A daughter born into slavery was often named “Mary” as “one who has endured much suffering.” Miriam, or “Mary,” was born under Egyptian slavery at a particularly cruel point in history. Pharoah had ordered the murder of all the baby boys to prevent an uprising. History suggests that the girls were raped so that their children would be rejected by the Hebrews and Egyptians, ensuring they would be made perpetual slaves.1 Despite the great suffering of Miriam’s time, she was a child of courage and ingenuity who saved and protected her baby brother, Moses. She also provided a way for him to know his birth-family and their history by recommending her own mother as his wet nurse.
We later learn of “Miriam the Prophet,” in Exodus 15. Prophets are called and appointed by God to speak God’s word to the people just as Miriam speaks to Israel through her victory song. Here she not only proclaims the death of the enemy, but her song also affirms the death of the Egyptian gods and a growing understanding of YHWH.2 Her importance as a chosen leader of God is remembered in Micah 6:8, where she, Moses, and Aaron are all given credit for bringing the Israelites out of slavery.
Miriam leads the women with “timbrels and dancing” in a victory song known as “The Song of the Sea” or “Miriam’s Song” (Gen. 15:20). Throughout the Old Testament when men returned from battle, they were greeted in song and dance by those remaining behind, the women. Thus, the women were the percussionists (timbrel is a type of small drum), musicians, dancers, and hymn writers. Though Moses has been credited with writing the victory song, the fact that women were the greeting musicians, and that the Dead Sea scrolls attribute eight of the song’s verses to Miriam, cause scholars to presume that Miriam authored the entire song, rather than one verse.3
Miriam is clearly a beloved leader for the people. In Numbers 12:1-16, she and Aaron are disciplined for rebuking Moses. Yet, the people refuse to move on without Miriam. She represents them in their strengths and weaknesses, courageous enough to facilitate their rescue from Egypt, joyous enough to lead them in worship before God, and human enough to fail and be disciplined. Therefore, they wait for her until she is ready to travel with them.
To learn more about the circumstances of Miriam’s birth, see: “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement” by Boaz Johnson.
To learn more about Prophets, see: “Women Prophets in the Old Testament” by Christine Marchetti.
To learn about the scriptural preservation of women’s words in oral tradition, read: “Who First Told the Bible’s Stories and Why It Matters” by Jeff Miller.
- Boaz Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019).
- Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible”.
- Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NY: The Cambridge University Press, 2005), 116-119.