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Hanna Tervanotko





More about Miriam the Prophetess





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Hanna Tervanotko





More about Miriam the Prophetess








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More about Miriam the Prophetess

The Dead Sea Scrolls elaborate on Miriam’s leadership role and personal history.


More about Miriam the Prophetess

Miriam, Herbert Bourne, ca. 1820.(colorized) Library of Congress

We first meet Miriam by name when she sings a victory song after YHWH defeats the Egyptian army:[1]

שׁמות טו:כ וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת.
Exod 15:20 Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums.[2]

In the biblical account, Miriam’s song is brief:[3]

שׁמות טו:כא וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם שִׁירוּ לַי־הוָה כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם.
Exod 15:21 And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to YHWH, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

A manuscript from Qumran, however, known as the Reworked Pentateuchc (4Q365, ca. 75 B.C.E.),[4] follows Exod 15:21 with at least 7 previously unknown lines of text, its location suggesting that the material belongs to Miriam’s song:[5]

‏בזׄית ע֯[ -- ]
4Q365 f 6aii+6c:1 with an olive branch […]
‏כי גאו֯ת֯[ ]ל֯ע֯[ -- ]
6c:2 for the pridefulness […]
‏גדׄול את֯ה֯ מ֯ו֯שיא א֯[ -- ]
6c:3 You are great, O deliverer […]
‏אבד֯ה֯ תקות שונה ונשׄ[כח -- ]
6c:4 the enemy’s hope has perished […]
‏אבדו במים אדירים שׄו֯נ֯ה֯[ -- ]
6c:5 they have perished in the mighty waters, the enemy […]
‏וׄרוממנה למרומם[ פ]ד֯ות נתת◦[-- ]
6c:6 Praise him in the heights, you have given salvation […]
[עו]שׄה גאות. ⟦ ⟧[ -- ]
6c:7 [who has] done glorious things […][6]

The manuscript is damaged, preserving only 19 words, but shared vocabulary with Exodus 15 suggests that Moses’s Song of the Sea (Exod 15:1b–18) may have inspired some of these lines. For example, the root ג.א.ה/י, referring to pride or glory, appears in both songs—כי גאו֯ת֯, “for the pridefulness” (4Q365 ll. 1–2) vs. כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה, “for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exod 15:1) and וּבְרֹב גְּאוֹנְךָ, “in your great triumph” (v. 7). Both songs also contain the phrase בְּמַיִם אַדִּירִים, “majestic waters,” (4Q365 ll. 5–6 and Exod 15:10).[7]

4Q365, however, also contains words that are not found in the Song of the Sea. Thus, it should not be viewed as a simple remake of the biblical passage, but a later composition partially based on Exodus 15, but that also has other literary traditions behind it.[8]

Miriam in 4Q365 has her own message of praise and celebration of God’s victory. Since victory songs were often attributed to prominent figures,[9] the song of Miriam suggests that tradition viewed her as having an important role in the Exodus.

The Aramaic translations (targumim) of the Torah preserve additional versions of Miriam’s song. For example, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (mid-1st millennium C.E.) reads:

וזמרת להון מרים נודי ונשׁבחא קדם ייי ארום תוקפא ורומומתא דידיה הוא על גיותנין הוא מתגאי ועל רמין הוא מתנטל על די אזיד פרעה רשׁיעא ורדף בתר עמא בני ישׂראל סוסוותיה ורתיכוי רמא וטמע יתהון בימא דסוף
And Miriam sang to them: “Let us give thanks and praise before the Lord, because might and eminence are his; he is exalted above the exalted, and he is elevated above the high. Because the wicked Pharaoh plotted and pursued the people of the children of Israel, his horses and his chariots, he threw (them) in the Sea of Reeds.”[10]

The songs of Miriam preserved in 4Q365 and in the targumim demonstrate that different versions of the song were known in antiquity. Though the targumim achieved their final form much later than 4Q365, they may contain material that dates back to the Second Temple period.[11] Indeed, shared vocabulary between 4Q365 and the targumim suggests that they may have influenced each other or that they may have drawn on a common source other than the Song of the Sea.[12]

Miriam’s Family in the Visions of Amram (4Q543–549)

The Bible tells us nothing about Miriam’s personal life, but another text from Qumran, called by modern scholars the Visions of Amram (2nd century B.C.E), refers to her marriage and children.[13] Preserved in seven copies (4Q543–549), this text is written in the form of a testament, a popular genre in the Hellenistic era. It recounts the experiences of Miriam’s father, Amram, that he shares with his children on his deathbed, and it narrates how he married Miriam to his brother Uzziel, Miriam’s uncle:[14]

5 עלוהי ושל֯[ח וקרא לעוזיאל א]חוהי זעיר֯[א ואסב] ‎6‏ לה למרים [ברתה לאנתה ברת ת]לׄתין ש[נין. ועבד משתותה] ‎7‏ ש֯[בעה יומין ואכל ואשתי במ]שתותׄה֯[ וחדי.
4Q543 f1 ac:5 He call[ed to Uzziel his] younger brother [and gave] ac:6 him Miriam [his daughter in marriage at the age of t]hirty ye[ars. Then he gave a feast] ac:7 lasting s[even days and he ate and drank at the f]east [and rejoiced].[15]

Uzziel is also mentioned in the Bible, along with Amram, as one of four sons of Kohath (Exod 6:18; Num 3:19). Marriage to her uncle would have kept Miriam in the Levite lineage, an important issue in the Visions of Amram.

That Miriam marries at age thirty means that she would have been mature enough to participate in choosing her own spouse.[16] Indeed, some texts suggest the age of thirty was the strategic point in achieving maturity.[17] The Damascus Document (2nd century B.C.E.), for example, includes among its requirements for the officers who preside over the community that the overseer of the camps be between 30 and 50 years old, “master of every secret of men and of every deceptive utterance” (XIV, 9–10). In addition, the Qumran Rule of the Congregation (1Q28a) notes that a thirty-year-old male can take part in legal disputes and is eligible to command, judge, and act as an official for his tribe and clan (I, 13–15). These examples show how various ancient authors highlighted the age of thirty as the age of maturity.

Another copy of the Visions of Amram (4Q549) refers to Miriam’s offspring:

7 ⟦ ⟧ ומ[ן משתותה די עוזיאל הווא חודשין] 8 עשרא ואולד מן מריאם עמׄא֯[ בנין תלתא למישאל ולאליצפן] 9 ולסתרי.
4Q549 f 2:7 And fr[om the wedding feast of Uzziel were] 2:8 ten [months.] And with Miriam he fathered a people[, three sons, Mishael and Elizaphan] 2:9 and Sithri.

The passage is very fragmentary, but considering that the three sons of Uzziel in Exodus 6:22 are Mishael, Elizaphan, and Sithri, this reconstruction is plausible.

An alternative tradition about Miriam’s marriage appears in Josephus’s account of the war against the Amalekites (Exod 17:8–12), which describes Miriam’s husband as Hur (Gr. Ouros) who fights alongside Moses and Aaron:

Ant 3.54 So long as Moses held his hands erect, the Amalekites were discomfited by the Hebrews. Moses, therefore, unequal to the strain of this extension of his arms, and seeing that as often as he dropped them so often were his men worsted, bade his brother Aaron and his sister Mariamme’s husband, by name Ur, stand on either side of him to support his hands and by their aid not suffer them to flag.[18]

Miriam the Prophetess

In the Visions of Amram, Amram also receives a revelation of the רז (raz)—a Persian loan word into Aramaic that refers to secrets and mysteries—that Aaron will be a holy priest, and his descendants will be sacred (4Q545 4 15–16). Similarly, he learns the raz of Moses’s service: “He is a holy judge” (4Q545 3 2–4).[19]

Access to raz is limited to unique individuals to whom the deity reveals the secrets. For example, Daniel appeals to God for help to explain King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2:17–18), and the raz is revealed to him:

דניאל ב:יט אֱדַיִן לְדָנִיֵּאל בְּחֶזְוָא דִי לֵילְיָא רָזָה גֲלִי אֱדַיִן דָּנִיֵּאל בָּרִךְ לֶאֱלָהּ שְׁמַיָּא.
Dan 2:19 The mystery (raz) was revealed to Daniel in a night vision; then Daniel blessed the God of Heaven.

As with Aaron and Moses, the reference to Miriam’s raz occurs prior to her birth and in a vision to Amram:

ורז מרים עבד לה[ון]
4Q546 12 4 And the secret (raz) of Miriam he made to th[em]

The passage is fragmentary, but the context suggests that Amram has received a revelation about Miriam’s future role.

In the Bible, Miriam is called מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה, “the prophet Miriam” (Exod 15:20), and she is a visionary (Num 12:2, 6).[20] The author(s) of the Visions of Amram may have been aware of these, or other similar, traditions, which are well established in later compositions. For example, Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities (1st century C.E.) describes a vision Miriam receives about Moses’s birth and future role:[21]

LAB 9:10 The spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and reported it to her parents in the morning, saying, “I had a vision this night, and behold a man was standing in a linen garment and he said to me, ‘Go and say to your parents, “Behold the child who will be born of you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always.”’” When Miriam reported her dream, her parents did not believe her.[22]

Miriam of Numbers 12 in 4QApocryphal Pentateuch B (4Q377)

The account of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint about Moses’s prophetic authority (and Cushite wife) in Numbers 12 receives only passing references by ancient interpreters such as Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.E.–50 C.E) and Hellenistic-Jewish author Demetrius the Chronographer (3rd century B.C.E.). While they demonstrate awareness of the conflict between Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, they do not elaborate on its motifs.[23]

4QApocryphal Pentateuch B (1st century B.C.E.) preserves a line that likely reflects this story concerning Miriam’s opposition to Moses:[24]

‏[ -- ו]י֯שיב חרון א֯[פו ותסג]ר֯מרים מעינו ⟦ ⟧ ש֯נׄי
4Q377 2i9 [ and] he returned [his] an[ger and ] Miriam [shut her]self from his eye(s) [ ] years of

Based on the remaining content of this fragment, the text likely deals mainly with the book of Numbers, though sections of the manuscript that have not been preserved may have referred to other parts of the Pentateuch. The frequent mentions and references to Moses in 4Q377 suggest that he is the focus of the text, meaning that the inclusion of Miriam probably relates to a narrative in which both Moses and Miriam appear.[25]

The expression חרון א֯פו in line 9 refers to divine anger. Thus, the line likely relates to the one biblical passage in which Miriam appears in connection with YHWH’s anger, after YHWH rebukes Aaron and Miriam for complaining about Moses:

במדבר יב:ט וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בָּם וַיֵּלַךְ.
Num 12:9 Still incensed with them, YHWH departed.

That the author only subtly refers to the conflict may suggest, on one hand, that it was somewhat embarrassing. Alternately, it may indicate that the tradition of Miriam’s punishment was so well known that it did not need any introduction. People familiar with the conflict and Miriam’s punishment could relate to it even by a delicate mention.[26]

Developing the Character of Miriam

The Bible preserves only a kernel of information about Miriam. Nevertheless, broader ancient Jewish literature demonstrates an ongoing interest in her, as it fleshes out her character and biography and clarifies her significance as a prophet and leader.


January 29, 2023


Last Updated

November 1, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Hanna Tervanotko is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. She received her combined PhD/ThD from the University of Vienna and University of Helsinki in 2013. Tervanotko’s first book was, Denying Her Voice: The Figure of Miriam in Ancient Jewish Literature (2016). She has written extensively about female figures and divinatory techniques in the Jewish texts of the Second Temple era. She is the co-editor of Crossing Imaginary Boundaries: The Dead Sea Scrolls in the Context of Second Temple Judaism. Currently, Tervanotko holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant to analyze women’s rituals to address sickness in ancient Jewish texts.