the characters it portrays! Blemishes, as well as beauties, are revealed. It tells the naked truth of those it describes. There is a blot upon almost all its portraits, and “its blots are as much a bit of the art as its beauties.” A double feature of the failure of the Bible’s heroes and heroines is that they are usually associated with middle life after the morning inspired with hope and courage unbounded is past, as in the case of Miriam. Further, such failures present themselves where we should not expect them to overtake the otherwise true and noble. Miriam, for instance, rebelled against the mission of her life, namely, to protect and labor in partnership with her brother Moses, whom she had been the means of saving for his country. Miriam was, above all things, a faithful patriot, with a love for her country greater than the love for her renowned brother. It was because he was the chosen emissary of God to lead Israel out of bondage into freedom that she rebelled against him in a twofold way. Jealousy led Miriam to reject both the position of Moses as the leader of the host, and his partner in the wife he took unto himself. She found the management and marriage of Moses most irksome.
In the first place, Miriam rebelled against the bride of Moses whose first wife, Zipporah, was a Midianite or Gentile (Exodus 2:21). The second wife was an Ethiopian, a Cushite, a dark-skinned beauty from the African country south of the Nile cataracts. By this time Miriam was an old woman and possibly resented the presence of a younger and more attractive woman so close to her brother. Miriam despised the bride of Moses not because of her color, but because she was a foreigner. Race pride made the Ethiopian woman objectionable. It was not so much feminine jealousy on Miriam’s part as patriotic jealousy. She was a confirmed member of the Hebrew race, and dead set against any foreign alliance. Because the blood of a mean ancestry was in the veins of the Ethiopian whose people hated the worship of the true God, Miriam feared the influence of the new wife upon Moses.
But Miriam’s greatest offense was her rejection of the leadership of Moses. Hitherto, she had been a symbol of unity as she shared in the triumphs and hopes of Israel. Now, unfortunately, she is prominent as a leader of discord, division, and discontent. It will be noted that Aaron is paired with his sister in the outburst against the acquisition and the authority of Moses. But by the order of the names it is evident that Miriam was the instigator and the spokeswoman in the revolt. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses” (Numbers 12:1). This is understandable because of the close bond of friendship between two who had never been parted. After Miriam as a young girl saved Moses’ life, she scarcely saw him for almost 80 years, but with Aaron she had lived quietly at home. Now she takes the initiative in opposition against the younger brother, and uses his Ethiopian wife as a pretext to rebel against the superior authority of Moses. Her jealous heart led her to reject God’s set apart calling in favor of Moses against her and Aaron.
Thus personal jealousy and fear of their own respective leadership are mingled in their question, “Hath God indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us?” Miriam and Aaron aspired to a joint partnership in state power and in the government of Israel, and they failed. If Moses had erred in marrying his dark bride, it was a personal mistake and not a public crime. Miriam’s chief error consisted in her effort to challenge the God-given authority of Moses, and thereby imperil the unity and hope of the nation. Hers was an act of open rebellion, as in questioning the authority of her brother she was in effect challenging the authority of Yehovah, her Creator! Her fault then was greater than that of Moses, because it was a very grave offense aimed directly at the Holy One of Israel, as well as against the commonwealth of Israel.
It is true that Miriam had functioned as a prophetess and used Aaron as a prophet, but God had distinctly said,
“Not so with My servant Moses; He is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face, even plainly and not in dark sayings.”
(Numbers 12:7-8a NKJV)
Such was God’s elective sovereignty, and Miriam’s sin was most grievous in that she rebelled against what God had spoken. That such a sister should be jealous of her brother is beyond conception, but human nature even at its best is very frail. How true it is that; “jealousy is the never turn away its eyes from the thing that pains it.” Paul places “evil speaking” among the cardinal sins.
Moses, meekest of all men, acted as a deaf apprehension of superiority and the towering character of Moses doubtless disturbed the peace of Miriam’s mind. George Eliot has the phrase: “One of the torments of jealousy is that it can man who heard not, and as a dumb man who opened not his mouth.” God had heard the complaints Miriam had voiced and He called the trio of leaders to meet Him at the tabernacle of the congregation. Taking up the defense of Moses, God spoke directly to Miriam and Aaron in no uncertain terms that they had not only hurt Moses but that they had failed in their duty toward Him. Moses received divine vindication as God’s servant who had been faithful, and as the one whom He had chosen as the medium of a divine revelation. Then the rebellious sister and brother were reprimanded by God for speaking against His honored servant. How silenced the three must have been when, standing at the door of the tabernacle, they were silenced by the austerity and authority of the divine voice! In righteous wrath God withdrew from the holy place.
A Repentant Leper Outside the Camp
As the divine cloud left the tabernacle, the eyes of Aaron sought his beloved and forceful sister, and to his horror she had been smitten with leprosy—the foul disease that made the victim look like death, white as snow, a living corpse (Numbers 12:12). The proud, jealous prophetess was condemned to endure the most humiliating of diseases. While Aaron was united with Miriam in rebellion against Moses, judgment only fell upon Miriam which indicated that she had been the instigator, and had influenced her pliable brother. “Look at her in her rapture, like one out of the body with the joy of the Lord, at the Red Sea,” says Alexander Whyte, “and now see to what her wicked heart and her wicked tongue have brought her. Look at her with her hand upon her throat, and with a linen cloth upon her lip, and with her hoarse, sepulchral noisome voice wandering far from the camp, and compelled to cry Unclean! Unclean!, when any one came in sight.”
How humiliating it must have been for Miriam to see people fleeing from her—the one who had before led them so triumphantly. Her judgment was swift and signal, even though hers was a temporary disgrace. Aaron and Moses, overcome with pity for their condemned sister and filled with brotherly love, prayed for Miriam that the punishment might pass from her. Prayer was heard on her behalf, and after her separation from the camp for seven days, she was healed of her leprosy. Evidently Miriam had the sympathy of the whole nation during her week of purification. Although she held up the progress of the host for those seven days, such was her popularity that “the people journeyed not [from Hazeroth] till Miriam was brought in again.” When Moses came to write out the law in respect to leprosy, he mentioned his sister Miriam as an example (Deuteronomy 24:9). Thus her presumptuous effort to change the leadership of Israel ended in her humiliation and in the divine vindication of Moses as the undisputed leader of the people.
What happened to Miriam during her seven days without the camp as she bore the sorrow of seeing Israel’s march to the Promised Land arrested because of her jealousy we are not told. Doubtless she was repentant, but her strength was broken and the gift of prophecy had left her. One also wonders what the thoughts of Moses’ wife were during that lonely week as she thought of her sister-in-law punished and excluded because she condemned Moses for making her his wife. Further, had the confidence of Moses in Aaron and Miriam been so shaken as to make him walk alone? Restored to divine favor we would fain believe Miriam was noble and submissive through the rest of her days, even though we do not hear again of her until her death.
A Dying Saint at Kadesh
Alexander Whyte reckons that Miriam did not live long after that dread week, and that she died not because of her old age, or the dregs of the leprosy, but of a broken heart. The Bible is silent as to any further service she rendered once the camp moved on. Had her sorrow crushed her song, and her presumption silenced her prophetic voice? This we do know; that just as Moses was not permitted to enter the Land of Promise because “he spoke unadvisedly with his lips” at the rock, so Miriam because of her sin died before the entrance to Canaan, and was buried at Kadesh-Barnea, where Israel mourned for her. She passed away at the eleventh hour of the completion of Israel’s journey of forty years at the mountain of Zin, and was mourned for some 30 days. But her last resting place, like that of her great brother, Moses, is one of the secrets of God. As an epitaph for her grave, wherever she sleeps, we can inscribe “She sang the song of Moses: but it was also the song of the Lamb.”
What are some of the lessons to be learned from the feminine jealousy and ambition which were the drawbacks in Miriam’s otherwise commanding character? First of all, we should learn to avoid the temptation to wield power at the expense of losing influence. Miriam had great influence in her sphere as prophetess and leader of the praises of Israel, but she was not content. She coveted equal power with Moses. Then is it not folly in trying to add to our prestige and dictating to others, as Miriam and Aaron when they gave vent to their feelings against Moses? The most impressive lesson to learn from Miriam is that it is injurious to our character to be discontented with our own distinction, and to jealously desire the higher place of honor which another holds. My soul, never forget that it was envy that crucified the Lord who personified humility!
© 1988 Zondervan. All Rights Reserved
Miriam’s story has four episodes:
Miriam saved her brother Moses, Exodus 2:1-10. She was his older sister, and she watched over him when he was placed in a basket on the River Nile. The survival of the leader of the Exodus, Moses, depended on the courage and ingenuity of his sister Miriam.
The song of Miriam, Exodus 15:20-21. Miriam became the leader of the Hebrew women when they and their families escaped from Egypt. On one occasion she and the women sang the Song of Miriam; it is one of the few poems that survive from the ancient world.
Miriam’s ordeal, Numbers 12. Miriam and Aaron were both popular leaders, but they were bound by the Law, represented by Moses. Miriam questioned Moses’ authority, and was punished with a disease that turned her skin white and leprous. Nevertheless she continued searching with Moses for the Promised Land.
Miriam’s death, Numbers 20:1-2. Miriam died in a waterless place in the wilderness, but afterwards God caused water to appear there.
Miriam saves her brother Moses Exodus 2:1-10
The Pharaoh in the inspired Exodus account grew concerned about the large number of Hebrew workers in Egypt.
He decided to limit the Hebrew population by ordering midwives to kill male babies born to Hebrew women. He ordered the drowning of all male Hebrew babies. It was his ‘Final Solution!’
Two of the midwives were woman called Shiprah and Puah. They would not co-operate with the Pharaoh’s order, but instead let the babies live. When questioned, they said that the Hebrew women were vigorous and strong and gave birth before a mid-wife had time to arrive. In this way they circumvented the Pharaoh’s command. He responded by ordering that all male babies be thrown into the Nile River.
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. She conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him, plastered it with bitumen and pitch, then put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. Read Exodus 2:1-10.
The baby was Moses, and the Hebrew woman, Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam saved him by hiding him among the reeds at the edge of the river. He was found by Pharaoh’s own daughter, who adopted him. Cleverly, Miriam arranged that the real mother of the baby should wet-nurse the baby.
The future leader of the Hebrew people, Moses, owed his life to five women:
Shiprah and Puah, the midwives were dedicated to life rather than death, and disobeyed Pharaoh’s edict to kill all male babies even at the risk of their own lives. Their disobedience was the first step in the Exodus, and in its own small way was the first act of rebellion against Pharaoh.
Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby Moses hidden in the bulrushes. She pitied the baby and defied her father’s edict. She knew he was a Hebrew baby yet she shaped his future as a Prince of Egypt at Pharaohs’ Court. She probably guessed that Jochebed was the baby’s mother.
Jochebed his mother, who wove the basket in a desperate attempt to save her baby; she was the mother of three outstanding leaders.
Miriam, his sister, a caring and self-possessed girl who followed and watched over him.
The Song of Miriam Exodus 15:19-21
Miriam’s role as a leader of the Hebrew women was obviously more extensive than is shown in the biblical text. Despite her personal charisma and power, her story has to a large extent been subsumed into the story of her brother Moses.
Rulers in the ancient world led through force of arms and military might. Miriam and Moses proposed a different model of leadership. They led by example served their people rather than ruled them did what they believed God wanted rather than serving their own ends.
When the twelve tribes of Israel were escaping from Egypt, they crossed the Red Sea, even as they were being pursued by Pharaoh’s armies. They were led by Moses, Miriam, and her second brother Aaron.
The Pharaoh of Egypt had commanded that all male Hebrew babies be drowned. Now it was the turn of Pharaoh and his mighty Egyptian army in hot and murderous pursuit of the escaping Israelites, who were drowned, as the mighty waves of the Red Sea violently overturned Pharaoh’s horses and chariots. One might well call this poetic justice!
When this happened, the Hebrews expressed their jubilation by composing songs of victory. A remnant of the song composed by Miriam appears in the Bible.
Then, as now, warriors were honored when they returned from battle, greeted with an acknowledgment of their courage and self-sacrifice.
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 sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Ritual singing by women was common in ancient Israel. Women sang particularly at victory celebrations, going out to meet returning warriors and greeting them with songs which expressed their relief, joy, and jubilation at the defeat of enemies.
The particular song that Miriam and the women sang may have been a back-and forth chant between the men and the women.
Philo of Alexandria (on ‘A Contemplative Life’), described Jewish women standing in rows, swaying and moving their arms and bodies in harmony, chanting rhythmical songs together.
They accompanied their swaying movements with the metallic jingle of tambourines. Other musical instruments used at the time were gongs, harps, pipes and flutes, shofars (made from a ram’s horn), trumpets, lutes and lyres.
Miriam’s Ordeal Numbers 12
This part of Miriam’s story described an incident at Hazeroth, as the Hebrew people wandered in search of their promised land.
Miriam and Aaron were troubled about two matters:
They questioned Moses’ marriage to the Cushite (Ethiopian or Midianite) woman, not because of any personal rivalry, but because Hebrews condemned marriage with any foreigner.
They questioned Moses’ authority over them, since Moses was the youngest of the three. The firstborn son usually had the most authority in a family. Moreover, since God had communicated with all three of them, why should Moses dominate the other two? ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the Lord heard it and said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam ‘Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.’
Read Numbers 12:1-9.
As leader of the women and sister of Moses, Miriam had an unusually influential position in the community. This made her words and ideas important, because they were listened to, and they affected many people. This seems to be why her questioning of Moses was followed immediately by what the text calls leprosy, shocking to all who witnessed it.
One of the Ten Plagues of Egypt was boils and skin sores – it may have been what Miriam had.
‘When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow.’ Her skin was likened to that of a stillborn fetus when it comes out of its mother’s womb.
In fact, the term ‘leprosy’ was used for a wide variety of skin diseases at that time; some of them were curable, some were not. Leviticus 13 and 14 give precise details of symptoms and treatments, both spiritual and medical.
In whatever guise it appeared, leprosy was seen as a punishment from God for some wrong-doing.
Only complete and total repentance could save Miriam now. She suffered the punishment of God, and atoned for her challenge to Moses’ authority.
Miriam’s leprosy was interpreted by the people as a dramatic sign that Moses was God’s chosen leader, and that Miriam’s and Aaron’s authority, while still important, was less than Moses.’
Being led by a supernatural Pillar of Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by Night, Miriam, and Aaron under the leadership of Moses, accompanied by a mighty host of people sojourned for forty years on the way to the Promised Land. Thus the twelve tribes of Israel, a nation of slaves, set out on their long and most rigorous journey, which resulted in their becoming an independent and powerful nation.
As they traveled through arid and mountainous regions they were fed by Manna from heaven, and although at times water was scarce, consistently their needs were always met, as even their clothes and shoes did not wear out. As the physical conditions at times were rigorous the people sometimes looked back with longing to their time in Egypt, as they missed the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic they used to enjoy.
‘The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.’
Read Numbers 20:1-2.
Water, the symbol of life, had played quite a large part in Miriam’s life. She saved her brother from the water; she led the song of victory after the parting of the Red Sea; she died in a water-less place. Immediately after her death, God gave abundant water to the people, in the form of a spring.
Summary of Miriam’s story
Miriam’s life had been one of service and leadership.
She expressed all the robust qualities that are best: courage and ingenuity in a dangerous situation, loyalty to her family, a love of music, story-telling and dance, and intellectual inquiry into questions about authority and social responsibility.
She remains a model for women and men today.
Compilation and comments © by Dr. David G. Sloss, PhD – edited by Stephen J Spykerman - 2018