Miriam’s story is told in Exodus 2:1-10, Exodus 15:1-21, Numbers 12:1-15, Numbers 20:1, Micah 6:4
In her book The Seven Whispers, author Christina Baldwin writes that knowing one’s purpose is like “listening for our particular melody line to hum in the midst of a complex piece of music” (p 40).
In the unfolding story of the Hebrew people, Miriam’s melody line emerges after the victorious crossing of the Red Sea in the Exodus narrative. The brother of Moses, Miriam comes forward to sing for all Hebrew women as she picks up the timbral and leads the women in singing and dancing in praise of God’s deliverance.
But to get to Miriam at the Red Sea, we must begin with the little girl at the Nile River. Miriam enters scripture as the unnamed older sister of baby Moses. Miriam’s mother, Jochebed, has given birth to her third child, a boy. But it is perilous times for the Hebrews. Living in Egypt, they have become slaves of Pharaoh. But they are growing in number, and Pharaoh seeks to diminish them by ordering that all Hebrew males be drowned at birth.
Two of the Hebrew midwives, however, named Shiphrah and Puah, defy the command by telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are so strong they give birth before the midwives can attend to them. They will kill no male babies. Whereupon Pharaoh orders that all Hebrew babies be killed.
Hence Jochebed must hide her baby, and when she can no longer do that, she places him in woven basket and puts him in the reeds that line the Nile River. His older sister is to stand by and see what happens.
What happens is Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe, sees the baby, and claims him for her own. But she will need a wet-nurse. Miriam steps forward out of the shadows to suggest she will find one and brings the baby back to Jochebed to be nursed. When the baby is weaned, Jochebed takes the child back to Pharaoh’s daughter.
Current scholars are taking another look at the significance of this part of the Exodus story. We are accustomed to recalling the Exodus as beginning with the relenting of Pharaoh’s hold and allowing the Israelites to leave their captivity. But another view sees it as beginning with Shiphrah and Puah’s resistance to Pharaoh, furthered by Miriam’s part in cleverly saving the life of baby Moses. These small steps are now seen as the first acts of defiance that led to the liberation of the Hebrews.
When we next see Miriam, the Israelites have left Egypt and have crossed the Red Sea by God miraculously opening the water for the Hebrews and closing them back over the pursuing Egyptians. When they have made it to the other side of the water, Scripture records that Moses and the men sing a hymn to God’s power, known as the Song of the sea.
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
2 The Lord is my strength and my might
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3 The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name ( Exodus 15:1-3).
The hymn continues for 18 verses that mainly emphasize God’s military might: “The Lord is a warrior.”
In the immediate next verses of scripture, with no explanation, Miriam, who is now identified as a “prophetess,” picks up a timbral and leads the women in singing and dancing. Their song is the same as the first few verses of the hymn Moses has just sung:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:19-21).
Two verses from Miriam and the women, that’s all we have.
Or is it? Traditionally, Miriam’s song is seen only as repeating Moses, but Joel Baden, writing in “My Jewish Learning,” points out that “Miriam does more than simply echo Moses. She provides space for the Israelite women, so often subsumed into the Israelite community, to have their own moment of celebration.” In the entire Torah, says Baden, this is the only place where the Israelite women act as a separate body. It may be no coincidence that it is Miriam who steps forward to lead the singing.
Taking this thought further, historically the Song of the Sea is attributed to Moses. But more recent scholarship suggests that Miriam’s short song is the older version, and that of Moses is an embellishment. Others propose that Miriam is the author of the longer version, but that early biblical writers have put it into the mouth of Moses so as to minimize Miriam’s leadership role.
What we can learn from the scene at the Red Sea is that it is the women who bring singing and dance into the Exodus narrative. The God of Moses and the men becomes a God for all the people of Israel. Beyond that, we are wandering in the wilderness to make sense of the scene. Disturbingly, scripture can be quite enigmatic at times. Hints and guesses often accompany biblical interpretation: “A text hints, and the reader guesses,” observes one commentator.
But the price of speaking out is costly. The next time we encounter Miriam in scripture the Israelites have been wandering in the desert and have come to a place called Hazeroth. There scripture records an incident that again we don’t quite know how to understand. Moses has married a foreigner, a Cushite woman, which is forbidden by Israelite custom, and Miriam and her brother Aaron rebuke him for it. Then they immediately question his authority, saying, “Has God spoken only through Moses or has he not also spoken through us? (Numbers 12:2).
But god will suffer no questioning of his appointed leader. God calls the three siblings to a meeting: the image is of a stern Victorian father lining up his children on the parlor sofa and shaking his finger at them. For her impertinence, Miriam – but not Aaron – is struck with a dreaded skin disease, possibly leprosy. Her brothers at least are gracious enough to beg God to relent. But God shows no pity and sets Miriam outside the camp for seven days. She has been sent to her room without dinner for a week.
In her support, the people refuse to move on without her.
Traditional biblical commenters are quick to heap coals on Miriam. She has questioned Moses and questioned God and she must be punished. More recent commentators are reminded in this passage of the scene at the Red Sea when Miriam leads the women in singing and dancing. Clearly, Miriam’s vision is for a more diverse leadership among the Hebrews with both female and male voices. Later, another prophet – Micah – will acknowledge this in the voice of God saying, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4 ESV).
After her punishment, Miriam is never again recording as speaking. Indeed, she disappears altogether from the narrative until the announcement of her death and burial at Kadesh in one lone verse (Num 20:1).
There is a song we sing at my church. It’s titled New Song, and the chorus goes like this:
“You’ve given my heart a new song
and my heart can’t be silent anymore,
(Oh I can sing)
For I am not afraid to do Your will Lord
(‘Cause) to live is Christ, to die is gain.”
Each part of Miriam’s story – from being the guardian of her baby brother, to bursting out in song and dance at the Red Sea, to speaking truth to power – were new songs to her. She sang anyway.
So what is the melody line that has been revealed in your life? Where have you seen God lead you, even if you didn’t know it at the time?
What chorus has God prepared you to sing now?
– Marjorie George, Advent 2021
Questions for reflection:
When was it your job to stand by passively in God’s unfolding drama of bringing God’s people to himself? When were you the guardian, the protector, the encourager? What did you learn that has figured as part of your spiritual journey – maybe in retrospect?
Frederick Buechner defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What does your little piece of the world need just now? What would it be your joy to offer?
“In quite small but extremely significant ways, we are remarkably different from one another,” says Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of St. John the Evangelist. “Become who you were created to be, by God’s grace.” Who were you created to be?
When have you tried to speak truth to power and been rebuffed? What was your human reaction? Can you see it as an important moment in your spiritual journey?
When and how have you discovered your particular melody line to hum in the complex journey of God’s people moving toward God’s incarnation in Jesus?
Return to Toward Incarnation – Readings and Reflection Questions page.