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] But the Israelites refused to move on until she was restored to health (Num. 12:15). This indicates she was held in high regard by the community, 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. Rather, 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 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 3:23; cf. Sam. 25:32).

© Margaret Mowczko 2020
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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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1 Timothy 2:12, the created order, and Bible men who were guided by godly women

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4 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. 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).

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