‘And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam’ (Micah 6:4) 1
The biblical figure of Miriam is the only woman
named as a prophetess in the Torah. However in
the text she is an enigma, appearing in only six
short references. These references, Ex. 2:4,7-9
(she is the unnamed sister of the as yet unnamed
Moses), 15:20-21; Num 12:1-16; Num 20:1; Num
26:59; and Deut 24:8-9, identify Miriam as a
sister, a prophet, a musician, a leader (specifically of women) and
a leper. Later in the Bible Miriam is named twice more in
1 Chron. 6:3 and Micah 6:4. These two passages
acknowledge her role as daughter/sister and her
position as leader of the Israelites in the wilderness. In all eight of these passages, Miriam is mentioned in a cursory manner thus requiring commentary.
Miriam is seen as a rebel, against the Pharaoh,
her father and her brother Moses
Perhaps the Bible is thereby alluding to various
types of leadership: that of Moses, who devoted a
large part of his life in isolated communion with
God, and that of Miriam, who was with the women
on their behalf. Miriam is the first feminine
figure who is active in public life and of whose own
family life the Bible is silent. In this
respect Miriam undoubtedly resembled her brother
Aaron, who due to his role as priest and by
virtue of his special character is perceived in
Jewish tradition as a person deeply involved with
others, caring for their peace and well-being.
Perhaps Miriam when she is called a prophet is noted as Aaron's sister precisely
in order to emphasize that she followed the example of her brother Aaron in his mode of
Amongst modern Jewish women Miriam is a heroine; she is
celebrated in Women Rosh Chodesh rituals, has
been invented for a role in Passover Seder in the cup of
Miriam setting off the cup of Elijah and some pious women fasting on the day of her death (10th day of Nissan). 2
Moses was the leader of Prophecy, Aaron of
priesthood and Miriam, as an ancestor of David,
the matriarch of kingship (BT Sotah 11b).
The Prophet Micah’s statement noted above and the Talmud may be alluding to various types of leadership: that of Moses, who devoted a
large part of his life to isolated communion with God, and that of Miriam, who was with the women and Aaron who represented leadership of the men. Miriam is the first feminine figure who is active in public life despite the Bible saying nothing about her own family life. Perhaps Miriam is called Aaron's sister precisely in order to emphasize that she followed the
example of her brother Aaron in his mode of involved leadership.
AS A CHILD:
In the order of the text, the first mention of
Moses’ family is when a man and a woman of the tribe of
Levi are married and he is born to them (Ex.
2:1-2). Only in a later passage does it appear
that he had an older brother and sister (2:4;
4:14). It is as though he were both a firstborn
despite being a youngest child. A Midrash explains it this
way: Balaam, the pagan prophet in the Book of
Numbers (chapter 22-24) predicted to the Pharaoh
that a Hebrew boy would be born in Egypt who
would overthrow the kingdom. Therefore, the
Pharaoh ordered that all the male children of the
Hebrew be drowned at birth; a rather irrational
edict, since the Hebrew males supplied his slave
labor. Amram, a leader of the Hebrews, declared
that all the men should divorce their wives and
cease begetting children. His daughter Miriam
argued that her father's decree was worse than
Pharaoh’s, since Pharaoh wanted to kill the boys
while Amram would eliminate both boys and girls
(Sotah 12b). Persuaded by this reasoning, Amram
remarried his wife Jochebed and Moses was the
first child of the remarriage. 3
In the midrash Miriam says to her parents ‘My mother
is destined to bear a son who will redeem Israel’
(Megillah 14a). Thus prophecy connects to Miriam’s first act of rebellion.
After his birth his mother Jochebed hid him for three months and then
placed him in an ark and set it upon the waters
of the River Nile. There the child was found by
an Egyptian Princess, whom the midrash identifies
with the name Batya meaning Daughter of God. She realized that this was one of the Hebrew babies condemned by her father, but chose
to save him. (The Hebrews were racially different
than Egyptians.) Miriam, in her first unnamed
appearance in the text, who had been keeping
secret watch on her brother, came forth and
offered to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the
foundling. Just as Miriam had argued with her
father she aggressively foresaw that the princess
would need a Hebrew wet nurse for the
infant. The princess agreed, perhaps not trusting
an Egyptian nurse who might betray her adopted charge.
The Princess used one word `go' to Miriam and
overthrows her father's six verse complaint
against the Hebrews (Ex. 1:8-14). And thus Jochebed was engaged and paid to nurse her own child. Moses spent his first years in his mother's house. This is the first stage of Miriam’s being considered an advocate for life; first my convincing her father and then by bringing in her mother to nurse him.
At that time, two midwives named in the text as Shiprah and Puah (Ex. 1:15) who helped the Jewish male infants survive are called in the midrash called them Yocheved and her young daughter Miriam (Sotah 11b, 12a-b).
AT THE SEA OF REDS:
Exodus 15:20 is the first place Miriam is named
and she is called a prophetess, the first person
(not just women) to be given that title in the
Bible and noted as the sister of Aaron but not of Moses. The
reason Miriam is mentioned as the sister of Aaron
is that she played the same role for women that
Aaron played for the men, the prophet of her
god-like brother. This is perhaps because Miriam
was, as noted earlier, was prophesying before Moses was born (Sotah 12b-13a). Miriam was Aaron’s older sibling.
Chapter 15 ends the Hebrew’s slavery in
Egypt and begins their travel to Mt. Sinai and
the land promised to Abraham. ‘Then did Moses sing
and all the Israelites with him, this song to the
LORD’ (15:1), and then an eighteen verse poem of victory.
Verse 20 then states that Aaron’s sister took the
timbrels and danced. And Miriam sung out to them.
’Then was Miriam also inspired with the spirit of
God, and she took a timbrel in her hand, and led
the women dancing with timbrels. And Miriam
repeated for them the refrain, Sing unto God,
for He has triumphed greatly, horse and rider He
cast into the Sea’ (Exod. 15: 20-21).
We have one verse of her song. Whether there was
ever a longer poem we do not know. Rashi (the medieval commentator (1040-1105) suggests both Moses and Miriam sang the same poem, the men answered Moses and after the women repeated the process.
Miriam’s victory dance of the Israelite women to
celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea begins with
‘shira l’Adonai’ ‘a song to the Lord’ (Exodus
15:21) is reminiscent of Isaiah’s ‘shira l’Adonai, shira hadash’ with God as a warrior and a man of war (Is. 40:10,12) in its messianic tones. Moses led the men and Miriam led the women in a victory poem
Prof. Toveh Cohen suggests the difference between
Moses song and Miriam’s represents a difference
in prophetic leadership which we shall discuss again later.
“This contrast between the two songs is also
embodied in the words of the songs themselves . . It is
difficult to imagine that the slaves just
released from the yoke of bondage to Egypt would
have been capable of understanding its elevated
poetic language. Miriam's song, in contrast,
describes an event that just took place in
simple, non-metaphoric language that could be
easily understood by everyone. Moreover, if
Miriam and the women broke out in song and dance
in response to Miriam's chant, one can well
imagine that they repeated its single verse time
and again, so that in the end even those who had
not understood it would surely be able to repeat
it. Thus Miriam's song had the character of a
popular religious observance in which all could
participate; they could share the experience of
rejoicing in the miracle and proclaiming their
faith in their Lord who had delivered
Comparison of the two songs shows that
Miriam set a different pattern of leadership from
Moses. Moses was an elitist leader, perhaps
closer to God Himself than . . . to the people. This might be one explanation for his repeated conflicts with the people. Moses did
not perceive his role as based on dialogue and
close connection with the people. . . . Miriam, in contrast, is
extremely close to the people, as is evident from
the character of the Song of Miriam, . . Miriam chose
to lead by the people by addressing them in a
language they could understand - through a
non-elitist religious rite, somewhat resembling
the religious rites of surrounding peoples - and
by transforming the magnificent but
incomprehensible prophetic song into a chant
easily learned by those who heard it.’ 4
This passage also attests to Miriam's
personal initiative: "Then Miriam... took a
timbrel in her hand." This itself occasions
comment in the midrash. Miriam sparks the
women's enthusiasm, and they stream after her,
following her lead: "and all the women went out
after her in dance with timbrels." Scriptures
underscores Miriam's great influence by saying
that "all" the women followed her lead. Furthermore, thanksgiving to the
Lord through song attains an additional creative
artistic dimension, thanks to Miriam and the
other women: musical instruments and dance. Thus
the women's camp had a deep and multi-faceted spiritual experience.
Miriam may have begun the Israelite tradition of
celebrating God’s victories through dance.
The text of the song was also
Miriam's choice: "And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed
gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into
the sea." It might seem that Miriam was merely
repeating the words of her brother, Moses, but
this is not the case. There is a significant
difference between her words and his. Moses began
his song in the singular, "I will sing to the
Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously," whereas
Miriam addressed all the women around her and
included them in the religious experience by
saying, "Sing [all of you, in the plural] to the
Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously."
Miriam leads the song and the dance, and she
leads the Israelites is their first service of worship as free people.
THE CUSHITE INCIDENT:
The primary incident in which Miriam is noted in
the Bible regards the Cushite woman where the
role of Aaron and Miriam are connected and compared to Moses.
‘VaTidaber Miriam veAaron beMoshe’. ‘And Miriam
and Aaron with her, spoke against (or about, see
Rashi) Moses concerning the Cushite wife he had
taken, for he had taken a Cushite wife’ (Num. 12:1).
The "VaTidaber" means that she spoke (first person feminine singular). Presumably, this "she" is Miriam. However, Aaron is listed as well! It appears that Miriam is the main spokesperson with Aaron agreeing. But we do not know who she spoke to; but apparently not her brother.
Most Commentators take the ‘Cushite’ as meaning
Zipporah and not a second wife. Some (Rashi and
Ibn Ezra) say the meaning of Cushite is
beautiful, others that it refers to her dark
skin. Some commentators point out that Habakkuk says there was a neighborhood of Cushites in Midian (Hab. 3:7). Few Jewish commentators consider Miriam having any hostility to either foreign women or the color of
her skin. Marrying foreign wives was quite
common, Joseph and Asenath, Judah and Tamar and
Boaz and Ruth; two of these being the ancestors
of King Davd. Zipporah had circumcised their son
when Moses failed to accomplish that task.
In the second verse ‘And they said, is it but
through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has
He not spoken to us as well?’ Now Aaron seems a
more complete party to the discussion. Again we
do not know you they spoke to; but apparently again not their brother.
Verse 1 states that Moses’ Cushite wife is the
focus of the disagreement between Moses and his
siblings. However, Moses’ Cushite wife is
unidentified in the text and her connection to
Miriam and Aaron’s prophetic authority remains unclear.
The conflict seems a non sequitur. What does
Moshe marrying a Cushite have to do with God
speaking to Moshe? Has sibling rivalry, a major
theme in Genesis come back to life? Some
commentators believe two separate stories have
been conflated into one (see footnote 10). The Rabbis connect the
two seeming different strains of the story.
In the previous chapter God gave the spirit to
seventy elders and then to Eldad and
Medad (11:24-29). God is sharing the
responsibility of leadership spreading it our
from Moses, Aaron and Miriam. This was of course
originally suggested by Yitro, Zipporah’s father (Ex. 18.14-26).
According to midrashim Miriam commented to
Zipporah how happy these men and their wives
should be. Zipporah then told her that she and
Moses had not had intimate relations since God spoke to
Moses. 5 Both Miriam and Aaron note that when
they had the spirit of God upon them they did not
keep away from their spouses. That is the
connection between the two seemingly unrelated
incidents. Miriam is advocating for Zipporah’s
conjugal rights. And furthermore it relates
Miriam to when she convinced her father to
remarry her mother and thus Moses was born. Had
Amram remained celibate Moses would never have
been born. In both cases Miriam criticizes men
for forsaking their wifely and parental responsibilities.
Thus Miriam was criticizing Moses for separating
from his wife Zipporah during the forty years of wandering in the desert.
God ‘suddenly’ (12:4) then speaks and punishes
Miriam by making her leprous, `white as snow'
(Num.12:10). The ‘suddenly’ is God recognized
that Moses after his feelings of despair over the
people complaints can little tolerate another
intrapsychic conflict with his sister and brother
rejecting him. Her punishment for criticizing
Moses' black wife is to suffer with whiteness, an
interesting irony by God. White may not be better than black.
Then God spoke sternly to Aaron and Miriam,
telling them that "My servant Moshe" was
different from any other prophet, and that there
was not the slightest conceit in him, being humbler than any man on earth.
The ancient Hebrew text regarding God’s response
is cryptic 6 but clearly states that Moses is
God’s favorite to whom ‘all my house is . . .
trusted. With him I speak mouth to mouth clearly,
not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the
LORD’ (12:7-8). To others God speaks in visions and dreams.
(The difference from ‘mouth to mouth’ in this verse versus ‘face to face’ in Ex. 33:11 and Deut. 34:10 is difficult to explain.)
God accepts that the issue is one of prophetic
leadership. When the seventy are given the spirit
of God, Joshua, himself Moses’ successor says
‘’restrain them’. He is concerned about prophetic
leadership. But Moses is not concerned, he
responds ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were
prophets.’ (Num. 11:28-29). What God tells Miriam
is that Moses is indeed unique. God created a
hierarchy of authority within the triad.
Moshe in his sense of holiness and sacredness,
did not sleep with his wife after the Sinai
theophany. He, in this version of the event, felt
a need to be holy to speak to God at any moment.
At beginning of the theophany on Mt. Sinai God
said to Moses to tell the Jewish people to be
holy. Moses himself adds to God's message about
holiness 'do not touch a woman' (Ex. 19:10-15).
Thus apparently Moses believed that women dissuade men from a holy endeavor.
God's displeasure with Miriam brought her swift
punishment. She was stricken with leprosy. Moshe
prayed to God for her that she be cured, but God
ordered that she be placed outside the camp for
seven days, then she would be cured.
Jewish commentators have Miriam punished for
slanderous remarks with leprosy if she was
defending Zipporah. Perhaps her comment about
Moses might be so considered, but clearly Aaron
is equally involved and should have been equally
punished. Similarly, both Aaron and Miriam
confront Moses in verses 1 and 2 (‘our sin’ 12:11), but Miriam
alone is struck with leprosy. Many commentators mention that giving Aaron leprosy would have disqualified him for the High priesthood,
While Miriam is punished for ‘slandering’ her
brother (Deut. 24:9), perhaps by not speaking directly to him,
with seven days of isolation she is favored by
the people who wait for before proceeding.
‘The people did not journey onward until Miriam was gathered
back’ (Num. 12:15). Note the people would not journey
without Miriam. The Midrash says God did not to
have the people leave until Miriam returned (Deut. Rabbah 6:9).
The people did not lose their respect and
love for Miriam. All the people waited patiently
until Miriam was cured, and then they continued their journey.
The midrash says God approved the waiting. 7 And
then God cleansed her (Deut. Rabbah 6:9).
The fact that the people did not move on until
Miriam could come back into the camp signifies
her importance within the community (Num 12:15).
These are Miriam’s last words in the Torah; shortly she will die. Perhaps as some commentators Miriam was punished for being a rebel woman. 8
If Miriam was challenging Moses as the equal of
Aaron, the High Priest, can one construe that
women’s religious rights are involved. In the
text of the Torah no mention is made of Miriam
having a husband; despite the midrash which have
her married to Caleb. Could the writers of the
text be concerned about a celibate or woman priestess?
Could Zipporah have been considered a priestess as the
daughter of a Priest of Midian (Ex. 3:1)?
If this text was written later it is possible that these verses are a polemic
against the worship of female deities. Within the
prophetic tradition the worship of the goddesses
Astarte, Tammuz, and the Queen of Heaven were
denounced as idolatry and the people were called
to repent of worshiping deities other than
Yahweh. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel called women
who worshiped these deities to repent of their
idolatry, and both of them blamed the exile on
idolatry and the forsaking of Yahweh for other
gods (Jud. 2:13, Jer. 7:18; Ezek. 8:14).
As noted above the prophetic tradition remembers
Miriam as being an equal with Moses and Aaron in
leadership (Micah 6:4). She was connected closely
to the liturgical and worship traditions of
Israel. She was also the sister of the greatest
prophet and the first high priest in Israel. In
the period following the exile, any female leader
would be susceptible to the diminishment of her
role for fear of reviving the earlier problems
associated with worshipping female goddesses. Perhaps the
postexilic redactor of Numbers has done precisely that.
Irmtraud Fischer unifies the text by linking
Moses’ Cushite wife with the larger issue of
prophetic authority. She notes that the word “to
speak” is the same word used for “prophetic
speech.” In her view, the problem with Moses’
Cushite wife concerns greater prophetic issues
needing attention in the community. Specifically, she argues with Ex.
18:2 as her guide that what is at issue is Moses’
separation from Zipporah motivated by his need to
maintain a constant state of ritual cleanliness, which consequently reflects the communal issue of mixed marriage. According to
this reconstruction, Fischer sees that Miriam and
Aaron are advocating on behalf of Zipporah
against Moses’ decision to separate from her. 9
Rita Burns, argues that verses 2-9 are a distinct
narrative from verses 1 and 10ff. The theme
of verses 2-9 is Moses’ singular oracular
authority, and Burns believes the main objective
of these verses is to make a statement about his
authority, not about Miriam or Aaron. She
notes that within these verses is evidence of a
brief drama: “The conflict is abruptly initiated
(v. 2); the transition to the Tent (vv. 4-5); the
defense states its case (vv. 6-8); and the conflict is abruptly resolved (v. 9) 10
Miriam is associated with water several times;
watching and protecting her infant brother in the
Nile, at the Sea of Reds where she led the women singing and as the well which provides water to the Israelites in the desert.
Her name itself means ‘mar’ bitter and ‘yam’
water; referring to her rebellious nature. She
challenges her father and her illustrious brother
and as Puah challenges the Pharaoh. A Midrash
compares her to Batya, the Princess who
challenged her father the Pharaoh, by suggesting
that Caleb married both women (BT Megillah 13a,
Sanhedrin 19b and Lev. Rabbah 1:3).
She represents a rolling well/rock that accompanied the Jewish people
on their wanderings - provided fresh water in the
desert, not only for the people, but also for
their cattle and sheep. It also made the desert
bloom with green pastures and beautifully scented
flowers. Small wonder the people loved and
respected her. Moses provided Manna and Miriam provided water, both required for survival.
The Talmud teaches: "Water is likened to Torah"
(Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:19) The impact of
Miriam's death was the drying of Miriam's Well --
a Well of Torah that had drenched the community
with what Proverbs calls "Torat Imekha -- "The Torah of your Mother”.
At the beginning of the fortieth year Miriam dies
in Kadesh, and she was buried there. No mourning period is mentioned for Miriam. Moses was mourned by the people for thirty days (Deut. 34:8), a tradition begun when Aaron died (Num. 20:29).
When she died a strange thing happened. The well suddenly
dried up, and the rock from which the water used
to flow disappeared among the other rocks in the
desert ‘and the people gathered against Moses and
Aaron’ (Num. 20:1-2). Now the people knew for
sure that it was in Miriam's merit that they had
enjoyed fresh water all those years in the
wilderness. They became fearful that they would
now be left without water, and, as they had done
so often before, they raised a hue and cry
against Moshe and Aaron.
God told Moshe to gather the people and, in their
presence, to speak to the rock to give water. The
rock began to drip water, and Moshe, angered by
the rebelliousness of the people, hit the rock
twice with his staff, and the water began to gush
and Aaron missed an opportunity to sanctify God's
name in public, hitting the rock instead of
speaking to it. It would have been a great lesson
to the people to see how even a rock is obedient
to God's word. In consequence, God told Moshe and
Aaron that they would not enter the Promised
Land, and would die in the desert along with all
the generation whom they had led out of Egypt.
Is there a connection between Moses and Aaron
striking the rock – instead of speaking - and their consequent punishment never getting to the promised land and Miriam’s death?
With the death of Miriam another rebellion
occurs. ‘Why did you take us out of Egypt’ (Num.
20:5). The complainers are called in Hebrew
‘Ha’morim’ (Rebels), not unrelated to Miriam’s
name and her personality. Was this rebellion an
act of grieving by the people over Miriam’s death?
And then immediately Moses and Aaron rebel against God’s instruction.
Was Moses so upset with his sister’s death that he forgot God’s instructions? Did he rage over her death and violently hit the rock? Was it his reaction to his sister’s death? Did he suddenly realize the importance to Miriam to the people’s health and himself?
Toveh Cohen seemed to suggest that Miriam’s role as a prophetess was her creation as a ‘religious rite’ at the Sea of Red, perhaps comparing her to the ecstatic prophets noted in 1 Sam. 10:5ff and 1 Kgs. 18:26ff. As we know both Aaron and Miriam claim in Num. 12:2 to have spoken to God. Neither have in the text of the Torah itself. Were both considered prophets due to their leadership qualities, one for the men and one for the women, whereas Moses was too close to God to be seen as a people’s leader?
Joshua will succeed Moses and Eleazer will succeed Aaron; who will succeed Miriam? The midrash but not the Torah says she had children with her husband Caleb who become the ancestors of David and the kingship. Again in the Midrash it is Hur (with Aaron) who helped Moses hold up his hands and the army defeated the Amalekites. Together with Aaron, Hur was appointed to the leadership of the people, while Moshe went up Mount Sinai for forty days to receive the Torah and bring down God’s Tablets. Hur was murdered by the worshippers of the Golden Calf when he opposed them and tried to prevent them from committing that grievous sin. 11 Hur’s son (or grandson) was Bezalel, the artist who built the mishkan in the desert.
Moses instead of speaking acted with violence against the rock. In addition to Moses’ loss of his oldest sibling Miriam’s non-elitist leadership been lost in her death and Moses’ was in mourning. Aaron is buried by Moses and his successor Eleazar and Moses by God’s hand. Who buried
Miriam? The Midrash tells us her brothers with Moses carried her head and Aaron her feet. 12
Moses, Aaron and Miriam all get the kiss of God (BT Megillat 28a), for the angel of death could not take her. There were six over whom the angel of death had no dominion; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Aaron and Miriam’ (BT Bava Batra 17a).
1 This is confirmed in the Talmud, (BT Hul. 92a and Ta’anit 9a) and midrashim (Gen. Rabbah 88.5, Lev. Rabbah 27:6); numerous medieval Jewish commentators – Ibn Ezra, Abravanel, Malbim, and the Radak confirm Miriam’s importance as a prophet. P. S. Kramer, Miriam, in Brenner, Athalya, Exodus to Deuteronomy: A Feminist
Companion to the Bible, Sheffield University Press, Sheffield, 2000, pg. 113.
2 Unterman, Alan, Dictionary of Jewish Legends and Lore, Thames and Hudson, London, 1991) pg. 136.
3 Midrash Exodus quoted in Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Bible, JPS, Philadelphia, 1973) pgs.287 –288.
5 This is noted in numerous midrashim including Sifra Numbers 99, Midrash Tannaim
24:9, Sifre Zuta !2:1, as noted by Devorah
Steinmetz, A Portrait of Miriam in Rabbinic Midrash, Proftexts, #8, 1988, pg. 48.
6 Alter, Robert, The Five Books of Moses, Norton, N.Y., 2004, pg. 742.
7 Sifre Zuta !2:1, Steinmetz, pg. 50.
8 Pardes, Ilana, Countertraditins in the Bible, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1992) pg. 10.
9 Imtraud Fischer, The Authority of Miriam: A Feminist Reading, in Brenner, Exodus to Deuteronomy.
10 Burns Rita, J., Has the Lord Indeed Spoken Only Through Moses?, Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1987.
11 Targum Neophyti
12 Yalkut Shimoni