Miriam was the older sister of Moses and is chiefly celebrated for the part she played when the daughter of Pharaoh found the infant Moses in the bulrushes. She was at that time a young girl, anxious only for the welfare of her baby brother. In later life she appears in the only two incidents in which she figures as a somewhat passionate and militant woman. Scanty as is the information regarding her, there are a few deductions possible which can be of interest and perhaps profit.
Miriam was born during the period of the Oppression, when the Egyptians, perturbed at the phenomenally rapid increase of the alien people in their midst, enslaved them and "made their lives bitter with hard bondage" (Ex.1.14). Thothmes I, the Pharaoh of the Oppression, had issued an edict that all male children born to Israelites were to be thrown into the river; this was an effort to halt the increase in numbers, thought to endanger the native population. Moses' mother had not complied with the command; instead she placed the baby in a boat made of papyrus reeds and consigned him to the providence of God. And it was in that providence that the daughter of Pharaoh, going down to the river to bathe, found him.
The daughter of Thothmes I was the famous Hat-shep-sut, known to history as a vigorous and determined woman who was married successively to Thothmes II and Thothmes III but arrogated their duties as Pharaoh to herself. For some forty years she was the real ruler of Egypt and under her firm and far-sighted administration the country flourished. At the time of Moses' birth, however, her father was still Pharaoh and she herself about twenty-one years of age, married to the weakling future Thothmes II and already despairing of having any children by him. This fact may explain her action in adopting the infant Moses as her own son.
Miriam was about sixteen or seventeen at the time. The word used to describe her in Exodus 2 is almah, which means a young girl of marriageable age. Lingering near by, "to wit what would be done to him", Miriam watched as the Egyptian princess had the child brought to her, saw that, in her own words "this is one of the Hebrews' children", and determined to keep it for herself. In so doing she must have known that she was transgressing her father's edict, but this determination on her part is quite consistent with the headstrong and self-willed character of Hat-shep-sut as it is known to history, as is also her adoption of a Hebrew child rather than a native one.
Here was Miriam's opportunity, and the first indication that she was not lacking in qualities of courage and initiative. It probably needed both in good measure for a young girl of the despised slave caste to accost and address the leading lady of the land, the daughter of Pharaoh herself. But Miriam was equal to the occasion; she suggested to the princess that she should secure the services of a Hebrew woman to nurse the child until it was of a suitable age to be introduced into the royal palace. Her offer was accepted and of course Miriam fetched her own mother, who thereby had her son restored to her and his life saved. She probably had him for two or three years and then his adoptive mother took him into her own care and began to groom him for royal honours, and his own mother saw him no more. It does not appear that Hat-shep-sut's husband was consulted about all this, but Thothmes II was a physical weakling completely dominated by his wife and the fact that he was unable to give her a son himself probably supplied her with an unanswerable argument.
At this point Miriam drops out of the story and the next glimpse we have of her is eighty years later, at the deliverance of Israel in the crossing of the Red Sea. Much had happened in the meantime. Moses, grown to manhood, had repudiated his royal status and associated himself with his oppressed kinsfolk, in consequence of which he had spent forty years in exile. Hat-shep-sut had been dead for forty years, Amen-hotep II, another obstinate ruler, was now Pharaoh, and he with his people had just suffered the disasters of the Ten Plagues culminating in the loss of his cavalry in the waters of the Red Sea. The Israelites were safe on the other side. Miriam, who had spent her entire life of some ninety-seven years under conditions of slavery and oppression, now took a timbrel in her hand and led the women of Israel in dancing and song. The song ‑ a fine example of what is called a "taunt song", peculiar to the Old Testament ‑ is given in full in Ex.15. "Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously;" she sang: "the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea." Lest it be thought rather improbable that a woman of ninety-seven should be physically capable of leading the dance, let it be remembered that the normal life-span in the days of Miriam was considerably longer than it is now, anything up to a hundred and forty years. Not only Biblical characters but also Egyptian and Babylonian notables, as demonstrated by ancient records and tomb inscriptions, attest this fact. She was evidently considered the foremost woman in Israel in consequence of the position of Moses her brother as the acknowledged leader of the nation.
At the time of this incident she is referred to as "Miriam the prophetess" (Ex.15.20). This must certainly indicate that during the dark days of the Oppression she had been a stalwart defender of the Faith. Whilst little is known of Israel's spiritual condition during those times, it is clear that faith and belief in God was at a low ebb. Of some twenty or so persons of Miriam's time who are named in the histories only about three ‑ Aaron her brother, Hur of Judah and Joshua the son of Nun, figure as men of God. At least seven—Dathan, Abiram, On, Korah, Achan, Nadab and Abihu - appear in some one or other deed of apostasy. It does seem that the family of Amram and Jochebed ‑ Miriam, Aaron and Moses ‑ stand out as rather unique in their zealous faith and it might well be that whilst Moses was in exile in Midian those forty years his sister was a tower of strength to the Hebrew community and kept alive what little faith there was in Israel. There might be a wonderfully inspiring but forever unknown story of militant heroism and stalwart faith hidden away behind those apparently casual words "Miriam the prophetess".
Jewish tradition ‑ not supported by the Old Testament ‑ has it that Miriam married Hur, of the tribe of Judah, the man who shared with Aaron the duty of second in rank to Moses in affairs of State (see Ex.24.14). The supposition is not unlikely; they were very possibly of much the same age and the evident fact that Hur was a trusted lieutenant to Moses implies his close personal connection with the family. If these two were indeed husband and wife it would follow as a matter of interest that Miriam was the grandmother both of Bezaleel, the constructor of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and would also be grandmother of Caleb, who with Joshua brought back the true report in the matter of spying out the land, and was specially honoured of God in consequence. In such case the marriage must have taken place while Moses was still a youth, since Caleb was forty years old at the Exodus. One could imagine this trio comprising Aaron, Hur and Miriam closely associated together in working for the welfare of Israel during the whole forty years of Moses' exile in Midian.
All that was now in the past and Israel was delivered. Little more than a year later, not long after the momentous happenings at Sinai, where Moses had been manifestly revealed as the intermediary between God and Israel, another side to Miriam's character was thrown open to view. Jealousy, naked and unashamed, brought her into conflict not only with the brother she had worked with so long a time, but also the God she had served so faithfully since childhood. The story is related in Num. 12. 1-16. "And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian (Cushite) woman he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said. Hath the Lord indeed spoken only to Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it" (Num.12.1-2). This is the first indication of a rift in the association between these three. Moses was accustomed to challenges against his authority from others jealous of his position, apprehensive of the unknown terrors of the journey to Canaan and desirous in consequence of returning to Egypt. But now he was faced with challenge from his own brother and sister, themselves highly esteemed in the eyes of the people. The trouble focused on the wife of Moses. Mirian and Aaron professed to object to the fact that she was not a native Israelite. There is something a little odd in the accepted text here. In the AV she is called an Ethiopian woman whereas the earlier history of Exodus tells the full story of Moses' marriage, whilst in exile in Midian. Zipporah was the daughter of Reuel the Midianite tribal chief who sheltered Moses. "Ethiopian" is the Greek equivalent of "Cushite", children of Cush, and there were Cushite tribes in Arabia a well as Africa so that the contradiction may in fact be more apparent than real. At any rate, Moses wife was not of the house of Israel, and although the fact had apparently not aroused any animosity before, it seems to have done so now when the host was well on its way to the Promised Land.
Very possibly it was the old question "Who shall succeed the ruler?" Moses was at the moment the unquestioned leader of the nation. At eighty years of age he was in the full vigour of manhood, a usual thing in those days. But one day he would die and upon whom would the mantle of authority then descend? He had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer but they were only half Israelite; their mother was a Midianite. Aaron, as the next in authority, was married to Elisheba, of the tribe of Judah, and he had four sons. As Jacob was dying he had indicated Judah as the future royal tribe. Surely a man having the blood of Judah and Levi in his veins would be the more appropriate leader of Israel! If in fact Miriam was married to Hur as the legend claims, then here again, since Hur also was of Judah, the sons of Hur, Uri and Jephunneh, could make the same claim. Here, it seems were all the ingredients of a fight over the future leadership and Miriam seems to have taken the initiative. Her name is mentioned in front of Aaron in this, and only in this instance. Maybe the question of Moses' wife was just the immediate excuse. The militant and probably domineering character of Miriam was no longer content to remain in a subordinate position. She aspired to equality of status with Moses, and Aaron who is revealed in the incident of the Golden Calf as being easily led, was persuaded to go along with her. If the three of them could be accepted as a triumvirate ruling Israel, then when the time came that a successor to Moses' office was necessary, it would be easy to ensure that a scion of the house of Judah would be chosen and the sons of the Midianite woman cast out. That, perhaps, was the reasoning which lay behind this rather unpleasant incident. And, of course, in all this reasoning, Miriam and Aaron quite forgot that it was the Lord who appointed Moses in the first place and would doubtless be equally positive about the appointment of his successor.
They were quickly reminded of that fact when the Lord came on the scene. This is one of the occasions of what is called a theophany, a visible appearance of God. The narrative says that the Lord appeared visibly in human form and talked with them. Whatever may be the truth of that or the reality behind the story, the pair were left in no doubt of the Lord's attitude. "How dare you" He demanded "speak against my servant Moses?" "And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed . . . and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow."
That instantaneous infliction of the dreaded disease, leprosy, brought about a quick reaction. Miriam must have been numbed with horror. She, the first lady of the nation, esteemed a prophetess of God, now and henceforth condemned to live the rest of her life an outcast, forbidden entry to the camp of Israel or to share in its life, trailing along on the outskirts as the people journeyed and living apart with such other equal unfortunates as there were, dependent for food and livelihood upon the thought and charity of the people! The pride and militancy of her nature must have vanished in a flash and left her crushed and broken. The question of equality with Moses, of authority over Israel, was no longer of any importance; for her, life was finished.
Aaron, equally horror-stricken, was imploring Moses for mercy. "My lord," he said, now freely acknowledging the superior status of his brother which a few minutes ago he had denied, "we have done foolishly .. . we have sinned". He begged that Miriam might be healed, and Moses, doubtless genuinely concerned at his sister's plight, and feeling that the lesson had almost certainly been thoroughly learned, cried unto the Lord "Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee". And the Lord, looking down and perceiving that the lesson had indeed been learned, assented and healed her ‑ but stipulated that she should be shut out of the camp and isolated as unclean for seven days before resuming normal life, just to impress the point. Miriam was after all a devoted and fervent servant of the God of Israel, It is perhaps reasonable to expect that she came back into the camp a humbled and chastened woman, the old militancy and self-assurance tempered by a new spirit of willing submission to the overruling wisdom of God.
That is all we know of Miriam. Forty years later, on the eve of entry into the land, after enduring with Israel all the hardships and terrors of that long sojourn in the "waste and howling wilderness", she died at Kadesh, on the frontier of the Promised Land, at the ripe old age of about a hundred and thirty-seven. She did make one bad mistake, but after all she was a woman of faith. Without much doubt she is included in the gallery of stalwarts who, to use the language of Heb. 11, "received a good report through faith" and will in no wise fail their place in the future purposes of God.