Women of Valor Week 6 // Miriam

Welcome to the sixth week of our Summer Bible journaling challenge, Women of Valor. I hope you enjoyed the week of rest to catch up on our study. Today, we will be studying and journaling Miriam’s story from the Books of Exodus and Numbers.

This week’s reading: Exodus 2:1-10, 15:20-21 ; Numbers 12:1-15; Micah 6:4

This week’s journaling focus: Exodus 15:20-21

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Miriam: sister, protector, prophetess. Her name means ‘bitter sea,’ but the word bitter can also mean strong. In some ways, Miriam was a sea of strength, watching over her younger brother Moses as he was hidden in the reeds of the Nile when she herself was still a young girl (Ex 2:1-10). But in others, her tenacity and stubbornness worked like waves crashing over the shore, eroding the patience of those around her (Num 12:1-15). The same qualities that brought her to lead the Israelite women in joyful dance (Ex 15:20-21), led to her punishment in the desert. And yet, she is remembered, for both her stubbornness and leadership:

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.

Micah 6:4

Join us this week in the story of Miriam, who God sent before us.

Miriam’s Story (in Three Parts)

Part One: A Young Girl

Miriam // Women of ValorGenerations after Rachel, her descendants through Joseph are living in slavery and oppression in Egypt. The pharaoh he fears that the Hebrew people have grown too strong and numerous, so he issues a decree that “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live” (Ex 1:22).

This is the world that the baby Moses is born into. His mother, whose name is Jocheved, hides Moses for the first three months of his life, but knows that she would not be able to hide him any longer. So she places him in a basket in the reeds long the Nile and leaves him there, with no one to look after him — no one, except Miriam. Miriam is only a young girl, but she takes on a responsibility that will end up shaping the history of God’s people.

The pharaoh’s daughter is walking along the Nile when she sees the basket. Upon opening it, she knows immediately that this is one of the Hebrew children, and takes pity on him. Miriam must have noted the softness in her voice voice, because she approaches the daughter of the pharaoh and asks, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” (Ex 2:7). When the pharaoh’s daughter agrees, Miriam fetches her mother, and in this way, Moses is able to be nursed by his mother just a bit longer, before he is raised by the pharaoh’s daughter.

Though we haven’t yet heard Miriam’s name, we can learn of her character from this episode. She is protective, brave, and bold — bold enough to approach the daughter of the most powerful man in her empire, and skilled enough with her words to do so in a way that ends favorably for her family.

Part Two: A Young Woman

Miriam // Women of Valor

We find out more of her story decades later, when Moses has delivered the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. Finally we learn Miriam’s name: “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron,” who is the brother of Moses (Ex 15:20). We know that is a prophetess, not only from her title, but also from her behavior; shortly after the Hebrew people are delivered from Egypt, she leads the Hebrew women in song and dance:

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Ex 15:20-21

Decades after her first act of bravery on the banks of the River Nile, Miriam still displays the skills of leadership and bravery as she boldly leads the Hebrew women in dance. This after generations of slavery, and what was surely a challenging and often bitter life for Miriam, who was herself also a slave. Even after being released from such trauma, not many of us would have the spirit to sing God’s praises, as Miriam does here. Fewer still would have the heart to lead such a group in worship.

And still, Miriam does. A life of slavery has not extinguished her bold and celebratory spirit. She uses her gift of leadership to sing the praises of the Lord, to celebrate His triumph.

Part Three: A Moment Regretted, a Lifetime Remembered

Miriam // Women of ValorBut Miriam’s boldness and leadership bring her both glory and trouble. Chapters later, in the book of Numbers, she and Aaron speak against Moses to complain about his Cushite wife; at least, on the surface. Angrily, they also say “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”, implying that perhaps jealousy was also the cause of the bitter conversation (Num 12:2). God hears them and reprimands them for their words. When He disappears, Moses and Aaron are the same, but Miriam has been struck with leprosy. Aaron pleads with Moses, who tries to intercede with God on Miriam’s behalf, but He does not change His mind. Miriam must wait outside the camp for seven days, and the Israelites do not move until she can rejoin them.

Many have wondered why Miriam is the only one punished for what she and Aaron did. Interestingly, the Bible tells us that “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses;” not Aaron first and Miriam second, as would have been more common in that time (Num 12:1). The fact that Miriam is named first implies that here, too, she was a leader; that perhaps it was she who spoke first, or who egged Aaron on.1 Maybe her leadership in this explains the unequal punishment between her and her brother.

This is the last we hear of Miriam’s story before her death in Numbers 20:1. But there is a final line in the Hebrew Bible that remembers her, in the book of Micah:

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.

Micah 6:4

Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. She had her flaws, and her life was unduly difficult, but she is not forgotten. Though she is not one of the matriarchs of Genesis, her name is still carried on today as theirs are, given to girls in both the Christian and Jewish tradition. In them, her life and legacy live on.

Making Connections

Miriam is the sixth woman we have studied as part of our Women of Valor series. Each woman before her — Hagar, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel — was chosen by God for a special purpose in the story of His people, despite her flaws. In some cases, God overlooked traits like doubt to make use of ordinary women like Sarah. In others, He took qualities that could be either good or bad, and used them to unfold His story, like with Rebecca. And in still others, God remembered the women whom the world forgot, like Hagar and Leah.

Miriam fits into this framework. Her brashness, while punished in Numbers, was ultimately forgiven: Miriam was still considered a prophetess, and she was still sent before us, remembered for her song and not her mistake. Her boldness and leadership, while sometimes troublesome, were also used to help her lead the Hebrew women in praise. And while the world forgot Miriam and the other Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt, God remembered them, and delivered them from their oppression.

Questions for Contemplation

  1. It is easy to doubt God’s promises as they apply to our own lives. How do the stories of imperfect women, who were still heroines in God’s story, remind us that our own weaknesses can be overlooked or used for a greater purpose?
  2. Miriam’s weakness of brash speech tied in to her gift of leadership in worship and community. Could any of your weaknesses have an upside in how you serve God’s people?
  3. Miriam used her gift of leadership to lead the women of her community in a song of praise. Which of your qualities might have been given to you for the purpose of serving others?
  4. Like Hagar was overlooked in Hebrew society, Miriam was seen as “less-than” by Egyptian society. How does Miriam’s story tie in to Jesus’ command to love and remember “the least of these?” (Matt 25:40) How might we use our gifts to help the Hagars and Miriams of our world today?

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Journaling prompt:

Though you are welcome to journal any portion of Miriam’s story that stood out to you, this week our community will be focusing on Miriam’s leading of the the song in Exodus 15:20-21. You may want to illustrate a crowd of women dancing in praise of God, either in an ancient Israelite setting, or women today from all around the world. You could also focus on how Miriam used her gifts to bring glory to God, journaling an entry that uses your gifts to bring glory to God in the same way. Finally, you could focus on the words of the verse: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously,” lettering them or showing the ways that God has triumphed in your life. Reflect on this story and use your thoughts to guide you as you journal today.

Maryam

Further reading:

If you’d like to read more about Miriam and her story, please feel free to check out these resources. All links to Amazon throughout this post are affiliate links.

  • “Miriam” in Women of the Bible: 52 Bible Studies for Individuals and Groups by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda, pages 93-99. This is a great book that I’ll be referencing a lot in this series. It reflects on 52 different women of the Bible and includes context, prayers, and reflection questions. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
  • “The Original Big Sister” in A Faith of Her Own: Women of the Old Testament by J. Ellsworth Kalas, pages 61-72. This is a great book of reflections on women of the Bible, written by famed pastor and professor J. Ellsworth Kalas. It is an easy read and offers new insights. This book is more faith-focused than academic.

Footnotes:

  1. This, at least, is the hypothesis of Methodist leader J. Ellsworth Kalas in his book A Faith of Their Own. I find it a compelling one!