by: Denise Robinson
Life Lessons: Miriam
“A Story of Redemption”
Exodus 1:22-2:10; Numbers 12:1-15; Micah 6:4
The past weeks we’ve been looking at the stories of people in the Old Testament whose lives provide lessons for us today. In most cases, we found that while we may have known something about their lives, we were lacking the complete picture. We may have known about Daniel and the lions’ den, but missed the fact that he was 80 years old when he faced that challenge. Or we knew about Jonah and the whale, but somehow overlooked Jonah and the bush. In today’s life lesson we go back hundreds of years before Esther, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Jonah to the time of the Exodus. Our lesson comes to us from the life of Miriam.
The best-known story in Miriam’s life comes from the second chapter of Exodus. It is about 1300-1400 years before the birth of Christ and the people of Israel are in slavery in Egypt. The pharaoh is concerned about the number of Israelites in Egypt and fears that, if something isn’t done, they will soon outnumber and then overthrow Egyptian control. His first solution is to order harsher working conditions in the hopes that there will be more deaths and fewer births. When that doesn’t work, he comes up with a more direct solution: he orders the killing of every Hebrew boy at birth. In Exodus 2, we read the story of a young couple who give birth to a baby boy. They are successful in hiding the child for three months, but now hiding is becoming more difficult, if not impossible. Someone will hear something and say something and once the situation is discovered, the child will be killed. So, the parents come up with a plan. They place the child in a basket and put it along the edge of the Nile River not far from where the pharaoh’s daughter is known to come to bathe. There’s no guarantee the child won’t be killed, but it’s the best these desperate parents can do for their son.
Now, for the first time, we meet Miriam. She is identified only, at this point, as the baby’s sister. From piecing together various verses in the Old Testament, it would appear that Miriam is perhaps only seven years old when she hides at a distance keeping watch over her brother waiting to see what will happen. She sees pharaoh’s daughter find the basket and in an act of incredible courage approaches and asks if she can find a Hebrew nurse to care for the baby until he is old enough to be raised in the royal court. Pharaoh’s daughter says yes and Miriam takes her brother home to be raised by their mother. Instead of seeing her son put to death, we learn that pharaoh’s daughter arranges for the mother to be paid a daily wage for raising her own son. But this is only a temporary arrangement because once the child is weaned, he is handed over to pharaoh’s daughter to be raised as her Egyptian son. She is the one who gives him the name Moses, a name that becomes famous in the history of the Hebrew people.
From Exodus 2, we see, even at an early age, Miriam’s perseverance and protection of her brother. We see the wisdom that will later guide her as a leader of her people. Miriam’s decision to approach pharaoh’s daughter had implications far beyond finding him a nurse who would meet his physical needs. For this baby boy, living would not be enough. Would he be raised with a sense of who he was as a child of Abraham, as one of God’s chosen people? Would he be raised with knowledge of God and with an understanding of the covenant between God and the Hebrew people? Or would he be raised as an Egyptian, with Egyptian culture, language, and customs – and worshipping the Egyptian gods? Even in her youth, Miriam recognized what was at stake. Miriam’s wisdom provides a foundation for what is to come in the life of her brother, Moses.
Then, for decades, we lose track of Miriam. Moses continues to live as an Egyptian and we don’t know to what extent he remains connected to his Hebrew family. We learn that Moses has an older brother, Aaron, who was around three years of age when Moses was born, born before pharaoh issued the command that all Hebrew male newborns be killed. Then, when Moses is around 40 years of age, he ends up fleeing from Egypt to a neighboring country where he is married and has children of his own. Years will pass before Moses sees a burning bush, hears God’s voice, and returns to Egypt to lead the Hebrew people to freedom. Despite all the years that have passed, when Moses returns to Egypt, Miriam and Aaron are there waiting for him.
The next picture we get of Miriam is in Exodus 15. We are by the shores of the Red Sea, outside Egypt. The Israelites have finally crossed the Red Sea in safety and pharaoh’s mighty army has been destroyed. They have been delivered by God and first Moses, and then Miriam, lead the people in song. She sings, “I will sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea.” Miriam inspires the people by singing a song that Jewish people still sing today. It is a song of the past, but it’s also a song of promise for the future. Miriam’s words will remind the people through forty years of wandering that as God once delivered them, so God will deliver them again.
Then, as we look at Numbers 12, Miriam’s story takes a dark turn. Miriam has, for all her life it seems, been faithful to God and to Moses, but here she is faced with a test. Unlike Esther, Nehemiah, Daniel, or even Jonah, it’s not a test of courage in the face of persecution or adversity; this test comes out of her own inner thoughts: temptation comes not out of failure, but out of success. The Israelites, while wandering in the wilderness, have often complained about Moses, and it seems that Miriam and Aaron have stood by his side. But Moses has now, at least to his sister and brother, done the unthinkable; he has married a Cushite, or Ethiopian, woman. And so, we read in Numbers 12:1, that Miriam and Aaron begin to speak against Moses. There is nothing to indicate that God has a problem with Moses’ marriage, but Miriam does. We aren’t sure why Miriam is so opposed; it may be as simple as the woman was a non-Jew. After all, here we have Moses, the great leader and prophet of the Israelite people, and instead of marrying within the Jewish family he finds a wife from a foreign nation. But I think there was something deeper at issue. Miriam has been an instrumental part of Moses’ life, all the way from childhood to adulthood. She has been part of his ministry and together the three – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – have led and cared for the people. Moses has now apparently chosen to take a second wife and he obviously never consulted her. She faces is a blow to her pride, to her ego; she feels left out, she is hurt and angry, and so she strikes out.
“Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” she and Aaron ask. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” Rather than go to Moses privately and express how she feels, Miriam publicly challenges Moses’ leadership and in so doing, challenges God’s authority as well. It further appears, from the way the account is written, that while both Miriam and Aaron ask these questions, Miriam was the most vocal of the two. She was also the oldest – and if you’re the oldest child in a family you know it’s the oldest who should know better. What was the result? Miriam was struck with leprosy. In the Old Testament, leprosy was often viewed as a symbol of sin; it was a disease that disfigured not only the body but the soul. It resulted in isolation because it was contagious. And it inevitably led to death. But in Miriam’s case, she was cured and restored to health because of the prayers of Moses. As the one wronged, Moses had every right to be angry, but he took another path. He stayed by her side, he prayed for her, and she was restored as a leader by his side. She stayed with Moses and the people, known for her wisdom, inspiration, and leadership, until her death.
How do we know how Miriam’s story plays out when we only get glimpses of her life in the Bible? Micah 6:4 offers us a recap of her story, her importance to the Exodus journey, and her leadership role. In Micah 6, the prophet Micah, speaking on behalf of God, questions why the people have moved so far from him. He returns to the days of the Exodus when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, to the deliverance Miriam sang of in her song. God says, “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; I sent Moses and Aaron and Miriam to lead you.” God, in remembering the days of deliverance, didn’t just focus on Moses, nor did God remember Miriam’s days of failure. Instead, God affirms her leadership alongside her brothers. Moses was the deliverer and lawgiver, Aaron was the high priest, and Miriam was the prophetess and the poet.
So, what are the life lessons we can draw from Miriam’s story? First, a powerful part of Miriam’s role was to prepare her younger brother for faith in God and leadership of the Hebrew people. Before he could become Moses the great leader, he had to know who he was, where he came from, and that there was a God who loved him. We, as a people of faith, also have a role whether it is with our children or grandchildren, any child, or anyone for that matter. Without Miriam, Moses would’ve had no heritage and no knowledge of God. Through the life and death of Jesus Christ, God works to be known to all people. Like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, we, too, have a story of common heritage – we are created by God, made in God’s own image, and loved by God. As the Apostle Paul asks in Romans 10:12-14: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” How will the “they”, those we love and those we’ve only just met, know they are created by God, loved by God, and can have eternal life in the presence of God unless we tell them? It’s easy to think someone else will do it, but when we look at Moses’ life it seems there was only Miriam.
The second life lesson comes from Miriam’s failure. Often our biggest lessons in life come from our failures. Miriam messed up big time. It would’ve made sense for God to say she could no longer be a leader; it would’ve made sense for Miriam, after being healed, to hide out of a sense of shame. After all, everyone saw the effects of her sin against God – her leprosy was there for all to see. There was no hiding the fact that she had abused her leadership, thought herself more than she was, even challenged God’s plan for the people. But most people today, when they think of her, don’t remember that part of the story. And for those who do, they also know the words from Micah, which are an everlasting reminder that she was one of three who led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Miriam’s story is a story of redemption. It reminds us that we will mess up. We will be challenged in our faith and we won’t always pass the test. But God is a God of second – and third and fourth and fifth – chances. God will not give up on us and we are not to give up either. This thing called the Christian faith is a journey that requires more than anything perseverance. Miriam teaches us that God forgives, forgets, restores, and is always faithful to us; and, so, what else can we do but continue to do our best to be faithful to God?