Fleur highlights the central role Miriam plays in Israel's history and how she interprets the Exodus through song inspired by this mosaic in Jerusalem.
Miriam first appears in the Book of Exodus. She is the daughter of Amram and Jochebed and the older sister of Moses and Aaron according to Numbers 26:59. Miriam is believed to have helped rescue her baby brother Moses from the River Nile in Exodus 2:4. While the Israelites were living as exiles in Egypt, a new Pharaoh had recently been appointed. Fearing a growing Israelite population, he ordered all Egyptians to throw new born Hebrew boys into the River Nile. After his decree, the Amram and his wife Jochebed had their son Moses. Rather than risk the boy’s death, the couple tried to hide him, but this became too difficult once he started to grow.
“But when she (Jochebed) could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket, daubed it with bitumen and pitch, and putting the child in it, placed it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile. His sister (probably Miriam) stationed herself at a distance to find out what would happen to him.” Exodus 2:3-4
After Miriam watched Pharaoh’s daughter rescue the child from the river, she quickly offered her mother as a nursemaid, without revealing that either of them were related to him. Moses’ mother Jochebed was therefore able to continue being involved in her son’s life in spite of his being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Neither Miriam, nor her mother could foresee the significance of their actions for the future of Israel in saving Moses’ life. We next encounter Miriam as a prophetess who led Israel’s wilderness community in the ‘Song of the Sea’ after Pharaoh’s army was destroyed by Yahweh in the Red Sea. There are few prophetesses in the Bible but Miriam is the first female to be named as such. The others are: Deborah in Judges 4:4; Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14 and 2 Chronicles 34:22; “the prophetess” in Isaiah 8:3; Anna in Luke 2:36-38; the four daughters of Philip in Acts 21:8-9; and two false prophetess –Noadiah in Nehemiah 6:14 and Jezebel in Revelation 2:20.
The Old Testament records several occasions where women celebrate and proclaim military victories. Such events had extraordinary political and spiritual potential. The messages in women’s sacred songs were important propaganda. Military victory here is first a celebratory performance, and so the sacred song and dance of women could define how triumphs and defeats were remembered. They might honour or dishonour a king or a deity. They might focus on championing a community, its heroes and heroines or denounce the enemy. So when Miriam leads the her people in singing, dancing, and playing instruments after crossing the Red Sea, she is praising Yahweh, rousing the faithful, and elevating her community identity, rather than hosting an al fresco party.
When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.
The Song of Miriam
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” Exodus 15:19-21
Miriam proclaiming and singing the power and faithfulness of God weaves the victory song into the conscious memory of the Israelite people, since it is not a human army but the Lord of Hosts whom Miriam praises. By challenging expectations, Miriam makes a profoundly theological statement. Some scholars believe that the whole song (rather than just the chorus) was originally sung by Miriam and not Moses. And that this tension between the two siblings is highlighted by the editors re-attributing most of the song to him at a later date and elevating his position in opposition to Miriam, as we shall see later on.
Nevertheless, the story of the Exodus begins with Miriam beside the waters that hold her helpless baby brother; and the story ends with Miriam once again beside the waters, this time celebrating Moses’ victory over the waters. The word ‘Moses’ in Hebrew means ‘to be drawn out’ – just as Moses is drawn out of the water as a baby, so he fulfils his name as an adult when he draws the people out of the sea. Rescue from the waters and Miriam’s words and actions are key aspects of both events. Miriam bookends the Exodus story.
The biblical tradition suggests that during the Exodus, the leadership model was held between three people all called “prophet”: Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. This is remembered later in Micah 6:4 when Micah recalls how God delivered the Israelites:
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
There is an interesting distinction here between the early worship led by Aaron, later resulting in the catastrophic incident with the golden calf (Exodus 32), and the worship led by Miriam, who pioneered sacred song and dance. Miriam and Aaron are the first two cultic leaders in Israel’s celebrations of the Exodus. However, Israel’s history in accepting cultic idolatry is symbolised by Aaron the priest, while its opposite is symbolised by Miriam the prophetess in her leading in worship of the true God of the Exodus.
With Aaron’s calf and Miriam’s song, there is a festive, devotional atmosphere of dancing, but Aaron’s worship includes idolatry while Miriam’s worship praises the living God. Central to Miriam’s song is that while only as a slave woman, she celebrates what Pharaoh’s army failed to do: cross the Red Sea on dry ground. Miriam could only do it because the Lord is on the side of the oppressed. Therefore, the meaning and purpose of the Exodus, a focal point in all of Israel’s history, is explained through the words and music of a woman. Miriam, not Aaron is the key interpreter of the Exodus.
It is this image and role of Miriam’s that is portrayed in this beautiful mosaic from the Abbey Church of the Dormition on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This church has a complicated history and has been demolished and rebuilt several times in its long history. It now belongs to the Benedictine Order in Jerusalem and is alleged to be the place where Mary, mother of Jesus died hence its name ‘dormition’ meaning ‘sleep’. Catholics believe that Mary didn’t die but while asleep was assumed into heaven. There is a life size statue of Mary at sleep in the Abbey under the dome which is adorned with mosaic pictures of six women of the Old Testament: Eve, Miriam, Jael, Judith, Ruth and Esther. Our mosaic here of Miriam in portrait, clearly shows her making music with her tambourine. The Bible is filled with references to music and instruments and the tambourine is mentioned several times. To show movement Miriam’s hair is flowing backwards, her clothing windswept and her face focused on the journey ahead. She is on a mission, this is no subservient woman waiting for orders.
So the next time we read about Miriam in Numbers 12, she and Aaron are challenging the actions and authority of Moses. She sees leadership as embracing diverse voices and roles but this idea comes at great cost. When the Israelites are camped at Hazeroth, having left Mount Sinai, Miriam and Aaron rebuke Moses for marrying an unnamed woman. God appears in a pillar of cloud and in turn rebukes them, proclaiming Moses’ supreme prophetic authority since he humbly accepted God’s orders. As soon as God disappears, Miriam is covered in a white skin disease which is usually translated as leprosy. This is mentioned again as a warning of disobedience in Deuteronomy 24:9 – Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt. Aaron is so shocked that he begs God’s forgiveness and for Miriam to be healed. Moses intercedes but God states that Miriam has to be excluded from the Israelite camp for seven days, before she can return.
It is strange that on the one hand Miriam is the faithful believer who leads the people in their victory song, yet here she is accused of defying God when she doesn’t accept Moses’ authority over her and Aaron. And unlike Aaron, she is punished and ostracised for seven days. Perhaps since he was a priest, he couldn’t neglect his priestly duties if he were made to leave the camp for seven days. Is this also why Miriam’s death is described so briefly in Numbers 20:1 and why there is no account of the community’s response to her death; she simply vanishes. Or is this omission why Miriam is later remembered in Micah 6:4 when she is described alongside Moses and Aaron as delivering the Israelites from exile in Egypt.
There are a number of women’s songs in the Bible which are crucial in providing the theological meaning of a critical event in sacred history. They reach their climax in Mary’s Magnificat, which reverses many Old Testament ideas of power and success by placing the emphasis on the divine mercy and the willingness of God to raise up the powerless and to stand alongside them – most powerfully in the birth of Jesus and his crucifixion.
Taken as a whole, women’s songs define and summarise a number of theological themes: the role of God for the individual and the nation; the importance of faithfulness and hope; the reversal of the status quo; the importance of rejoicing and celebrating; and the blessings of motherhood on earth and in heaven. Miriam is one such prophetess and leader who should be remembered to this day.
Women of the Old Testament: Their Lives, Our Hope by Pia Septien. Liguori Publishers.
She Walked Before Us: Grace, Courage, and Strength from 12 Women of the Old Testament by Jill Eileen Smith. Revell, (Baker Publishing Group).
Main Image: The Dormition Church on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Photo by Radbod Commandeur. 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons