Miriam, Sister of Moses and Aaron
Miriam was the sister of two powerful biblical figures, Moses and Aaron. Her name derives from the root Mary, Mariamne, or Maria, meaning “bitterness.” She served the Lord all of her life, remained steadfast in her determination to free the Hebrew people from the pharaoh's oppression, and demonstrated repeatedly that the love of her country and people exceeded her personal desires as a woman. But Miriam was human, and not perfect. For her pride and insubordination to the power of God working through Moses, she became afflicted with a disfiguring skin disease. It was of short duration, but long enough for her to reflect on the error she made in criticizing the instrument of the Lord.
Miriam accompanied her brothers and the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Four books of the Old Testament — Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — tell their story and provide details of their arduous journey, as well as their trials and triumphs.
Hiding Her Brother Moses
Miriam's mother, Jocheved, hid her newborn baby boy for three months. The pharaoh had ordered that “every son that is born [of Hebrew slaves] ye shall cast into the river…” (Exodus 1:22). Her mother must have been terrified that her deception would be discovered and her baby drowned. Most likely, she pondered myriad ways to keep her son alive, and finally enlisted the help of her dutiful daughter, Miriam.
When Jocheved could no longer conceal the fact that she had a three-month-old infant, Miriam became the infant's guardian. Miriam watched over Moses after their mother placed him in a boat among the reeds near the edge of a stream where the pharaoh's daughter regularly came to wash herself. When the baby was spotted, plucked from the boat, and shown to the princess, she named him Moses, because she “drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:10).
Nurturing the Baby Brother
Moses cried with the pain of hunger in his tiny belly. That was Miriam's opportunity. The quick-witted girl stepped from behind the reeds and bushes where she hid and faced the princess. While Moses wailed for his feeding, Miriam addressed the princess. “…Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women that she may nurse the child for thee?” (Exodus 2:7). Miriam knew of the perfect wet nurse: the baby's own mother, Jocheved. The pharaoh's daughter told Miriam's mother to wet nurse the child until the child was weaned and, in return, she would pay her wages.
Miriam beholding her baby brother, Moses
Receiving the Gift of Prophecy
As Miriam grew older, she became known as a prophetess. She gave herself over to the will of God and doing his work. The longer she remained at the side of her brother Moses, however, the wearier she grew of standing in the giant shadow that he cast. She longed for her own recognition and power.
The Bible doesn't say how Miriam reacted to the news that her brother Moses killed an Egyptian slave master who was abusing his Hebrew worker. Undoubtedly, feeling as strongly about the plight of the Hebrews as she did, Miriam most likely would have remained his staunchest ally. However, when the pharaoh learned about it and threatened to kill Moses, he fled to Midian, where he married Zipporah. Because she was not an Israelite, but a Midianite, Miriam did not particularly like her.
Chapter 4 in Exodus reveals that God told his chosen representative Moses, who was slow of speech, to use his brother Aaron as an eloquent spokesman for the Divine. Later, God tells Moses that Aaron and his sons are to become priests and are to wear robes. There are no mentions of any such special honor for Miriam.
Turning Against Foreign Influence
When Moses took a second wife, a beautiful Ethiopian Cushite woman, Miriam liked her even less. His wives represented foreign alliances, and Miriam was staunchly pro-Hebrew. She had concerns about nonHebrew influences upon her brother Moses, and through him, God's chosen people. She allowed her negative feelings toward her sisters-in-law, especially the Cushite woman, to overshadow her dedication and commitment to the work of Moses. Miriam began criticizing Moses, questioning openly whether or not God spoke through only Moses, or also through her and Aaron.
When God let his people leave Egypt, the land of plagues, Moses led them accompanied by Miriam and his brother, Aaron, a high priest. Miriam was a worker for God, a patriot for the Israelites, and a dutiful sister to Moses, but she also complained about Moses. Miriam and Aaron were jealous of their brother, believing that God favored him, but also spoke through the two of them. At first they kept their feelings to themselves, but later became critical of Moses. At a time when they should have inspired unity, they introduced divisiveness. The Lord called them into his presence for an accounting of their behavior. Miriam shouldered the blame as the instigator. When the meeting was over, she was afflicted with leprosy and banished from the camp for seven days. After her isolation, her health was restored. Although not entirely blameless, Aaron received no such punishment. He had tabernacle duties to perform and God must have seen that work as imminently important to keep his children on course.
The Bible suggests that Miriam never married; however, Josephus noted that she married Hur, a Hebrew leader and judge. She undertook the arduous forty-year trek with Moses, Aaron, and the Hebrew people, but her dream of seeing the Promised Land was never fulfilled — she died before reaching it and was buried by Moses and Aaron at Kadesh-Barnea in the Zin desert.
Miriam is credited with composing a jubilant hymn after the Hebrews crossed the red Sea during their journey to the Promised Land. Exodus 15:20 states that she took a timbrel in her hand and began to sing and dance ecstatically and all of the other women followed her example. In that moment, the bitterness she had felt in the past must have been replaced with rapture, glorious and triumphant. Miriam demonstrated that even a virtuous woman, focused on doing the Lord's work, can have shortcomings like jealousy and desire for the power that belongs to another. But shortcomings can be forgiven, and a woman can become stronger for having had them. Miriam surely understood that God has a purpose for every life, and hers was to protect and watch over the baby Moses, the deliverer of the Children of the Lord.