The Gospel According to Miriam

The Gospel According to Miriam

The Gospel According to Miriam.

“Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!'”  (Acts 15:20-21).

Miriam. The name means bitter waters, or perhaps waters of strength. Her life span was approximately from around 1400 – 1300 BC. The Greek version of the Hebrew name Miriam is Mary. The root word for myrrh is used in the name, a bitter and fragrant spice used for anointing oil or for embalming. Sheridan Larson noted that when Miriam was named, she was born during  a time when the children of Israel were in bondage to Egypt. Her parents were making a statement about the bitterness of life in captivity. It is ironic that Miriam, known in history for her uplifting praise and worship, did not spread bitterness associated with her name. There are two rabbinic traditions regarding Miriam during the wilderness journey. One tradition maintains that, because of Miriam’s righteousness, and so due to her merit, a miraculous well accompanied the wanderers all the while she lived in order to provide water for drinking. Thus when she died, this well dried up (Numbers 20:1-2). The other tradition noted by Larson is that Miriam’s role during that long journey was to lead the people in praise, just as she did during that victorious Song of Moses at the Red Sea. Like water itself, she was a continual source of refreshing praise. So when Miriam died, no one was there to lead the people in praise to God. When Miriam died, her well of praise died with her. Tradition states that Miriam died at the age of 126, a year before the Israelites entered the Promised Land.

Clever and Brave. We would never have had a Moses were it not for Miriam’s heroics. She joined a small group of women that enabled Moses to survive the dangers of his birth. The Pharaoh of Egypt had commanded that all Hebrew boys were to be slain at birth. But in a breath-taking act of civil disobedience, the two Hebrew midwives defied the king’s order. According to historian and religious writer Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, this was the first recorded incident of civil disobedience in biblical history, and deserves special mention. One rabbinic tradition maintains that those two midwives, Shifrah and Pual, were actually Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, Moses’ sister. Many historians have had their doubts about this, but we won’t know for sure till we get to ask them in the New Jerusalem. At any rate, Moses’ mother and sister were in a plot to defy the King’s orders in order to protect the life of Moses. There was Yocheved, a Hebrew slave who had the courage to deliver and keep a baby boy. And there was Miriam, a young child, who plotted to defy the king to protect her brother. When Moses was three months old, he was placed in a floating basket to escape the Pharaoh’s edict, trusting in God’s will to protect Moses. It was Miriam who kept track of where the basket traveled, and it was her who shrewdly developed a plan to save Moses. Rather audaciously, she proposed to the King’s princess, who found Moses in the water, that Miriam take the baby to a nursing mother who would care for the child until the princess could care for him. When the boy Moses was weaned, Miriam agreed to return Moses to the princess to be raised by her in the palace. The princess was persuaded to go with Miriam’s plan, so Moses’ sister merely took him back to his original mother to be nursed. Miriam showed inspired ingenuity, not to mention great courage, to succeed in delivering her brother from certain death. By doing this, Miriam ensured that Moses in his younger days would grow up being aware of his family, his heritage, his Hebrew identity. As Rabbi Sacks says, “I am profoundly moved by that encounter on the banks of the Nile between an Egyptian princess and a young Israelite slave-child – The contrast between them – in terms of age, culture, status and power – could not be greater. Yet their deep humanity bridges all the differences, all the distance. Two heroines. May they inspire us.” (Rabbi Sacks, from his commentary on Exodus).

Prophetess. Miriam is the first woman in the Hebrew Bible to be called a prophetess (Ex. 15:20). She is prominent in Jewish history, and is on the short list of the seven special women in the Jewish faith who were called prophetesses. These women are the “Holy Women to Israel”: Sarah (Genesis), Miriam (Exodus, Numbers), Deborah (Judges), Hannah (1 Samuel), Abigail (1 Samuel 25), Huldah (2 Kings), and Esther. The designated prophet in Jewish circles, whether male or female, held a unique place in the Scriptures. Prophets and prophetesses were able to receive divine revelations from the Lord regarding the future as well as the present. The prophet would speak what was on God’s mind. Prophets were also held up as role models of sanctity and intimacy with God. They set the community standards for religious faith and behavior. Rabbinic tradition holds that Miriam was at first considered a prophet because she had prophesied to her parents that they would bear the person who would deliver the Israelites from bondage. The fact that both mother and sister went to such extraordinary measures to take care of Moses suggests that they knew Moses was going to be unique, with a singular role as savior and deliverer of his people. The other reason Miriam was called a prophetess in Scripture is that she was described that way in direct connection to her role as worship leader in song at the Red Sea. Music and prophecy have always had a unique bond regarding the Lord’s revelations. That will be described in greater depth shortly.

Music and Prophecy. “Worship in song is a higher form of proclamation.” (St. Benedict). Music is in the very soul of God. Music is in the eternal repertoire of God’s self-expression. The Trinity undoubtedly have spent eternity singing divine love songs to each other. If music is somehow a part of God’s essence, then we humans, being made in the image of God, also have music built into our nature. It makes sense then, that if God wants to communicate a revelation to humans, He will often prefer to communicate musically, through a prophet. That’s why music and prophecy are spiritually joined at the hip throughout Scripture. God talks through music with people, and prophets speak musically to the people. The two are intrinsically and dynamically fused. The Holy Spirit seems to inspire us, and open our hearts that much more effectively, through the prophetic use of music. Some examples in the Hebrew Bible include:

(1) “As soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and a lyre before them, and they will be prophesying. And then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man.” (1 Samuel 10:5-6).

(2) “And Elisha said, ‘Now bring me a musician.’ And it came about when the musician played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him, and he said, ‘Thus says the Lord….”  (2 Kings 3:15-16).

(3) “Moreover, David and the commanders of the army set apart for the service some of the sons of Asaph and Hemar and Jeduthun, who were to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.”  (1 Chronicles 25:1).

The Song of Moses and Miriam. How did this huge congregation of people sing the same song, all at the same time? We’re not sure how they pulled this off. Some rabbis believe that Moses sung a line, then the people repeated the line, through the whole song. Others think that Moses sung it phrase by phrase, and the people repeated each phrase until the song was done. Some believe that Miriam led the women to sing the refrain after each section of the song was sung by the men, based on 15:20-21.  The song opens with a victory chant: “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song; He is become my salvation.” These words were probably a refrain sung during the song, since Miriam picked up these words specifically and led the singing and dancing to them, becoming spontaneously the women’s choir director on the shore of the Sea. Rabbi Nehemiah believed that the whole song was sung in unison without the need for repetition or call-response. He thought that all the people “were seized by divine inspiration and miraculously the same words came into their minds at the same time.” We will never know exactly how the song was sung, but thankfully we know what was sung.

Miriam’s Mistake. There is only one incident in Miriam’s life that cast a negative light on her. She, along with Aaron, was critical of Moses concerning his wife Zipporah. According to rabbinic sources, Moses had become a celibate. He was not having marital relations with his wife. The sages believe that Moses had done so “Because he needed to be in a state of readiness for divine communication at any time.” Miriam claimed in her criticism that neither she nor Aaron had discontinued marital relations, and God has spoken to and through them. So, c’mon Moses! Miriam was evidently concerned that this led to Moses’ wife feeling abandoned from his lack of attention. It is believed in tradition that Miriam spoke out of sympathy for her sister-in-law, not out of any personal antagonism or criticism towards her brother. As Rabbi Sacks comments, “Miriam may have been wrong, but not maliciously so.

A Biblical Stalwart. There is no doubt that Miriam is one of the greatest women in Biblical history. She was used mightily by the Lord in a prophetic ministry that lasted her lifetime, starting at a very young age. Her life was a gospel story because she demonstrated so many Christ-like character qualities. Miriam reflected the gospel virtues, including:

(1) Shrewdness. Miriam displayed an amazing amount of responsibility and ingenuity for a young girl when it came to caring for and protecting her special brother Moses. Her instinct to cleverly plot a scheme to care for Moses was savvy, and street-smart. She was truly “clever as a snake and innocent as a dove” (Matt. 10:16). She no doubt nurtured Moses as he grew up before being returned to the princess. And she helped to guide his development in his early years. In some ways, Moses’ character reflected Miriam’s character.

(2) Inspiration. Miriam prophesied to her parents (according to rabbinic sources), and she was surely guided by the Spirit to put together such a clever scheme to care for her baby brother Moses. Perhaps her greatest moment of inspiration came at the Red Sea, contributing her part in the great Song of Moses, leading all the women in rejoicing before the Lord and praising His miracle of freedom and deliverance. She undoubtedly continued in her role as choir director throughout the wilderness journey, strengthening the wandering Israelites through her musical gifts. Miriam was indeed a prophetess, God’s spokesperson to the people.

(3) Leadership. Miriam was never shy about taking charge when the situation called for it. She led the way in devising the ways to protect and guide baby brother. She wasn’t afraid to take a step away from the crowd to lead her people in praise and worship. She also helped her brother Moses carry the burden of leadership by being by his side during the wilderness journey. Her important role was even highlighted by the prophet Micah as includes Miriam in the leadership team tapped by Yahweh to bring the Israelites “up from the land of Egypt, redeemed by God from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4). She was unafraid in her ability to take on leadership when it counted.