“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 2:28)
The Prophet Joel describes the Last Days as a time when God will pour out His Spirit on all flesh, and both men and women will prophesy.
The Book of Acts refers to this Scripture being fulfilled when Yeshua’s followers received the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) on Shavuot (Pentecost).
There we see the end times inaugurated with both men and women praising God, speaking in tongues, prophesying, and giving inspired preaching that listeners understood in their own languages.
Despite this outpouring of the Ruach on both men and women, many of us consider the role of prophet as being exclusively male.
While there are more men named as prophets in the Tanakh (Old Testament), several woman are also named as prophets: Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), and Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3). The Talmud (Oral Law) includes Sarah, Hannah (mother of Samuel), Abigail (wife of David), and Esther.
In the Brit Chadashah (New Testament), Anna is called a prophet in Luke 2:36. While not called prophetesses themselves, Phillip’s four daughters prophesied (Acts 21:9), as did Elizabeth, the mother of Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist). (Luke 1:41–45)
In Luke 1:46–55 (often called the Magnificat), Miriam, the mother of Yeshua (Jesus) boldly prophesies about her experience in light of God’s promise to Abraham and God’s mercy and saving power. And she was among the men and women in prayer on Shavuot when the Ruach HaKodesh fell and the people spoke the good news in foreign languages. (Acts 1:14)
Miriam: First Woman Named as a Prophetess
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing.” (Exodus 15:20)
Miriam, who is Aaron and Moses’ older sister, has the honor of being the first woman to be called a prophetess in the Bible.
She was God’s gift, not only to her family, but also to Israel.
Born at a time when the bitter enslavement of the Hebrew people was reaching its depths of despair, Amram and Yocheved named their daughter Miriam, which comes from the Hebrew Marah or bitterness.
The rabbis teach that the spirit of prophecy came to her when she was quite young—she prophesied to her parents that her mother was to bear a son that would free the Hebrew people from their bondage. (Talmud, Sotah 11b, 12b)
By the time Moses was born (Exodus 2:1–2), the new Pharaoh realized that the Israelites were multiplying to great numbers even with the harsh labor he imposed on them. So he ordered all male babies to be thrown into the Nile as a means of population control.
“Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.’” (Exodus 1:22)
For three months after the birth of Moses, the house was filled with happiness—then the Egyptian investigators came searching for him. When the family was forced to place him in the basket to try to save his life, it looked as if Miriam’s prophecy had been wrong.
Her father said, “Well, my daughter, where is your prophecy?”
And when Moses was put into the basket, her mother also said, “My daughter, where is that prophecy?” (Midrash – Shmot Rabba 1:22; Talmud – Sotah 13a)
Although she was only seven, she responded with inner strength, courage and conviction.
Instead of doubting her prophecy, she watched over the basket from afar and saw Pharaoh’s daughter bathing in the river.
With faithful expectation, Miriam watched the princess find the basket among some reeds. Being that the baby was Hebrew and not Egyptian, Miriam approached her and offered to find a Hebrew woman who would nurse the baby.
“Go ahead,” she replied. So Miriam arranged for Moses’ own mother to nurse him until He could be weaned.
The rabbis teach that when Pharaoh’s daughter (who they say is Bithiah from 1 Chronicles 4:18) touched the basket containing Moses, she was cured of her skin disease—a miracle.
Moreover, she recognized the child as being one of the Hebrew children sentenced to die. Without regard for her father’s order, she decided to save the baby and adopt him as her own—another miracle.
Miriam lived to see her prophecy fulfilled. With her two brothers, she helped to lead her people through 40 years in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.
Miriam Leads Her People
“I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4)
On their way to the Holy Land, Miriam once again played a prominent role in an event that involved water—the parting of the Red Sea.
When the Hebrew children crossed over on dry ground and Pharaoh’s army drowned, both Moses and the Israelites sang a victory song to the Lord, with Miriam leading the women of Israel, perhaps the men as well, in praise to God. (Exodus 15:1–21)
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’” (Exodus 15:20–21)
Some see this as the very first liturgical celebration of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians, and this tradition was started by Miriam.
In a not so admirable episode during the wilderness wanderings, Miriam, while maintaining the favor of the people, fell out of favor with God.
Both Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’ Cushite (Ethiopian) wife. In addition, Miriam, who understood her own call as a leader and a prophet (along with Aaron), questioned the authority of their “little brother” Moses. (Numbers 12)
“Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t He also spoken through us?” (Numbers 12:2)
Perhaps they thought that each of them should have equal authority. We don’t know exactly what they wanted, but God confronts the three of them to confirm His clear choice for lead prophet.
God points out that in the case of most prophets, He speaks through dreams or visions; in the case of Moses, however, He speaks face to face.
In other words, as a prophet, Moses was unique.
Miriam was punished with leprosy for complaining against God’s prophet.
Moses pleaded with God to heal her, but God told Moses she must first stay outside of the camp for seven days of purification. For those seven days she lived alone. The entire nation waited for her, and only when she returned to them did they move on.
Miriam’s ordeal was not pleasant; but we can draw hope from it, as it is evidence of God’s grace and forgiveness.
While Miriam’s sin perhaps reflects the constant rebellion and complaining of the people, God’s forgiveness of her reflects His forgiveness of all who sincerely repent.
God also honored the intercession of Moses by healing her and allowing Miriam to continue to lead the Israelites toward the Promised Land with Aaron and Moses.
Whether we are male or female, we can learn from her mistake and become wiser in the way we exercise influence and leadership.
God places each of us in some role of leadership. We must recognize the framework of leadership that God has put in place over us and not overstep the bounds of our authority by making a power play.
God establishes authority.
In Jewish tradition, Miriam had an anointing of speaking truth that strongly influenced her father.
Miriam’s father, Amram, was a descendant of Levi who was a son of the patriarch Jacob. The rabbis teach that he was the leader of the Hebrew people.
The rabbis also teach that following Pharaoh’s decree regarding the death of sons, Amram decided that he and Yocheved should separate since they already had a son and daughter. Since Amram was the leader of the Hebrew tribes, this set a precedent for the other husbands who began divorcing their wives.
This led the six-year-old Miriam to tell her father, “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s, for Pharaoh aimed at boys only, while you would prevent both boys and girls from being born.”
Amram consequently remarried his wife Yocheved. The following year Moses was born. (Chabad)
Some rabbinic sources state that Caleb—one of the two spies who came back with a good report about being able to take the Promised Land—was Miriam’s husband.
The historian Josephus states, however, that Hur was Miriam’s husband.
According to another tradition, Hur was Miriam’s son. Together with Aaron, he had been appointed to lead the people while Moses went up on Mount Sinai.
He was reportedly murdered by the people when he tried to oppose their worship of the Golden Calf.
Hur was also the grandfather of Betzalel who was the chief architect of the desert Tabernacle.
The People Mourn Miriam and Their Water
In Jewish tradition, three things sustained the people in the desert: the manna, the pillar of fire and smoke, and the water well.
Each is linked to the merit of one of the three prophets: the manna to Moses, the pillar of fire to Aaron, and the water well to Miriam.
The rolling rock that accompanied the Hebrew children on their wanderings is called “Miriam’s Well.” According to Jewish tradition, the people and the livestock drew water from this rock or “well.” It is said that water from it also made the desert bloom with lovely scented flowers. It is no wonder that the people were drawn to the God-fearing prophetess.
However, in the final episode of her life, at age 126, Miriam died in the wilderness at Kadesh, a waterless place.
At the same time, the rock called Miriam’s Well suddenly dried up.
In response to the people’s groaning and thirst, God told Moses, “Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.” (Numbers 20:7–8)
But Moses in his anger over the rebelliousness of the people, hit the rock twice with his staff; despite his disobedience, water gushed forth.
Because Moses hit the rock rather than spoke to it as God commanded, he missed an opportunity to sanctify God’s holiness among the people. For this reason, God told both Aaron and Moses, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)
Miriam, Aaron, and Moses all died within 12 months of one another.
Miriam died exactly one year before the Hebrew people crossed into the Promised Land, on the 10th of Nissan in the Jewish year 2487. Almost five months later, Aaron died on Rosh Chodesh Av, and Moses died on the 7th of Adar in 2488.
Miriam’s Legacy Lives On
The verses about Miriam in the Bible (as well as perhaps traditional stories about her) remind each of us that we can trust God with our future.
Even when things look their bleakest, we can bring a message of hope to our generation, courageously believing in redemption, and putting faith in action.
Those who dismiss Jewish tradition about her can still find in the Prophetess Miriam a strong example of steadfast faith and determination.
As a child, she protected her younger siblings, bravely standing by, watching over her brother Moses as he lay in a basket on the bank of the Nile. Despite appearances, she knew that God would move and do something amazing.
She showed even more courage when she spoke to Pharaoh’s daughter. How clever and capable and enterprising!
Unselfishly she helped make a way for her brother to live in luxury, free from the oppression experienced by his people.
Eighty years later, Moses would be a gift to the Hebrew slaves during their time of deliverance, with his big sister helping him.
Yet, long before Moses could help himself, Miriam was helping him and she, therefore, became a gift to the people, too.
May each of us exercise our gifts with such forethought, faith, and patience so that our actions are still bringing forth life for our family and the nation well into future.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)