Then she (Jochebed) put the child into (a basket) and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. His sister (Miriam) stood at a distance to find out what would happen to him. (Exodus 2:3,4)
Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing. Miriam answered them,
”Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted;
The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20,21)
Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite women whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses: Has He not spoken through us as well?” And the Lord heard it. (Numbers 12:1,2)
Miriam was the first recorded singer and prophetess in Israel. She has always been highly honored and respected among Jews and Christians. She was courageous, faithful, gifted, and loving, but not without human faults.
When only a child of about seven years of age, Miriam showed the tenacity, intelligence, and courage that would characterize her for her whole life. Miriam’s family lived with all of the Israelites in the land of Egypt. The Israelites had been there for hundreds of years and the current Pharaoh was a wicked and cruel tyrant. The Israelites had multiplied in number so Pharaoh called for the deaths of all baby boys. One brave woman Jochebed decided to try and save her son. (You can read more about this in the September 23, 2014 post on this blog.) Thanks to Miriam’s help, the boy would be raised by Pharaoh’s daughter and grow up to be Moses, the leader of God’s people.
The Bible doesn’t tell us more about Miriam until after Moses led the people out of Egypt. Recall that Moses and his brother Aaron went before Pharaoh many times and told him to let the people go. Pharaoh refused and God sent ten plagues as punishment and to show Pharaoh and all the Egyptians that He alone is mighty God.
The Israelites were exempt from these plagues, but Miriam must have seen the devastation and horror as frogs, lice, boils, hail, and many other horrible things happened to the neighboring Egyptians. Her parents would have put the blood of the lamb on their doorposts to spare their firstborn. They would have celebrated the first feast of unleavened bread – Passover. They would have gone around to their neighbors and accepted silver and gold from the Egyptians who were so glad to see the Israelites leaving. Miriam would have rejoiced as all of the preparations were made for the Israelites to finally leave behind lives of slavery and follow God’s man Moses – her brother – to the Promised Land.
Finally Pharaoh tells the Israelites they can go and so hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children begin the Exodus out of Egypt. They haven’t gone far though when Pharaoh has second thoughts and goes after them with his army. This must have been horrifying to the Israelites on foot, carrying their food and belongings. The Egyptians on horses were riding down on them and seemed to have them trapped against the Red sea.
But God did a miracle when the Israelites got to the sea. He parted the waters for them. After Miriam and the other Israelites were safely across, God caused the waters to come back together just as the Egyptian army was crossing. All of the soldiers and their horses drowned.
When the Israelites saw this, they joined Moses in a great song of praise to God for His deliverance. Then Miriam took a timbrel and began to lead the people in a song and dance rejoicing over their great deliverance. Don’t forget that Miriam was over eighty years old by this time. Her brother Moses had gone away when he was about forty years old and then lived in Midian for forty years, so he was eighty. Miriam was probably about seven years older than that. What amazing vitality and exuberance she had as she led the people in worshipping God in song and dance.
Miriam continued to encourage the people as they traveled on their journey to Canaan. The people needed all of the help they could get. They complained to Moses about everything. Moses interceded with God for food for the people. God gave them manna. Moses interceded for water and safety. God provided for all of their needs. The people did not seem to have as much faith as they should have. Whenever things went wrong they too easily complained to God rather than trusting Him. It is easy to picture Miriam coming along side of the women in the congregation showing by her example how to trust God to take care of them.
The Bible tells us that Miriam was a prophetess. Her brother Moses was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. How amazing that God raised up two great prophets in the same family. Their brother Aaron would be the first high priest in the newly formed congregation of Israel. This family had tremendous responsibility in leading the people to the Promised Land. Aaron failed in his task when he let the people talk him into making a golden calf for them to worship while Moses was on the Mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The Bible doesn’t say what part if any Miriam played in this. I believe that as God’s prophetess she would have stayed away. Maybe she even tried to talk Aaron out of it. We don’t know.
Miriam seemed to be a model leader but one day she and her brother Aaron fell to the temptation of pride to criticize their brother Moses. Miriam and Aaron went to Moses to chastise him for marrying a Cushite woman. We do not know who this woman was. Perhaps Zipporah had died by this time. In any event Miriam did not think that it was right for Moses to marry this Cushite woman.
A careful reading shows that Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman may have been only a pretext for Miriam’s complaint. Perhaps there was really more going on in her heart. She had fallen to the temptation to desire the honor or glory of leadership that her brother Moses had. She asked, “Has He (God) not spoken through us as well?” In other words, Miriam as a prophetess was a respected leader of the people, but she wanted to share in the primary position of authority with Moses.
But the Lord heard what Miriam and Aaron said and called the two of them together with Moses for a talk in the tent of meeting. God came down in a cloud at the door of the tent and addressed them. He made it very plain that Moses was His chosen leader. How dare Miriam and Aaron speak against God’s servant? When the cloud lifted and God departed, Miriam was white as snow with leprosy.
Moses cried out to God to heal Miriam. She would be healed but she had to spend seven days outside of the Israelite camp. Yet, such was the honor and esteem that the people had for Miriam that they waited to travel on until she could be received into the congregation again.
Some wonder why Aaron seemed to get off without punishment. They have tried to say that Miriam got an especially harsh punishment because she was a woman and should not have been such a bad example to the other women by not submitting to male authority. But what actually happened in the story goes completely against that. God honored Miriam by including her in the group that met with Him at the tent of meeting. She was asked to meet with God as one of the leaders of the Israelites. The purpose of the meeting was to make sure she understood her place beneath Moses. It was not because she was a woman, but because she tried to give herself equal authority with Moses. God had already chosen Miriam, a woman, to be His prophetess. Miriam was punished to show the people that they should not rebel against God’s chosen leader.
After Miriam returned to camp, the Israelites traveled to the wilderness of Paran. They were close to the Promised Land at last. The story of the sending of the twelve spies into the land is well known. The people as usual were fearful and did not trust God to take care of them. They had to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Sometime during this wandering Miriam died. (Numbers 20:1) Neither Aaron nor Moses would enter the Promised Land either.
Miriam was gifted, though she had human faults. It is a temptation to compare our lives with the lives of others as Miriam did. We need to be content with the place that God has given us. We must also remember that leaders have a greater responsibility to honor God and others in authority as an example to those who are following them. When Miriam challenged Moses, it was not good. But God was gracious and forgave her. The people showed that they also forgave her and continued to love her by waiting for her when she had to go outside the camp. When Miriam repented trust was restored to her. We should imitate her example of humility and faithfulness.
Miriam played a significant role in the Exodus. She was the first of many women prophets in both the Old and New Testaments. Miriam is a godly example for women today. She answered her call from God as a prophetess and worship leader. Those who think that women should not help in the worship services need only look at Miriam’s life to see that God calls women to help with men in the community of faith.