The Torah: Miriam: First Lady of the Exodus
“Great queen of Egypt, I believe we can all see that the Hebrew child will not accept nourishment from those not related to him. Why not bring a woman of his own race to feed him?”
In her excitement over finding the beautiful child in the basket among the reeds of the Nile River, the princess had not noticed a young onlooker.
“Please forgive me for my boldness, but I know of a Hebrew woman who has just lost a baby. Your newfound child might allow her to feed him. If her majesty pleases, I would be happy to bring the Hebrew woman to you.”
“You speak well for a child of your age,” said the princess. “What is your name?”
“Miriam,” she said.
“Well, Miriam, bring the woman of whom you speak — and quickly, demanded the princess, now ready to accept whatever help she could get to quiet the hungry baby Moses.
Miriam’s forthright courage, her faith and her ability to think and take decisive action, even as a youth, help us to understand why God chose her, along with her brothers, Moses and Aaron, to lead Israel out of Egypt: “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
The Bible doesn’t tell us when God began to use Miriam as a prophetess. The first biblical description of her in this role occurs after God miraculously stopped the pursuing Egyptian army at the Red Sea.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing” (Exodus 15:20).
According to Josephus, Miriam was married to Hur of the tribe of Judah — the same Hur who, along with Aaron, supported Moses’ arms in Israel’s battle with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:11-13).
As part of this influential family, Miriam was there when Moses, Aaron, Hur and various other family members discussed Israel’s problems, and developed strategies to solve them. As a prophetess and the oldest member of the family, her opinion was valued. She was accustomed to being approached for her advice and was revered as the first lady of Israel.
Compared to some other ancient cultures, women in early Israelite history enjoyed many freedoms. A woman, whether married or single, could appear without a veil. She could travel about alone, and meet and talk with men publicly.
Yet, in spite of her prominence, Miriam, and her brother Aaron, both began to fear their influence was waning. Out of jealousy, they began to gossip about Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?… Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Numbers 12:2).
God heard what Miriam and Aaron said about Moses, and God was not pleased. God knew that it was not so much Moses’ marriage, as Miriam and Aaron’s envy of their younger brother’s authority over them, that underlay their criticism.
Miriam and Aaron did not fear Moses’ reprisal. After all, their brother usually did not defend himself against reproaches. Hadn’t he always listened patiently to the endless complaints of Israel? Miriam and Aaron knew that Moses was long-suffering and humble — perhaps in their judgment, a little too much so.
God, however, did not view what had happened in the same way as Miriam and Aaron. He saw their presumptuous attack, at Miriam’s instigation, against his chosen leader. If they wanted God’s attention, they now fully had it. God commanded: “Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you” (verse 4).
Reminding Miriam of his special relationship with Moses, God said: “When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses…. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (verses 6-8).
When the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, signifying that God had departed, Aaron sheepishly looked over at Miriam. Recoiling in horror at the sight of his sister’s pasty-white scaly skin, he must have quickly looked at his own hands and arms as well. No, only Miriam was leprous.
Aaron’s tone and approach toward Moses were now remarkably changed: “Please my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away” (verses 11-12).
Moses didn’t have to be persuaded further. He fervently cried out: “O God, please heal her!” (verse 13). God agreed to do so, but not immediately. Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days before God removed her humiliating punishment.
“I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam ” (Micah 6:4).
We read little more about Miriam in the annals of the Bible. According to Josephus, however, Miriam and Hur were the grandparents of Bezalel, whom God commissioned as the chief craftsman and builder of the tabernacle and its furniture in the wilderness (Exodus 31:2-11; 35:30; 38:22).
Hur was also father of three sons who founded the towns of Kiriath Jearim, Bethlehem and Beth Gader (1 Chronicles 2:20, 50-51).
Miriam went on to travel with Moses and Aaron and the Israelites for almost 40 years in the desert. She died shortly before Aaron, near the end of Israel’s wanderings, at Kadesh (Numbers 20:1). Like her brothers, Miriam did not enter the Promised Land, and was buried in the wilderness. Thus ended the life of this talented woman of courage, faith and firm resolve, who, alongside Moses and Aaron, rejoiced in the triumphs and suffered the trials and dangers of God’s calling in the wilderness of Sinai.
As with the many other heroes of the Bible, Miriam’s strengths and weaknesses were recorded for our education, inspiration and encouragement.
Author: Sheila Graham