Will the Real Miriam Please Stand Up?
What was Bothering Miriam?
Numbers 12 is a rather odd narrative. In brief, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. The text reads:
במדבר יב:א וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽח: יב:ב וַיֹּאמְר֗וּ הֲרַ֤ק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה֙ דִּבֶּ֣ר יְ-הֹוָ֔ה הֲלֹ֖א גַּם־בָּ֣נוּ דִבֵּ֑ר וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יְ-הֹוָֽה:
Num 12:1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married because he had married a Cushite woman. 12:2 They said, “Has YHWH spoken only through Moses? Has He not also spoken through us?” And YHWH heard.
These two verses raise a number of issues. The verb for “to speak” is grammatically in the feminine singular form instead of the plural form (which we would expect if Miriam and Aaron are both speaking). What is at issue for Miriam regarding the Cushite woman? Why is the issue never resolved or even mentioned again? What does the second verse have to do with the first verse?
Traditionally, we bring in what we know about the characters from all other narratives to help us understand the current narrative. Exodus 2 tells us about a particularly loyal and caring sister who looks out for her baby brother Moses and helps to negotiate Moses’ survival (vv. 4, 7-8). The sister is unnamed, but is traditionally associated with Miriam. Exodus 15 describes Miriam’s role in leading the women in song and dancing parallel to Moses’ rejoicing (vv. 20-21). We expect a consistency of character, so as we encounter Miriam’s challenge to Moses, we attempt to understand her motives and actions as those of a loyal and loving sister to Moses.
Traditional Approach: Moses Divorces Zipporah for God
One of the functions of traditional Midrash is to provide the backstory to make meaning of seeming oddities in the text. When the Sages encountered oddities in the text, they assumed that the pieces had to fit together into a coherent and consistent narrative, and that this narrative must align with what we already know about Miriam and the other characters.
The majority opinion among the Sages was that the Cushite woman is, in fact, Zipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife. They interweave biblical sources so that they can argue, for example, that “Cushite” can refer to a woman of beauty, and not just a person from Cush. Many take the further step of interpreting the first verse to communicate that Moses had taken Zipporah as wife, but, since he needed to have free access to God at any moment and could not risk becoming impure, he divorced her!
The Sages fill out the backdrop by looking to the preceding unit (they didn’t have chapters in the rabbinic period) in which prophetic leadership is distributed among select elders in the community. While the text does not explicitly mention Miriam or Zipporah, the midrash suggests that Zipporah witnesses the installation of these new prophets and laments that their wives will no longer get the attention that they deserve from their husbands, just as Moses no longer fulfills his conjugal duties because his role as a prophet requires him to be present for God in a state of holiness (and sexual relations would put Moses in a temporary state of imputiry). Miriam, as the devoted sister, decides to challenge Moses about how he is treating his wife.
Miriam’s role becomes one of a marriage counselor who wants to ensure her brother is fulfilling his conjugal duties. As a part of her counsel to him, she points to the fact that both she and Aaron are capable of being good spouses and also serving God. The singular feminine verb at the start of the chapter suggests to the Sages that Aaron was with her to give support, but that she was doing the talking.
The Sages create a backdrop for the biblical narrative, which beautifully connects disparities between the first and second verses of chapter 12 and further develops the character of Miriam as a generally pious and loyal woman. Her angering of God has nothing to do with any malicious intent towards her pious younger brother but is only due to a fallacy of theology; she simply didn’t realize how much greater Moses’ prophetic ability was and that his behavior toward a spouse was due to this.
An Academic Model: Miriam in a New Light
Students of biblical criticism approach the oddities of the text with a different set of tools. The goal of tradition historians, for instance, is not to create a consistent picture of Miriam which aligns with the other texts and traditions about Miriam, but rather to understand what the Miriam texts may reveal about Israel’s earliest traditions. We do this by looking to Israel’s surrounding cultures to learn more about women in leadership positions, and by looking at each text that mentions Miriam as a potentially independent source about her. Since the texts in which Miriam is explicitly mentioned are scant (Miriam appears in only seven places in Tanakh and five of those texts mention Miriam in passing), both traditional and critical approaches to Miriam will rely on a high degree of conjecture and both systems offer unique insights.
In accordance with the academic methodology:
- We cannot assume that the authors of the Miriam texts had the same collection of material about Miriam that we now have – in fact, it is likely that there was much more information about Miriam in antiquity.
- We cannot be certain about the relationship of each Miriam text to other Miriam texts.
- We cannot assume—and this point may be hard to absorb—that the sister of Moses’ childhood was Miriam. That character in Exodus 2 is never given a name nor is there any explicit connection between her and the adult Miriam.
Many academics believe, and for good reason, that the character Miriam was not originally the sister of Moses. It is likely that Miriam played some role as a leader in the public sphere and that descriptions of her suggest that the role may have been in the sphere of the public cult in the period before the biblical priesthood was established as a male only role. (Women served as priestesses of different ranks in Mesopotamia and Egypt!)
What Kind of Leader Was Miriam?
The first time we encounter Miriam is in Exodus 15:20-21:
שמות טו:כ וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת: טו:כא וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽי-הֹוָה֙ כִּֽי גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם:
Exod 15:20 Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. 15:21 Miriam sang to them: “Sing to YHWH, for he has greatly triumphed; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”
If we disregard traditions that associate Miriam with the childhood of Moses, then we encounter this reference in a new light.
- Miriam is called a prophetess.
- She is associated with only Aaron.
- She is engaged with music and dancing.
- She sings a song about/to God.
As Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman wrote in 1955:
“It is easy to understand the ascription of the hymn to the great leader. It would be more difficult to explain the association of Miriam with the song as a secondary development.”
In other words, tradition stole Miriam’s song and gave it to Moses! The story of Jephtha’s daughter (Judges 11:34) and that of the battles of Saul and David against the Philistines (I Sam 18:6ff) also describe a tradition of women publicly celebrating victory in battle with song, dancing, and instruments.
Miriam as a Priestess-Figure in Ancient Times
Some scholars have suggested that these dances were not simply expressions of joy, but some kind of ritual re-enactment of the battle. Ritual re-enactments were a common practice in Mesopotamian worship. And in ancient Egypt, women played a role as priestesses with percussion instruments. In addition, Miriam’s association only with Aaron at this stage may suggest that their association was earlier than either of their associations with Moses – that they both functioned within the cultic sphere.
All this would suggest that Miriam might not have been a prophetess in the early history of Israelite traditions. Perhaps this title was later ascribed to her because the biblical writers of the monarchic period had no other words to describe a woman in ritual leadership. Instead, if Exodus 15 is among the oldest of the biblical traditions, it would suggest that Miriam was known as a leader of ritual worship at an early stage, even if the full implications of her singing and dancing were no longer fully understood by the writers of the biblical texts.
Miriam Joins the Family
The first time that Miriam, Aaron, and Moses are linked together as siblings is in the genealogy of Numbers 26. If they had not been associated as siblings at an early stage of Israelite tradition, what was the impetus to link them together as family? We have no definitive answers, but clearly the traditions regarding Miriam were strong enough that she had to be given a place of prominence in the biblical genealogies! She reappears in the genealogy of I Chron 5:29 (likely dependent on the Numbers 26 tradition), again within the context of the Levitical branch.
Her prominence is also attested by Numbers 20:1, which records the time and place of her death and does not connect her with either Aaron or Moses. She dies in the Wilderness from natural causes and not as a result of divine wrath. Her death and burial at Kadesh suggest that she may have been associated with that place at an early stage but that the writers of the biblical texts no longer had the full story.
Outside of the Pentateuch, Miriam is mentioned one time in Micah 6:4. God presents a lawsuit against Israel, enumerating the gifts that He has bestowed upon Israel. The text reads:
מיכה ו:ד כִּ֤י הֶעֱלִתִ֙יךָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וּמִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִ֖ים פְּדִיתִ֑יךָ וָאֶשְׁלַ֣ח לְפָנֶ֔יךָ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה אַהֲרֹ֥ן וּמִרְיָֽם
Mic 6:4 “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
The book of Micah tells us that God sent Miriam to the people of Israel. The Pentateuch itself makes no reference to Miriam’s divine commission and this strongly suggests that Micah was referring to a tradition which is now lost to us.
Miriam in Numbers 12: A Relic of her Ancient Position as a Ritual Leader
As we return to Numbers 12, new insights present themselves.
- Miriam is not associated with Moses as a sibling. She may have been another community leader without familial connection to Moses.
- None of the characters is called a prophet in this unit. Perhaps the issue is not about prophecy but about more formal cultic oracular roles.
- The biblical text does not clarify what problem Miriam had with the Cushite woman. Perhaps the issue had nothing to do with private family matters.
A possible explanation of the oddities in the text may be that the biblical writers inherited piecemeal stories and legends about an early Jewish leader named Miriam. While some memory of her still circulated at the time that the biblical writers were most active, the writers may not have understood what they were looking at or they may have had to reinterpret what they had received in a form that was consistent with the norms and expectations of their generations.
In the process of incorporating materials that they did not fully understand, their attempts to fill in gaps or to try to explain the unknown led to texts that ultimately do not fully cohere and are difficult to parse. And so, gradually, a relic of female ritual leadership was held in Israel’s memory and was incorporated into the Bible by authors who no longer knew her, but who knew better than to forget her.
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June 2, 2015
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Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski is professor of biblical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). She received her Ph.D. from Brandeis University. Tamar is the author of Gender Reversal and Cosmic Chaos: Studies in the Book of Ezekiel and co-editor of Bodies, Embodiment and Theological of the Hebrew Scriptures.
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