Miriam was the older sister of Aaron and Moses. Some sources suggest that Miriam was seven years older than Moses; other sources indicate that there was a greater age difference between them than that.
She is the first woman referred to as a prophet in Hebrew scripture as it now ordered. Her story is one of many stories that make it absolutely clear the prophecy and preaching were never intended to be exclusively male domains. Jewish tradition taught that Miriam had a yen for prophecy that showed up when she was still quite young; for example, before Moses’ birth Miriam prophesied to her parents that the child about to be born into their family would grow up to be the one to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage.
Despite the Pharaoh’s pronouncement of death to Hebrew children, which sent chills through the Hebrew population in Egypt (even though the midwives defied the Pharaoh’s order), Moses’ life was spared. His mother put him during daylight hours in a little ark that floated among the bulrushes along the banks of the Nile; this was so that he couldn’t be found if the Egyptians searched their home. Smart lady! And this is the foundation of one of the beloved Bible stories appropriately told to children in Sunday School and Religious Education classes.
Miriam watched the little ark from dry land each day to make certain her baby brother was safe. When the Pharaoh’s daughter spotted Moses in his ark while she was at the Nile bathing, it was Miriam who encouraged her to adopt “the abandoned child” and to employ as his nurse and nanny—unknown to the Pharaoh’s daughter—Miriam’s mother, Yocheved. That’s exactly what happened, and, as a result, Moses was reared in the palace of the Pharaoh as a privileged Egyptian.
Many years later, after the Egyptians had made the Hebrews their enemies and their slaves rather than their friends, Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt on a run for their lives. When the waters of the Red (or Reed) Sea swallowed the Egyptian soldiers who were, by order of the Pharaoh, in pursuit of the escaping Hebrews, Miriam led the Hebrew women in songs and dances of celebration. Clearly, there was much more to her prophetic career and role than that she led the Hebrew women to sing and dance in celebrating their liberation, but her song is an important part of Hebrew history and one of the bits of information we have about how music influenced the lives of God’s people.
Incidentally, there is no reason to assume that Miriam’s prophetic skills were used only among women. We know that she felt no hesitation in advising both of her younger brothers, Aaron and Moses. That could be said, though, about many a “big sister.”
At one point, she with Aaron gave too much advice and criticism to Moses in regard to his marriage to a Cushite woman. It’s not clear whether she was unhappy that the woman was a non-Hebrew or that Moses was marrying a second wife, but it likely was the former.
The God of the book of Exodus punishes Miriam, but not Aaron; both were guilty so this seems quite unfair. In any case, however, the God of Exodus afflicts Miriam with leprosy. Until Aaron pleads for her healing, she is ill with the disease and, by law, forced to live outside the encampments apart from the “healthy” Hebrews. It’s very important to note that Miriam was so highly respected, though, the Hebrews would not move on, on their journey until Miriam was well and could go with them.
She is said to be the ancestor of Bezalel, the architect of the portable sanctuary used in the wilderness, and of King David. According to tradition, as a result of Miriam’s righteousness, a well followed the people through the Hebrews’ wilderness wanderings and remained with them until she died.
Like Moses and Aaron, Miriam never entered the so-called “Promised Land”; she died before the Hebrews entered their destination. Even so, Miriam is remembered by many Jewish groups, particularly Reform Jewish groups, as their annual Seder commemorations, which are parts of the larger celebration of the Feast of Passover. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover when the events many Christians recall on Palm Sunday took place. At this time of year, it’s proper for even liberal Christians to remember Jesus’ last days on earth and why they were his last days. Back to Miriam for now, though.
“Miriam's Cup” is a newer ritual for the traditional Passover seder. A “seder” is a Jewish home or community service including a ceremonial dinner held on the first or first and second evenings of the Passover in commemoration of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt where they had been enslaved. Its purpose is to honor the role of Miriam the Prophet in the Exodus and to highlight the contributions of women to Jewish culture, past and present.
An empty glass is filled, and the celebrant says something like this: “A Midrash teaches us that a miraculous well accompanied the Hebrews throughout their journey in the desert, providing them with water. This well was given by G-d to Miriam, the prophetess, to honor her bravery and devotion to the Jewish people. Both Miriam and her well were spiritual oases in the desert, sources of sustenance and healing. Her words of comfort gave the Hebrews the faith and confidence to overcome the hardships of the Exodus. We fill Miriam's cup with water to honor her role in ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. Like Miriam, Jewish women in all generations have been essential for the continuity of our people. As keepers of traditions in the home, women passed down songs and stories, rituals and recipes, from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. Let us each fill the cup of Miriam with water from our own glasses, so that our daughters may continue to draw from the strength and wisdom of our heritage.”
When Miriam's cup is filled, goblets are raised, and the celebrant says: “We place Miriam's cup on our seder table to honor the important role of Jewish women in our tradition and history, whose stories have been too sparingly told.”
Rabbi Susan Schnur has written a prayer that many groups use to close the segment of the Seder devoted to Miriam: “You abound in blessings, G-d, creator of the universe, who sustains us with living water. May we, like the children of Israel leaving Egypt, be guarded and nurtured and kept alive in the wilderness, and may You give us wisdom to understand that the journey itself holds the promise of redemption. AMEN.”
The Song of Miriam was a lot like many songs sung in worship settings today. God gets praised alright, but only as God is seen as blessing a nation, her nation and our nation, over against others that, presumably, God likes less than God likes her nation or our nation.
God bless America, land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with the light from above.
My Native Country, Thee,
Land of the noble free
Thy name I love.
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills, like that above.
Our fathers' God, to thee,
Author of liberty, to thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
And for Canada and Britain:
God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen:
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen.
O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.
If we were to take nationalism out of American religion, most Americans would have no religion at all, and I’m sure that’s probably true in many nations where Christianity isn’t the most chosen religion. Nonetheless, it’s powerfully the case here.
In preparation for last year’s end of school program, a third grade teacher in Florida taught her students the words to a country song by the group Diamond Rio, which the students, obviously, were supposed to sing at the concert. I want to remind you that third graders are about nine years old at the end of their third grade studies.
Problems arose when one of the kids happened to go home and tell his parents about the song he was going to be singing at the end of year program. The title of the song was “In God We Still Trust,” and did I mention that the school is a public school? One journalist has called the song a new national anthem for Christians in the United States:
You place your hand on His Bible, when you swear to tell the Truth
His name is on our greatest Monuments, and all our money too,
And when we Pledge allegiance, there's no doubt where we stand,
There is no separation, we're one Nation under Him.
Now there are those among us, who want to push Him out,
And erase His name from everything, this country's all about,
From the Schoolhouse to the Courthouse, they're Silencing His Word,
Now it's time for all Believers, to make our Voices heard.
In God We Still Trust,
Here in America
He's the one we turn to every time
The goin' gets rough
He is the source of all our Strength
The One who watches over us
Here in America
In God We Still Trust
The parents of the kid who told pitched a fit; they are a non-religious family. The parents threatened to file a lawsuit; actually, they did file it, but before all of that became clear the teacher told the kids they didn’t have to sing that song, that they were perfectly free to stay at home and not participate in the program at all. The Superintendent of Schools stepped in and yanked the song from the program, but not before the lawsuit hit the courts.
Too late, really. A federal judge had already banned even the practicing of the song as a part of school activities.
Michelle Goldberg in her 2006 book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, explained and warned:
Christian nationalists believe in a revisionist history, which holds that the founders were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic; separation of church and state, according to this history, is a fraud perpetrated by God-hating subversives. One of the foremost Christian revisionist historians is David Barton, who, in addition to running an organization called Wallbuilders that disseminates Christian nationalist books, tracts and videos, is also the vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party. The goal of Christian nationalist politics is the restoration of the imagined Christian nation. As George Grant, former executive director of D. James Kennedy’s influential Coral Ridge Ministries, wrote in his book The Changing of the Guard:
“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ--to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.
But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice.
It is dominion we are after. Not just influence.
It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time.
It is dominion we are after.
World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish.”
Is that clear enough for us? They claim to be led of God and empowered by God to rule this nation and, ultimately, the world. Even though no form of democracy was known during the time any part of the Bible was written, these modern-day Christian nationalists believe that Christian democracy must prevail as the one and only form of government everywhere in the world.
Dr. Mel Seesholtz calls Christian nationalism “the darkest side of religion.”
God has been tied to politics from the beginning of a human awareness of God. Yahweh was the Canaanite deity of metallurgy before the Hebrews adopted him and made him their one and only--deity, that is. We don’t know what Yahweh had to say about any of this; for all we know Yahweh was perfectly happy being Lord over the Canaanite--you can substitute “Palestinian” if you wish--metal and ore workers. Like it or not, though, the Hebrews took Yahweh, and when they were done with polytheism, they tossed the other deities they’d picked up along the way and kept Yahweh alone.
So identified were the Hebrews with their one and only God, then, meant that to take on the Hebrews was, in their minds, to take on their God. Words from one of the psalmists:
Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
General Douglas MacArthur has been credited with saying that the two greatest symbols in American society are he cross and the flag. Too bad for our American Jewish friends, huh?
Here are some facts about the story of Miriam’s song that I think are worth nothing. I hope they are meaningful to you as you embrace the story for your own inspiration.
Miriam had once been a slave too. The stories of slavery weren’t just old tales told by her parents and grandparents to which she was unable to relate. From the sounds of things, she was not separated from her family as were many of the Hebrew slaves and, by the way, as were many of the Africans who were sold and enslaved on land that we now call North America.
Given her plight, she was, indeed, delighted to have escaped her captors, and even if the forty years of wilderness wandering was more of a symbol of a really long time rather than an exact time count, still Miriam remembered what slavery had tasted like and had the right to celebrate having escaped it.
Hitler’s accomplices who were only doing what they were ordered to do when they put Jews to death during the Holocaust have still, many years later, been held accountable for their actions by various national and world courts. I say this to say that while Miriam’s delight in the drowning of the Pharaoh’s armies ordered to retrieve the escaping Hebrews doesn’t sound like the high road in ethics and morality I dare you to find anyone today or in history who was nonchalant or neutral about death of someone or some group on the way to bring them harm.
Miriam led the women in singing a song giving thanks to God that those sent by the Pharaoh to retrieve and return the Hebrews to Egypt and the oppression of slavery were drowned by what they took to be a direct act of God. The women were singing nothing that the men hadn’t sung before them in terms of content, anyway.
The legend in song said that God opened up the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds so that the escaping Hebrews could get to the other side unscathed and as dry as the desert itself. It was quite poetic, really.
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.” You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
When the Hebrews got to the other side, the same God, they said, who had protected them closed the waters back up until the waters swallowed the soldiers along with their horses and chariots--even though most of those soldiers had nothing personal against the Hebrews; they were just doing what their Commander in Chief ordered them to do.
By the way, the Egyptian army was a don’t ask/don’t tell force, but since all the soldiers wore mini-togas it was really impossible to tell which ones wanted to be their brothers’ keepers! Since they rarely had opportunities to bathe, fraternizing was rare.
It’s noteworthy that while the men and the women were together singing the Song of Moses, which was a longer version of the Song of Miriam, there was no dancing and no instrumental accompaniment, at least none of mentioned. When Miriam and the women only separated themselves from the men to praise God in their own way, they danced and punctuated the rhythm of their bring song with tambourines.
There’s nothing unusual about the fact that the women danced and punctuated their rhythms with tambourines, which were also called frame drums and timbrels, by the way. Today, we mean something quite different when we speak of timbrels. What is ironic to me is that tambourines were also often sounded while soldiers were marching into battle.
Musicologists have proposed that the tambourines or timbrels used in the time of Miriam and Moses would have been quite a bit larger than the tambourines we use today. They have had considerably more or considerably less jinglers. The animal skin membrane stretched over the frame would almost certainly have been painted with a scene of import or a symbol.
Frame drums such as the tambourine are among the most ancient percussion instruments to have ever been identified by archaeologists. They originated in the ancient Middle East, not in Egypt, and ultimately reached medieval Europe so when Miriam played her tambourine, it wasn’t a souvenir she’d picked up at a tourist trap in the land of the pyramids.
Once in Europe, the tambourine began appearing in operas, ballets, and productions ever more frequently throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Used as an accompaniment to other musical instruments or dancers rather than as a solo instrument, the tambourine has developed a huge following for use in spiritual or ritual activities in our own time.
There are those who theorize that the tambourine began as an instrument of everyday people, but that in time the priests adapted it as an instrument of worship. When that happened, everyday folk were discouraged from using tambourines. Did Miriam the Prophet’s use of the tambourine to accompany the singing and dancing of what amounted to a war win lead to increased use of the tambourine in conventional worship, such as in the Temple--when there finally was one?
One wonders why the tambourine isn’t mentioned in Christian scripture. Was dancing minimized as Hebrew worship turned into Christian worship? That seems to have been the case.
Vanessa L. Ochs wrote an article in 2005 called “Waiting for the Messiah, a Tambourine in Her Hand” for Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues. It’s a fascinating article in which she recounts her experiences between March and July of 1994, the period just before and after the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. “Rebbe” is the Yiddish rendering of the Hebrew “Rabbi.” Lubavitcher Jews are a mystical sect established in Russia in the late eighteenth century and scattered across the world by tragedy and necessity. The closest group to us, as far as I know, ended up in Morristown, New Jersey, where they founded the Lubavitch Rabbinical College.
Vanessa Ochs was doing fieldwork among Lubavitch women as Rebbe Schneersohn appeared to be dying. Many of the faithful Jews in the sect, including the women whom Ochs encountered, did not want him to die, and some believed he was the messiah who instead of dying would rise up as the deliverer long hoped for in mainstream Judaism.
While attending their study sessions and prayer gatherings and visiting them in their homes, Ms. Ochs reports that she inadvertently discovered that a new ritual object emerging in the women's community: the return of “Miriam's tambourine.” Speaking broadly, Ochs said that she I observed that the tambourine enabled the creation of strong bonds between the women. The rhythm of the tambourines channeled their anxiety about the possible death of their beloved spiritual leader, but the percussive sounds of the ancient instrument also expressed a longing for hope and deliverance, a longing for messiah.
Whether in the strong hand of Miriam, once afflicted with leprosy but healed in time, or in the hands of the New Jersey women who wondered in modern times if messiah was a human being or the symbol for a God-infused world, the tambourine gave sound to the process of hearts opening in anticipation of possibility.