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Miriam, the prophetess

Miriam (or Mary, according to how each version translates the name Miryām) 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 the saving of the infant Moses (Ex 2), in which, however, although she speaks, unlike many other women she is referred to only as “his sister” without being identified. She is one of the few women in the Pentateuch who is named in other passages of the Bible. Here I ask you to undertake an exercise of critical interpretation and a global reading of the figure of Miriam. You will thus 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 Nm 26:59: “The name of Amran’s wife was Jochebed, a daughter of Levi who was born [by her mother] to Levi in Egypt; and she (Jochebed) bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister”. Here Miriam’s mother and grandmother are mentioned, an extraordinary fact which I believe can be traced back to the extraordinary figure of Miriam herself. Given that in going back through history we can rarely count upon maternal genealogies, we note here that the descendants of her mother is of a generation closer to Jacob than that of her father. On both sides (like her brothers) Miriam is an authentic Levite (of priestly descendance). 

Pippa Blackall, “Miriam the Prophetess” (Cathedral of St Edmundsbury, Suffolk)

The second genealogy (1 Chron 5:29) is also priestly 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 like 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 in Israel was as influential as Moses and Aaron? 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 what 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 Yahweh who sings and dances in his honour, interprets the divine word and acts as intermediary between Yahweh and the people. It is interesting to note that nothing is said of the traditional roles: 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). Ex 15:20-21 is one of the most fertile texts. It is treated as a song of praise to Yahweh after Israel has crossed the Red Sea; it is the first song in freedom. Verses 1-19 are generally attributed to Moses and the refrain (verses 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. Judg 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 ask ourselves whether it is not anachronistic to speak of prophecy so soon 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 Judg 5 (another song of praise to Yahweh 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 for the situation they must live; and, something more important with regard to our text, Ex 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 without the Egyptian army hot on its heels – in the light of the divine word; Yahweh 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 Lord and in his servant Moses. It is a bad sign that the people should confuse a servant with his master, for Miriam asks for praise only to Yahweh (“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 worship 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 Num 12. This is a long text, which to be set in its proper context should be read starting from the previous chapter. It is one of the episodes that occur during the 40 years spent in the desert, when a part of the people grumbles against Yahweh. The text seems to include two traditions, one concerning the African wife of Moses (but who then plays no role in the chapter) and another, more important, on Moses’ special role as Yahweh’s prophet (or, put differently, on the roles of Aaron and of Miriam as spokespeople for Yahweh). The conflict is resolved in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner with regard to power between the three siblings: the divine voice prefers Moses to any other human being, Aaron the priest must check to see if his sister is leprous and prays Moses to intercede to God to heal her; and Miriam is isolated for seven days, outside the camp because she has 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 does Miriam suffer in her flesh the consequences of an action that does not seem so terrible? In the end, [Miriam and Aaron] were right in saying that God was also speaking through them (if you read attentively Num 12:3-9 you will see that Yahweh 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 are tensions between the various factions in the Persian epoch, when certain histories 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 recognized 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 weight 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 popular support such 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 Num 12 offers a somewhat negative interpretation of Miriam but it is a minor matter if compared to other rebellions in the desert, as in Num 11. She is also seen in a negative way in Deut 24:8-9, where the Levitical status quo is supported by 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 Num 12 does not speak of disobedience to Yahweh but of a protest to Moses, which, as we have seen in Exodus 15, 20-21, is not the same thing!). Although Num 20:1 dedicates few words to Miriam they are nevertheless surprising, for we have no information of the death of any other woman in the Bible. The entire chapter revolves round the possibility that she may have died of lack of water and, above all, of lack of faith in Moses and in 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 deaths of Moses and 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 feel orphaned, that Miriam has always interceded between the people and her brothers and also between the people and God. This is another small pearl of the value that Miriam has 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 Yahweh 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”. 

he action of sending means identifying 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 sent 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 hand, 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 are at 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 that the one thing that unites these three figures is 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 Num 12 and Deut 24:8-9, show precisely that there were sectors for which 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.

Mercedes L. García Bachmann


                      The author

Mercedes L. García Bachmann earned a doctorate in theology at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago. A pastor of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (Argentine and Uruguay), she teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (ISEDET), where she was Dean (2004-2008) and Director of Postgraduate Studies (2008-2015). Among the other institutions at which she has taught are the Waldensian Faculty of Theology, Rome, the Lutheran Faculty of Theology, Chicago, and the Catholic Faculty of Theology of the University of Münster. Since 2016 she has been director of the Institute for Specialized Pastoral Care of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church.

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