BPK BILDAGENTUR / STAATLICHE MUSEEN / JORG P. ANDERS / ART RESOURCE, NY
Miriam is one of the most prominent female figures in the Hebrew Bible. Whereas women typically function as wives and mothers in biblical texts, Miriam is an independent figure—not connected to a husband or children. She serves as a prophet (Exodus 15:20–21) and leader (Micah 6:4), and she even challenges Moses (Numbers 12).
These early traditions about Miriam situate her alongside the figures of Moses and Aaron during the Exodus era. However, their exact relationship is not explicit. Exodus 15:20 refers to Miriam as “Aaron’s sister.” Interestingly, though, Numbers 12 and Micah 6 do not mention their kinship at all. Perhaps trying to correct this, the writers of the family genealogies of Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 6:3 place her in Moses and Aaron’s lineage.
There were other Jewish traditions about Miriam that circulated in antiquity, but these were not included in the biblical canon.1 They appear in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the writings of the first-century CE Jewish authors Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus. These writings expounded on Miriam’s prophecy and family relationships.
Understandably, ancient authors wanted to clarify Miriam’s role as a prophet and the content of her prophecy. As one of only four named female prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Miriam is special. She is also the only female figure in extrabiblical literature who is connected with raz, an Aramaic term that applies to secret knowledge that is revealed only to select individuals, such as Enoch and Noah. The author of the Visions of Amram, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, describes Miriam’s prophecy as raz (4Q546 12.4). Unfortunately, the text is fragmentary, and we do not know what the ancient author wrote about the contents of her prophecy, her secret knowledge.
The author of the pseudepigraphic text Biblical Antiquities writes that Miriam had a dream before Moses’s birth, which predicts his birth and significance (9:10). This tradition may, at least partly, have been inspired by the Exodus 2 narrative, where Moses’s unnamed sister stays to see what would happen to baby Moses, hidden in a basket on the river bank (Exodus 2:4). This verse suggests that Moses had an older sister who took an interest in him.
Although she is not named in the biblical text, later Jewish texts associate the sister of Exodus 2 with Miriam. Authors of the apocryphal Book of Jubilees2 and the pseudepigraphic text Exogage identify the sister as Miriam (Jubilees 47:4; Exogage 18–26). The tradition is also present in the writings of Philo (Life of Moses 1.12) and Josephus (Antiquities 2.221–226). So, many people—at least in the late Hellenistic era and possibly earlier—connected the figure of Miriam with the sister of Exodus 2.
Ancient Jewish writings also elaborated on Miriam’s marriage and children. According to the Visions of Amram, Miriam married her uncle Uzziel, her father’s brother (4Q543 1.6). This tradition is of interest as several other ancient Jewish texts denounce such a close kinship union (e.g., 4QHalakhah A, from the Dead Sea Scrolls). Josephus writes that Miriam married Hur (Antiquities 3.54), a character from Exodus 17 who fought with Moses, Aaron, and Joshua to defeat the Amalekites. Later rabbinic literature names Miriam’s husband as Caleb (b. Sotah 12a).
These varying narratives about Miriam’s marriage show that people in antiquity were interested in her family life. Yet, unlike her role as a sister, upon which the authors agreed, there was no dominant tradition about her husband.
These later Jewish traditions about Miriam’s prophecy and family life add to the biblical narratives. Miriam is more closely associated with the figures of Moses and Aaron and their lineage in the later accounts. Both her dream about Moses and her identification as the anonymous sister of Exodus 2 emphasize her presence in Moses’s life from the beginning.
We can only speculate why the ancient authors were keen on strengthening Miriam’s family connections. It is possible that Miriam’s status as an independent female figure—nowhere in the Hebrew Bible referred to as mother or spouse—was puzzling and prompted clarification. Or perhaps they aimed to bring disparate traditions together, thus creating a more unified and coherent story.
Regardless, these Jewish texts add nuance to Miriam’s literary persona and highlight her significance. Yet, by making her a dreamer about Moses, they make her a facilitator of Moses’s importance rather than her own. Indeed, they do not provide more details about her independent role. Thus, Miriam remains the unexplained figure next to Moses and Aaron, whose own story cannot be deciphered.
Miriam is one of the most prominent female figures in the Hebrew Bible. Whereas women typically function as wives and mothers in biblical texts, Miriam is an independent figure—not connected to a husband or children. She serves as a prophet (Exodus 15:20–21) and leader (Micah 6:4), and she even challenges Moses (Numbers 12). These early traditions about Miriam situate her alongside the figures of Moses and Aaron during the Exodus era. However, their exact relationship is not explicit. Exodus 15:20 refers to Miriam as “Aaron’s sister.” Interestingly, though, Numbers 12 and Micah 6 do not mention their kinship at all. […]
You have already read your free article for this month. Please join the BAS Library or become an All Access member of BAS to gain full access to this article and so much more.