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Standing between Life and Death

Shawna R. B. Atteberry

Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:21)

The voices rose above the winds and the waves as tambourines kept the beat, skirts swirled, and hair blew in the breeze. "Come!" a voice rings out above the singing, "Come sing and dance to Yahweh! Sing praises to the God who has freed us!" Miriam leads the song and the dance, and she leads the Israelites is their first service of worship as free people.

Deborah's song is one of the most well known early songs in the Old testament (Judges 5).  Yet she  was not the first to sing a song of victory to Yahweh. Miriam began the tradition after the crossing of the Reed Sea (see Red Sea or Sea of Reeds?). Miriam was also a prophet, worship leader, and a co-leader with Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4). Tradition says she is the unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses and arranged for their mother to nurse the child for Pharaoh’s daughter. Jewish tradition also reports that it was Miriam’s well which provided the Israelites with water during the wilderness wanderings. She is the first woman named as a prophet and every verse, which describes women going out to sing and dance victory reflects back to her.

Exodus 15:20 Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 15:21 And Miriam sang to them: "Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea."

Exodus 15:20 is the first place Miriam is named. She is called a prophet and the sister of Aaron but not Moses. At first reading it appears that she leads only the women in a fragment of the song that Moses led the people in worship (Exodus 15:1-18). But a closer look at the whole literary structure of the passage offers a different interpretation. Exodus 15:21 ends the first major unit of the book. It began with women in chapter one—midwives who, instead of obeying Pharaoh, feared God (1:15-21). The narrative continued with the mother, sister, and daughter who saved Moses. The unit now ends with the sister and daughters worshiping the God who had just delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh. If Miriam is the unnamed sister of chapter two (2:4, 7) she frames not only the narratives of Moses but also the entire exodus narrative.

Although Miriam is named a prophet, nowhere in Scripture does she function in the traditional prophetic role of speaking forth the word of God. She does start a liturgical tradition. Most biblical scholars agree that Exodus 15:21 is one of the oldest texts in the Old Testament. Most also think that the original "Song of the Sea" is Miriam’s. Verse 19 recounts Yahweh’s deliverance of the Israelite people and the destruction of Pharaoh’s troops at the Reed Sea. In verse 20 Miriam apparently leads the women in dancing and celebrating Yahweh’s victory. However, the imperative "sing" [Heb: shiru] is a masculine plural form (not feminine). Since Hebrew uses masculine forms for mixed gender groups, this implies that she led all the people in celebrating their victory and worshipping Yahweh, and not just the women.

In Has the Lord Indeed Spoken Only Through Moses? Rita J. Burns shows that not only was dancing part of celebrating victories in Israel’s life, it was also part of its liturgical life (cf. 2 Sam 6:14). The thing that distinguishes Miriam’s dance and song from those of Deborah, Jephthah’s daughter, and the women in 1 Samuel 18:6 is that there is no human component in this fight and victory. Yahweh alone acted on Israel’s behalf—none of the Israelites fought against the Egyptians; they stood and watched Yahweh defeat their enemy.

Another way dance was used within the life of Israel and surrounding nations was re-presenting past victories. The battle was re-enacted through dance to celebrate the victory (cf. 1 Sam 21:11, 29:5). There is no doubt for Israel that the Exodus is the foundation of their faith confession. The Exodus would be the definitive act of God among them for the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, and would undergird their belief that Yahweh would act on their behalf. This victory would become the paradigm for Israel’s worship (Deut 6:20-23).

In her analysis Burns uses the Exodus 32 story of the golden calves and the celebration happening around them to show that victory celebrations re-enacted the battle itself. In verse 17 Joshua hears the people’s revelry and thinks that there is a war going on in the camp. The people’s celebrations, which included dancing, sounded like a battle. The reason for the dancing and celebration in Exodus 32 is the same as in Exodus 15—Aaron told the people that the calves were the gods that had brought them out of Egypt, and the people were worshiping them and celebrating the victory at the Reed Sea. In fact throughout the Hebrew Scriptures dance is a "recurring feature in celebrations of victory" (Burns, 29).

In Israelite worship dance was used as a way of re-enacting the battle Yahweh had fought for them, so they could remember his deliverance and salvation and pass that faith on to the next generation. There are no instances of war dances in the Hebrew Scriptures where the celebration happened before the battle to insure victory. These dances always happened after Yahweh had acted, after he had saved the people and delivered them from their enemies.

This is the context of Miriam’s dance–she began the Israelite tradition of celebrating God’s victories through dance. It is very likely that this dance was enacted later, and used in shrine worship during the wilderness wanderings. Miriam began a liturgical tradition that would remind the people what God had done for them, and introduce future generations to the power and strength of the Warrior God who would come and fight for them.

Scripture never tells us if Miriam was married. The only men she is connected with are her brothers, Moses and Aaron. Since these verses are from the earliest known traditions, it is clear that Miriam did play a large role in Israelite belief and life before the entrance into Canaan. Scripture shows her as a leader among the people, and leading them in their first liturgical celebration of God’s deliverance from the Egyptians. The prophetic tradition remembered that she was a co-leader with Moses and Aaron during this time: "For 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" (Micah 6:4). As part of the triumvirate that God used to deliver his people, Miriam played an integral role from watching over her brother on the Nile, to leading the people in celebration of what God had done for them, to establishing a liturgical tradition so that the people would remember the power and strength of their God.

Miriam does not fare as well later in the Torah. The book of Numbers, mostly part of the priestly tradition of the Old Testament (see JEDP: Sources in the Pentateuch), categorically eliminates all other contenders to the priesthood, so that Aaron and his sons will be the rightful priests of the Israelite nation. Korah and his followers, although from the line of Levi, are denied the priesthood or any leadership role in Israel. They and their families die for their insubordination to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16). The line is further narrowed to Phineas, son of Aaron, after his two older brothers, Nadab and Abihu offer "illicit fire" before Yahweh (Numbers 3:4). Nestled between these two accounts is another elimination: Miriam.

The account in Numbers 12 is after the anointing of the seventy elders to help Moses govern the people (along with Moses’ wish that more were called to be prophets). It is before the twelve spies are sent to spy the land in chapter 13, and the people’s subsequent rebellion in chapter 14. The people refuse to go up and take the land that God has promised them, condemning themselves to wander another 40 years in the wilderness.

12:1 While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); 12:2 and they said, "Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?" And the LORD heard it.

Numbers 12 is one of those passages that is hard to understand exactly what is going on. In verse 1 it appears that Miriam and Aaron have a complaint against Moses’ Cushite wife, but then in verse 2 they say, "Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?" It is this complaint that Yahweh answers. Although there has been much speculation about the first complaint regarding Moses’ Cushite wife, I will focus on the second complaint and its consequences.

12:3 Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. 12:4 Suddenly the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting." So the three of them came out. 12:5 Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. 12:6 And 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. 12:7 Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. 12:8 With him I speak face to face-- clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" 12:9 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed.

As soon as the words in verse two are out of Miriam and Aaron’s mouths, Yahweh hears and appears. He calls the three siblings to the tent of meeting and rebukes Miriam and Aaron for their audacity to claim equal leadership with Moses. Yes, Yahweh has spoken through prophets and priests like Miriam and Aaron through visions and dreams, but his relationship with Moses is unique: "With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD" (12:8). Moses’ special place within the Israelite religious tradition is affirmed—he is not just a prophet: he is the prophet of Yahweh. Yahweh speaks to no one else as he does to Moses.

12:10 When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. 12:11 Then Aaron said to Moses, "Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed. 12:12 Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother's womb." 12:13 And Moses cried to the LORD, "O God, please heal her." 12:14 But the LORD said to Moses, "If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days, and after that she may be brought in again." 12:15 So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days; and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again.

After the cloud leaves the tent of meeting, Miriam is found to have leprosy. She is the only one punished, and her co-instigator, not only gets away without punishment, Aaron is the one who intercedes on her behalf to Moses. As in the sin of making the golden calf and leading the people to worship it, once again the high priest Aaron is not punished or even rebuked for his sin. The Aaronic priesthood and the priestly traditions insure that its forefather maintains his purity to perform his duties as high priest. Once again another contender for leading cultic ritual is eliminated; this time it is the sister of the high priest, Miriam.

It is possible that these verses are a polemic against the worship of female deities. Within the prophetic tradition the worship of the goddesses Astarte, Tammuz, and the Queen of Heaven were denounced as idolatry and the people were called to repent of worshiping deities other than Yahweh. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel called women who worshiped these deities to repent of their idolatry, and both of them blamed the exile on idolatry and the forsaking of Yahweh for other gods (Jere 7:18; Ezek 8:14; cf. Jud 2:13). As noted above the prophetic tradition remembers Miriam as being an equal with Moses and Aaron in leadership (Micah 6:4). She was connected closely to the liturgical and worship traditions of Israel. She was also the sister of the greatest prophet and the first high priest in Israel. In the period following the exile, any female leader would be susceptible to the diminishment of her role for fear of reviving the earlier problems associated with worshipping female goddesses. It appears that the postexilic redaction of Numbers has done precisely that (see JEDP: Sources in the Pentateuch).

The fact that the people did not move on until Miriam could come back into the camp signifies her importance within the community (Num 12:15). It is also significant that this passage comes right before the people’s rebellion that will lead them back into the wilderness for another 40 years. Miriam could symbolize Israel in these verses. Israel sinned against God and its leaders, and the adults would pay for it by dying in the wilderness and not entering the land. But they were forgiven, as was Miriam.

Miriam’s flesh being half-consumed is also a picture of one hanging between life and death. As Moses would stand in intercession between life and death many times for the people, and as Aaron would run between life and death with a censer of incense to stop a plague (Numbers 16:41-50), so Miriam would stand between life and death foreshadowing the grave sin the people would make in chapter 14. Although punished for rising up against her brother and put out of the camp, she symbolizes the people who would rebel against God and yet live. As one who has lived between life and death, she also stands as an intercessor for them, mediating the grace and forgiveness that she received from God.

As Phyllis Trible has noted, although later redactors would reduce Miriam’s role and push her to the margins, they could not diminish her role absolutely. She would remain the first woman to be named prophet, and her liturgical tradition of dancing and singing Israel’s victories would continue for generations to come. The liturgical tradition she started in her celebration of Yahweh’s victory at the Reed Sea would continue through the ages re-telling the story of Yahweh’s deliverance to each new generation.

20:1 The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.

Numbers 20:1 records Miriam’s obituary: she died and is buried at Kadesh—a city that will later become one of the cities of refuge, a symbol of the religious traditions of Israel and signifies holy ground.

As with Deborah and Jael, Miriam, too, heard God’s voice, saw his actions, responded, and she saved the lives of others. Miriam is a mediator and an intercessor standing between life and death. She is also a usurper who reminds us that when we do overstep our bounds, there will be consequences, but also forgiveness.

The tradition of Miriam reminds us that as women, we, too, are called to stand between life and death in the world we live—for our families, and our communities. Miriam was not called because of her husband (if she had one), but because she was available and open to God’s calling in her life. She heard his voice and followed.


Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (Copyright 2002 by Shawna Renee Bound).

Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dihk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible (New York: E.J. Brill, 1993).

Rita J. Burns, Has the Lord Indeed Spoken Only Through Moses? A Study of the Biblical Portrait of Miriam, SBL Dissertation Series 84 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987).

Mary Douglas, In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1993).

Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publisher, 1996).

Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991).

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Numbers: Journeying with God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).

Phyllis Trible, "Bringing Miriam Out of the Shadows," Bible Review 5 (February 1989), 23-4.

-Shawna R. B. Atteberry, Copyright © 2018, Shawna R. B. Atteberry - All Rights Reserved
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