Bible Commentator

Articles

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

MIRIAM: THE REBEL OF A REMARKABLE TRIUMVIRATE

‘And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam’ (Micah 6:4) 1

 

INTRODUCTION:

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

involved leadership.

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

them.

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’S WELL:

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”.

MIRIAM’S DEATH:

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.

4 http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/beshalah/co1.html

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