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Miriam by Hanna Tervanotko

How did ancient authors understand Miriam’s role as a prophet?

The Hebrew Bible contains numerous references to prophets who communicate between divine and human spheres. They encounter a divine revelation and later disclose it to their audience. Remarkably, only four women—Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah—are known as prophets in the Hebrew Bible. With regard to Miriam, the significance of the title “prophet” that appears in the feminine singular in Exod 15:20 has been disputed. In this passage Miriam leads women in celebrating the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Some scholars have suggested that prophet is an honorific title and does not tell anything about the role Miriam actually had other than that she was a well-known and respected figure. In contrast to those views, various references to Miriam reveal that this figure was connected to a prophetic role. Therefore, the title should not only be interpreted as an honorific designation.

Two texts of the Hebrew Bible that shed further light on Miriam’s role as a prophet are Num 12 and Mic 6:4. In the first text, all prophets, Miriam among them, are juxtaposed with Moses’s unique role before God. Whereas all prophets would receive divine information through dreams and visions, Moses is known to speak with God face to face (Num 12:6-8). Moreover, the question that Aaron and Miriam raise “has he (God) not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2) is nowhere denied and thus leaves open the possibility that God communicated to them too. Even more so, in Num 12:6-8 God directly addresses Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Num 12 combines different narratives and contains various interpretative layers, but the way it is preserved to our time witnesses to Miriam being a character who communicated with God.

Meanwhile, Mic 6:4 makes use of Hebrew vocabulary that, independent of Exod 15:20 and Num 12, suggests a prophetic role for Miriam. First, the verb “to send” that appears in Mic 6:4 in the first person singular points to God, who speaks throughout the passage, as the subject. Hence, God has sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The expression that the divine sends people appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible (see, e.g., in Josh 24:5, 1Sam 12:11, Jer 35:15, and Mal 3:2-3) and they have a function in fulfilling divine plans. Often the task of the people who are “sent” is to declare and transmit God’s messages. Second, the preposition “before” specifies the motif behind why Aaron, Moses and Miriam are sent. The term “before” indicates power in front of the other Israelites. They go “before” because they exercise some kind of leadership in front of them. Whereas the leadership of Miriam, Moses, and Aaron is not specified in Mic 6:4, the notion that God sent them suggests for them a divinely appointed role. It is possible that the author had in mind the prophetic role, which assumes delivering God’s message to other people. The notion that God sent Miriam, Moses, and Aaron refers to the exodus period. It makes the audience recall the events of the Exodus and the role of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam in them.

Significantly, the texts of the Hebrew Bible are not the only sources attesting to Miriam as a prophet. Broader ancient Jewish literature also presents Miriam in such a role. Most notably, an Aramaic text, the Visions of Amram from the Dead Sea Scrolls, connects the figure of Miriam with raz (in 4Q546 12 4). In the Aramaic Jewish texts the term raz applies to secrets and mysteries and only selected people have access to them. People who accessed raz were known to be in touch with God. This narrative is unfortunately fragmentary and the readers do not know the contents of Miriam’s raz. Yet it indicates that belief in Miriam’s function as a divine communicator continued into later eras. Moreover, significantly, Miriam is the only known female figure who accesses raz, a category that is otherwise reserved for male figures exclusively.

Furthermore, a first-century CE text known as Liber antiquitatum biblicarum refers to Miriam’s dream vision. In this composition, Miriam has a dream that reveals to her Moses’s birth and his significance (L.A.B. 9:10). In this text Miriam is the only member of the family who is aware of Moses’s future role. The narrative detail, that people around her do not believe her prediction, highlights Miriam’s own importance as the person to whom God reveals Moses’s role. A similar tradition is preserved in the rabbinic literature, in b.Megillah 14a in which Miriam’s standing by the riverbank in Exod 2:4 is connected with her prophecy. In rabbinic texts, Miriam is remembered with Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther as one of the seven female prophets.

When one considers Miriam as a prophet one should take into consideration all of these texts and their portrayal of the figure. In light of them, the reference to Miriam as a prophet in Exod 15:20 is not a marginal reference. Further, it is not accurate to say that the title “prophet” was only an honorific designation. Rather, ancient Jewish literature provides strong evidence that Miriam was remembered as a prophet who operated in the exodus era.

Hanna Tervanotko , "Miriam", n.p. [cited 19 Nov 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/miriam

Contributors

tervanotko-hanna

Hanna Tervanotko
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, McMaster University

Hanna Tervanotko is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University. She specializes in the Jewish literature of the Second Temple era. She is the author of Denying Her Voice: The Figure of Miriam in Ancient Jewish Literature (JAJSup 121; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016) and editor of “The Image of Female Prophets in Ancient Greek and Jewish Literature,” a special thematic issue of Journal of Ancient Judaism (vol. 6.3; 2015).

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, was called a prophet in Exodus and Micah.

Did you know …?

  • Miriam is one of the known female prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The others are Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah.
  • Miriam is both a prophet and a leader according to ancient Jewish literature.
  • Apart from the Hebrew Bible, the broader ancient Jewish literature attests to Miriam. She is referred to in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the texts of Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, and rabbinic literature.
  • Exod 15:20 refers to Miriam as the sister of Aaron. Other texts emphasize her kinship relation to both Moses and Aaron (e.g., Num 26:59; 1Chr 6:3).

a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

“Book of Biblical Antiquities”; a first-century CE Latin text that narrates biblical history from Adam to Saul

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A prophetess mentioned in Neh 6:14

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.

A fragmentary Aramaic text from the Dead Sea Scrolls

Exod 15:20

The Song of Miriam
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with danc ... View more

Num 12

Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses
1While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he ha ... View more

Mic 6:4

4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.

Num 12:6-8

6And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the Lord make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.7Not so with my serv ... View more

Num 12:2

2and they said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it.

Num 12:6-8

6And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the Lord make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.7Not so with my serv ... View more

Num 12

Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses
1While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he ha ... View more

Mic 6:4

4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.

Exod 15:20

The Song of Miriam
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with danc ... View more

Num 12

Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses
1While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he ha ... View more

Mic 6:4

4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.

Josh 24:5

5Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out.

1Sam 12:11

11And the Lord sent Jerubbaal and Barak, and Jephthah, and Samson, and rescued you out of the hand of your enemies on every side; and you lived in safety.

Jer 35:15

15I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now everyone of you from your evil way, and amend your doings, and d ... View more

Mal 3:2-3

2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;3he will sit as a refiner a ... View more

Mic 6:4

4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.

Exod 2:4

4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

Exod 15:20

The Song of Miriam
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with danc ... View more

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Works that claim to be written by authors that scholars have determined did not write them.

Exod 15:20

The Song of Miriam
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with danc ... View more

Num 26:59

59The name of Amram's wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; and she bore to Amram: Aaron, Moses, and their sister Miriam.

1Chr 6:3

3The children of Amram: Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. The sons of Aaron: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.

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