Miriam was about seven years older than Moses. She watched over Moses’s cradle as it floated in the Nile River. Miriam saw Pharaoh’s daughter find the floating cradle and make the decision to keep Moses rather than return the cradle to the River or call her father’s soldiers. It was Miriam who suggested to Pharaoh’s daughter that Moses would accept breast milk from a Hebrew woman; she brought Jochebed (Moses’s birth mother) to the royal princess. Miriam watched Moses grow in Amram and Jochebed’s home the first two to three years of his life.
The first time that Miriam is named in the Bible is after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Although the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land, Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen drown when they attempted to cross the Sea (Exodus 15:19-21). Miriam was named a prophet; the first woman in the Bible to be so named. Miriam led the Israelite women in singing and dancing to celebrate their escape through the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army.
During the Exodus, Miriam would have been about 87 years of age. Nowhere in the Bible is Miriam called a wife or a mother. No husband is identified for her. Perhaps, Miriam never married; alternatively, her husband may have died before Moses returned from Midian. The reader is left to wonder whose tent she lived in and who provided for her. The historian Josephus identified Hur as Miriam’s husband. If Josephus was correct then Miriam’s husband was part of the Israelite leadership and a stalwart supporter of Joshua.. In contrast to Josephus, Rabbinic sources named Caleb as Miriam’s husband and Hur as Miriam’s son (Trible, 2016; Jewish Women’s Archives).
At Hazeroth on the Sinai Peninsula, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses for having a Cushite wife (Numbers 12:1). The origin of this wife has generated several opinions from Jewish and Christian scholars. One perspective is that Zipporah was the “Cushite” wife so named because her skin was dark from desert living. Another perspective was that Zipporah died and Moses married a second time; the second wife was a Cushite. This scenario leaves unanswered the question of where did this Cushite woman come from. In all probability the Cushite wife was Therbis, the wife that Moses married after his war with the Cushites as much as 60 years earlier. Perhaps, the more important question is not who the Cushite wife was, but, why Miriam criticized Moses for marrying the woman. Possibly its root was an emerging nationalism among the Israelites. They wanted no non-Israelites in their midst and definitely no non-Israelite in a key position in the group. Remember, Miriam’s criticism occurred soon after the “rabble” was destroyed. The rabble was a group of people composed primarily of non-Israelites who left Egypt along with the Israelites.
Miriam along with Aaron challenged Moses’s prophetic authority. They asked, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Numbers 12:2 NIV). Miriam’s name is mentioned first in this passage indicating that Miriam more than Aaron was the instigator of the criticism of Moses. Perhaps Miriam understood leadership to embrace diverse voices to include both male and female. Further, Moses was the younger son in the family. By tradition older siblings, especially older male siblings had more power and prestige than younger ones. Why was Moses expecting Aaron and Miriam to follow his directions? He was a younger son!
Despite family tradition, God was not pleased with Miriam and Aaron’s the challenge to Moses’s authority. The Bible recorded that Moses didn’t respond to Miriam and Aaron’s criticism either of his dark-skinned Cushite wife or his autocratic leadership. Instead, God responded by calling a meeting with them outside the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 12:4-8). God appeared in a pillar of cloud. God said that it is he who gives prophetic visions usually in dream. Yet, he speaks with Moses face to face. Moses sees the form of the Lord. Then, God asked Miriam and Aaron why they are not afraid to speak against Moses. Essentially, God asked them how they dared to challenge Moses’s authority.
Though God rebukes both Miriam and Aaron, the deity punished only Miriam. When the cloud lifted from the front of the Tent of Meeting, Miriam was covered with leprosy (Numbers 12:10-16. Aaron pleads with Moses on Miriam’s behalf, calling Moses “my lord,” thus acknowledging that Moses is authority. In turn, Moses appeals to God. God responds by confining Miriam in disgrace outside the camp for seven days. After the seven days, Miriam comes back to the Israelite camp and the Israelites moved into and camped in the Desert of Paran.
After Miriam’s bout with leprosy, she lived about 17 years but she disappears from the Torah narrative until the announcement of her death (From Jewish Women’s Archives). Miriam died about one year before the Israelites entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. Miriam was 126-127 years of age. She was buried at Kadesh, where she died.
Reflection: I have two brothers; one is 15 years younger and the other 16 years younger. Like Miriam, I helped rear them. Even though both are now seasoned adults, I have to consciously curtail my tendency to tell them what to do. A part of me expects them to pay attention to what I say. I identify with Miriam’s challenge when she saw Moses grow beyond her “little” brother to leader of the Israelite nation.
If you are interested in reading about other women prophets in the Bible, please check out my book Lesser Known Bible Characters at http://www.RootedinGod.com.
Copyright April 2, 2016: Carolyn A. Roth