Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: Were They Siblings?
Moses as a First Born
Exodus chapter 2:1-2 reads:
וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִ֖ישׁ מִבֵּ֣ית לֵוִ֑י וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת בַּת לֵוִֽי: וַתַּ֥הַר הָאִשָּׁ֖ה וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן
A man from the house of Levi went and took (=married) a Levite woman. She conceived and bore a son.
As the ancient story unfolds, we learn that the son she bore was Moses - thus making Moses a first-born; that, at least, is the obvious reading of the above passage. If Moses had biological siblings, they would have been younger and born after the events described in this story.
Moses’ Older Sister
Yet according to the continuation of the story, Moses has an older sister, who watches over the basket (2:4), speaks with the daughter of Pharaoh (2:7) and brings the baby’s own mother to Pharaoh’s daughter to be the baby’s wet-nurse (2:8). How can Moses be the first born if he has an older sister? Because the word אחותו could mean “kinswoman” rather than “sister.” This possibility is strengthened by the reference to the wet-nurse she fetches who is called “the boy’s mother,” (v. 8), not “her mother” or “their mother.”
The Older Non-P Tradition
The above account of Moses as first-born comes from the early, non-P account. To be sure, Aaron and Miriam exist in this account as well, but not—in my view—as Moses’ siblings.
Aaron is designated Moses’ brother (אח) when Moses is instructed to go meet “Aaron your brother the Levite” (Exod 4:14). However, ‘brother’ in that context probably means ‘fellow clansman.’ This meaning of the term seems apparent from the text itself, since identifying a biological brother of Moses as a Levite would be superfluous. On the other hand, designating Aaron a brother Levite makes perfect sense.
Similarly, in the non-P material, Miriam is designated as the sister or kinswoman (אחות) of Aaron (Exod 15:20) but not of Moses or Moses and Aaron. Only in the Priestly genealogy does Miriam become a biological sister of both Moses and Aaron (Num 26:59).
Moses’ Family According to P
In the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch (P), Moses’ family configures quite differently. First of all, the parents in P are no longer two anonymous individuals identified merely as belonging to the tribe of Levi, but instead they are named as Amram and Jochebed, who are uncle and niece (Exod 6:20). Secondly, P’s Moses has two biological siblings - a sister called Miriam and a brother called Aaron (Num 26:59). Finally, Aaron is three years Moses’ senior (Exod 7:7; also Num 33:38-39 in conjunction with Deut 31:2, 34:7).
Traditional Precedents for a Looser Understanding of “Brotherhood”
The source critical solution suggested above certainly overshoots anything articulated in traditional sources. Nevertheless, the Rabbis were well aware that biblical ‘brothers’ or ‘sons’ are not always to be taken literally. For example, Genesis 31:54 reports that Jacob invited his brothers (אחיו) to a covenantal meal. Nowhere else do we hear of Jacob having more than a single brother, namely Esau. Rashi, echoing Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, explains that אחיו stands for קרוביו (=his associates or relatives), thereby recognizing that biblical אחוה can denote a relationship looser than biological fraternity.
Similarly, when Abraham refers to Sarah as his sister (Gen 20:12), some rabbis preferred to think of them as niece and uncle rather than biological siblings, whether full or half (b. Sanhedrin 58b).
The Significance—or Insignificance—of Biology and Heredity
Why would the Priestly tradition make Miriam and Aaron Moses’ siblings? I suggest that the development of the traditions about Moses’ family illustrates a dichotomy observable throughout biblical histories. For pre-exilic Israelites as well as Judeans – with the possible exception of the royal dynasties - strict heredity or biological connection seems to play a minimal role. Not so in the (exilic) Priestly tradition, in which descent from a priestly line is the defining factor for a man’s inclusion in the priestly caste.
In the Priestly tradition, Aaron plays a central role not just as the first high priest, but as the founding father of the Priestly family that still served in the Temple. Thus, Aaron’s own pedigree would be of great significance to the Priestly authors. If he were Moses’s brother and not just a kinsman, how much the better. Miriam may have been brought along for the ride by virtue of her identification as Aaron’s sister already in the earlier Non-P material (Exod 15:20), which P likely knew. The early midrashic connecting of the dots, which identified her as the sister who watched over baby Moses, clinched the deal.
Jewish tradition has a lot to say about the famous siblings, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. The three of them are called Israel’s Three Shepherds (רועים) as well as Israel’s Three Patrons (פרנסים). Looking at these biblical characters through the lenses of P, we see an amazing family whose excellence and accomplishments demonstrate the importance of good pedigree. However, looking at them through the more ancient lenses of the non-Priestly text, we see the story of three individuals whose personal and spiritual qualities brought them to ascendency independently of each other or of their ‘yichus’ or family connections. God chooses Aaron to be Moses’ spokesman, not because he is Moses’ brother or even his kinsman—Moses presumably had many kinsmen—but because of his abilities. So too, Miriam picks up the tambourine and leads the women in song, not because she is Moses’ sister, but because she is a natural leader of women and the muse was upon her. In short, their abilities, not their relationship to their (kinsman not brother) Moses, brings them to the fore.
Or to paraphrase the rabbis: Whether an embryo shall grow up strong or weak, clever or stupid, rich or poor may be decreed before birth. But whether righteous or not is never pre-determined (see Nid. 16b).
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January 7, 2015
September 23, 2020
Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press 2011), a commentary on chumash called Destination Torah (Ktav 2001), and most recently the co-editor with Stephen H. Golden of the Siddur 'Alats Libbi (Ktav 2020).
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