Authentic :: Miriam

It’s not easy being a big sister. When I was a kid, I felt personally responsible for my little brother. Like the one time that he was being a jerk (at least from my perspective) and I felt personally responsible to teach him a lesson, so I locked him outside in his underwear (not advisable btw). Or maybe the many times I took it upon myself to lecture him in ways I really had no right to. Regardless, I felt responsible for my brother because I had been given a calling—my birthright, I truly believed, was to teach, scold, and protect this little sibling of mine, no matter the cost.

I imagine that’s just a smidgen of what Miriam felt for her two little brothers, Aaron and Moses. At a young age (maybe even as young as six), she took on an enormous responsibility—it was her job to save her brother’s life. Or rather to be God’s hands and feet as He protected this future leader and liberator of His people. This early life event shaped her into the bold and clever leader she was to become for the Israelite people, and ultimately all of humanity. But it was also the source of her greatest flaws: pride and jealousy.

Boy can I relate.

We are first introduced to Miriam in Exodus 1:21-2:8. She was just a child when she was tasked to protect her brother from annihilation ordered by the Pharaoh of Egypt. Some accounts claim that she is as old as 12, but many others consider her as young as 6. Regardless, she felt the weight of the responsibility given to her, and we can draw a lot of conclusions about her character if we examine her actions carefully.

Miriam was bold

We aren’t told her thoughts, but I can’t help but wonder what might have gone through her mind as she watched her baby brother float down the river. So close, and yet so far from her reach what could she do but cry out to the Lord for protection from whatever might have been waiting for him in the river. A special bond exists between siblings and a little bit of Miriam’s own heart floated down the river with her brother in that basket. It would have been easy for this young girl to give into the emotions that surely followed her. Fear, especially. Not only for her little brother but for herself. I seriously doubt she had a lot of free time given that she and her family were enslaved to the Egyptians. Yet here she was a young girl who should have been somewhere else following a basked down the river heading straight to the palace…and guards…and men…and dangers all too real for a young slave girl all by herself. But she didn’t let the fear control her, instead, she stepped into the risk.

Miriam was clever

As Moses neared the palace, Miriam had to think quickly and creatively to save her brother’s life. After the decree to drown all Hebrew males had come straight from the Pharoh himself, so it was unlikely he’d be a lot of help. Seeing the kindness in the princess, Miriam speaks up–coming out of the shadows and offering a plan to the empathetic royal. I can just imagine how this scene played out…

Miriam hid among the reeds where she had been watching her brother’s basket drift closer and closer to shore, giving it a push here and there to keep it moving. Then she sees her, the princess. Had she ever seen anyone so beautiful? Decked out in gold and painted face, she surrounded herself with servants, yet her heart still ached for something more. Could this princess who had everything be lonely? Even barren? Miriam didn’t know about that, but she knew a miracle when she saw it–her abba had told her all about the Hebrew Joseph who had worked is way up in the palace as second in command. Why couldn’t her brother do the same if he was raised by this princess?

Yes, I see Miriam’s creative mind just playing out the future as she steps forward and offers a solution to the princess and brings her brother back to her mother safe and sound.

Miriam was a leader

The next time we see Miriam show up in the narrative is after the parting of the Red Sea. But a lot happened in between that time. Moses murdered an Egyptian, fled the country, married a Midianite, talked to a burning bush, returned to Egypt with Aaron as his mouthpiece, commanded the Israelites freedom, called out plagues from God, and led the people out. We aren’t told that Miriam is involved, but I think it’s safe to infer that while not involved in the “male only club” of the palace, she had her own role to play. I like to think that while plague after plague came down from the palace she rallied the women and encouraged them in ways her brothers could not. 

Miriam’s leadership is highlighted for the first time when we read Exodus 15:20-21. Although Miriam’s song follows Moses’ and is much shorter than her brother’s, the significance of these verses is profound.  Miriam is called a prophetess, a title given to only a handful of women in ancient times, which meant they had charismatic gifts similar to that of men. And then she danced! Not only that, but the women followed her lead. This kind of singing is known as antiphonal. Two groups perform, one sings, the other responds. To me, this shows Miriam’s place in this exodus was not relegated to the kitchen or nursery, but front and center with her brothers.

Miriam’s struggles are much like our own

The narrative takes a drastic turn the next time Miriam is mentioned. In Numbers 12:1-16  we see her major flaws: pride and jealousy. Miriam and Aaron approach Moses and criticize his choices, but more importantly, they are criticizing God’s choices. Given that Miriam’s name is mentioned first, I hazard to guess that she’s somewhat of the ringleader in this situation; maybe said a little something to Aaron in private and then confronted Moses with a “and Aaron agrees with me” kind of thing, which may explain the harshness of her punishment on some level (when it seems Aaron is kind of off the hook). Mind you, that’s my interpretation given just how much I identify with this Miriam, regardless of how it went down, it clearly was not ordained by God. This is jealousy (which I’ll get to in a moment) for sure, but I think it also shows just how insecure she is as a female leader in the patriarchal community.

Registering concern or even criticism with your leaders is not a bad thing, but the way in which you go about it can be. Miriam made some classic mistakes we’ve all fallen into.

  1. She chose to confront Moses publicly in an attempt to undermine his authority.
  2. Her reasons were self-serving, not God-serving.
  3. Her motivation was rooted in jealousy, not in following God’s will. I take note that the narrative never mentions Miriam’s marriage, children or lineage. Maybe she had them and the text didn’t mention it, but as a 33-year-old single woman myself, I think this digs into the heart of her jealousy too. 

It’s important for us to understand how and why authority has been given to our leaders and to speak up when it seems those in authority have strayed from God’s purpose. However, it’s equally important for us to remember who placed our leaders in authority and to examine our motives very carefully before proceeding. Ultimately all authority on Earth is granted by God and it’s important for us to respect the authority He has enabled, but to keep in mind that we are not ruled by the authority on Earth alone, but by God’s law and if something contradicts that authority then we speak out. How we speak out, however, is important and it is on our motives and actions that God holds us personally responsible.

It’s equally important for us to remember who placed our leaders in authority and to examine our motives very carefully before proceeding.

Miriam adds value just in being herself

Some commentators see a connection between the three leaders of Israel and the supernatural provisions of God. We could take time to examine and debate the symbolism related to Moses as the provision of Manna (daily bread), Aaron to the cloud (God’s presence) and Miriam to the provision of water.  But that’s not really the point of this post. Even so, as an English teacher, I can’t ignore the fact that Miriam’s introduction begins with water (the Nile and her brother) and ends with water (she dies and water becomes scarce again) in Numbers 20: 1-2. What does this reveal to us about Miriam’s character? I don’t know. No, really, I don’t but given that nothing happens by accident, God speaks through this. To me, it speaks of Miriam’s redemption story, because we all have one and to be authentic, we should probably learn to recognize it in ourselves as well as others.

Micah 6:4 is probably my favorite verse about Miriam. God claims her as a great leader, equal to that of Moses and Aaron. Not because of the babies she bore, but because of her boldness and commitment to Him and His people. Yes, she had flaws, but she was also chosen by God for a greater purpose. As we all are if only we’d listen!

Miriam teaches us to be more authentic

Despite the odds against her as a woman in an ancient, patriarchal society, God chose Miriam to be a protector and leader in her community. He used her strengths to save an entire people group from genocide. Feminine doesn’t have to mean fragile. Miriam was fierce and bold. She seized opportunities as they arose. Miriam is proof that women can be powerful leaders when following God’s will and purpose. BUT, it is important that women and men check their motivations, know their strengths and work to overcome their weaknesses when stepping up and calling out.

Feminine doesn’t have to mean fragile.

God uses our strengths to influence our communities and families. One of my greatest strengths is my organization and planning. I have an uncanny ability to see multiple possible outcomes and plan to achieve what I think would be the best one in the most effective ways. God uses this in tandem with my heart for teenagers and while I am not always able to connect emotionally I can ensure a safe and productive environment for them to learn and grow. It has also helped keep my family in communication sometimes. Granted it doesn’t always work and my own schedule can sometimes get in the way, but that is just an example of how God uses my strengths…and forgives my weakness, because while I am great at being organized I am not exactly the most flexible person in the world and the anxiety that accompanies this can be offputting at best and a great hinderance at worst.

Which brings me back to my siblings and while it’s true that I believed, my job was to teach, scold, and protect this little brother of mine, no matter the cost, over the years I found the cost to be too great. It is hard to build a true relationship with someone when you constantly believe you are right and they are wrong. Or worse, that they should change to please you. Miriam struggled with pride and jealousy, and if I’m honest that’s where a lot of my problems in life sit as well. In the end, when we allow jealousy and pride to color the way we treat others we are getting in the way of God’s plans for our authenticity. Trying to be like someone else is not living as an image of God and this should help us improve, well, pretty much everything.

All photos are stock images from www.pexels.com and used with licensing permissions. 

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