As readers, we first encounter the prophetess Miriam by name in Exodus 15:20-21:
Then Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its driver he has hurled into the sea.’
This is our first real introduction to Miriam. She is listed as Aaron’s sister most likely because he is the oldest living male in her family. However, her title as a prophetess is listed before her familial relations, suggesting that she is a prophetess by her own right and not merely the sister of a prophet.
Despite her anonymity up to this point, Miriam demonstrates her prophetic gifts by leading the women of Israel into worship. Some have suggested that Miriam’s status as a prophetess is tied only to her musical abilities. This makes Miriam’s prophetic gift limited, and it ignores the actual role of a prophet – a covenant mediator between YHWH and Israel. As Douglas K. Stuart suggests, “for Miriam to be called a prophetess may mean that she had already distinguished herself in the faithful expression of God’s will….” Miriam’s prophetic voice may have already been confirmed and affirmed with the community, making her not just Moses’ and Aaron’s sister but an equal leader among the people.
Miriam’s song in vv 20-21 may have been quoting the first couplet within the Song of the Sea (15:1-19). This was a common way of titling songs in ancient times, but more likely Miriam’s portion of the song is the oldest. Instead of Miriam quoting what Moses sung earlier within the chapter, Moses is expanding upon what Miriam had sung. J. Gerald Janzen suggests that Miriam’s song is an example of analepsis, which is a “temporary withholding of vital information in favor of its belated introduction later for one effect or another.” Miriam is addressing Israel with important information: YHWH is to be praised because Egypt has been defeated. A sense of climax is gained here by this initial withholding of information.
A significant aspect of Miriam’s song is how it is performed. It was a custom for women to greet their men returning from a military victory. Their greetings would involve the women singing and dancing. Instead of greeting an Israelite army, Miriam and the women of Israel are greeting the divine warrior YHWH from his victory over the Egyptians. This transmits a clear message to the Israelite nation, not only in the moment, but for generations to come. It was not the Israelites who freed themselves from slavery, rather YHWH alone. This moment roots the nation’s current and future identity in a place both of humility and worship.
As Miriam’s prophetic identity has been affirmed within the text, it becomes clear why she functioned as a prophet during this time. Coming out of enslavement from the Egyptians, Miriam is aiding her people during a time of instability. Susan Ackerman names these periods of time “liminality,” Liminality is the period of time between changing social structures, which results in a temporary egalitarian society. The liminal period within the text stretches from the Israelites’ freedom from slavery until the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. Before that time, Miriam still plays an active role in leading her community. Ackerman summarizes it perfectly:
In narrative depictions of liminality, the gender conventions that more usually restrict women from holding positions of religious leadership can be suspended. Therefore Miriam can be described as occupying a position as a prophetic functionary that, outside of liminal time and space, women are generally denied.
Miriam’s fading from leadership (and the narrative in general) can be seen later in the biblical texts, in the book of Numbers.
Ackerman, Susan. “Why is Miriam also among the prophets?: (and is Zipporah among the priests?.” Journal of Biblical Literature 121/1 (2002): 47-80.
Clements, Ronald E. Exodus. The Cambridge Bible Commentary. Gen. Ed. P. R. Ackroyd. Cambridge University Press, 1972.
Durham, John I. Exodus. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987.
Hirshberg, Haïm Z’ew; Rothkoff, Aaron; Sperling, S. David; and Stem, Ephraim. “Miriam.” Encyclopedia Judaica 14. (2007): 311-312.
Janzen, J. Gerald. “Song of Moses, Song of Miriam: Who is Seconding Whom?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54/2 (1992): 211-220.
Propp, William H. C. Exodus 1-18. The Anchor Bible. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999.
Reiss, Moshe. “Miriam Rediscovered.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38/3 (2010): 183-190
Stuart, Douglas K. Exodus. The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.