Sermon from September 20: The Prophet Miriam

The Prophet Miriam
Pentecost XVI (O. T. 25); September 20, 2020
Exodus 14:26-31, 15:20-21

If you learned about the story of the Exodus in Sunday School, you probably talked a lot about Moses. And all through the Bible there is a lot about Moses. There is another character in the story who is worth talking about: his sister Miriam. There are three moments in particular when Miriam comes to the foreground of the picture; let’s look at those moments and what they say about God’s work through unexpected heroes.

But first, a Miriam moment that isn’t in the Bible, especially if you’re feeling discouraged these days. In DreamWorks’ wonderful 1998 movie The Prince of Egypt, as the people are leaving Egypt, Miriam and Zipporah lead them in singing “When You Believe.” Find it on YouTube or Hulu or Prime or somewhere and watch it.

Back to the Bible. Our first Miriam moment is from her childhood. You may know that the Hebrew people had prospered in the land of Egypt and were numerous, which troubled the Egyptians. When a new dynasty came to power, the government decided to do something about this potential threat; they couldn’t build a big, beautiful wall – the people were already there – so they decided to enslave them and also do what they could to reduce their numbers. The government decreed that all male Hebrew babies were to be thrown into the River Nile and drowned.

Well, Moses was the exception. When he was three months old his mother put him in a basket and set him floating in the river; Miriam, his sister, watched from nearby. The spot happened to be a favorite bathing place for the Pharaoh’s daughter, and she saw the baby and decided to adopt him. But he would need a woman to nurse him. Just then, Miriam popped out of the bushes and said, “Would you like me to find you a wetnurse?” and the Princess thought that a splendid idea. So Miriam went and got her mother; the Princess hired her to nurse Moses for her with the agreement that when he was weaned she would bring him to the palace to be raised. So, thanks to Miriam’s quick thinking, her mother got to nurse and care for her own baby, and be paid by the government to do it!

The second moment is the one in our Scripture for today, after the people have left Egypt and have escaped across the Red Sea. I’ve preached about all these stories in the last year, so I hope you know them. Anyway, after they crossed and were safe on the other side, Miriam led the celebration. Those who study the Scriptures tell us that the part we skipped (15:1-19) was probably inserted later, that the original story wasn’t Moses singing but Miriam singing and the women dancing with her. These words may be among the most ancient recorded in the Bible:

Sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:21)

And the story-teller calls her a “prophet.” “Then the prophet Miriam… took a tambourine in her hand…” (15:20). When you and I think “prophet,” we tend to think of someone who predicts events that happen later. That’s not the most traditional meaning of the word. When an ancient story says “prophet,” it is more likely to mean someone who has been overcome by the Spirit of God and sings or speaks words inspired by God. There are stories scattered throughout the Bible of people going into a sort of altered state, one in which they feel themselves under God’s control; those are moments of prophecy. Since occasionally such a person will say, “Thus says the Lord: I’m going to blast you because of what you have done,” we think of a prophet as a predictor. But that’s not the whole meaning. A prophet speaks God’s word under the influence of the Spirit of God.

And such was Miriam. As the people settled on the shore of the sea, the Egyptians who had been coming to take them back to slavery dead behind them, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Miriam, she took up a tambourine, and led the women in dancing. And she sang. Oh, she sang. Years of slavery behind them, plague and torture and government oppression behind them. Those who came to enforce slavery dead on the seashore behind them. The Prophet Miriam sang.

The third moment is not so inspiring, but it is instructive, so let’s not ignore it. There came a time as the Hebrews were traveling that Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses over his having married a foreigner. It was part of the law of God that Hebrews were not to marry foreigners, because of their potential corrupting influence, but Moses’ marriage to Zipporah was before that law was given. Or perhaps he had taken another wife, and that’s who they’re complaining about; the story is not clear. In any event, Aaron and Miriam had the law on their side, and they spoke up and said that he should not have married the foreign woman.

But they didn’t stop there; they started griping that Moses was doing all the speaking on the Lord’s behalf. After all, they were prophets too, and the Spirit of the Lord had spoken through them. So shouldn’t the people pay attention to them as well as to Moses? After all, they’re only speaking up for the priesthood of all believers, aren’t they? Who is the Pastor to think that a seminary degree, years of theological experience, and prayer and reflection give them any more information about God than anyone else? Anyway, Miriam and Aaron complained against Moses, and Moses was prepared to let it go, but the Lord wasn’t. The Lord scolded Aaron and Miriam, and punished them by giving Miriam a skin disease.

Wait a minute. Did you catch what was wrong with that sentence? The Lord punished them by giving her a skin disease. Why just Miriam? Why not Aaron too? I don’t know, frankly, and it bugs me. I’m sure the rabbis have a good explanation; it may have to do with Aaron’s role as High Priest. Anyway, Moses prays to the Lord to take it away from her, and God replies by saying, “Nope. She did wrong, and so she’s going to be ritually unclean for seven days, just like anyone else. After seven days she’ll be fine.” And so it was. So while Miriam had to be exiled for the seven days, the people waited for her to recover. Then she was restored to them, and they packed up their tents, and moved on.

From these moments I offer to you three thoughts:

  1. No one, not even Miriam, is above the law. A person with a skin disease was to be quarantined – considered unclean – until recovered. Moses prayed that the Lord would exempt Miriam from that, but God said no, she had to experience what everyone else experienced. It is easy for people in power to think that they can do whatever they want, even go so far as to say, “I am the law,” but that’s not how God sees it. No prophet, no Pastor, no Governor, no CEO, no President is above the law.
  1. Moses himself drew a lesson from Miriam’s disease, according to the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses said that when someone gets a skin disease, everyone must be careful and observe whatever the priests tell you to do, adding “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam” (Deut. 24:9). The example of a skin disease serves as a guide for any sort of infection. When our health experts tell us to wear masks in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and people refuse to do it, they are not only violating good sense but they’re not paying attention to the preaching of Moses. Be careful to observe what you are instructed, he says.
  1. On balance, Miriam is remembered as one of the great figures of God’s story. Yes, she serves as a bad example in one instance, but on balance she is one of the heroes. When the genealogies of the people of God are listed (Numbers 26, I Chronicles 6), they mostly include only men. There are women among them, but since families are traced patrilineally, it’s primarily men’s names that are given. But Miriam is named, right along with Aaron and Moses.

Furthermore, hundreds of years later, the Prophet Micah pleads on God’s behalf, saying, “Look what I have done for you! Why do you turn against me? I redeemed you from slavery in Egypt and sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam!” (Micah 6:4). The Prophet does not neglect Miriam in his preaching. And one, small thing more. Remember Miriam singing of the Lord’s victory at the Red Sea. And remember what the story-teller says of her then. In the entire Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the foundation of the Bible – only four people are called prophets: Abraham, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska