The biblical theater is full of interesting people. People who do incredible things, in every sense of the word. There are highly favored, but also highly flawed people in the bible, who can all teach us lessons about what it means to believe in God, to do His work, to be a Christians, to follow Jesus, but most of all, what it means to be human. In this new series I want to look at some of these people and their stories; to see what lessons I can draw from their lives and actions. Different characters may lead to longer or shorter blog posts, depending on what I can learn about them and from them. Please let me know what characters you would want to read about. My first character is Miriam.
Disclaimer: When I researched Miriam, I found that there is a lot more information about her in the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish religious teachings that were composed over a long period of time, but were assembled in the 150 years or so, after Christ. I think that other literature of the time can give insight into certain things that the Bible may not be as clear on. I will use information both from the Bible and the Talmud, but will mark it clearly (by putting it in between asterisks) when I reference the latter, so that should you want to, you can disregard it.
Miriam: an introduction
Miriam is a unique character in the bible. Because, where Biblical characters often only have one story and are fairly one-dimensional, Miriam has a few different stories throughout the Exodus and wandering of the desert. She is present from the very first we hear of Moses, until roughly a year before the Israelites get into the promised land. She has highs and lows; joys and sorrow. She is not one-dimensional at all. But I do often find that she is taken out of context; with sermons and teachings focusing on one event or story. To avoid that I want to be comprehensive here, so this may be a long post.
We first meet Miriam in Exodus chapter 2. The chapter before introduces the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt and tells of Pharao demanding that all newborn Hebrew boys must be thrown into the Nile. *The Talmud tells that Miriam prophesied at age five that her mother would have a son who would deliver Israel from Egypt*1. Miriam’s mother, Jochebed, does have a baby boy, and hides him fro three months from Pharao. That cannot last so she weaves a water tight basket and sends her son onto the river.
Enter Miriam. She watches over the basket to see what happens. I cannot say for sure why she does. If you count the Talmud account above*1 it makes sense that she want to check what will happen to the boy she herself proclaimed would be the savior of her people. If you disregard the Talmud, you are left with sisterly love and protection. She wants her little brother to be safe. The daughter of the Pharao finds him and immediately realizes the baby is Hebrew. So I can imagine Miriam is afraid. But the princess turns out to be helpful, rather than hostile. And this is the perfect opportunity for Miriam to show her resourcefulness. A baby needs to be take care of and fed, which the princess cannot do herself. So Miriam comes out of her hiding place and asks the princess whether she should go get somebody to take care of the baby, who is later named Moses.
The princess says yes, and Miriam gets her mother. This frees up the way for Miriam and Jochebed to teach Moses about their history and their God. I think that is one of the main purposes that Miriam serves in the life of Moses. If Miriam had not followed him to the princess and had not been so quick to suggest her own mother to care for the baby, Moses most likely would not have known he was Hebrew. Since he was raised as an Egyptian, I doubt the princess would have told him of his real parentage. I think also, that she realized that Moses would be important given that the way he survived and where he ended up were so special, almost miraculous. I think this encouraged her teachings to him of his heritage. So Miriam is a hugely important influence on Moses at such a young age.
The long intermediate
As most of you know, Moses then grows up in the palace. When he is about 40 years old he kills an Egyptian guard for hitting a Hebrew slave, and he has to flee to Midian. Nothing is mentioned about that 40 year period, but I can imagine Miriam keeping tabs on her little brother. She had taken care of him when he was younger so I think she would have watched over him, if only from a distance to see what would happen. After all, she had high hopes for him and believed he would be important. With that in mind, it must have been devastating for her when Moses fled to Midian. All her hopes had gone with him, and deserted her. If you believe her Talmudic prophesy*1, perhaps she could have drawn strength and hope from that. But I can equally imagine that it would lead to a crisis of faith. But if you disregard her prophesy altogether, Moses’ flight must have been a very dark moment.
Moses spends a long time in Midian. He marries Zipporah and has 2 sons. He becomes a shepherd, and while tending the flock he is is called by God to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. So Moses returns to Egypt and meets with his brother Aaron. Aaron had been called by God to help Moses in his mission. Given that Aaron is Miriam’s brother too (though this is the first time we hear about him), I think Miriam is aware of Moses’ return and his mission. So I think she must be really happy and relieved. But Moses was gone for abut 50 years, and the intermediate time cannot have been easy. Again, perhaps she drew strength from her prophesy*1, but it is unlikely that her fellow Israelites knew about it or believed it. So she may have been ridiculed for cherishing that hope. Either way, those 50 years would have been bleak for her, with little to look forward to.
But he then does return, with a great mission. Miriam is not mentioned during the epic staring contest that is known as the Plagues of Egypt. But I imagine her to be a rock for her people, who tells stories of their forefathers who endured great suffering to, to in the end be redeemed by God. She truly became a leader.
Song at the Sea
The story continues with Israels redemption; mission accomplished, you would think. The Israelites get to leave Egypt. Pharao, however, changes his mind and chases after them with an army in chariots. Israel comes up to the Red Sea, and see Pharao behind them; and believe themselves lost, cornered with no way out. God tells Moses to hold out his staff and a wind starts to blow. The Red Sea is parted by that wind, and the Israelites can pass through it, with a wall of water on either side. Pharao pursues them but the walls of water come tumbling down on the Egyptians.
The children of Israel make it across unscathed, and are finally FREE. Free to do what they want. They are no longer slaves. They can go on into the land that God has promised them, through Abraham and his entire line. They are free, after decades, perhaps centuries of oppression and servitude. To praise God for their freedom, Moses leads the people of Israel in a song of worship, called the Song of The Sea. It is a wonderful song of praise for all good things God had done for them. I often still look it up if I need some reminder of God’s power and redemption.
Moses leads the song for the men. But later it says that Miriam took up a drum or tambourine and lead the women. Yeah text actually calls her a prophet there, for the first time. And as a prophet with a great following; the women also took up their drums and started dancing. Miriam sang:
“Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea”
I imagine it would be something like a song you would sing on a school trip, way back when… When a teacher would sing one line and everybody would fall in. That’s what Miriam did for her people, she taught them how to worship.
Unfortunately good things don’t always last. Without going into detail, the people of Israel are not able to go into the promised land. Instead they wander through the desert for many many years. But God does take care of His people. According to the Talmud *as they wandered from place to place a well would travel with them. This well was called Miriam’s Well and it was her influence that maintained it.*2 During this time they also have with them the tent of meeting, where God resides in the middle of His people.
Moses has a special role in their community as he has direct conversations with God. He is their direct messenger. And this is where Miriam gets jealous, because she is only a prophet. She has visions and dreams with a lot of gaps and room for interpretation. Moses has clear words and wisdom received directly from God. Because of this Moses has a higher standing in their community and Miriam gets jealous.
She asks whether God had not also spoken through her and Aaron. When God hears that question, He gets angry. He makes it a point to say how humble Moses is, which makes me think that Miriam might not have been. Imagine a somewhat dominant older sister that is out shone by her shy, humble younger brother. That would be frustrating. After all, she is only human. So, in his humility Moses shows us exactly how to act. Because it is not for us to judge, either people’s action and motives nor God’s; and Moses didn’t. But Miriam did; she questioned God and Moses.
God punished her accordingly. He gave her leprosy, turning her skin white and diseased. The Jewish custom demanded that people with leprosy were housed outside the the camp, because the disease was highly contagious, and it was considered ritually unclean. Moses and Aaron found this very harsh for their sister, who had saved them, supported them, taught them and lead their women. So they pleaded with God, prayed to God, to heal her. God listened. He said that if her father rebuked her for condescending a brother, she would be shamed for seven days, according to the customs. So in that same line she would be leprous for 7 days, living in a tent outside the camp. And only after 7 days would she be allowed to return and would the entire group be able to move on to their next destination.
A week in isolation, I cannot imagine it, especially as I am sitting here at my computer, with every convenience the western world has to offer. At first, how awful it must feel, with nothing and nobody to distract you from your own thoughts. But I think she soon started to pray, that she apologized for her judgement. That she thought of her life back in Egypt, and that though this nomadic life in the desert as hard, she knew it would bring her people to the promised land. I think she thought of what God had done for her, and for her brothers, and her people. The miracles she had seen Him make possible. Those seven days in that tent, I imagine they may have been her most profound, her most beautiful and her most humbling.
Death and water
The only other part of Miriams story itself that is written about is her death. It occurs in Numbers 20 and it only mentioned that the Israelites were in Zin, specifically Kadesh. And that she died there, and is buried there. One thing that is interesting about this, is that the immediate next verse states that “Now, there was no water for the congregation.” This is the lead-up to Moses striking the rock. The Tamud teaches that, like I mentioned earlier, a well traveled with the Israelites, on the merit of Miriam, and that with her death it dried up.*2
I find the immediate jump from her death to a lack of water telling; just like her name. It means bitter water. Miriam is connected to water, that life-giving liquid we all need. First she rescues her brother from the waters of the Nile, then the next time we see her she has lead her people, with her brother, through a sea of water that parted from them. And after her death her people are left without water.
I find Miriam a fascinating woman, and we only get to see a few snib-bits of her character through three stories. But so much about her is implied in those stories, and what they tell of her. She must have been incredibly resourceful and determined to protect her baby brother. Once she had saved him she must have been incredibly patient, to wait almost 90 years before he actually comes and saves their entire people. She must have had great conviction and confidence in her God, and drawn strength from His promises, to have survived those many years, as a a slave no less. But she had a hope for a better future. And I think that is her major character trait that I want to take with me. She was always hopeful for a better future. She knew God would save them from the horrors of Egypt. And He did. But when the Israelites do not reach the Promised Land, they have to wander the desert for 40 years. Even then Miriam is hopeful for a better future. Unfortunately, at one point the focus of that better future shifts; from a better future for her people, to one for herself. A future where she is equally important, if not more so, than Moses.
So if I get to draw one conclusion from Miriam’s story it would be: She was courageous, humble and hopeful of a better future. Let’s try to be that too.