From Miriam in Egypt
Israel’s Scriptures name five women “prophets”: Miriam (Exod. 15:20), Deborah (Jdg. 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22), the mother of Isaiah’s son (Isa. 8:3), and Noadiah (Neh. 6:14). Joel 3:1-2 and Ezekiel 13:17 mention women who prophesy, and the Talmud, a post-biblical Jewish compendium, adds Sarah, Hannah, Abigail and Esther. The New Testament describes several women who prophesy, including Anna (Luke 2:36-37), Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9), and women in the Corinthian congregation (1 Corinthians 11:5).
Biblical prophets deliver messages of justice: they provide a vision of what should be, and could be. Frequently, they challenge the status quo. When resistance comes, they display conviction and courage.
Miriam establishes the model of the woman prophet. Although her name’s origins are unknown, the Jewish tradition offers two readings. First, it may derive from the Hebrew word for “bitterness” and so reflects Miriam’s birth into slavery (see Exodus 1:14). The name may also come from the Hebrew word that means “rebellion.”
According to Exodus 2, Pharaoh, Egypt’s ruler ordered that all sons born to the Hebrew slaves be drowned. One Hebrew mother places her son in a basket upon the Nile in the hopes that an Egyptian would rescue him. The Pharaoh’s daughter sees the baby, concludes he is an Israelite, and defying her father’s orders, decides to raise the child. Now the child’s sister, later identified as Miriam, speaks: “Shall I get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7). Miriam, the enslaved Hebrew, protects her brother and, by extension, her people.
When the Israelites finally escape slavery, “Moses and the Israelites” sang a song hailing G-d’s salvation (Exod. 15:1). Yet Exodus 15:20-21 reads, “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. Miriam sang to them (masculine plural): ‘Sing (masculine plural) to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously.’” Miriam exhorts the men as well as the women to sing. More, since women including Deborah (Jdg. 5), Hannah (one Sam. 2:1-10), and Judith (Jdt. 16) -- celebrated victory in song, it is possible that Miriam composed the original Song of Moses.
Finally, Miriam even challenges Moses. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married” (Numbers 12:1). Not only does the verse list Miriam before her brother, the priest Aaron, but also Hebrew verb translated “spoke” is in the feminine singular. When Hebrew syntax uses a singular feminine verb for a mixed compound subject (e.g., Gen. 33:7), the focus is on the woman.
Miriam’s complaint is not an argument against intermarriage with a woman from Cush (likely a term for Ethiopia; the ancient Jewish Aramaic paraphrase of this verse glosses “Cushite” with “beautiful”). Rather, Miriam is speaking on behalf of this wife, since Moses, remaining ritually pure given his frequent contacts with the divine, is not being a good husband. When she (and Aaron) ask, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Exodus 2:9), the answer is “Yes, he spoke through you also.” God strikes Miriam with leprosy for challenging Moses’s authority, but the Israelites wait until she is healed before continuing their journey. The prophet Micah (6:4) affirms that God sent “Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” to guide the people.
Over a millennium later, another Miriam protected a child, in song, challenged authority, and celebrated God’s victory. Luke 1:27 identifies “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph…. The virgin’s name was Mariam, the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Miriam.”
The name recalls the earlier Miriam who led her people out of slavery. It also recalls Herod the Great’s Hasmonean wife, Mariamne, who represented Jewish rather than Roman rule. When Mariam sings, “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his slave” (Greek: doule; Luke 1:48), we remember Miriam and her people, enslaved in Egypt. When Mariam proclaims, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52), we recall the Exodus. Miriam and her namesake Mariam are prophets whose words and actions resist against anything preventing human flourishing.
By Amy-Jill Levine