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Miriam: the Prophetess Could Sing

Miriam: the Prophetess Could Sing

Por Elizabeth Baker

Exodus 15:20-21; Numbers 12:1-15 & 26:59; Deuteronomy 24:9

Have you ever experienced such a dynamic answer to prayer that you thought you would never doubt God again? Have you blundered so badly it felt as though your sin was exposed to the entire world and even God was frowning? If so, you can relate to Miriam.

The first time we meet Miriam in scripture, she is a child obediently hiding in the bulrushes along a river bank. The well known story of how Pharaoh ordered all Israelite boys drowned at birth is one of the most familiar in the Bible. Moses’ mother defied the command by building a waterproof basket/boat, and putting her infant son inside. It is told over and over in Jewish and Christian communities around the world. Movies, poems and stories by the dozens tell how Moses not only survived the Nile but grew to be a prince, and eventually led the Jews out of slavery and into the land God had promised to Abraham. But the often overlooked detail of this event is just how old the leading characters were when the drama played out. Although the average life-span during this time was around 110 years, Moses, his little brother Aaron and their big sis Miriam were all senior citizens.

Miriam was probably between five and 10 when her mother stationed her by the river. Any younger and she would have been too immature to handle the job. Any older and the Egyptians would have already recruited her for the brick pits. She would have been in her early teens as Moses permanently left home for training in the palace and somewhere around 50 when he committed murder and ran for his life to the Midian desert. Another 40 years would pass before he returned.

By the time Moses returned to the land of Goshen and offered himself as God’s chosen liberator he was 80 and she was nearing 90. There had been plenty of intervening years for both she and Aaron to marry and raise a family, just as Moses himself had done. None of them were young and none but Moses were formally educated. Yet when the challenge of moving out into a new, uncharted life of freedom presented itself, she showed no hesitation about getting involved up to her eyebrows.

Together, the siblings formed a bonded unit of leadership, as between one and three million slaves tried to break free and form a nation. Moses was the point man directly chosen by God to lead. Aaron was the spokesman at his side, and their big sister Miriam occupied a supporting role as prophetess—a rank and distinction she would hold for the rest of her life (Exodus 15:20).

Miriam is remembered for two things: her songs and her failure. The first reached its climax when she was between 85 and 90 years of age and the second shortly before her death. With her songs and dancing she taught the women of Israel how to express joy. In her failure, she gave all generations a lesson on the consequences of jealousy and pride.

Miriam’s most famous song had words that were actually written by her brother Moses (Exodus 15:1-19; Deuteronomy 31:19). It seems as though he may have been the poet in the family, but she knew how to kick it up a notch. Our first record of this song was when God parted the sea and the nation walked into freedom. As the waves of the Red Sea poured back into their channel, and the enemy died, realization of freedom settled over the Israeli camp. No more brick pits. No more whip of the master. No more premature death. They were truly free.

In the silence, Moses lifted up his voice and began to quote a poem he may have spontaneously composed on the spot. But it was Miriam who picked up a tambourine and began to respond to the words antiphonally (Exodus 15:20). Her voice laughed as music poured out and her feet began to dance. Soon others were following her motions and long lines of high-stepping, bending, spinning women formed all over the camp. They followed their prophetess repeating her words and duplicating her motions, “Sing to the LORD, / For He has triumphed gloriously! / The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!” (Exodus 15:21).

This was no doubt the high-point of Miriam’s career and life. Even today, 3,500 years after the event, her joy, song, leadership and dance encourages and inspires women around the globe.

Her failure would occur some 30 years after the notes of her music died away. It would wait until Moses married a new wife (Numbers 12:1).

The marriage might have been tolerable, but the wife Moses chose was a foreigner rather than a daughter of Abraham. Miriam was furious. In her opinion, his poor choice demonstrated he was no more “holy” than anyone else; including her and Aaron. Working behind the scenes, she began to sow discontent. God had sent her and Aaron just as he had sent Moses (Micah 6:4). They could probably do a better job of leadership than her feet-of-clay brother and they deserved a chance to give it a try.

In the end, God himself called the three siblings before him to straighten out the mess and, because Miriam was evidently the leader of the rebellion, she bore the brunt of his anger. Leprosy covered her skin and she was cast out of the camp as “unclean.” Only the passionate interceding of her brothers saved her life.

We don’t hear a lot about Miriam after that point. For one thing, she—like Moses and Aaron—were very old by that time and soon all three would be dead. Yet, when the Bible traces genealogies, Miriam is included with the men (Numbers 26:59-60)—a rare distinction given few other women. She was the first prophetess recorded in the Bible and is remembered as the first sweet singer of Israel.