|Siblings Moses, Aaron|
Cousins Amram, Izhar, Hebron
Uncles Kehath, Izhar
|Parents Jochebed, Amram|
Grandparents Levi, Kehath
|Nephews Eleazar, Abihu, Ithamar, Gershom, Eliezer|
Similar Moses, Jochebed, Zipporah, Amram, Hur
Miriam the sister of moses
Miriam (Hebrew: מִרְיָם, Miryam, Miryām; see Miriam (given name)), according to the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, was the daughter of Amram and Yocheved, and the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was a prophet and first appears in the Book of Exodus.
- Miriam the sister of moses
- Pedigree and Uniqueness
- Siblings and Spouse
- Meanings of Miriam
- Other Names
- Role in Pharoah’s Decree
- Reverses “Amram’s Decree”
- Role in the Birth of Moses
- Saves Moses
- At the Song of the Sea
- Miriam and Tzipora, Nu. 12:1 15
- Traditional Explanation
- Alternative Explanations
- The Well of Miriam
- Death of Miriam
- Symbolism in Modern Practice
- Quranic Account
Pedigree and Uniqueness
Miriam was the daughter of Amram, the leader of the Israelites in ancient Egypt, and of Yocheved, who was so righteous she was exempt from the curse of Eve. Both Amram and Yocheved were from leading families of the illustrious Tribe of Levi. As such, Miriam was also the sister of Aaron and Moses. The Torah refers to her as “Miriam the Prophetess” and the Talmud names her as one of the seven major female prophets of Israel. Scripture describes her alongside of Moses and Aaron as delivering the Jews from exile in Egypt: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam”. According to the Midrash, just as Moses led the men out of Egypt and taught them Torah, so too Miriam led the women and taught them Torah.
Siblings and Spouse
Miriam was the oldest child of Amram and Yocheved. According to the midrash, just as Aaron was three years older than Moses, so too Miriam was three years older than Aaron. Thus Miriam was three years older than Aaron and six years older than Moses.
Although there are various opinions throughout Talmudic sources regarding Miriam’s spouse, the most commonly accepted opinion is that she was the wife of Calev and thus the mother of Hur (mentioned in Exodus as a disciple of Moses). Calev’s wife is also identified as Efrat, meaning “fruitful”. This suggests that Miriam, as the wife of Calev, had at least two names - Miriam and Efrat (she actually had many names, see below). For this reason, when naming a girl Miriam, traditionally both names are conjoined to become Miriam Efrat, since, by sparing Jewish children from Pharaoh’s wicked decree, Miriam caused Israel to be fruitful and multiply.
Meanings of Miriam
There are several meanings behind the name Miriam, spelled ‘mem’, ‘reish’, ‘yud’, ‘mem’ in Hebrew (מִרְיָם), which various Jewish sources relate to either “bitter”, “water”, “rebellion” or “elevation” as follows:
One meaning is based on the letters ‘mem’, ‘reish’ of her name spelling “mar” (מר) which means “bitter”. This connotes the fact that Miriam was born during the beginning of Pharaoh’s bitter decrees as in the verse, “And the [Egyptians] embittered [the Jews’] lives with hard labor”.
However, another meaning of “mar” (מר) is “water” as in the verse, “The nations are as a drop of water (“c’mar”) from a bucket”. Miriam’s strong association with water includes her involvement in saving Moses at the Nile, singing praise to God after crossing the Sea of Reeds or Red Sea and the special well or spring of water called the “Well of Miriam”. In her merit, this well miraculously provided water for the Jews by accompanying them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness (see more below).
In addition, since water is associated with “chesed” – kindliness – this meaning behind Miriam connotes her special acts of kindness in serving as a midwife, devoting herself to the needs of her suffering people and sparing Jewish infants from Pharaoh’s evil decree.
Another meaning behind Miriam is related to the letters ‘mem’, ‘reish’, ‘yud’ of her name spelling “meri” (מרי) which means “rebellion”. This connotes the way she rebelled against Pharaoh’s orders that the Jewish midwives kill all male infants. She even rebelled against her father who, in the name of sparing Jewish infants from death, caused couples to separate so they wouldn’t have children. Miriam rebelled against her father claiming that he exacerbated the decree. Once she convinced her father of his mistake, Amram remarried Yocheved, followed by the other Jewish men, after which time Moses was born.
A last meaning is based on all of the letters of the name Miriam, ‘mem’, ‘reish’, ‘yud’, ‘mem’ spelling the word “merim” (מרים) which means “elevate”. In the merit of saving the Jewish new-borns, thereby building the House of Israel, God blessed Yocheved that He would make from her “houses” of cohanim and leviim, and from Miriam “houses” of kingship. “Merim” thus connotes the fact that Miriam, from whom King David issued (through her husband Calev of Judah), was elevated to “house” the Davidic Dynasty which is destined to elevate the Jewish People and the perfected community of humanity to Redemption and the World to Come. This might be consistent with an idea which, although not found in Jewish sources, is based on the suggestion that “mri” in ancient Egyptian means “beloved”.
Interestingly, in relation to Miriam’s being the wife of Calev, Talmudic sources mention that she had several other names, each with its own specific, significant meaning. According to these Midrashic teachings, at marriageable age, Miriam became very ill such that she found no suitor. Calev, who had great appreciation and admiration for Aaron and Moses, upheld the Torah teaching that children often resemble their mother’s brothers by marrying Miriam in order to have righteous sons that would resemble Aaron and Moses. Through great sacrifice, devotion and love, Calev doctored Miriam back to health such that she became even more robust and beautiful than she had been in her youth and gave birth to sons who equaled her illustrious brothers.
Thus, based on a tradition of the inner meaning of the verses enumerating the names of Calev’s progeny, the Sages taught that in her illness, Miriam was named “Azuva” (deserted) since all men forsook marrying her; “Yeriot” (curtain) since she was pale as a sheet; and “Chela” (sickly) because of her grave illness. But after God restored her health through Calev’s care, she was named “Vardon” (rose) since her complexion became as lovely as a rose; “Na’ara” (maiden) since she became as vigorous as a young woman; “Tzeret” (rival) since her beauty was envied by all; “Tzohar” (radiance) since her face shone like the noon-day sun; and “Etnan” (a paramour’s gift) since married men who were aroused by her beauty would court their wives with gifts for that purpose.
Role in Pharoah’s Decree
The Torah relates, “Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live’. The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live”.
The Talmudic Sages taught that these midwives, Shifra and Puah, were actually Yocheved and her daughter Miriam, respectively. Miriam was only five years old at the time but she accompanied her mother to help deliver and save the Hebrew infants. Thus the Sages note that her zealous character was apparent at a very early age. It was in this merit that God “made houses for them”, establishing the Priestly Dynasty from Yocheved and the Davidic Dynasty from Miriam.
The Midrash explains that the Torah refers to Miriam in her role as midwife by the name “Puah” based on the meaning of various permutations of that word: She made bubbles (nofa’at) of wine with her mouth to amuse the infant; she revived (mefiah) the infant; and she lifted (hofiah) Israel’s hope to God. In alternate explanations based on “lifted” (hofiah), she was called Puah because she raised her face in rebellion against Pharaoh’s decree and even raised objection to her father’s well-intentioned, but mistaken, separation of Jewish marriages (see more below). As discussed earlier regarding the meaning of the name Miriam, these two latter explanations are related to the inference of “rebellion” (meri) in the name Miriam. The Talmud adds two more reasons why she was called Puah, based on the word “poah” meaning to speak, because she would coo the infant with comforting sounds (Rashi) and because she prophesied that her mother would give birth to the savior of Israel.
Reverses “Amram’s Decree”
After describing Pharaoh’s decree and the midwives’ refusal to obey it, the Torah relates, “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi”. The Sages taught that this refers to Amram re-marrying Yocheved and that the otherwise superfluous word “went” refers to the fact that in doing so, Amram went according to the advice of his daughter Miriam. The details of the story are as follows:
Because of the decree to throw all male children into the Nile, Amram, who was the leader of the generation, decided it was futile to have more children and so divorced his wife, whereby the other men followed his example. Miriam criticized her father saying, “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s: His is only against boys, yours is also against girls; his is only in this world, yours applies also to the next; his might not be executed, yours offers no chance”. Amram accepted her rebuke and remarried his wife, whereby the other men followed suit. When Amram remarried Yocheved, he seated her on a bridal throne and Miriam and Aaron danced before her while the ministering angels portended the birth of Moses by singing, “The mother of children shall rejoice”.
Role in the Birth of Moses
Miriam’s wise counsel as a child not only caused all of Israel to remarry and defy the decree by having children. According to Talmudic sources, even at that young age she was also a prophet. After Miriam convinced Amram to re-marry Yocheved she prophesied, “My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel”. Thus, the Torah states about Yocheved, “The woman conceived and bore a son”. When Moshe was born, the house became full of light and Amram kissed Miriam on her forehead and said, “My daughter your prophecy has been fulfilled”.
The Egyptians kept record of when each Jewish woman was due to give birth in order to seize her child. They would even enter houses holding crying babies in order to elicit cries from hiding infants in order to rout them out. For this reason, newly wedded couples were registered and then searched nine months after the wedding. But in the case of Moses, when Amram remarried Yocheved she was already three months pregnant from their prior marriage and thus gave birth in what seemed to be the sixth month. Since Moses was born earlier than the Egyptians expected, Yocheved was able to conceal him for three months. Thus the Torah states, “When she saw that he was well, she hid him for three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she took a reed basket…placed the child into it, and put it into the marsh at the Nile’s edge”.
Her parents then exclaimed, “Miriam, what will become of your prophecy!” For this reason the verse states, “His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him”. Thus, when she saw the daughter of Pharaoh remove Moses from the water, it was Miriam who saved his life: “His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, so that she shall nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go!’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother”.
Since Moses was born on the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, this event which took place three months after his birth was on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, the day on which God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai. This means that Miriam saved the life of Moses who was destined to receive the Torah on the very day that God appointed to give it!
At the Song of the Sea
The Talmudic and Midrashic sources presented above indicate that Miriam was imbued with prophetic inspiration even as a young child. However, it is at the famous “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1) sung by the Jews after their miraculous salvation at the Sea of Reeds that the Torah explicitly refers to her as a prophet: “Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam called out to them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea’”.
The Talmud explains that this entire song of exultation to God was sung prophetically by Moses and repeated in refrain by the men, verse by verse. This is based on the repetition of the verse, “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea’”. Rashi, comments that Moses sang to the men and they repeated after him, and adds that Miriam sang to the women. This implies that Miriam prophetically sang the entire Song of the Sea in refrain to the women as Moses did to the men.
Miriam and Tzipora, Nu. 12:1-15
A famous, yet widely misunderstood event involving Miriam was her criticism regarding Moses’ “Cushite” wife (Numbers 12). The Torah states, “Miriam…spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman”. Since Cush refers to Ethiopia, an erroneous reading of the text might suggest that Miriam objected to her skin color. But the very next verse presents the basis of her and Aaron’s objection: “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” This claim has nothing to do with complexion. Furthermore, in any case, Moses’ wife Tzipora was not from Cush, she was from Midian.
The Midrash explains the entire story as follows: It became known to Miriam and Aaron that Moses had separated from intimacy with Tzipora. They disapproved of this separation because they considered her to be outstandingly righteous, much as a dark-skinned person stands out among light-skinned people - hence the reference to Tzipora as a “Cushite”. This usage of the word Cushite is non-pejorative and is often used in Jewish sources as a term for someone unique and outstanding. In fact, King Saul and even the Jewish People are referred to by the term “Cushite”. Their complaint, therefore, was not about the union between Moses and Tzipora, but about their separation. The only justification they could find for Moses’ celibacy was in order to maintain his prophetic state. This explains their claim that God spoke not only to Moses but also to them, yet that they had not separated from their spouses.
But God rebuked them by calling them all out “suddenly”, causing Miriam and Aaron a great burning sensation since they lacked immersion in a mikva after marital relations. God thus demonstrated to them Moses’ unique level of prophecy for which he had to be prepared at all times, thereby justifying his separation from Tzipora. Afterwards, “God’s wrath flared against them” and Miriam is left with bodily tzara’at, which according to Jewish sources is a divine punishment for slander. This was because she, not Aaron, was the one who initiated the complaint against Moses. Despite her good intentions for Tzipora, she should have judged Moses favorably and approached him on her behalf privately. Aaron asks Moses to intercede for her, Moses prays to God to heal her, and God concedes after requiring a quarantine of seven days. It has been suggested that since according to the Hebrew Bible anyone with tzara’at was tamei (Leviticus 13-14), Aaron was spared this punishment in order not to interrupt his duties as High Priest. However, noting the wording of the verse, “God’s wrath flared against them [i.e. both Aaron and Miriam]”, the Talmud appears to conclude that Aaron was also smitten with tzara’at initially, but was then immediately cured.
It has been suggested that Josephus and Irenaeus (who merely cites Josephus) identify the Cushite woman as Tharbis, “the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians”. However, while Josephus does describe a legend (which is not written in the Torah) wherein Moses marries this princess during a military campaign he leads in Ethiopia, according to Josephus this marriage occurs while Moses is still a royal prince of Egypt long before he re-discovers his oppressed Jewish brethren. After which time, upon fleeing as a solitary fugitive from Egypt, the only marriage of Moses that the Torah records is with Tzipora the daughter of Yitro the Midianite. In fact, Josephus himself later records Moses’ marriage to Tzipora as distinctly separate and subsequent to his earlier marriage to Tharbis. Furthermore, according to the conclusion of the Tharbis legend, Moses fashioned a miraculous ring which caused her to forget her love for him, and he then returned to Egypt alone. Therefore, even according to Josephus, Moses’ first marriage to Tharbis as military leader of Egypt terminated long before his later marriage to Tzipora as fugitive from Egypt, such that the Cushite wife of Moses mentioned in the Torah after The Exodus appears to be Tzipora, as explained above.
Richard E. Friedman writes that since Cush is generally understood to mean “Ethiopia”, it is possible that the “Cushite woman” is not Tzipora. But he adds that since there is a place called Cushan which is a region of Midian, and Moses’ wife Tzipora has already been identified as a Midianite, it is possible that the term “Cushite” relates to Tzipora’s being from Cushan. However, Friedman’s primary interest is not in the identity of the Cushite woman, but rather in the outcome of this story which establishes Moses’ superiority over Aaron as an example of his claim that rival priesthoods created or publicized tales in order to legitimize their respective claims to privilege and power. He describes the Aaronid priesthood in the Kingdom of Judah, which claimed descent from Aaron and which controlled the Temple in Jerusalem, as opposed to a priesthood which claimed allegiance to Moses and was based at Shiloh in the Kingdom of Israel. Using interpretations from the documentary hypothesis, he notes that this story, which he calls “Snow-White Miriam”, was authored by the Elohist who he claims was from, or supported, the Shiloh priesthood, and thus promoted this tale to assert Moses’ superiority over Aaron and thereby belittle the Aaronid priesthood in Judah. However, the identity of the Cushite woman referred to in this story is tangential to Friedman and his opinion remains inconclusive.
Interestingly, Midrashic sources also describe the military campaign of Moses mentioned in Josephus, but in more detail and with significant differences. In the Midrash, Moses arrives in Ethiopia after fleeing Egypt at the age of 18. There, he wages war on behalf of the wrongly deposed king Kokinus for 9 years until the age of 27 when, through ingenious means, he finally reconquers the capital, but only after the king’s death. The grateful populace bestow wealth and favor upon Moses, elect him as their new king and confer upon him the widowed queen as wife. However, because the queen maintains her idolatrous ways, Moses never consummates the marriage with her. After he reigns for 40 years until the age of 67, the disgruntled, idolatrous queen beseeches the populace to dethrone Moses in favor of Munchan, her then grown son from Kokinus. Moses steps down, the people send him off with great honor and gratitude, and from there he travels to Midian where he resides with Yitro for 10 years before marrying Yitro’s daughter Tzipora at the age of 77. God then appears to him in the Burning Bush and commands him to return to Egypt in order to redeem the Jewish People, which he does at the age of 80, together with Aaron who was 83.
The Well of Miriam
In Miriam’s merit, a wondrous well of water miraculously accompanied the Jews during their wanderings to provide for them water in the Wilderness. This well is called “The Well of Miriam”. The Talmud teaches, “Three great leaders led Israel: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. In their merit they received three great gifts: the Well [Miriam], the Clouds of Glory [Aaron] and the Manna [Moses].” When Miriam died, the well was removed as is evidenced by the fact that immediately after the verse “And Miriam died”, the Torah states, “The People had no water”. This is thus the significance in the verses following Miriam’s death of Moses searching for and eventually striking the rock in order to restore its waters which had terminated with Miriam’s death.
Rashi also explains that this well was the same rock from which Moses brought forth water after Miriam’s death, but adds that it was round as a sieve such that it would miraculously roll along with the Jews on their journeys through the desert. The Midrash states that when they encamped, the leader of each Tribe took his staff to the well and drew a line in the sand toward his Tribe’s encampment. The waters of the well were drawn after the mark and thus supplied water for each of the Tribes. In this way, Miriam was a source of sustenance for all of Israel.
According to one opinion of the Sages, Miriam’s Well is in the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret). Based on verses which suggest the travelling and coming to rest of the well, they note: “One who ascends to the top of Mount Yeshimon [on the Golan Heights which overlooks wastelands (yeshimon) to the east] will see [looking west] a kind of small sieve in the Sea of Tiberius [the Sea of Galilee]. This is the Well of Miriam.” According to another opinion of the Sages, the Well of Miriam came to rest in the Mediterranean Sea and can be seen from the heights of Mount Carmel on the coast of Haifa.
Death of Miriam
Regarding the death of Miriam, the Torah states, “The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there”. By identifying Miriam’s death as occurring in the “first month” the Torah reveals that she died in the Hebrew month of Nisan. And Talmudic sources indicate that the day of her passing (yahrtzeit) was the tenth of that month.
The Torah’s description of her burial place as Kadesh in the Wilderness of Tzin would locate it somewhere in the desert region southwest of the Dead Sea. According to the Torah, the burial place of her brother Aaron in Mount Hor (Hor HaHar) is not far away. Interestingly, Josephus describes Aaron’s burial place (and by implication, Miriam’s) as being near Petra, which is on the other (Eastern) side of the African-Syrian Rift, southeast of the Dead Sea. This is the basis for the tradition that Aaron’s tomb is on the top of Jebel Harun (Arabic for Mount Aaron) in current-day Jordan, a site which some visit till today. Similarly, there seems to be some record of pilgrimages to the supposed burial place of Miriam in the area of Petra until the 4th century CE, after which time the location and tradition were forgotten and lost.
However, it is unlikely that either Miriam or Aaron is buried in the area of Petra. For one, the Torah records the death and burial of Miriam in Kadesh as occurring before Edom’s refusal to allow Israel to pass through their territory en route from the southwest directly north into Israel. It was on account of this that they afterward encircled Edom to the southeast into what is current-day Jordan, later to enter Israel by crossing the Jordan River from the East. And even the death of Aaron and his burial in Hor HaHar, which is recorded after the encounter with Edom, is nevertheless described by the Torah as occurring before encircling Edom to the southeast into the region of Petra. Rather it seems more likely that they are both buried southwest of the Dead Sea in the area of what was then the western boundary of Edom.
The Sages taught that the Torah’s account of Miriam’s death follows immediately after the laws of purification through the red heifer in order to teach that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so the death of the righteous secures atonement. Miriam’s great level of purity and righteousness is indicated by the fact that God chose her as the holy person through which to express this teaching. The Talmud also notes that as did Aaron and Moses, Miriam also died through the painless “kiss of death”, whereby the Divine Presence is revealed to the departing soul as God lovingly draws it back within Himself.
Symbolism in Modern Practice
Miriam is a popular figure among some Jewish feminists. Thus, in addition to the traditional cup of wine that is set for the Prophet Elijah, some feminist-inspired Seders set a cup of water for Miriam which is sometimes also accompanied by a ritual in her honor. Miriam’s cup originated in the 1980s in a Boston Rosh Chodesh group; it was invented by Stephanie Loo, who filled it with what she referred to as mayim chayim (living waters) and used it in a feminist ceremony of guided meditation. Miriam’s cup is linked to the midrash of Miriam’s well, which “is a rabbinic legend that tells of a miraculous well that accompanied the Israelites during their forty years in the desert at the Exodus from Egypt”.
Some Modern Orthodox Jews have revived an ancient custom of adding a piece of fish to the Seder plate in honor of Miriam who is associated with water, based on the teaching in the Talmud that God gave manna (on the ground) in the merit of Moses, clouds of glory (in the sky) in the merit of Aaron and a well (of water) in the merit of Miriam. Accordingly, the lamb (earth), egg (air) and fish (water) in the Seder symbolize the three prophets Moses, Aaron and Miriam, respectively, whom God chose to redeem the Jews from Egypt. Similarly, the lamb, egg and fish also allude to the three mythical creatures in Jewish tradition - the land beast Behemoth, the bird Ziz, and the sea-creature Leviathan, respectively. According to the Midrash, the Leviathan and Behemoth, as well as the Ziz, are to be served at the Seudat Techiyat HaMetim (the feast for the righteous following the Resurrection of the Dead), to which the Passover Seder alludes, insofar as it commemorates the past Redemption together with the Cup of Elijah’s heralding the future, Final Redemption.
In the Qur’an, as in the Hebrew Bible, Miriam obeys her mother’s request to follow the baby Moses as he floats down the river in a basket, their mother having set him afloat so he would not be killed by Pharaoh’s servants and soldiers (28:11). Later on, Asiya, wife of Pharaoh, finds Moses at the river and adopts him as her own, but Moses refuses to be suckled by her. Miriam asks Pharaoh’s wife and her handmaidens to have his own mother act as nursemaid to Moses, the mother’s identity not being known to Pharaoh’s wife (28:12–13).