Main themes of the story
story has four episodes:
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
3 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
wilderness, but afterwards God caused water to appear there.
The Pharaoh in this story, thought to be Ramses II, grew concerned about the large number of foreign workers in Egypt.
He decided to limit the Hebrew population by ordering midwives to kill male babies born to Hebrew women.
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.
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 an placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river.'
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 be a wet-nurse for the baby.
future leader of the Hebrew people, Moses, owed his life to five women:
way or another, the women in this story are all givers of life.
See All about the Bible: Baby Moses Saved for more.
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
in the ancient world led through force of arms and military might. Miriam
and Moses proposed a different model of leadership. They
the Hebrews were escaping from Egypt, they crossed what was
probably a large papyrus marsh, called the Red Sea in the biblical text.
They were led by Moses, Miriam, and her second brother Aaron.
The Egyptians had commanded that Hebrew babies be drowned. Now it was the Egyptians who were drowned, as the soggy ground of the marshland gave way under the hoofs of the horses and the wheels of their chariots.
happened, the Hebrews expressed their jubilation by composing songs of
victory. A remnant of the song composed by Miriam appears in the Bible:
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:
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
well 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.
part of Miriam's story described an incident at Hazeroth, as the Hebrew
people wandered in search of their promised land.
and Aaron were troubled about two matters:
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.'
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 foetus 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.
That being so, it was necessary to repent and reform - which Miriam had to do. 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'.
with her brothers Moses and Aaron, led the Hebrew people throughout the
forty years when they reverted to the nomadic life, searching meanwhile
for a land where they could settle.
The life they led was hard, and they must often have yearned for the
stability and settled life they had left back in Egypt. Water was always
scarce, the food supply was unreliable, and the physical living conditions
were rigorous. Eventually these conditions took their toll on Miriam, and
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
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 waterless place.
Immediately after her death, God gave abundant water to the people, in the
form of a spring.
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 enquiry into questions about authority and social responsibility.
She remains a model for women and men today.
Miriam - Bible Woman - Women of the Old
Testament; Bible Study Resource
Miriam, Moses and Aaron - From Slavery to Freedom