The Song of Miriam

 

Miriam by Anselm Feuerbach (1862); oil on canvas,  102cm x 81 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Miriam by Anselm Feuerbach (1862); oil on canvas, 102cm x 81 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Since first reading the story of the Exodus in the Bible I’ve been fascinated by Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who has several tantalizing mentions in the biblical texts. She is the first woman named as a prophet, yet there is no record of any prophecy by her. In Jewish midrash, a type of imaginative interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, Miriam is said to have foretold the birth of Moses as the deliverer of the Hebrews from Egypt. The root of her name may mean bitterness, perhaps because she experienced the bitterness of Egyptian oppression. She is also associated in midrash with Puah, one of the Hebrew midwives, whose name is interpreted as embodying qualities of both sensitive tenderness and rebellious assertiveness.

In Exodus 15:20, Miriam leads the Hebrew women in song and dance after the crossing of the Red Sea during their escape from Egypt. Literary studies show that her song is one of the oldest sections in the biblical text, dating to about the tenth century B.C., and the Song of Miriam is the basis for the lengthier song attributed to Moses. Like the later Song of Deborah (another prophetess) in the Book of Judges (5:2-31), it is a song of triumph.

Then Miriam, the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)

In the painting below, we see Marc Chagall’s interpretation of this scene. Chagall (1887-1985) was a Russian Jew who frequently incorporated symbols of his Jewish heritage and Russian childhood into his paintings. After establishing himself as an artist in France, in 1931 he began a series of Old Testament etched illustrations commissioned by the famous Paris art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. He travelled to Palestine for inspiration, where, he said, “I found the Bible and part of my own being.” Among the works he created at that time are this etching of Miriam and the women dancing:

Miriam, sister of Moses, dances with her friends to celebrate the deliverance of Israel,   Marc Chagall, c. 1934; etching on paper; Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Miriam, sister of Moses, dances with her friends to celebrate the deliverance of Israel, Marc Chagall, c. 1934; etching on paper; Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Editions of this work, some with tinting added, are still available to purchase from dealers and auctions. Chagall returned to this subject again more than thirty years later, creating this colorful, joyous painting in his trademark style:

The Dance of Myriam by Marc Chagall; 1966;  44.3 x 32 cm; gouache, pencil, pastel, watercolor on paper; Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

The Dance of Myriam by Marc Chagall; 1966; 44.3 x 32 cm; gouache, pencil, pastel, watercolor on paper; Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

During the Israelite sojourn in the desert, Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’ marriage to a foreign woman. They even question his leadership and Miriam asks, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Number 12:2). The story of the Exodus that we know, with Moses (Charlton Heston!) as the larger-than-life hero leading his people into the desert, is apparently more complicated than we might think. Here we have the voice of an elder sister wondering why her younger brother has decided that only he can be the authoritative prophet of God. Her comment assumes that there can be multiple voices expressing the will of God, and that women’s voices may be included among them.

Sadly, Miriam’s outspoken rebellion is punished severely and she is stricken with a skin disease and cast out. Only the pleadings of Moses (“Oh God, pray heal her!”) assuage the Lord’s wrath and she is allowed to return to camp after a seven-day period of purification, while the entire multitude waited for her to heal before moving on. Some scholars believe there have been later additions to this text that reflect a struggle for power between the Aaronic and Levite priesthoods.

Miriam’s only subsequent mention in the tale is the announcement of her death in Numbers 20, where her passing causes the well to run dry. Jewish midrash claims that a miraculous well accompanied her throughout the Israelite wanderings in the desert. A mural from the synagogue of Dura Europos, destroyed in the third century C.E., shows the  well streaming its life-giving water to the twelve tribes of Israel.

The Well of Miriam from the Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria

The Well of Miriam from the Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria

Feminist historians see in Miriam a woman who fearlessly led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert alongside her brothers. Like them, she died before reaching the Promised Land. Some scholars suggest that the biblical texts were later edited to minimize her role in favor of Moses, yet her memory persists. In modern times, she is revered by many Jewish women; for the Passover feast they include a cup of water to commemorate the Well of Miriam that saved the people from thirst in the wilderness. She is also remembered as the one who led the people in song and worship.

Miriam’s Song
Music and Lyrics by Deborah Lynn Friedman

And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted.
Miriam and the women danced and danced
the whole night long.

And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety.
The tapestry she wove was one which sang our history.
With every thread and every strand
she crafted her delight.
A woman touched with spirit, she dances
toward the light.

And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted.
Miriam and the women danced and danced
the whole night long.

As Miriam stood upon the shores and gazed across the sea,
The wonder of this miracle she soon came to believe.
Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand,
And we would pass to freedom, and march to the promised land.

And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted.
Miriam and the women danced and danced
the whole night long.

And Miriam the Prophet took her timbrel in her hand,
And all the women followed her just as she had planned.
And Miriam raised her voice with song.
She sang with praise and might,
We’ve just lived through a miracle, we’re going to dance tonight.

And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted.
Miriam and the women danced and danced
the whole night long.

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5 thoughts on “The Song of Miriam

  1. Marie Cartier says:

    Thank you for this!!

    Like

  2. It is interesting that you’ve titled this section Women in the Bible. My sister-in-law and a friend are working on a Bible study series The call WOW (Women of the Word). I am sure you will appreciate their work. Their facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-WOW-Series/782612371807847?fref=photo.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] 7. The Song of Miriam […]

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