Most of us know Miriam as the sister of Moses, who – at her mother’s request – launched her brother down the river in a wicker basket and watched over him as he drifted into the Pharaoh’s daughter's arms. At the time the Pharaoh had ordered that all baby boys be killed, and so Miriam’s actions here evidently saved her brother’s life. She demonstrated courage, cunning and compassion. A touching story of sibling love and commitment. But if you look deeper into her story, and study the Biblical texts in which she is referenced more closely, there is far more to Miriam than first meets the eye.
We are familiar with Miriam’s role in the book of Exodus, but rarely acknowledge her return in the book of Numbers. We always hear of the pure-hearted, compassionate little girl who tended to her baby brother, but what is so importantly shown by the book of Numbers is that she was human! She made mistakes like any one of us, and was punished in a way that nowadays seems brutal and unnecessary. When Miriam and Aaron contested the fact that Moses had married an Ethiopian woman, she was struck down by leprosy as a consequence of doubting God’s plan – ‘When the cloud lifted from the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous – it became as white as snow.’ (Numbers 12:10, NIV). In those days leprosy was one of the most humiliating and degrading conditions to develop. She would have been isolated from the camp and avoided by everyone she knew. Miriam was humiliated in order to humble her. She had to learn to trust in the words God gave to Moses, rather than falling back on cultural laws devised by men. From her we learn the importance of trusting our Father, and placing His word above our worldly doctrines.
Her attitude problem stemmed from a feeling of unfairness in the way in which Moses had been elected by the Lord. Her little brother had been given more authority than her, and understandably she, and Aaron, questioned this – ‘Has the Lord only spoken through Moses… hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ (Number 12:2, NIV). The fact remains even now that as a woman it is far more difficult to make our voice heard, and it is easy to feel undervalued and patronised. But regardless of age, gender and social status, God chooses the people He wants to lead His people, and we must respect that. Some are called to be in the limelight, others – like Miriam – are called to be a driving force behind the scenes. Nevertheless we are ALL called. If jealousy and ambition are allowed to creep into our hearts they can get in the way of us discerning our own calling. I know I have seen some amazing work being done and wanted to jump straight in and get involved in a big way. But first I must pray for discernment about whether that is God prompting me because I have a legitimate role to play in the organisation or mere human ambition to be involved in a movement that is achieving something. We all crave the attention of being on the front line, but need to learn to stand back and assess the battle before running in all guns blazing to try and rescue more people than our comrades and claim the glory.
Later Old Testament scripture shows us just how important God considers Miriam’s influence to be when she is presented alongside her (arguably more famous) brothers Moses and Aaron as an example of a prophet sent by God to offer the people the chance to choose whether to believe in Him: ‘For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron and Miriam.’ (Micah 6:4, KJV). This single verse speaks volumes: a woman – yes, A WOMAN – shared in bringing God’s message before He sent His son. Despite the undeniable patriarchal focus of the Bible and of the culture at that time, and despite the fact that earlier on in the Bible Miriam’s significance is largely overlooked (the entire story of her saving Moses, which is extended beautifully in children’s books, spans just ten relatively short verses), God’s intentions for her life are made clear through her acknowledgement in the book of Micah. Likewise, when she dies in the desert the significance of her life is conveyed by the water which the Lord brings forth from her resting place – even in death she was instrumental in bringing forth God’s provisions for her people.
Behind every great man there is an equally great woman, who is often overlooked by the cultural restrictions of society, but who should always remain in our hearts and minds when comparing ourselves to men of authority. Focus on your own vocation, rather than trying to fulfil someone else's.