Many Anglo-Saxon girls of European descent, as well as Jewish girls, have been named in honor of Miriam – the anglicized version being more recognizable as Mary – by which we know Jesus’ mother. But who was the first Miriam mentioned in scripture? The answer to that question lying in the pages of the Old Testament books of Exodus and Numbers.
The Israelis had been in Egypt for 350 years, having gone there to escape the famine gripping their homeland. After a period of successful coexistence, the Egyptians became concerned with the growing presence of aliens in their midst and gradually isolated and enslaved them. Part of the ongoing plan to curb the Israeli numbers and perceived threat was particularly brutal (Exodus 1:12-22), drowning every son born to an Israeli woman in the Nile River.
Jochebed, the wife of Amram and mother of Miriam and Aaron was pregnant – with Moses. Jewish tradition holding that while Moses was still in his mother’s womb, Amram had pleaded with God to rescue his people, his family and, in particular, the child his wife now carried. According to first-century Jewish historian Josephus, God appeared to Amram in a dream, promising to deliver his son from danger and through him, the Israeli’s from bondage; which is indeed what scripture relates.
We’re all familiar with the story of Moses being hidden by his parents and his subsequent “journey” in a basket on the Nile. It is at this point that Miriam is specifically introduced into her brother’s story, looking after the baby in his “ark” from the banks of the river. Having been discovered by an Egyptian princess and removed from his basket, again – according to Josephus – she despaired of quieting his hungry cries and was then willing to listen to Miriam’s suggestion that she find a Hebrew nursemaid to comfort him (Exodus 2:7), and of course she returned with their mother.
It’s likely Moses lived with his birth-family, or at least spent time with them regularly, until he was 9 or 10 years old. During these formative years, he would have learned about the one true God of his ancestors and the illustrious careers of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; identifying with the Jewish people as well as their God, yearning with them for a deliverer. He was eventually summoned by the princess to return to her and adopted into the royal family, in the process growing up and being educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, which was considerable; becoming, “…powerful in speech and action.” Acts 7:22 Some of which, again according to Josephus, revealed his sympathy for the Hebrew slaves, causing suspicion among many Egyptians as to his loyalty and allegiance.
Their suspicions were later born out when Moses finally began to identify more with the Hebrew people than his Egyptian “family”, preferring instead, “…to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.” Hebrews 11:24,25 Scripture recording in Exodus 2:11-14 the incident that finally precipitated the fateful break for Moses, causing a profound change in his life. He killed an abusive task-maker, confirming Egyptian suspicions and causing his exile to Midian; starting a new life there as a nomadic shepherd for the next 40 years.
At the end of that long separation, Aaron was told to rendezvous with his brother in the wilderness. Their course set by God to work in tandem to free the Israelis from bondage, they returned to Egypt and pronounced the Lord’s judgement on Pharaoh; warning of each succeeding plague until he finally released them. Having now been in Egypt 430 years, the jubilation the Jews felt at their “escape” from Egypt must have been immeasurable. But as was his want, Pharaoh changed his mind one final time, sending his army to chase his former slaves down. Josephus adding once more that in addition to the six hundred chariots sent out by Pharaoh, there were also countless horsemen and foot soldiers.
Trapped now between the Red Sea and one of the most advanced and efficient armies of the ancient world, the situation looked hopeless. But Moses knew better and chose to trust the God of hope, charging his people to, “…not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today.” Exodus 14:13 What He accomplished was a dry road through the sea to the opposite shore for the Israeli’s and a watery grave for the Egyptians who tried to follow. (Exodus 14:21-28 See also Psalm 77:17-20)
Having witnessed the awful/awesome power of God to save and destroy, the Israelis were dumbstruck, finally recovering their senses and voices in a song of praise. Here, in the midst of this stunned yet joyous tumult, Miriam steps forward to lead the women in a song of her own. (Exodus 15:1-21) Scripture bestowing the title of prophetess on her at this time. (The first of only four women to be honored as such.)
But alas, the people soon began to complain. (See Exodus 15:25,16:4-13 & 17:6) Despite their grumbling and lack of faith, God continued to preserve, provide and protect; as when the Amalekites attacked the Israelis en-route to Mt. Sinai. Hur – Miriam’s husband – literally/physically supported Moses – along with Aaron, at that battle. (See Josephus & Exodus 17:11,12) After arriving at Sinai, the Israelis stayed put for 11 months (Numbers 10:11), receiving the final instructions for building the tabernacle while there. (According to rabbinic tradition, a craftsman chosen for its construction named Bezalel (Exodus 35:50), was a grandson of Hur and Miriam, showing the family’s deep roots in establishing, protecting and developing this new nation; even before it had a permanent home.) Resuming their journey, they continued to grumble and complain. And even though Aaron and Miriam had seen first-hand God’s miraculous defense of his people, as well as his repeated punishment of their dissension, they unexpectedly joined in.
Their questioning of Moses’ authority was at first masked as a complaint against his choice of a new wife (Numbers 12:1), the real motive, however, was revealed in their envious question, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” Numbers 12:12 (Being older than Moses, it had evidently become difficult for them to accept their assigned stations as his subordinates. Jealousy being behind the complaint of council members recorded in Numbers 16 as well.) The Lord’s response was swift, publicly censuring them and afflicting Miriam with leprosy. (Some wondering why only Miriam was punished while Aaron remained whole and clean. The only possible reason I can come up with is that Miriam was the oldest of this trio of children, giving her a natural leadership position among them, to which she possibly used to lead Aaron astray in questioning Moses’ right to lead.) Aaron and Moses immediately pleaded for God to heal and cleanse her of this dread disease, which He did. But it is at this point that Miriam disappears from the written record, until her death in the first month of the 40th year of Israel’s wilderness wondering. (Numbers 20:1) Both brothers dying in that same year. Aaron in the fifth month – Numbers 33:38 and Moses in the eleventh – after declaring all that the Lord had done for the Israelites and his expectations of them in return. (See Deuteronomy 1:3 & 34:7) Miriam’s claim to fame coming as a result of her faith and hope in Jehovah/God, the One and only Lord of the universe. Her life’s greatest triumphs coming when her heart and mind were centered on God and her voice was raised in praise of His name.
*Some material gathered from John MacArthur’s book, Twelve Unlikely Heroes, Thomas Nelson Publishing
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