Scripture References—Exodus 15:20, 21; Numbers 12:1-15; 20:1; 26:59; Deuteronomy 24:9; Micah 6:4
Name Meaning—As a name Miriam belongs to a family of words having different root-form, all of which suggest “bitterness,” Mary, Maria, Mariamne. (See under Name Meaning, Mary.) Miriam, then, the same as Mary, meaning “bitterness,” “rebellion” was apropos, for because of her jealousy, Miriam’s fate was one of extreme bitterness
Family Connections—Miriam was the eldest child of Amram and Jochebed, and the sister of Aaron and Moses. Says Bulwer, “I honour birth and ancestry when they are regarded as incentives to exertion, not title deeds to sloth.” Miriam owed much to her ancestry. She was the daughter of godly parents and the sister of two of Israel’s greatest figures. Josephus in his Antiquities informs us that Miriam became the wife of another well-known leader in Israel namely, Hur, one of the judges of the people when Moses was on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:14). This would make Miriam to be the grandmother of Bezaleel, the famous artist in the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:2). The Biblical narrative, however, suggests that Miriam remained in single blessedness all her days. “Miriam stands before us in an absolutely unsexual relation,” says George Matheson: “there is neither marriage nor courtship. Her interests are not matrimonial! they are national. Her mission is not domestic, it is patriotic.... Miriam the unmarried is a heroine in an age when female celibacy was not a consecrated thing, in a Book where the nuptial tie is counted the glory of womanhood.”
Some of the grandest women to benefit mankind were content to remain unmarried. Was there ever such a ministering angel in human form as Florence Nightingale, “The Lady of the Lamp,” whose sacrificial work among the suffering soldiers during the Crimean War laid the foundation for the great reformation that took place in the hospitals of the world? Many noble women do not marry from sheer choice, as the biographies of some female missionaries and nurses testify. We see Miriam—
In dealing with Miriam’s mother, Jochebed (which see), we saw how Pharaoh had commanded all the male babies of the Israelites to be drowned in the Nile and how Jochebed took every possible precaution for her beautiful baby’s safety. Out of the common reeds grown along the banks of the river she fashioned a small basket-boat, and making it watertight by an inside covering of clay and an outside protection of bitumen, laid the baby in its boat by the edge of the stream which she knew was frequented by the princess and her female court.
The anxious mother took the wise precaution of leaving the baby’s sister, Miriam, nearby to mount guard over his safety (Exodus 2:4). Whether Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the stream or wash her clothes in it, we are not told. Among the reeds the little boat with its precious cargo was spotted and brought to the princess who, seeing the child, loved him. As he was lifted up, he cried. He wanted feeding. But who was to nurse the mite? Then came young Miriam’s opportunity. Out of the shadows she stepped forth so innocently, and appearing to be curious at the screaming baby and puzzled princess, ask if she would like her to try and find a Hebrew nurse. Miriam kept her silence and did not reveal her relation to the baby and the nurse she secured. Thus the ready wit of Miriam, a girl of ten to twelve years old, saved her brother whom the Princess called Moses. When he became the great hero, how Miriam must have been grateful for her share in preserving her baby brother from the cruel fate of other Hebrew infants.
Miriam appears for the first time by name when she is called a “prophetess,” and is identified as the sister of Aaron. Both her words and work were full of the inspiration of God and she is brought as a leader and pattern to the women of Israel. Prophets and prophetesses are those raised up by God and inspired by His Spirit to proclaim the will and purpose of God. It is at the Red Sea that we see Miriam standing out so prominently, proclaiming and singing the power and faithfulness of God. She, it was, who led the Israelite women in dancing and instrumental accompaniment as she sang the ode of praise and victory (Exodus 15:20, 21). By this time Miriam was well past middle life. If she was about 12 years of age when Moses was born, and he spent 40 years in Egypt, then another 40 in the land of Midian before the dramatic episode of the Red Sea, then Miriam was an aging woman in that time when longevity was normal.
After the plague that fell upon Egypt, Pharaoh let God’s people go. Moses, leader of the almost two million people, with his brother Aaron as high priest, and his sister Miriam as his chief singer, set out for the land of promise. God caused the waters to roll back and the Israelites passed through on dry ground, but as soon as they were through the waters rushed back and drowned the pursuing Egyptians. Miriam, the first poetess in the Bible, led the joyous acclamations of the multitude, and using her timbrel, sang, “Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The Song of Moses and Miriam has been referred to as one of the oldest and most splendid natural anthems in the world. Whether Miriam composed the poem or not, we cannot tell. What we do know is that she wove the matchless, mighty ode of victory into the conscious life of the people.
Henry Van Dyke reminds us that, “The spirit and movement of the song are well expressed in the English verse of Thomas Moore’s paraphrase:”
Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt’s dark sea!
Jehovah has triumphed,—His people are free!
Sing—for the pride of the tyrant is broken;
His chariots, his horsemen, all splendid and brave,—
How vain was their boasting! the Lord hath but spoken,
And chariots and horsemen are sunk in the wave.
Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt’s dark sea!
Jehovah has triumphed,—His people are free!
Praise to the Conqueror, praise to the Lord!
His word was our arrow, His breath was our sword.
Who shall return to tell Egypt the story
Of those she sent forth in the shew of her pride?
For the Lord hath looked out from His pillar of glory,
And all her brave thousands are dashed in the tide.
Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt’s dark sea!
Jehovah has triumphed—His people are free!
This is a powerful verse. But there is even greater majesty and force in the form of the ode as it stands in the Book of Exodus. How grandly the antiphonal ascriptions of praise to Jehovah come into the description of the overthrow of Egypt’s pride and power!
Jehovah is a man of war:
Jehovah is his name!
Thou didst blow with thy wind:
The sea covered them:
They sank as lead in the mighty waters.
Who is like unto thee among the gods, Jehovah?
Who is like unto thee?
Glorious in holiness!
Fearful in praises!
As the first of the sweet singers of Israel, Miriam sang for God, using her gift for the elevation of human souls into a higher life. A dreary wilderness faced the children of Israel, and Miriam knew that they would march better if they sang. So her song was one of cheer and full of the memory of all God had accomplished for His people. “The greatest stimulus for the crossing of Jordan is the fact that we have already crossed the Red Sea,” wrote George Matheson. “It was wise in Miriam to begin with that Sea and over its prostrate waves to sound her first timbrel.”
What a faithful mirror the Bible is of the characters it portrays! Blemishes, as well as beauties, are revealed. It tells the naked truth of those it describes. There is a blot upon almost all its portraits, and “its blots are as much a bit of the art as its beauties.” A double feature of the failure of the Bible’s heroes and heroines is that they are usually associated with middle life after the morning inspired with hope and courage unbounded is past, as in the case of Miriam. Further, such failures come where we should not expect them to overtake the otherwise true and noble. Miriam, for instance, rebelled against the mission of her life, namely, to protect and labor in partnership with Moses whom she had been the means of saving for his country. Miriam was, above all things, a faithful patriot, with a love for her country greater than the love for her renowned brother. It was because he was the chosen emissary of God to lead Israel out of bondage into freedom that she rebelled against him in a twofold way. Jealousy led Miriam to reject both the position of Moses as the leader of the host, and his partner in the wife he took unto himself. She found the management and marriage of Moses most irksome.
In the first place, Miriam rebelled against the bride of Moses whose first wife, Zipporah, was a Midianite or Gentile (Exodus 2:21). The second wife was an Ethiopian, a Cushite, a dark-skinned beauty from the African country south of the Nile cataracts. By this time Miriam was an old woman and possibly resented the presence of a younger and more attractive woman so close to her brother. Miriam despised the bride of Moses not because of her color, but because she was a foreigner. Racepride made the Ethiopian woman objectionable. It was not so much feminine jealousy on Miriam’s part as patriotic jealousy. She was a confirmed member of the Hebrew race, and dead set against any foreign alliance. Because the blood of a mean ancestry was in the veins of the Ethiopian whose people hated the worship of the true God, Miriam feared the influence of the new wife upon Moses.
But Miriam’s greatest offense was her sarcastic rejection of the leadership of Moses. Hitherto, she had been a symbol of unity as she shared in the triumphs and hopes of Israel. Now, unfortunately, she is prominent as a leader of discord, division and discontent. It will be noted that Aaron is paired with his sister in the outburst against the acquisition and the authority of Moses. But by the order of the names it is evident that Miriam was the instigator and the spokeswoman in the revolt. “Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses” (Numbers 12:1). This is understandable because of the close bond of friendship between two who had never been parted. After Miriam as a young girl saved Moses' life, she scarcely saw him for almost 80 years, but with Aaron she had lived quietly at home. Now she takes the initiative in opposition against the younger brother, and uses his Ethiopian wife as a pretext to rebel against the superior authority of Moses. Her jealous heart led her to reject God’s discrimination in favor of Moses against her and Aaron.
Thus personal jealousy and fear of their own respective leadership are mingled in their question, “Hath God indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us?” Miriam and Aaron aspired to a joint partnership in state power and in the government of Israel, and they failed. If Moses had erred in marrying his dark bride, it was a personal mistake and not a public crime. Miriam’s chief error consisted in her effort to break down the God-given authority of Moses, and thereby imperil the unity and hope of the nation. Her fault then was greater than that of Moses, because it was an offense against the commonwealth.
It is true that Miriam had functioned as a prophetess and used Aaron as a prophet, but God had distinctly said, “My servant Moses is not so. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently and not in dark speeches.” Such was God’s elective sovereignty, and Miriam’s sin was grievous in that she rebelled against what God had spoken. That such a sister should be jealous of her brother is beyond conception, but human nature even at it best is very frail. How true it is that “jealousy is the apprehension of superiority and the towering character of Moses doubtless disturbed the peace of Miriam.” George Eliot has the phrase, “One of the torments of jealousy is that it can never turn away its eyes from the thing that pains it.” Paul places “evil speaking” among the cardinal sins.
Moses, meekest of all men, acted as a deaf man who heard not, and as a dumb man who opened not his mouth. God had heard the complaints Miriam had voiced and He called the trio of leaders to meet Him at the tabernacle of the congregation. Taking up the defense of Moses, God spoke directly to Miriam and Aaron in no uncertain terms that they had not only hurt Moses but that they had failed in their duty toward Him. Moses received divine vindication as God’s servant who had been faithful, and as the one whom He had chosen as the medium of a divine revelation. Then the rebellious sister and brother were reprimanded by God for speaking against His honored servant. How silenced the three must have been when, standing at the door of the tabernacle, they were silenced by the austerity and authority of the divine voice! In righteous wrath God withdrew from the holy place.
As the divine cloud left the tabernacle, the eyes of Aaron sought his beloved and forceful sister, and to his horror she had been smitten with leprosy—the foul disease that made the victim look like death, white as snow, a living corpse (Numbers 12:12). The proud, jealous prophetess was condemned to endure the most humiliating of diseases. While Aaron was united with Miriam in rebellion against Moses, judgment only fell upon Miriam which indicated that she had been the instigator, and had influenced her pliable brother. “Look at her in her rapture, like one out of the body with the joy of the Lord, at the Red Sea,” says Alexander Whyte, “and now see to what her wicked heart and her wicked tongue have brought her. Look at her with her hand upon her throat, and with a linen cloth upon her lip, and with her hoarse, sepulchral noisome voice wandering far from the camp, and compelled to cry Unclean! Unclean! when any one came in sight.”
How humiliating it must have been for Miriam to see people fleeing from her—the one who had before led them so triumphantly. Her judgment was swift and signal, even though hers was a temporary disgrace. Aaron and Moses, overcome with pity for their condemned sister and filled with brotherly love, prayed for Miriam that the punishment might pass from her. Prayer was heard on her behalf, and after her separation from the camp for seven days, she was healed of her leprosy. Evidently Miriam had the sympathy of the whole nation during her week of purification. Although she held up the progress of the host for those seven days, such was her popularity that “the people journeyed not [from Hazeroth] till Miriam was brought in again.” When Moses came to write out the law in respect to leprosy, he mentioned his sister Miriam as an example (Deuteronomy 24:9). Thus her presumptuous effort to change the leadership of Israel ended in her humiliation and in the divine vindication of Moses as the undisputed leader of the people.
What happened to Miriam during her seven days without the camp as she bore the sorrow of seeing Israel’s march to the Promised Land arrested because of her jealousy we are not told. Doubtless she was repentant, but her strength was broken and the gift of prophecy had left her. One also wonders what the thoughts of Moses' wife were during that lonely week as she thought of her sister-in-law punished and excluded because she condemned Moses for making her his wife. Further, had the confidence of Moses in Aaron and Miriam been so shaken as to make him walk alone? Restored to divine favor we would fain believe Miriam was noble and submissive through the rest of her days, even though we do not hear again of her until her death.
Alexander Whyte reckons that Miriam did not live long after that dread week, that she died not because of her old age, or the dregs of the leprosy, but of a broken heart. The Bible is silent as to any further service she rendered once the camp moved on. Had her sorrow crushed her song, and her presumption silenced her prophetic voice? This we do know, that as Moses was not permitted to enter the Land of Promise because “he spoke unadvisedly with his lips” at the rock, so Miriam because of her sin died before the entrance to Canaan, and was buried at Kadesh-barnea, where Israel mourned for her. She passed away at the eleventh hour of the completion of Israel’s journey of forty years (Numbers 20:1). Tradition has it that she was given a costly funeral and buried on the mountain of Zin, and mourned for some 30 days. But her last resting place, like that of her great brother, Moses, is one of the secrets of God. As an epitaph for her grave, wherever she sleeps, we can inscribe “She sang the song of Moses: but it was also the song of the Lamb.”
What are some of the lessons to be learned from the feminine jealousy and ambition which were the drawbacks in Miriam’s otherwise commanding character? First of all, we should learn to avoid the temptation to wield power at the expense of losing influence. Miriam had great influence in her sphere as prophetess and leader of the praises of Israel, but she was not content. She coveted equal power with Moses. Then is it not folly in trying to add to our prestige and dictating to others, as Miriam and Aaron when they gave vent to their feelings against Moses? The most impressive lesson to learn from Miriam is that it is injurious to our character to be discontented with our own distinction, and to jealously desire the higher place of honor which another holds. My soul, never forget that it was envy that crucified the Lord who personified humility!