The Life of Miriam from the Bible

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Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is one of the most famous women in the Bible.

She is not mentioned in very many verses. However, we can use those verses together with Jewish tradition to learn a lot about her life.

Miriam as a Child

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, made several decrees to limit the population of the Jews. One decree was to kill the male Jewish babies as they were born.

Here are the relevant verses from Exodus (Judaica Press translation):

Exodus Chapter 1
15 Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah.
16 And he said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.”
17 The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live.

Who are these Jewish midwives? They are not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. Rashi explains based on Jewish tradition:

Rashi Exodus Chapter 1
15 Shifrah This was Jochebed, because she beautified the newborn infant.
Puah This was Miriam, because she cried and talked and cooed to the newborn infant in the manner of women who soothe a crying infant. “Puah” is an expression of crying out, similar to “Like a travailing woman will I cry” (Isa. 42:14)

So these midwives are the mother and daughter pair of Jochebed (Yochebed) and her daughter Miriam. In this passage they are referred to using names that describe their actions as righteous midwives.

It turns out they were rewarded for their actions. Exodus 1:21 states, “And it was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses.”

Rashi explains to us the deeper meaning of this reward:

Rashi Exodus Chapter 1
21 He made houses for them The houses of the priesthood, the Levitic family, and the royal family, which are called houses, as it is written: And he built the house of the Lord and the house of the king, (I Kings 9:10), the priesthood and the Levitic family from Jochebed and the royal family from Miriam, as is stated in tractate Sotah.

We’ll come back to the idea of Miriam and her relationship to royalty.

Moses Sister Miriam

We next see Miriam in Exodus Chapter 2.

Pharaoh has issued a new decree that male babies are to be cast into the Nile River.

Exodus Chapter 2
1 A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.
2 The woman conceived and bore a son, and [when] she saw him that he was good, she hid him for three months.
3 [When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile’s edge.
4 His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him.

Here are the people mentioned in Exodus 2:1-10:

  • a man
  • a woman
  • a baby son
  • his sister
  • Pharaoh’s daughter

One strange thing about these verses is that no one is mentioned by name.

Only in verse 10 does Pharaoh’s daughter give the baby a name, Moses / Moshe.

Again it’s the people’s actions that are important to the story but not the names of the people.

In Exodus chapter 6 we finally learn the names of Moses’ father and mother:

Exodus Chapter 6
20 Amram took Jochebed, his aunt, as his wife, and she bore him Aaron and Moses, and the years of Amram’s life were one hundred thirty seven years.

Later on the Torah will tell us that the sister is named Miriam.

According to Jewish tradition Miriam plays an even more pivotal role in this story.

When Pharaoh decreed that male babies should be tossed into the river, Amram and Jochebed / Yochebed decided to not have any more children. Miriam told her father that he was acting more cruelly than Pharaoh.

She told him that by his action he was preventing any child from being born.

She also said that her mother would give birth to a child that would bring salvation to the Jewish people trapped in Egypt.

This helps explain to us why Miriam “stood from afar, to know what would be done to him.” Were her words about Moses prophetic or were they merely wishful thinking?

Miriam’s Husband

There is no direct mention of Miriam’s husband in the Torah.

1 Chronicles Chapter 2
18 And Caleb the son of Hezron begot Azubah-Ishah and Jerioth, and these were her sons: Jesher, and Shobab, and Ardon.
19 And Azubah died, and Caleb took to himself Ephrath, and she bore him Hur.

According to tradition, the woman Ephrath is actually Miriam. And why is she here called Ephrath? Because she caused the Jewish people to be fruitful (the word Ephrath has a root meaning of “fruitful”).

Caleb, Miriam’s husband was a leader of the tribe of Judah when the Jews were in the wilderness.

In 1 Samuel 17:12 King David is described as being descended from “a certain Ephrathite.” In the Gemara (Sotah 11b) this is understood as a reference to being descended from Miriam.

Thus we see (as mentioned above) that Miriam was rewarded for her service as a midwife to have Jewish royalty descend from her.

The Song of Moses and Miriam

God saved the Jewish people from the Egyptian army at the splitting of the Red Sea. After this salvation, Moses led the Jewish men in singing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19).

The next two verses relate what Miriam and the Jewish women did:

Exodus Chapter 15
20 Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances.
21 And Miriam called out to them, Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea

drums for Miriam

This is the first time Miriam is mentioned by name in the entire Torah!

Even a casual reading of verse 20 leads to questions:

  1. Why is Miriam called “the prophetess”?
  2. Why is she called only Aaron’s sister? Why isn’t Moses mentioned?

Rashi explains:

Rashi Exodus Chapter 15
20 Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took When did she prophesy? When she was [known only as] “Aaron’s sister,” before Moses was born, she said, “My mother is destined to bear a son” [who will save Israel], as is found in Sotah 12b, 13a).

Rashi answers both questions.

Miriam is known as one of the 7 Jewish women prophetesses because of her prophecy about the birth and career of Moses.

And in this verse she is called “Aaron’s sister” because at the time of her prophecy he was her only brother.

Aaron and Miriam Leprosy

Unfortunately, one of the incidents that Miriam is most famous for is when she spoke against her brother Moses.

Here’s the beginning of the story:

Numbers Chapter 12
1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.
2 They said, “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” And the Lord heard.
3 Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.
4 The Lord suddenly said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Go out, all three of you, to the Tent of Meeting!” And all three went out.
5 The Lord descended in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tent. He called to Aaron and Miriam, and they both went out.
6 He said, “Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream.
7 Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house.
8 With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?

Because of the significance of her actions, Miriam was smitten with tzara’ath, which is translated as leprosy. (In fact, tzara’ath is not leprosy, but this isn’t the place for that discussion.)

Numbers Chapter 12
9 The wrath of the Lord flared against them and He left.
10 The cloud departed from above the Tent, and behold, Miriam was afflicted with tzara’ath, [as white] as snow. Then Aaron turned to Miriam and behold, she was afflicted with tzara’ath.
11 Aaron said to Moses, “Please, master, do not put sin upon us for acting foolishly and for sinning.
12 Let her not be like the dead, which comes out of his mother’s womb with half his flesh consumed!”
13 Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “I beseech you, God, please heal her.”
14 The Lord replied to Moses, “If her father were to spit in her face, would she not be humiliated for seven days? She shall be confined for seven days outside the camp, and afterwards she may enter.
15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not travel until Miriam had entered.

As soon as Miriam was afflicted, Aaron pleaded for her and Moses prayed to God that she should be healed. God healed her but she was required to live outside the Jewish camp for one week.

Rashi points out that Miriam was the lead actor in this incident. She knew something about Moses and told it Aaron. In Hebrew, speaking against someone in a slanderous or disparaging way is called “lashon hara,” literally “evil speech.”

Rashi Numbers Chapter 12
1 Miriam and Aaron spoke She spoke first therefore, Scripture mentions her first. … From this, Miriam knew and told Aaron. Now if Miriam, who did not intend to disparage him [Moses] was punished, all the more so someone who disparages his fellow.

Rashi points out that we can all learn a lesson from this incident in Miriam’s life.

In fact, many Jews try to recall this lesson every day. They do this by reciting Deuteronomy 24:9 every morning:

Deuteronomy / Devarim Chapter 24
8 Be cautious regarding the lesion of tzara’ath, to observe meticulously and you shall according to all that the Levite priests instruct you; as I have commanded them, [so shall you] observe to do.
9 Remember what the Lord, your God, did to Miriam on the way, when you went out of Egypt.

These two verses set next to each other the concept of tzara’ath / leprosy and Miriam’s punishment for speaking against Moses. Hence, in Jewish tradition, the affliction of tzara’ath on a person’s body is a punishment for “lashon hara” or slander.

How Did Miriam Die?

According to Jewish tradition Miriam died on the 10th of Nissan, the first month on the Jewish calendar. She was 87 years old when she died.

Miriam’s death was rather unique. According to the Gemara (Baba Batra 17a): The Angel of Death did not rule over 6 people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Rather, they died by a Divine kiss.

My understanding is that these 6 righteous individuals were so connected to God during their lives that they did not resist death at all.

However, the death of Miriam did affect the rest of the Jewish population.

Numbers Chapter 20
1 The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.
2 The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.

Suddenly, immediately after the death of Miriam there is another water crisis for the Jewish people.

There had been a lack of water during the early days of their wandering in the wilderness. See Exodus 17:1-6. After that incident the Jewish people did not experience another water shortage.

So why is there a water shortage now?

Rashi Numbers Chapter 20
2 had no water From here [we learn that] all forty years they had the well in Miriam’s merit.-[Ta’anit 9a]

To end the water shortage in Exodus, Moses struck a rock and water flowed out. According to tradition, that water source followed the Jews as they wandered in the wilderness. We refer to it as Miriam’s Well.

It’s possible that up to this point the Jews did not understand the greatness of Miriam. But her greatness became clear to them after her death. Miriam’s Well ceased to provide water and it became necessary to find a new water source.

Miriam is only mentioned a few times in the rest of the Bible. Here is one of the most significant of those mentions:

Micah Chapter 6
4 For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

The prophet Micah is upbraiding the Jewish people of his time for their ingratitude to God. Part of what they failed to appreciate is that God gave them qualified leaders.

Notice how the verse sets Miriam on the same level as Moses and Aaron.

Rashi tells us that each of them had a unique role as leaders of the people.

Rashi Micah Chapter 6
4 Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – Jonathan paraphrases: Moses to teach the transmission of the laws, Aaron to atone for the people, and Miriam to instruct the women.

Conclusion

Miriam’s name is not mentioned very many times in the Bible. However, using those mentions and adding to it what we are taught by Jewish tradition, we can learn a lot about her life.

In this article I discuss in more detail the reward the midwives received.

If you are interested, this article goes into more detail about Moshe’s wife.

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