Strong Women of Faith: “MIRIAM”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyteriuan Church
July 3, 2022
We continue today our summer worship series on Strong Women of Faith. Today’s Old Testament character is Miriam. Miriam is known as one of the seven major female prophets of Israel. Miriam was the daughter of a Levite, from the priestly tribe of Israel. Miriam was the older sister of Moses and, despite the patriarchal days in which she lived, she served as a recognized leader among the people.
She served alongside her brothers, Moses and Aaron, as they led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness. The name Miriam is the oldest form of the name Mary. Miriam can mean either “beloved” or “bitter”, and Miriam’s story seems to include some of both of those characteristics.
Miriam’s first mention in Holy Scripture is at the birth of Moses, when the Egyptian Pharaoh was seeking to destroy the infants in order to limit the number of slaves born to the Hebrew people. Fortunately for Moses, the Pharoah’s daughter had different political views from her father and saved the male child from destruction.
From Exodus 2:1-10…
When Jochebed, Moses’ mother, could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. Moses’ sister (presumed to be Miriam) stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’
So the girl (presumably Miriam) went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to Jochebed, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’
So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because’, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
An older sister keeps watch upon her baby brother as he floats precariously in a basket on the river. She approaches Pharoah’s daughter and suggests a nursemaid, who happened to be the boy’s own mother. And with this narrative, the courageous young Miriam would forever be appreciated among the people of Israel.
God worked through young Miriam to save the future leader of the people, the one who would lead the people in their Exodus from Egypt. Like the young Miriam, we often cannot imagine what might be the long term implications of our courageous actions.
The second explicit mention of Miriam in the Bible comes at the dramatic crossing of the Sea of Reeds. The Hebrews have fled Egypt but are being pursued by the Egyptian army. When the Hebrew tribes arrive at the Sea of Reeds, they are trapped. Pharoah’s chariots are behind them and the sea is in front of them. But as the famous story goes, God provided “a way where there was no way”. The seas parted, whether by a sustained wind blowing all night long, or through some other miraculous means, and the Hebrews were able to walk across to the other side. When all the Hebrews had made it safely over, and the chariots of Egypt were in hot pursuit, the seas came rolling back in like high tide at the beach, and the horses and chariots were overwhelmed by the waters.
When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground. Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’
This was perhaps the high point in Miriam’s life. She had helped her people not only flee slavery, but then escape through the Sea of Reeds. The Hebrews had been delivered by God from the wrath of Pharoah’s army and they could not help but rejoice.
Miriam led the people in song and dance, singing praise to God for deliverance from slavery and death. Though she could not have known at the time, this song that Miriam sang became one of the most ancient human songs on record, and it is a song that has been repeated annually, in form or another, for over 3000 years.
Once again, God called forth the heroic Miriam to do an extraordinary thing, to do something important that would be remembered to all generations. Life was not all heroics or glory for Miriam. As far as we can tell from holy scripture, Miriam was never married and did not have any children. In her day and time, even though her life was dedicated to spiritual leadership, this would not have been easy for Miriam.
The expectation at the time would have been for Miriam to be married and to bear children. Some Jewish historians, ignoring the lack of biblical reference, even claim that she must have been married, and they even name one of Moses military leaders, Hur, as her husband. But there is no biblical record of this relationship.
Miriam had to make her own way in a man’s world. The altercation that occurred at Hazeroth was perhaps the low point in Miriam’s life and leadership. We are not given any insight into what had transpired prior to this incident, but we quickly become aware that Moses’ authority is being challenged by Miriam and Aaron because of his marriage to Zipporah, a Cushite woman,
If you remember the back story, Moses had fled Egypt as a young man. Though raised in Pharoah’s home, when he witnessed an Egyptian soldier beating a Hebrew slave, Moses had struck the soldier, who subsequently died. The punishment for killing a soldier was unmentionable, so Moses fled into the wilderness. When Moses came upon a well in Midian, far into the desert, he happened upon a beautiful young woman, Zipporah. of the family of Jethro.
Jethro was the priest of Midian and he welcomed Moses into his family. He even offered Zipporah’s hand in marriage to Moses. Moses settled down in Midian with his Cushite wife, Zipporah. There, they had a few children, Moses became part of a Jethro’s extended family of sheepherders, and all was well, at least until that voice from the burning bush called Moses to go back to Egypt. Moses felt call to go back and face the Pharoah, the most powerful man on earth, in order to set the Hebrew slaves free from their oppression.
I have always wondered what Zipporah thought about that burning bush experience. Fast forward…Pharoah has been challenged, the twelve plagues had come to Egypt, the Hebrew slaves had fled into the desert. They made it through the Sea of Reeds, and they are wandering in the desert wilderness.
Moses, along with his sister Miriam and brother Aaron, are leading the former slaves. The people are facing starvation and thirst. They are facing danger from enemies and dealing with internal conflicts and as yet, have no land of their own.
A strong leader was needed to hold the people together. A very strong leader was needed to keep the active “Back to Egypt Committee” in check. Whether Miriam and Aaron acted upon their own accord, or were being encouraged by others, we do not know. What we are told is that they speak against their brother Moses because of his marriage to Zipporah.
Part of the background is that Miriam and Aaron had both been raised among their people, whereas Moses had been raised among the Egyptians. Miriam and Aaron had always lived among the Hebrews, and Aaron has married Elisheba, from the tribe of Judah, whereas Moses had lived for years among the Midianites and married a Cushite woman.
With this background, we can imagine several possible scenarios which led to the questioning of Moses’ authority…
Perhaps some of the tribal leaders are making an issue about Moses’ background and about Zipporah, Moses’ wife, being a Midianite, a Cushite, most likely of Ethiopian heritage. Perhaps Moses was at a low point in his leadership and his sister recognized that he was not fulfilling his role as well as he could.
The wilderness wanderings were a stressful time; the people were always at risk and always complaining.
Perhaps Miriam felt Moses was too distracted by his domestic duties with his wife and children to lead effectively in a time of crisis. Perhaps Miriam and Zipporah did not get along well with each other; perhaps there was jealousy between them.
Who knows? Perhaps Zipporah did not like the Hebrew women. Perhaps this princess daughter of Jethro looked down upon Miriam and the other women? Perhaps the older sister, Miriam, did not appreciate that her younger brother Moses was held in such high esteem.
Perhaps Miriam was jealous of the influence and power of her younger brother. Maybe Miriam felt that her spiritual connection with God was just as strong or stronger than that of Moses.
Whatever the case, at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron challenge the leadership of their brother.
Hear the Word of God from Numbers 12
While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.’
So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, ‘Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’
And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.
When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. Then Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.’
And Moses cried to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her.’ But the Lord said to Moses, ‘If her father had but spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.’ So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days; and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again.
After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
According to the author of Numbers, the Lord became angry with Miriam and Aaron, and Miriam was struck with a skin disease, akin to leprosy, and forced to spend seven days outside of the camp.
We are not told why Aaron was not affected in the same manner. But we are told that the whole company of people would wait seven days until Miriam had completed her quarantine before they would set out on the next leg of their wilderness journey.
Though Miriam had been established as a key spiritual leader of the people, a prophetess, though Miriam had led the people in song and dance at the Sea of Reeds, though Miriam had saved her baby brother from certain death, the patriarchal world in which she lived ensured that this story of challenging Moses’ leadership would be remembered forever.
This story of her punishment from God and her quarantine outside the camp would be shared for generations. Moses would remain as the preeminent leader, the one who spoke to God face to face. Brother Aaron would always play second fiddle to Moses, and Miriam would become a distant third in the line of leadership.
Many years later, in the book of Numbers 20:1, we are told of Miriam’s death.
The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.
Few persons, and even fewer women, are given such recognition in the Old Testament chronicles. Miriam had been a respected spiritual leader for the Hebrews. And we have not even mentioned that throughout the wilderness journey, the presence of life-giving water was often attributed to Miriam. Soon after she died, there was no water once again, and the people grumbled against Moses and Aaron.
As a female of her time, Miriam’s place of leadership was quite remarkable. She responded courageously to the challenges before her and forged her place in biblical history. But she will always be remembered, at least in part, for speaking against her brother because of the foreign woman to whom he was married.
As we approach the Table of grace, we are reminded that we all have a history.
We all have good things and not so good things for which we are known.
We all have our high points in life when we are out front, listened to, followed, respected.
And yes, we all have our low points as well, when we not only disappoint our family members, but we even kindle the anger of God. Like Miriam, we can end up alone at times, separated from the community in a quarantine state of life.
Nevertheless, God is gracious.
Just as Miriam was restored to the people and her legacy of leadership respected, so may we be restored at this Table. God used Miriam, heroic and flawed as she was, to accomplish extraordinary actions on behalf of her people. And God will continue to use people like Miriam to do extraordinary things in the days to come.
So we come to the Table today, remembering the stories of old. We come to the Table, confessing our own sins, whatever they may be. We come to the Table, offering praise to God for ourown deliverance from sin. And we come to the Table, prepared to recommit ourselves, in our day and time, to serve courageously the purposes of God in whatever ways we can.
To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church