Miriam: A Forgotten Figure Reexamined

For my senior synthesis, I devoted my paper solely to the prophetess Miriam, who is found within the books of Exodus and Numbers. Initially, I wanted my project to focus more broadly on the five prophetesses within the OT (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and Isaiah’s wife), but this proved to be overwhelming. Next I tried examining the prophetesses within pre-monarchical Israel, Miriam and Deborah, but this still was too much to process and write about at an undergrad level. Thus I was left with Miriam.

Surprisingly enough, not many people write about Miriam, well, at least Christians tend not to. While researching for this project I would read commentaries on the different passages where Miriam is mentioned by name and the whole focus would be primarily on Moses. Understandably so, considering that Moses is a key Jewish figure, but Miriam appeared to be constantly neglected by authors. She was always overshadowed by her brothers and was only mentioned in relation to them. Even as a child, the only recollection I have of her is from the Prince of Egypt, and even then her role is minor in the film.

prince of egypt
Miriam and her younger brother, Moses, as portrayed in DreamWork’s Prince of Egypt.

This post serves as an introduction to the topic, as well as a description of what lies ahead. My process for writing this project began first with exegesis with the individual passages (Exodus 15:20-21, and Numbers 12). Then from there I investigated a few midrashim and the rabbinic traditions/lore surrounding Miriam, and briefly on a Jewish custom involving her.

This project is heavily indebted to Susan Ackerman’s article “Why is Miriam Also among the Prophets? (And Is Zipporah among the Priests?” To sum up her article briefly, Ackerman investigates each OT prophetess individually and argues that the prophetesses only existed during times of liminality, or the unstable time where social structures can temporarily become egalitarian. Here it is seen with all of the prophetesses that they existed during times such as these: Miriam with the exodus event, Deborah facing a foreign enemy with Barak, Huldah with pre-reformed Josiah, and Noadiah during Nehemiah’s time (she excludes Isaiah’s wife from the discussion). I use Ackerman’s research here and rather than utilizing anthropological research like she does, I tried to focus on what is seen in the text first and foremost. What can be gleaned just from simple observation is the sudden switch from a triumphant Miriam in Exodus to a shamed one in Numbers. This change alone makes Ackerman’s argument more likely.

Despite a change in tone and status within the text, the midrashim seem to hold Miriam up as a renowned figure. Her role within Exodus, and particularly in Numbers are seen with her care for others and specifically families. It is with the Jewish tradition that Miriam seems to have more support, let alone works written about her character. I’m not well-versed with rabbinic texts or the Talmud, so I relied heavily upon Devorah Steinmetz’s article “A Portrait of Miriam in Rabbinic Midrash.” Steinmetz sifts through important midrashim and draws a conclusion about similar themes that surround the figure of Miriam. The midrashim, of course, are partially designed to expand upon a figure’s characteristics that would not be found within the text itself. Thus I found this information invaluable while researching.

Ultimately for this project, I feel like I did not choose it but in a way it chose me. Miriam, like so many other women within the Bible, is often overlooked and overshadowed by a male figure. This alone is infuriating, and during my research process I often found myself asking authors “But what about Miriam? What do you think of her?” Miriam is strong and fearless, but she is also prideful. She remains a mysterious figure, and despite her faults she is still a prophetess. She remains a voice calling in the wilderness, calling for Israel to follow YHWH alone.

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