Miriam the Prophetess

Author: Mercedes L. García Bachmann

Miriam the Prophetess

Mercedes L. García Bachmann*

Miriam (or Mary, according to how each version translates the name Miryam) is one of the most interesting figures in the Bible. She is mentioned in six texts, five of which are found in the Pentateuch. However, she is most frequently associated with saving the infant Moses (Ex 2), and, although she speaks, unlike many other women she is referred to only as “his sister” without being identified. Miriam is one of the few women in the Pentateuch who is named in other passages of the Bible. With a critical interpretation and a global reading of the figure of Miriam, the reader will discover one of the principal guides of the People of Israel, no less than her “brothers”, Moses and Aaron. She is mentioned in two geneaologies, one in Numbers 26:59: “The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi who was born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister”. Here Miriam’s mother and grandmother are mentioned, an extraordinary fact which I believe may be traced back to Miriam’s own outstanding personality. Given that in going back through history we can rarely count maternal genealogies, we note here that her mother’s descent was a generation closer to Jacob’s than that of her father. On both sides, Miriam, like her brothers, is an authentic Levite (of priestly descent). The second genealogy (1 Chron 6:30) is also priestly (see v. 30) and once again includes Miriam as sister. The genealogies reflect social relations; the fact that Miriam is always the sister — and not a daughter or a wife — of these two great leaders means that she was considered an influential figure equal to them and on the same family level. I now ask you to make an effort to remember: have you ever heard it said that Miriam was as influential as Moses and Aaron in Israel? To be able to appreciate her importance you must have a rough idea of Israel’s historical, religious and political situation, when its priests and scribes decided which texts were to be sacred in an epoch very much later than that of the desert, where the account situates Miriam. Let us now note the main characteristics of this woman: a prophetess of YHWH who sings and dances in his honour, interprets the divine word and acts as intermediary between YHWH and the people. It is interesting to note that traditional roles are not mentioned: she is neither “wife of” nor “mother of’, and she is not a prophetess because of her role as sister (it is not a hereditary role, attributed to her by kinship). Exodus 15:20-21 is one of the most fertile texts. It is treated as a hymn of praise to YHWH after Israel had crossed the Red Sea; it is the first song in freedom. Verses 1-19 are generally attributed to Moses and the refrain (w 20-21) to Miriam, but there are elements that would enable the entire canticle to be attributed to her (among others the biblical testimony that receiving victorious warriors with singing and dancing was the task of women: cf. Jud 11:34; 21, 21; 2 Chron 35:25; Eccles 2:8 speaks of women singers). In any case. Exodus 15:20 is the first text that mentions “Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron”. We might wonder whether it may not be anachronistic to speak of prophecy so early in history, when Israel was only just coming into existence. The truth is that the question of the dating of the texts is highly controversial, even though, according to the most widely-held opinion, the poetic texts are older than the prose, in particular the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 (another song of praise to YHWH by a woman!) and that of Miriam. In any case, if prophecy is not defined by the use of the Jewish terms nabi' (male) or nebi’a (female), what defines it? There are various elements, not all of which are present in every prophecy, such as the miracles of Elijah, Elisha and various anonymous men of God in the Book of Kings; the intercession in the face of adversity (see Jer 15:1, where Moses, Samuel and Jeremiah appear together); the interpretation of the divine will concerning the situation they must live; and, something more important with regard to our text, Exodus 15:20-21, the exhortation to be faithful to the one God of Israel. If you look carefully, you will see that Miriam is doing theology, she is interpreting the present situation — that the entire people can cross the Red Sea without drowning and with the Egyptian Army hot on its heels — in the light of the divine word; YHWH did it, no one else. However, there is a sign of alarm which Miriam notes: Exodus 14 ends with verse 31, saying that the people believed in the YHWH and in his servant Moses. It was a bad sign that the people should confuse a servant with his master, therefore Miriam asks that praise be given only to YHWH (“Sing to the Lord [...] the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea”). Thus our first encounter with Miriam the Prophetess is an invitation to divine praise, an invitation not to idolatrous worship of any human being, not even one as important as Moses, the legislator who spoke to God face to face. In speaking of this face to face encounter with the Lord, let us move on to another fundamental text. It is Numbers 12. This is a long text, which to be understood should be read starting from the previous chapter. It is one of the episodes that occurred during the 40 years spent in the desert, when a part of the people grumbled against YHWH. The text seems to include two traditions: one concerning the African [Cushite] wife of Moses, who then played no role in the chapter, and another, more important, on Moses’ special role as YHWH’s prophet (or, put differently, on the roles of Aaron and of Miriam as spokespeople for YHWH). The conflict is resolved in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner with regard to the balance of power between the three siblings: the divine voice prefers Moses to any other human being, Aaron the priest has to certify that his sister is a leper and begs Moses to ask God to heal her; and Miriam is isolated for seven days, outside the camp because she had contracted leprosy. However, the people do not resume their journey through the desert towards the Promised Land until she returns; the people wait for her. Why should Miriam suffer in her flesh the consequences of an action that did not seem so terrible? In the end, Miriam and Aaron were right in saying that God also spoke through them (if you read attentively Numbers 12:3-9 you will see that YHWH was actually speaking directly to them, although he says he is addressing Moses alone!). We could find various reasons for this redistribution of power, but I suspect that behind this epilogue there was tension between the various factions during the Persian period, when certain accounts were converted into the Bible and others remained outside the canon. In that period — between the sixth and fifth centuries before the Christian era — there were groups of Jews led by scribes, priests and Levites, who re- cognized themselves as “sons” of Moses or of Aaron. But there were also “sons — and daughters? — of Miriam”, who carried out the prophetic ministry. A sign of her importance in the community is the existence of this history, where on the one hand Miriam is put “outside” the camp, but, on the other, cannot be eliminated because she enjoys such popular support as to prevent her people from moving on until she had been reinserted into the group. A similar indicator appears in the account of her death, to which we shall return later. It seems that Numbers 12 offers a somewhat negative interpretation of Miriam but it is a minor matter if compared to other rebellions in the desert, as in Numbers 11. She is also seen in a negative way in Deuteronomy 24:8-9, where the religious Levitical status quo is compared to the negative example of Miriam. It should however be noted that the text alludes solely to “what [the Lord your God] did to Miriam”, without mentioning her leprosy (furthermore Numbers 12 does not speak of disobedience to YHWH but of a complaint about Moses, which, as we have seen in Exodus 15:20-21, is not the same thing!). Although Numbers 20:1 dedicates few words to Miriam they are nevertheless surprising, for we have no information concerning the death of any other woman in the Bible. The entire chapter revolves around the possibility that she may have died of lack of water and, above all, of the lack of faith of Moses and Aaron. It should be noted further that, unlike her brothers, it is never said of Miriam that she died by divine punishment. This is a very important fact for it would have been far easier to have her die for some form of disobedience, especially in this chapter in which God wearies and decides on the death of Moses and of Aaron. A tradition exists which links Miriam to the rediscovery of water. However, I believe that rather than this tradition, what helps us to explain the unease of the people at Miriam’s death is the fact that they felt orphaned, that Miriam had always interceded between the people and her brothers and also between the people and God. This is another small pearl that shows the value Miriam had for Israel. Lastly, the only text in the prophetic literature which names her reinforces her role as leader. Micah 6:1-8 is a typical example of a trial or accusation of Israel for having been unfaithful to its God. One of the reproaches that YHWH addresses to Israel, asking what he has done to his people, says: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt [...] and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam”. The action of sending means indicating guides and prophets for the people; Moses who climbs the mountain in front of the people, Moses and Miriam who sing and lead the people in adoration of God while they are crossing the Red Sea; Moses, Miriam and Aaron who walk before the people towards the Promised Land. And when Miriam dies, the people rebel because of the lack of water (and of Miriam), Moses and Aaron disobey God and strike the rock instead of speaking to him and God decides that they shall not enter the Promised Land; thus comes to an end the generation of those who had been set before the people. Micah’s brief text shows on the one hand the three figures linked to the Exodus and to the desert, one of the most ancient traditions of Israel. On the other, it shows Moses and Aaron as servants and Miriam as a handmaid of God, precisely as prophets. Thirdly, it shows that for the God of Micah, Moses, Aaron and Miriam were on the same level, without any difference other than the order in which they are named. This order denotes a patriarchal vision which always places the woman last. Finally, the absence of family references in the text should be noted. The author does not say that Miriam was their sister, but the one thing that unites these three figures was their prophetic vocation. Thus Miriam was not a secondary figure for Israel, at least for a part of the people. The efforts to keep her away or to dissimulate her importance, in particular in Numbers 12 and Deuteronomy 24:8-9, show precisely that there were sectors which felt she was too important. The history of the Chosen People must not be the history of the elimination of one of its members because she was popular, faithful to God and prophetic. But the good news is that we have recovered — if with a certain effort and a little imagination — part of that history of the People of God, at least with regard to one of its most important and beloved figures.

* Pastor of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argentina and Uruguay and professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 April 2016, page 18

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