Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

Miriam was the older sister of Moses the lawgiver and of Aaron the high priest, and all three siblings were prophets. The Bible does not tell us much about Miriam. We only have a few short stories about her.[1] Nevertheless, her name appears in five books of the Hebrew Bible, and she is portrayed as a formidable and influential woman who was a spokesperson for God.

Miriam is identified as a prophet and as a leader in the Bible, but some say her ministry was only to women.[2] Was this the case? What does the Bible say?

Miriam as Prophet (Numbers 12)

I know of no female prophet in the Bible who only spoke to women. Deborah, Huldah, and Anna were recognised and respected as prophets, and they spoke to men. Prophetic women, such as Rahab, Abigail, and King Lemuel’s mother, counselled men. Did Miriam also speak to and counsel men?

Miriam is identified as a prophet a couple of times in the Bible.[3] In Numbers 12:1-2, she and Aaron ask the rhetorical questions, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” The implied answer to the second question is “yes.” God did speak through Miriam and Aaron, but God tells them that he speaks more closely with Moses.

Numbers 12 records a low point in Miriam’s life. She and Aaron were annoyed with Moses. They criticised Moses for marrying a Cushite wife, possibly a woman from the royal family in Meroë,[4] and they queried his prophetic ministry. Miriam was out of line, but her question does show that God spoke through her; she was a prophet. And there is no hint in her questions that she prophesied only to women.

God punished Miriam for speaking against Moses.[5] She contracted a skin disease and was confined outside the camp. The journey of the Israelites came to a standstill until she returned to the community (Num. 12:15). This indicates she was held in high regard by the Israelites, and not just by the women. Miriam and her illness are mentioned again in Deuteronomy 24:9 where God uses her example as a warning to all Israel. She was a significant, well-known figure in the history of the Israelites.

Miriam as Worship Leader (Exodus 15:20-21)

Miriam is plainly called a prophetess in Exodus 15:20-21. In these verses, she celebrates the Israelite’s escape from the Egyptians and their successful crossing of the Red Sea. In Israelite society, it was typically the role of women to publicly proclaim and celebrate military victories and to publicly mourn losses. (I’ve written about this role here.)

Then the prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women came out following her with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted; he has thrown the horse and its rider into the sea.” Exodus 15:20-21 (italics added)

In these verses, Miriam leads the women in playing tambourines and dancing, and she sings, but her audience is not just made up of women. The Hebrew words behind “them” (לָהֶם: lāhem) and “sing” (שִׁירוּ: šîrū) in Exodus 15:21 are grammatically masculine. The masculine gender of these words rules out the possibility that she sang to and led women only. Miriam encouraged her audience, including men, to sing to the Lord.

Miriam must have prophesied on a regular basis for her to be recognised as a prophet. However, it is debatable if her words on this occasion are prophecy. Whether prophetic or not, they are an exhortation.

Miriam as Leader (Micah 6:4)

In Micah 6:4, God speaks to the people of Judah. He reminds them of three saving actions he did for the Israelites, and he mentions Miriam and her brothers as leaders.[6]

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Micah 6:4 NRSV

God’s speech here uses three Hebrew verbs which mean, “I brought up,” “I redeemed,” “I sent.” Attached to, or next to, these three verbs is either the masculine pronominal suffix ḵā (ךָ) or a word with the suffix ḵā (ךָ). The suffix has the sense of “you” (singular): “I brought you up” (הֶעֱלִתִיךָ: he‘ĕliṯîḵā), “I redeemed you (פְּדִיתִיךָ: pəḏîṯîḵā), “and I sent before you” (וָאֶשְׁלַח לְפָנֶיךָ: wā’ešlaḥ ləp̄āneḵā). God’s words in Micah 6:4 are given to his people Judah as a whole, as one unit, and he makes no distinction between male and female. God, or Micah who records these words, gives no indication that Miriam only led women.

On the other hand, the Jonathan Targum (the ancient Aramaic translation/interpretation) of Micah 6:4 states, “I sent before you three prophets: Moses to teach the tradition of the judgments, Aaron to make atonement for the people, and Miriam to instruct the women.” But this is not what the Hebrew Bible says. The Bible nowhere states or implies that Miriam instructed only women.

Conclusion

Since other female prophets such as Deborah and Huldah spoke to and counselled men, there’s no reason to assume that Miriam didn’t also minister to men.[7] Moreover, there’s no indication in the Bible that the ministry of these women to men was somehow a problem.

Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo rightly note,

Scripture offers no evidence that the Israelites ever rejected a woman’s leadership simply on the basis of gender. On the contrary, we get the impression that Israel acknowledged the authority of God-ordained women leaders to the same extent as their male counterparts.[8]

I suspect that people who downplay the ministry of Bible women are reading their own ideas and misconceptions into the text. The biblical authors who mention Miriam give no hint whatsoever that she prophesied to, ministered to, or led only women. Rather, it appears she was respected by the entire community as a prophet and prominent leading figure, a leader sent by God.[9]

Footnotes

[1] In Exodus 2:4-10, Miriam, who is not named here, rescues her baby brother Moses with her quick-thinking and bold initiative.
In Exodus 15:20-21, she leads Israel in a celebration of victory.
In Numbers 12:1-16, she and Aaron criticise Moses, and Miriam is punished by getting a skin disease.
In Numbers 20:1, she dies and is buried in Kadesh.
In Deuteronomy 24:9, God mentions Miriam and her skin disease as a warning to all Israel.
In Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 6:3, she is mentioned with her two brothers in genealogies. Very few women are mentioned in these lists so the appearance of Miriam’s name is significant.

[2] This blog post was written in response to such an idea I saw on Facebook yesterday.

[3] Prophets are sometimes single; Anna was a widow, Philip’s daughters were virgins. Miriam may have been devoted to her ministry and never married. In a few early Jewish writings, however, Miriam is married (e.g., the Qumran document 4Q543 1 6).

[4] See footnote 1, about Moses’ Cushite wife, here.

[5] Both Miriam and Aaron speak, but Miriam’s name is listed first and the verb for “speak” is feminine singular. (See here.) This may indicate that Miriam played a stronger role in criticising Moses. Only she is afflicted with a skin disease; however, Aaron fears he may be next (Num. 12:11-12). Even though he doesn’t become sick, Aaron suffers vicariously because of his sister’s punishment. If he had also become sick, he could not have continued with his duties as high priest.

[6] Unlike Micah, the authors of Joshua 24:5 and of Psalm 77:20f do not mention Miriam as co-leader with her brothers.

[7]  Sadly, Deborah’s and Huldah’s prophetic ministries have also been downplayed by some Christians. I write about this here and here.

[8] Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 67.

[9] Miriam and her brothers were leaders sent by God. Other leaders, judges, and prophets of Israel were also sent by God (e.g., 1 Sam. 12:11; Jer. 35:15; Mal. 4:5; cf. 1 Sam. 25:32).

© Margaret Mowczko 2020
All Rights Reserved

Postscript: February 6, 2022

Today I read this remark from Origen of Alexandria about Miriam. He gave it as part of his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

ὅτε ἐλάλησε Μαριὰμ ἡ προφῆτις ἄρχουσα ἦν τινων γυναικῶν …
When Miriam the prophetess spoke, she was leading some women …
Origen, Fragment 1 Cor 74.21.

Origen goes on to quote 1 Corinthians 14:35b, 1 Timothy 2:12, and Titus 2:3-4a. Nevertheless, the Hebrew Bible does not say or indicate that Miriam only spoke to or led women.

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Image Credit

Woodcut of Miriam with her mother Jochebed and the infant Moses, created by Simeon Solomon in 1860-1863, printed on paper by the Dalziel brothers. © The Trustees of the British Museum


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8 thoughts on “Did Miriam the prophetess only minister to women?

  1. Thanks for this article, Marg! So many people get hung up on 1 Tim 2:12 and miss the point that there are women in the Bible teaching and leading men as well as teaching and leading women. Thanks for reminding me of Miriam!

    1. Exactly! 🙂

    2. Paul was very clear about the women’s role in the church. Scriptures bear witness to God’s divine order. The scripture says Mirian leads the people with songs and worship. Nowhere did she preach to men. God had given the charge to Moses. Mirian was turned into leprosy for rebelling against Moses desiring his leadership to speak God’s messages directly to the people. Yes, God uses women but in the proper role that God had given them. Also, Titus 2 clearly points out that only the aged woman can teach the younger women in the church. Nowhere you will find Women, Bishop, or Pastors under men. We can not add and take away what is written to fix our agenda. We need to rightly divide God’s word; Percept upon Percept, Line upon line, There a little and There a little.

      1. Hello Virginia, I’m all about sticking with scripture and rightly dividing God’s word. I can read Greek proficiently and I’ve looked closely at the words Paul actually used for ministers and ministry in his letters.

        Paul doesn’t identify anyone, man or woman, as an “overseer, bishop” (Greek: episkopos) or a “pastor” (poimēn) in his letters. No identified or named person has these ministry descriptions in the New Testament apart from Jesus.
        https://margmowczko.com/women-pastors-in-the-new-testament/
        And the only person he identifies as a “preacher” (kērux) is himself (1 Tim. 2:7 KJV; 2 Tim. 1:11 KJV).

        Paul’s favourite words for fellow ministers are coworker, diakonos (minister), and apostle. And he uses “labour, labourer” language for ministers including himself. Paul used all these words for his male and female ministry colleagues. Women with these ministry descriptions are Prisca, Phoebe, Persis, and several more.
        https://margmowczko.com/paul-romans-16-women-coworkers/

        Paul valued women and had no issue whatsoever with women ministers. And he never silences sound speech.

        In 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, Paul silenced disorderly and unedifying speech from three groups of people in Corinth, not just women who had questions that could keep for home. In the same passage, he encouraged orderly edifying speech without specifying gender (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5).
        https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-1434-35-in-a-nutshell/

        In 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Paul addresses and corrects poor behaviour from certain people in the Ephesians church: angry quarrelling men, rich overdressed women, and a woman who needed to learn and not teach, and not domineer a man. This passage is not Paul’s general teaching on ministry.
        https://margmowczko.com/1-timothy-212-in-a-nutshell/

        In his lists of ministries in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, or Ephesians 4:11 in the Greek, Paul never says that some of these are off-limits to women, this includes the ministries of teaching and leading. (See also Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).

        Paul doesn’t include “preaching” in his lists of ministry gifts and functions. Probably because preaching, according to a New Testament understanding, is not something that usually happened in church gatherings. It was not a ministry to fellow believers. Preaching in the New Testament, in the context of Christian ministry, is practically synonymous with evangelising. And from the beginning, women preached the gospel to their families, friends, communities, and further afield.
        https://margmowczko.com/preaching-words-new-testament-women-preached/

        Also, ministry is not about having people, men or women, under someone. Genuine Christian ministry is about humbly serving others, it’s not about having authority over others.

        If you think Titus 2 is what God has called and restricted you to, that’s great. I’ve written about Titus 2:4-5 here:
        https://margmowczko.com/busy-at-home-how-does-titus-24-5-apply-today/
        God has called me to follow the example of Prisca and women like her.
        https://margmowczko.com/at-home-with-priscilla-and-aquila/
        But more than that, Jesus is my role model, and Jesus is the one I answer to (Rom. 14:4).

        Most women do not have one role. The Bible is full of examples of women who did all kinds of things to serve and minister to their communities, some as leaders. Miriam is just one example of this. The biblical text shows that she led men and women whether this fits with your view of women or not. Also, plenty of leaders in the Bible failed in some way, and I clearly mention Miriam’s failing in the article.

        Let’s stick with the words Paul used and see what he (and Luke) said about New Covenant women such as Prisca. And let’s not quench the Holy Spirit by making all women fit with certain stereotypes. See Acts 2:17-18.

  2. Complementarians like to argue that Old Testament female teachers and prophets isn’t evidence women can be church leaders, because preaching in the New Testament is part of a different covenant. Two great inconsistencies with that are that Gods character doesn’t change, so what covenant was enacted at the time any woman taught Gods instructions is a moot point. The other is that comps try to make it seem like women who taught in the Old Testament were more limited with who they could teach then men, even though they argue female Old Testament teachers give no indication what women are allowed to do since the New Testament. They use ad hoc arguments when it’s convenient for them, which they justify by selective reading.

    1. I haven’t heard the different covenants idea. It’s an odd argument because under the Mosaic Covenant women did not have the same rights and the same access to worship as some men, but in the New Covenant, men and women have the same rights and the same access to God and worship, through Jesus.

      It’s because of the New Covenant that we can say, “… for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus. For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

  3. Hi Marg,
    What do you think about the idea suggested in this link that Miriam potentially was the author of the song of the sea?
    Thanks!
    https://www.thetorah.com/article/miriams-song-of-the-sea-a-womens-victory-performance

    1. Hi Sarah, celebrating military victories and losses was a women’s role in ancient Israel. I’ve written about this here:
      https://margmowczko.com/bible-women-who-led-celebrations-and-lamentations/
      I actually link to Carole Meyers’ article at the bottom of that article.

      Because Exodus 15 begins with, “Then Moses and all the children of Israel sang …,” the song could have been written by anyone. And as Dr Meyers points out in the article, “… the biblical text itself is not so clear about attribution.” So it’s possible Miriam was the, or an, author of the Song of the Sea.

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