Miriam the prophetess was the older sister of Moses, a leader of women, and a prophetess. She praised God but let her pride hijack her ministry.
Miriam worshiped God with all her being, but let pride and arrogance mar her ministry. She learned the hard way God’s thoughts on pride.
While a few women in the Bible are given extensive coverage, most women are represented by one or two snapshots that illustrate highlights or low points in their lives. For Miriam, we get four brief snapshots.
Miriam as Young Girl
First, we’re introduced to her as a child when she watches out for baby Moses in his basket in the Nile River. As a child, she’s brave, spunky, and protective of her little brother. We can tell, that just like her brother, she’s something special. But unlike her little brother who grows up in a palace, Miriam grows up in slavery along with her other brother, Aaron.
As a young girl, Miriam witnessed Pharaoh’s attempts to kill Hebrew baby boys. She was there when Moses was born and overheard her parents’ conversations, wondering what they would do to save their baby. How Miriam must have worried as she helped rock Moses to sleep, fearful that at any moment soldiers might come and arrest them all for disobeying the law. Then how overjoyed she must have been when her mother conceived the plan to save Moses.
I can picture Jochebed gently swaddling Moses in a blanket then wrapping her arm around Miriam and praying for safety and deliverance for her son. But though Jochebed put Moses in the river and trusted God to deliver him, Miriam wanted to keep an eye on her little brother to see for herself what would happen.
From her position in the shadows, she watched as the Egyptian princess opened the basket and saw baby Moses. She witnessed the compassion on her face, and knew it was safe to come out.
Acting swiftly and without fear, Miriam addressed Pharaoh’s daughter. She offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. Of course, that woman was Moses’s mother.
This story of Miriam as a young girl gives us a glimpse into who she would become as a woman. Curious, courageous, and quick-thinking, Miriam loved her baby brother and would do anything in her power to protect him.
Though Miriam could have remained in the distance, assured that Moses was going to be protected, because of Miriam’s willingness to boldly address the princess, Moses received a godly heritage from his Hebrew mother.
Miriam the Prophetess
The next time we see Miriam she’s in her 80’s. The Israelites have escaped from Egypt. They’ve crossed the Red Sea on dry land and watched Pharaoh’s army drown as the sea closed in behind them. Then we see the Israelites praising God, and Miriam grabs her tambourine and leads the women in dance and worship.
I will sing to the Lord,
For He has triumphed gloriously!”Exodus 15:1
The Lord is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I wll praise Him.
My father’s God, and I will exalt Him.Exodus 15:2
The Lord shall reign forever and ever.Exodus 15:18
Then in Exodus 15:20, we find that Miriam, a prophetess and the older sister of Moses and Aaron, grabs a timbrel and leads the women in praise and worship with singing, instruments, and dance.
“Sing to the Lord,
For He has trimphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider
He has thrown into the sea!” (v. 21)
This is the first mention of Miriam since she watched over baby Moses in his basket in the Nile, but we see now that not only are her brothers prophets, but she is a prophetess as well. And she’s a natural leader as she led the women in worship, and they all followed her lead.
If we weren’t keeping up with the passing of time, we would assume from this passage that Miriam was a young woman caught up in the excitement of the moment. In fact, Miriam was 80-years-old. She’d witnessed the death of Hebrew boys. She’d participated in the saving of her little brother Moses. She’d served the women in Egypt while Moses was living his life in Midian. And now, she was following her brothers in leading the Hebrew nation to the Promised Land. Miriam celebrated God’s goodness, and all the women rejoiced with her.
As a slave girl now free from the bonds of captivity she’d been under her entire life, imagine the joy Miriam must have felt. Her joy was contagious as the other women joined along with her. When Miriam led, others followed her lead.
In a culture where women were primarily concerned with marriage and motherhood, Miriam remained single. Her focus was on leading the masses. She led the way and set the standard for the other women. She was strong and exuberant, an integral member of the powerful family trio.
Miriam Gets Prideful
Unfortunately, Miriam got caught in her own power play. No longer content in the role she held among the women, Miriam wanted more.
We’re not told how much time passed between the snapshot of Miriam dancing and her next mention. Bible scholars speculate it could have been as short as a year in between. But the next time we see Miriam, she’s not looking so good.
Miriam’s ego got the best of her. Pious in her own eyes, she felt compelled to speak out against her younger brother, appointing herself as his moral compass. Perhaps, as author Paula Parker puts it, she assumed superiority because as the older sister, she’d changed his diapers when he was a baby.
She and Aaron began to criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. Then she complained that she and Aaron were as important as Moses, and that God spoke to them as well as Moses.
When Miriam spoke, women listened, so I can imagine the murmurings that came as a result of Miriam. It would be only a matter of time before the murmurings grew to full out rebellion. But God didn’t let it get to that point.
Miriam Chastised by God
Numbers 12 tells us that God called all three siblings to the tabernacle of meeting where He proceeded to put Miriam in her proper place. The Lord descended in a pillar of cloud, stood at the entrance to the tent, and summoned Miriam and Aaron to come forward like children called before the taskmaster.
In no uncertain terms, He made it clear that Moses was not an ordinary man. He was called by God for a specific purpose, and it was not Miriam’s place to call down Moses. God’s anger burned against Miriam, and to show His displeasure, He turned her skin into diseased leprosy.
As soon as Aaron saw what had happened, he begged Moses not to hold their foolish behavior over her, and Moses immediately cried out to the Lord to heal her. In true sibling fashion, they all pulled together when one of them was hurting.
Miriam and God’s Mercy
God heard their cries and responded that she must be quarantined outside the camp for seven days, after which time, she’d be healed.
For seven days, Miriam endured the public humiliation of being a leper, unclean and unable to come into contact with the rest of the population.
Can you imagine a more humbling experience?
And yet, even though she failed miserably, she was still loved. She was loved by her brothers, and she was loved by the Hebrew people. We’re told that the entire population waited until Miriam was healed before they continued on their journey to the Promised land.
No more mention is made of Miriam until her death in Numbers 20. All the Bible records is that she died in Kadesh and was buried there, but tradition says that the Israelites mourned for 30 days after her death.
Miriam was blessed to be a leader in a time when women had little or no authority. She was one of only 5 women in the Old Testament to be called a prophetess, and she was the first. It was an honor bestowed by God, but with that position came a greater level of accountability. Because the other women looked to Miriam for wisdom and guidance, it was especially important that she be an acceptable role model. When she got cocky, God had to put her in her place.
What Can We Learn From Miriam?
It’s easy for us to become sanctimonious. We can mistake it for being saintly or sanctified. But God is not fooled. He knows our hearts. He knows when we’re truly striving to serve Him and when we’re merely trying to act superior.
And we need to know that God will not tolerate pride among His leaders. When we start to think we know best, when we try to upsurp power from those who have authority over us, when we engage others in our pettiness, God will get our attention, and it won’t be pretty.
Just as God humbled Miriam, He will humble us and we will never be the same again. It appears that Miriam learned her lesson. While she may never again have reached the heights that she enjoyed that day on the shores of the Red Sea, we know that Miriam continued on in her role with the Hebrew nation, and that she died a beloved woman.
How blessed we are that God is a God who disciplines, but who also forgives. No matter what we do, if we turn from our wicked ways and humble our hearts, and seek His face, He will hear our cries and forgive us our sins.
Lord God, we come to you today humbled. We know that like Miriam, we so often get caught up in our own self righteousness and forget that you and only you are the one who determines what is righteous. Please forgive us for the many times we become prideful and arrogant.
Thank you for your gentle discipline and for your overwhelming compassion no matter how many times we fall short of who you’d have us be. Guide us and direct us in the ways that we should go. We love you. In Christ name. Amen.
Miriam Bible Study
Bible Study Review
1. How old was Miriam when she left Egypt?
2. What did she complain about?
3. How did God deal with her attitude?
Thoughts to Ponder
1. Why did Miriam get jealous of Moses?
2. Why did God deal more harshly with Miriam than Aaron?
3. How did God show mercy to Miriam?
1. How do you praise God for His goodness?
2. Do you struggle with jealousy?
3. Have you experienced God’s mercy when you fell short?