Miriam appears in the Book of Exodus, which chronicles the time of Jewish slavery in Egypt. Her name means ‘bitter sea’.
Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron and was a prophetess from a very young age. This meant that God spoke to His people through her, although He did not speak directly to her. Her powers were proven in her prediction that her brother Moses would grow up to become the leader of Israel.
In Miriam’s time, the Jews were living under the rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh, who worried that the Jewish people seemed to be growing mightier. He considered the Jews to be a threat to his sovereignty, and devised a plan to quash them.
While they were slaves to Pharaoh, the Jews seemed only to increase in number and strength. Thus, Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish-born sons be murdered; a plan which was not carried out because the midwives did not cooperate. He then decided to have all Jewish baby boys drowned.
Miriam was distressed by the fate of her people and endeavored to save her own baby brother and thereby the Jewish nation. She assisted her mother in making a wicker basket in which to place him. They knew that he would float among the reeds of the Nile, and they hoped that he would be rescued from certain death.
Pharaoh’s daughter Batiah found the basket and drew the baby from the water. This is why he became known as Moses, which means ‘One-Who-Draws-Out’. With the baby she found Miriam, who innocently offered to find help for the child, “in the child’s own mother” (Exodus 2:8). Miriam saw that her brother must be legally reunited with his mother. Her foresight and brilliance were indicative of her role as prophetess for her people.
Miriam and her mother agreed to return Moses to the Pharaoh after the child was grown. They brought him to the Pharaoh, with Miriam’s mother disguised as a nurse. The Pharaoh’s daughter named him her son Moses. He was destined to be the leader of the Jews, and to bring them out of the house of slavery. By communicating with God he went on to lead his people to freedom through the parted Red Sea.
Miriam led the Jewish women, who followed her example of praising God for His miraculous provision. It is written. Then the prophetess Miriam, sister of Aaron, took up a tambourine, and all the women followed her with tambourines and dancing (Exodus 15:20). The miraculous well of water that followed the Jews through the desert for forty years was believed to flow in honour of Miriam. The well ceased to flow upon her death.
Miriam questioned her brother Moses’ power. She felt slighted that God actually spoke to him, as opposed to only through her. She was punished for wanting to be equal to her brother, and was struck down with leprosy and banished from the Jews’ camp for one week.
Miriam’s life was composed of both agony and ecstasy, and serves as an example of the struggle of women to be heard. People have questioned why Aaron, who also attacked Moses’ credibility, was not punished at all. Miriam was the force behind her brother’s survival, yet she was never allowed his status.
Unlike the previous matriarchs, Miriam did not live to conceive. Her objective was to bring forth a nation from physical slavery into spiritual freedom, with God as her guide. Miriam lived for her people, who suffered with her through her sickness. After her bout of leprosy, her singing was not heard again. Miriam, in song and in silence, spoke for the liberation of women.
Miriam is an example of the plight of women in Judaism. Her questioning of God’s ways is a tribute to her strength of character. Miriam’s song lives through Jewish history and her story is retold every Passover.