Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat BeShalach

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.


Parashat Beshalach 5759/1999

Miriam the Prophetess

Dr. Gabriel Hayyim Cohn

Department of Bible

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The passage about Miriam's song after the splitting of the Red Sea does not generally receive much attention from traditional commentators. Nevertheless, these verses provide important evidence of the independent action of women in biblical times.[1]

This passage is the first in which Miriam is mentioned by name. In the beginning of Exodus, in the narrative on Moses' birth and deliverance, Miriam is alluded to as Moses' sister, but the Torah deliberately leaves obscure all detail about the characters in the story (the father, mother and sister), perhaps because the narrative concerns secret, underground activity; a full description of the family of Moses is not given until we reach Numbers (26:58-59). [Ed. note: for another explanation, see Parashat Shemot on the Internet, by Prof. E. Touitou]. Since the first mention of Miriam by name occurs here, after the Song on the Sea, her family relationship, "Aaron's sister," is added, as is the Bible's custom when introducing women.[2]

The remarkable element here, however, is the title of prophetess given Miriam. This title was previously used with regard to Abraham, "since he is a prophet" (Gen. 20:7), and here is applied to a woman for the first time.[3]

Calling Miriam by the title of prophetess is surprising, for where does one see her prophetic ability? The Sages relate that prior to Moses' birth she had said to her father, "In the end you will beget a son who shall deliver Israel from Egypt," (Mekhilta, Ex. 15:20). This prophecy convinced Amram to renew intimate relations, despite the danger involved because of Pharoah's decree against sons. The Bible itself, however, gives no hint of any prophecy, save for the fact that Miriam herself testifies that G-d indeed communicated with her and with Aaron as He did with Moses: "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?" (Numbers 12:2). This implies that Miriam's prophetic power, to which the Torah attests, found expression on various occasions about which the Torah says nothing. Evidence of this can be found in various settings in which Miriam made an impressive contribution to the leadership of the people during the period of the Exodus.

Let us mention two instances from the Bible that attest to Miriam's lofty status in the eyes of the people:

1) Miriam was stricken with leprosy as punishment for speaking against Moses and her brother. The people, as the Torah stresses, showed loyalty to their great leader and halted their advance through the desert until Miriam could continue with them: "So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted" (Num. 12:15).

1) According to an ancient tradition, preserved both in the written Torah and the oral Torah, the Israelites viewed Miriam as one of the three central figures leading the people during the Exodus from Egypt and the march through the wilderness: "In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage. And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (Micah 6:4); "Israel had three fine leaders, namely: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (Ta'anit 9a).

We do not know by what merit Miriam enjoyed such status among the people. Aside from the "anonymous" assistance given in Moses' birth and the description of the "rebellion" against Moses, the Bible says nothing about Miriam's qualities as a leader, save for the passage of song in this week's reading, which in a few words lends expression to Miriam's special position among the women. Nonetheless, perhaps we can extrapolate more from between the words.

This passage attests, first of all, to Miriam's personal initiative: "Then Miriam... took a timbrel in her hand." This itself occasions comment in the midrash: "Taking the initiative is the main thing" (Lekah Tov, loc. sit.). Miriam sparks the women's enthusiasm, and they stream after her, following her lead: "and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels." Scriptures underscores Miriam's great influence by saying that "all" the women followed her lead, even though this is not a realistic description.[4] Furthermore, thanksgiving to the Lord through song attains an additional creative artistic dimension, thanks to Miriam and the other women: musical instruments and dance.[5] Thus the women's camp had a deep and multi-faceted spiritual experience.

In addition, the text of the song was also Miriam's choice: "And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea."[6] It might seem that Miriam was merely repeating the words of her brother, Moses, but this is not the case. There is a significant difference between her words and his. Moses began his song in the singular, "I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously," whereas Miriam addressed all the women around her and included them in the religious experience by saying, "Sing [all of you, in the plural] to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously."[7]

Perhaps the Bible is thereby alluding to various types of leadership: that of Moses, who devoted a large part of his life to isolated communion with G-d, and that of Miriam, who was with the masses, working on their behalf. Miriam is the first feminine figure who is active in public life and of whose family life the Bible says not a word. In this respect Miriam undoubtedly resembled her brother Aaron, who due to his role as priest and by virtue of his special character is perceived in Jewish tradition as a person deeply involved with others, caring for their peace and well-being. Perhaps Miriam is called Aaron's sister precisely in order to emphasize that she followed the example of her brother Aaron in his mode of involved leadership.[8]

Notes

[1] Of course, the numerous articles published in recent years (primarily in English) which read the Bible from a feminist perspective relate to Miriam's song after the splitting of the Red Sea. Cf. A. L. Laffey, An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective; Philadelphia 1988, 51-55.

[2] Women are often introduced not only as "daughter of" but also as "sister of," as in the case of Rebekah, "sister of Laban" (Gen. 25:20); "Mahalath..., sister of Nebaioth" (Gen. 28:9). The "brother" was responsible for his sister, when the father could not or did not function as necessary (as in the case of Laban, Rebekah's brother, and the brothers of Dinah).

[3] Aaron, as well, was called a prophet: "See, I place you in the role of G-d to Pharaoh, with you brother Aaron as your prophet" (Ex. 7:1), although this verse implies that Aaron is the spokesman for and "prophet" of Moses, who in his delegation to Pharaoh is referred to as " G-d."

[4] As against the words, "all the women," the midrash notes the deficient orthography of the Hebrew verb for "went out" as indication that only a limited group of women (those worthy of prophecy) went out after Miriam (Midrash Or ha-Afelah)

[5] Some people believe that meholot (rendered here as "dance") referred to another sort of musical instrument and does not mean "dance" at all. (Cf. Ps. 149:3; 106:4, and the commentaries on these verses.)

[6] Commentators are divided on the question whether Miriam repeated all of Moses' song with the women, or only the first verse. Since the first verse provides the gist and refrain of the entire song and was presented as a general musical-artistic experience, it is possible that the women made do with this colorful repetition of the first verse alone.

[7] Both forms, ashira (I will sing) and shiru (sing, pl.) occur in biblical poetry. Psalms lends expression to both opening forms: "O G-d, I will sing You (ashira) a new song" (Ps. 144:9), as opposed to "Sing (shiru) to the Lord a new song" (Ps. 149:1). Tdifference between the beginning words of the song sung by Moses as opposed to Miriam can be interpreted as reflecting more than simply alternative literary forms.

[8] The midrash asks why Miriam was called "Aaron's sister" and not "Moses' sister," since even though Aaron was the elder, Moses was the main figure in the family? The midrash, which associates Miriam's prophecy with the time before the birth of Moses, draws a connection between the two titles given her, "prophetess" and "Aaron's sister": "R. Nahman bar Rav said: She prophesied when she was Aaron's sister" (Megillah 14a).