MIRIAM , or, in Hebrew, Miryam; Israelite prophetess who flourished, according to tradition, in the thirteenth century bce. Biblical tradition recalls Miriam as the sister of Moses and Aaron who helped Moses lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt (Mic. 6:4). Exodus 15:20–21 describes how she led the women of Israel in a hymn of victory to YHVH, Lord of Israel, after he had split the Sea of Reeds, enabling the Hebrews to pass through and escape their Egyptian pursuers:
Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand. All the women went out after her with drums and dances. Miriam declared to them: "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed; horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea."
Modern scholars now tend to view the sibling relationships between Miriam, Aaron, and Moses as an embellishment on earlier traditions. Miriam was originally identified as an associate of Aaron, Israel's first priest, and later as his sister. When biblical tradition similarly developed a sibling relationship between Aaron and Moses, the great leader, prophet, and lawgiver of Israel, Miriam became known as the sister of Moses too (Nm. 26:39). In the story of Moses' birth (Ex. 2:2–7), the unnamed older sister who guards him is assumed by Jewish and Christian tradition to have been Miriam. If her name were of Egyptian origin, as some have explained, that would reinforce the conclusion that she was of the priestly tribe of Levi, as several prominent Levites bore Egyptian names.
Miriam figures primarily in one episode in the Pentateuch, Numbers 12:1–16, in which she and Aaron reproach Moses for having taken a Cushite wife—who may or may not be identified with his Midianite wife, Zipporah—and in which they challenge the superiority of Moses' prophetic stature to their own. YHVH responds to their challenge by asserting the unique and intimate nature of his revelations to Moses and responds to their reproach by afflicting Miriam with leprosy. Moses intercedes on Miriam's behalf at Aaron's request—thereby demonstrating his intimacy with God—and after a seven-day quarantine, Miriam's health is restored. The legendary quality of the episode is suggested by the fact that Miriam's leprosy became an admonition to any who would fail to heed the priests (Dt. 24:8–9). Miriam predeceased Aaron and Moses (Nm. 20:1) and, so far is known, never married.
The references to Miriam's leadership in Micah 6:4, to her prophetic status in Exodus 15:20, and to her importance to the Israelites in Numbers 12:15, create the impression that Miriam was an even more significant figure than the present form of the Pentateuch suggests. According to rabbinic legend, Miriam was on par with Moses and Aaron. The Israelites were sustained by water drawn from Miriam's well, which traveled with the Israelites on their journey in the wilderness.
On the difficulty of establishing Miriam's historical position, see Martin Noth's A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, translated with an introduction by Bernhard W. Anderson (Chico, Calif., 1981), pp. 180–183. Miriam is most extensively discussed in connection with the challenges to Moses, for analysis of which see G. B. Gray's A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers (Edinburgh, 1903), pp. 120–128. The most exhaustive, but a very technical, analysis is Heinrich Valentin's Aaron: Eine Studie zur vor-priesterschriftlichen Aaron-Überlieferung (Göttingen, 1978), pp. 306–364; Valentin also discusses (pp. 377–384) Exodus 15:20. Martin Buber's Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant (New York, 1958), pp. 167–169, attempts to connect the two challenges to Moses. On Miriam's name, see Alan H. Gardiner's "The Egyptian Origin of Some English Personal Names," Journal of the American Oriental Society 56 (1936): 189–197, esp. pp. 194–197.
On the apparently suppressed significance of Miriam, see Phyllis Trible, "Bringing Miriam out of the Shadows," Bible Review 5/1 (February 1989): 14–25, 34. Rabbinic lore on Miriam's well is gathered in Louis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews, vol. 3, translated by Paul Radin (Philadelphia, 1911), pp. 50–54, 307–308.
Edward L. Greenstein (1987 and 2005)
MIRIAM (Heb. מִרְיָם); the daughter of *Amram and Jochebed and sister of *Moses and *Aaron (Num.26:59; i Chron. 5:29. The name may mean "gift" (see von Soden, uf 2 (1970), 269–72). According to tradition, Miriam is the sister, mentioned in Exodus 2:2–8, who advised Pharaoh's daughter to call a Hebrew nurse for him. The critical view is that the representation of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as "siblings" is secondary. In the earliest form of the tradition, Miriam was one of the leaders of the Exodus (Micah 6:4). The title "prophetess" was given to Miriam when she appeared, timbrel in hand, at the head of the singing and dancing women after the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 15:20–21). It was an Israelite custom for women to welcome the men with timbrels and dancing when they returned from the battlefield and at other celebrations (cf. Judg. 11:34; i Sam. 18:6–7; Ps. 68:26).
Miriam is also mentioned in the context of her and Aaron's attempt to challenge Moses' exclusive right to speak in the name of the Lord (Num. 12). Miriam is mentioned first, and according to G.B. Gray, the verb appearing in the feminine, va-tedabber be- ("she spoke against"), suggests that Miriam led this revolt. In any event, she alone was punished. The text preserves two traditions: one that the cause of the rebellion was Moses' marriage to a Kushite (black Sudanese) woman (Num. 12:1), while the other cause was a challenge to the unique authority of Moses, i.e., Miriam and Aaron objected to Moses' exclusive right to prophesy in God's name (cf. Num. 11:25–30). Miriam was smitten with a dread skin disease (see *Leprosy), and was healed only after Moses interceded on her behalf, and after she had been quarantined for seven days. Her punishment is recalled again (Deut. 24:9), as a warning against disobeying the laws against "leprosy." Miriam died in Kadesh and was buried there (Num. 20:1). It is likely that there were more traditions about Miriam that did not survive the canonization of the Bible.
[Ephraim Stern /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
In the Aggadah:
Miriam was so called in reference to the bitterness of the bondage of Egypt (מר, "bitter" Ex. R. 26:1). Although she is referred to as a prophetess in the Bible (Ex. 15:20), none of her prophecies is mentioned there. The aggadah, however, fills the lacuna. It explains that her father *Amram, unwilling to have children who would be doomed to death, divorced his wife after Pharaoh's decree. Miriam urged him to remarry *Jochebed, rebuking him for being even more cruel than Pharaoh since the latter had decreed only against the male children, and prophesying that a child would be born from them who would be the liberator of Israel. Amram acceded and Miriam sang and danced before her parents on the occasion of the remarriage (Sot. 12a–13a; bb 120a). Miriam is identified by some rabbis with Puah (from פעה, "to open the mouth": Ex. R. 1:13; Rashi, Sot. 11b), one of the midwives (Ex. 1:15), who was so called because she comforted the mother and cooed to the child to make it open its mouth. As a reward she was destined to have illustrious descendants. She is also identified with Azubah, the wife of Caleb (i Chron. 2:18); their son, Hur (Ex. R. 1:17) was the grandfather of Bezalel, who inherited the wisdom of his great-grandmother and was the architect of the Sanctuary. Some rabbis hold that even King David was descended from her (Sif. Num. 78; Ex. R. 48:3–4).
Miriam is portrayed as fearless in her rebukes. As a child, she reprimanded Pharaoh for his cruelty, and he refrained from putting her to death only as a result of her mother's plea that she was but a child (Ex. R. 1:13). She also saw fit to rebuke Moses when he separated from Zipporah, because she felt that he should procreate (Sif. Num. 99). Although Miriam was punished with leprosy, God honored her by Himself officiating as the kohen to declare her definitely a leper and subsequently to declare her cleansed (Zev. 102a). Because she had waited for Moses by the river, the Israelites waited for her to recover (Sot. 11a). A miraculous well, created during the twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath (Avot 5:6), accompanied the Children of Israel in the desert due to her merits (Ta'an. 9a). Like Moses and Aaron, she too died by the kiss of God since the angel of death had no power over her (bb 17a).
In his early prophecies Muhammad speaks about Miriam (Mary, Ar. Maryam) and her son Jesus, who was born of the Holy Spirit (Sura 19:20; 23:52; 66:12). It is, however, also said in Sura 19:29 that she was the sister of Aaron, while in the third Sura (3:31), known as the sura of the family of ʿImrān, she is described as the daughter of ʿImrān. In connection with the decrees of Firʿawn (*Pharaoh), Muhammad related that the mother of Mūsā (Moses) ordered his sister to watch over the ark in which Moses had been placed (20:41–42; 28:10–12) – without mentioning her name. On another occasion (66:11–12), he mentions the wife of Pharaoh and Miriam (the mother of Jesus) among the righteous women. According to Tabarī and Thaʿlabī, Miriam was married to Caleb, while in Kisāʾī's tale about Qārūn (*Korah), it is said that Miriam was his wife and that it was from her he had learned the science of alchemy, the reason for his attainment to wealth.
[Haïm Z'ew Hirschberg]
For Miriam in the arts, see *Moses, In the Arts.
in the bible: M.D. Cassuto, Perush al Sefer Shemot (19532), 125–6; Haran, in: Tarbiz, 25 (1955), 13–14; M.Z. Segal, Masoret u-Vikkoret (1957), 89–90; O. Bardenhower, Der Name Maria (1895); Haupt, in: ajsll, 20 (1903/4), 152; Zorell, in: Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie, 30 (1906), 356–60; G.B. Gray, Numbers (icc, 1903), 120–8; H. Gressmann, Moses und seine Zeit (1913), 264–75, 351–52; Humbert, in: zaw, 38 (1919–20), 86; Voelten, ibid., 111–12; Noth, Personennamen, 60; Bauer, in: zaw, 51 (1933), 87n. 2; 53 (1935), 59; Rozelaar, in: vt, 2 (1952), 226; ch Gordon, Ugaritic Manual (1955), 292, no. 1170. add. bibliography: S.D. Sperling, in: huca, 70–71 (2000–01), 39–55. in the aggadah: M. Haran, in: jss, 5 (1960), 54–55; Ginzberg, Legends, index. in islam: Ṭabarī, Taʾrīkh, 1 (1357 a.h.), 307; Thaʿlabī Qiṣaṣ (1356 A.H.), 141, 203; Kisāʾī, Qiṣaṣ, ed. by Eisenberg (1922–23), 229–30; A. Geiger, Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen? (1902), 154; H. Speyer, Die biblischen Erzählungen im Qoran (1931, repr. 1961), 242–3; "Maryam," in eis2, 6 (1991), 628–32 (includes bibliography).