The little basket floated for a while then lodged in the shallows of the river. Miriam was following, and saw it was not far from a bathing party. Pharaoh’s daughter was there with her retinue. The royal women saw the basket and investigated: it was a live baby, crying with hunger…
Miriam is not mentioned in the episode of the Golden Calf, so it seems she sided with Moses, not with her other brother Aaron who led this revolt. But the story tells us much about the beliefs of the nomadic herders who travelled in their search for the Promised Land.
The Golden Calf
When Moses failed to come down from the mountain, the people urged Aaron to assume leadership and make them gods to worship. Under pressure, Aaron agreed. He had the men collect their womenfolk’s gold jewellery, melted it down, and made an image of a calf, which was of course a common fertility symbol at that time.
Phoenician image of a calf, originally covered with gold leaf
The narrative about the Golden Calf is no longer in its original simple form. It is notable, however, that Aaron proclaimed a ‘festival to the Lord’ to be held in front of the Golden Calf.
This seems to have some connection with the story in 1 Kings 12:26-30 about Jeroboam making the Golden Calves, for he used exactly the same phrase that is given to Aaron in Exodus: ‘Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’
There is a theory that the original ancient story concerning Aaron’s priesthood suggested he was the founder of a popular cult which combined worship of Yahweh and other deities – a syncretist worship which attempted to satisfy all elements of the tribal group.
Moses (and possibly Miriam) promoted worship of Yahweh, but a large element among the Hebrews clung to their ancient devotion to the fertility gods.
Tents of nomadic herders; women spun the wool, wove the fabric, and sewed the strips together to make the tents they lived in; they also put up and took down the tents whenever the tribe moved from one place to another
Escaping from Egypt
The Hebrew tribes were escapees from Egypt, wandering with their herds in search of good pastures. Eventually, they hoped, they would find a new land to live in.
It was during this period of Israelite history that the tribes developed their unique identity and began to see themselves as separate from the kingdoms that surrounded them. Their main identifying difference was worship of Yahweh, a spirit-god who combined the power of all the gods of other tribes but had a special relationship with the Hebrew people. This relationship was embodied in the concept of the covenant, a mutual promise of protection and allegiance made between Yahweh and themselves.
This map shows a possible route taken by the Hebrew tribes in their search for a new homeland
Women’s lives in this era
It was probably in this period that women enjoyed greatest freedom and prestige. The stories in Genesis and Exodus show them as independent and strong, smart and tough. They display leadership and initiative. They almost always get their way when they want something.
This was probably because women were necessary for the survival of the tribe, and they knew it.
They did a wide range of tasks, without which the clan or family simply could not have managed – see the second section of Bible Archaeology: Work for the range of these tasks.
They moved freely in society, and were not confined within the home. The Bible stories show that they spoke and acted confidently.
Their contribution to the culture of the time was significant. The stories as we have them in the Bible were edited much later by male priests, but there are hints that women had a thriving cultural tradition of their own – most of which has unfortunately been lost because it was never recorded, as men’s stories were.
These stories dealt with women who were famous at the time, with families, children, food supplies, security/safety and home-places. Scholars suggest that many of the stories of Genesis were originally women’s stories, preserved by women in the clan and later written down by the male scribes.
Herd of sheep with shepherds
As well, women played an active role in religious matters. The concept of monotheism was just beginning to develop, but many women probably also worshipped a fertility goddess, the Great Mother, source of plant, animal and human life. There are echoes of this in the story of the Golden Calf, in which Miriam was implicated. Cows/calves were ancient symbols of the goddess of fertility.
Ancient Near Eastern religions certainly had fertility of the soil and animal life as one of their main focuses, with priestesses who served the forces of Nature – the power of river and rain water, abundance of crops and animals, etc.