I don’t know about you, but I haven’t spent a lot of my life studying the prophets of the Old Testament. I love God’s word and I spend a lot of time reading my Bible, but the prophets always felt kind of…depressing. Sure, there are a lot of good nuggets in there that look great on a coffee mug or wall art deco, but most of what you read is a lot of doom and gloom—or at least it feels that way. So I always kind of just glossed over them in my reading. Hello, Malachi, how are you? A cursory ‘fine’ in response was all I was looking for before I skipped on to Ruth or Esther, or James.
So when I ran across a study on minor prophets, I kind of dragged my feet on starting it, but it just kept haunting me (thanks Holy Spirit) and I gave in. Eventually.
I don’t regret it.
Over the past few months I have come to appreciate all that I’ve uncovered in these hard to pronounce, but kind of amazing little books. The history alone is mindboggling, but when you really dig in, these books really speak to my current struggles, and, I’d hazard to guess, yours too.
So in this new series I’m starting (finally; I know it’s been like a year since I’ve posted anything. Life. You dig?), I’m going to dig into some of the prophets and promises of God, what I’m learning, and how it might teach you a little something too.
Investing in Prophets
This word can be a bit scary. Prophets. It feels kind of funny on the tongue, foreign and funky. Most people hear it and think it’s synonymous with ‘fortune teller’ or ‘psychic’. Prophets do sometimes talk about the future. I won’t deny that, but they do so in a much different way than what mainstream media tells us. They don’t gaze into crystal balls or look to anything human or mystical. No, a prophet is inspired by one thing and one thing alone: God. Whether it’s through His word or through constant meditation and prayer, prophets speak revelations. The sovereign will of God, which (as it happens) can apply to the future, but interestingly just as often focuses on the present and past. They rely on spiritual discipline, not on whims of unknown spirits.
I’ve been learning a lot about that concept of discipline lately, too. I used to think I was pretty good on that front, that I had a lot of discipline. And in some ways that is correct, but in other ways I have a long way to go and a whole lot to learn. Building spiritual discipline is arduous and often heartbreaking, but in a way that allows the Lord to move in and redesign your motivation and focus.
And sometimes it hurts.
The OT prophets would be the first to tell you that discipline is hard and painful, yet they’d also be the first (most of them) to tell you that it is 100% worth it to walk that closely with the Lord and to rely on His word and will for your every move.
Spiritual Discipline for the 21st Century
If we are honest with ourselves, we’d admit that our society lacks any kind of discipline, spiritual or otherwise. We rely on instant gratification to fulfill our needs and get angry and impatient when we have to wait in line or our computer runs slower than we’d like. So how do we build spiritual discipline in a world that thrives on a me-first mentality? Believe it or not, we build these disciplines in the same manner as the prophets. Sure, it looks a little different for us (we’re unlikely to clothe ourselves in sackcloth when we are grieving over our troubles), but the problems and trials we face have no different roots than what we see in the Bible and so the examples and words of wisdom and warning still apply to us today. Humans are humans, sinful and ugly in all their me-first glory.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote a fantastic book on this very subject called Discipline: the Glad Surrender. The book gets to the heart of spiritual discipline in the 21st century starting with the title itself: glad surrender. We don’t like to surrender and we certainly aren’t happy about it by nature. Especially in the US. It connotes weakness and humility that our society puffed up on pride and self-sufficiency can hardly stomach let alone pursue. But we’d be wise to at least try, especially if we are wanting community with God, which inevitably will lead to amazing growth opportunities we would never find otherwise.
So what are these disciplines we are to surrender to? This is not an all inclusive list by any means, but in this series these are the ones I’ll comment on most frequently:
Solitude & Silence
Sabbath & Rest
Reading the Word
Prayer & Vision
Community: Family, Friends, & Neighbors
Reflection & Discernment
Promises of God
The whole point of becoming more disciplined really comes down to the promises of God. When we start living by the promises of God rather than explanations (or lack thereof), we see true transformation in our minds, hearts and souls, but we can’t live by His promises if we don’t even know what His promises are. And that begins by spending time with Him in his Word, in solitude and community, to build and strengthen our spiritual muscles that focuses on something far greater than ourselves.
The prophets managed to do this without indoor plumbing, sliced bread, or penicillin, so I figure we can too if we are willing to surrender a bit of ourselves for a lot more of Jesus.
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 cleverleader 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.
She chose to confront Moses publicly in an attempt to undermine his authority.
Her reasons were self-serving, not God-serving.
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.
I’ve decided to start a new series of posts based on the Bible studies I’ve been writing for the young women at our church. This series is called authentic. Did you know authentic by definition means real, genuine, not copied or false–but my favorite part of the definition is the last made to be or look just like an original.
Genesis 1:26-28 says:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the mage of God he created him; male and female he created them.
(ESV, emphasis mine)
That means God literally created us to be authentic–just like the original (himself)–with power, authority and ownership over the things of this earth.
His word is filled with examples of God drawing his people back into their true authentic purpose. It is not a collection of fairy tales or outdated history. It is alive and can teach us about our lives and our own God-given purpose. These stories teach us to be authentic and remind us who the real protagonist of the Bible is. Not us, but God.
Stay tuned for the first installment (published 8/12/18)
Encouraging restoration, healing, and expression through writing.