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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: H. Hastings Weld :: The Women of the Scriptures

H. Hastings Weld :: Miriam

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Picture of Miriam



History, amid all its fearful records of crimes and cruelty, does not chronicle a more despotic and barbarous edict than that issued by the cruel king of Egypt,-that king "who knew not Joseph," (Exd 1:8) who was unmindful of the services rendered by the illustrious Hebrew to the royal house of Egypt. The edict in question commanded that all the Hebrew male children should be sacrificed. (Exd 1:16.) We can imagine the horror that entered every dwelling of the Israelites when this command became known. Incessant, unrequited toil had long been the portion of this people. Public injustice had made their lives bitter; but still the consolations of domestic life had been left to them-their homes had been uninvaded, and therefore they were yet rich in the treasures of the heart, and had many relative comforts in the land of their bondage. But when this blood‐thirsty command was uttered, "Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river," (Exd 1:22) then indeed they found the bitterness of bondage: and we can imagine the many scenes of alarm, anguish, and despair, that must have occurred during that frightful period. It resembles a similar command uttered fifteen hundred years afterwards, from the lips of Herod, and which resulted in the cruel slaughter of the innocents, when he hoped to have slain the holy child Jesus. In reference to both periods all hearts have sympathized with "Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted because they are not." (Jer 31:15.)

During the utmost heat of this fiery persecution there lived among the Israelites a man of the tribe of Levi, named Amram, and his wife, of the same tribe, Jochebed. Their family at that time consisted of a daughter, Miriam, supposed to be then ten or twelve years of age, and a son, Aaron, three years old, when another babe was added to the number of their children. We can imagine how anxiously the poor mother had waited the event of his birth-how naturally she had wished her child might prove a daughter, and thus escape the dreaded edict. But when one of the proscribed sex was given to her embrace, new energy was infused into her spirit: she determined on making a desperate effort to save him. All the mother was aroused in her heart. The ingenuity of her sex, ever fruitful in expedients, was taxed to invent some plan that might preserve her child. Concealment was the first thought. Three months-three anxious months, passed rapidly away; during this time every cry of the unconscious babe must have been agony to her. How many times must she have fancied the barbarous Egyptians coming into her dwelling, and taking away the fair young blossom-"the goodly child," she was sheltering. (Exd 2:2.)

At length he could be concealed no longer. With his increase of strength the danger of discovery increased; so, summoning up a strong resolution, based on an ardent faith that God would aid her plan-for no less ennobling principle could have nerved a tender mother's heart to such an act-she constructed with her best skill an ark of bulrushes, made it water‐tight within and without, by covering it with a bituminous or resinous pitch, and in this deposited her precious babe, laying him among the flags on the margin of the river, trusting that Israel's God would interpose for him. What tears, what prayers, what heart‐wringing anxieties, must have accompanied that act! An admirable sacred poet has thus beautifully indicated the helplessness of the babe, and the future mission of the lawgiver:-

"What reeks he of his mother's tears,-
His sister's boding sigh?
The whispering reeds are all he hears,
And Nile's soft weltering nigh

Sings him to sleep; but he will wake,
And o'er the haughty flood
Wave his stern rod, and lo!-a lake,
A restless sea of blood."-Lyra Innocentium.

Miriam, the babe's sister, is here charmingly introduced; she watched at a distance the ark containing her infant brother. This task required no small amount of intelligence, sharpened by natural affection. Doubtless the poor mother herself longed to watch over her boy; but her intense anxiety would have defeated her purpose, and probably caused a precipitate discovery, ruinous to her project of saving the infant's life. Miriam's childish age warranted her lingering, as if pursuing some youthful sport, by the river's brink, and would awaken no suspicion. We can imagine the mingled feelings with which the little girl beheld the Egyptian princess, attended by her ladies, coming down to the river to bathe. The ark was discovered among the flags. One of the princess's attendants fetched it to her mistress. The lid was opened at the princess's request. "She saw the child, and behold the babe wept." (Exd 2:6.) Oh sacred eloquence of nature!-that feeble cry was mightier than Pharaoh's edict. "The weeping blood in woman's heart" thrilled at the sight of those innocent tears; the princess "had compassion on him;" she was acquainted with the murderous command of her tyrant father, and as she looked on the babe, we may imagine the mournful emphasis with which she exclaimed, "this is one of the Hebrews' children." State policy, prejudice, nay even daughterly obedience, all vanished before the affecting spectacle of infant helplessness.

Then was Miriam's opportunity. We can imagine that she had approached unobserved, with apparent childish curiosity, to see the lid of the ark opened. With what acuteness she observed the effect of the babe's tears on the feelings of the compassionate princess! and then, just as generous womanly sympathy had banished all other considerations, Miriam puts her opportune suggestive question, "Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?" (Exd 2:7.)

When we reflect on all the circumstances, we cannot fail to be struck with the mingled courage, tenderness and firmness of the young Miriam's character. Here was a powerful princess, the daughter of the hostile tyrant, and yet the little Hebrew maiden does not hesitate to speak to her; but impelled by tenderness, ventures to propose a plan in aid of the benevolent impulse of the princess,-a plan, doubtless, that had been in some measure concerted; for Miriam evidently acted under direction. But the intelligent carrying out of a plan is nearly as great a matter as its original construction. Had Miriam hesitated from timidity; had she uttered her question coldly, so as to show no interest; had she yielded to her feelings, and spoken impetuously, so as to have given offence by her freedom, or betrayed her relationship to the child by her earnestness; in either case, she would have failed in her purpose. But to this gifted child was granted such a measure of "high intelligence," that hers was "a word fitly spoken." And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Go; and the maid went, and called the child's mother." (Exd 2:8.)

What a multitude of blissful emotions must have consecrated the saving of that child, destined to be the great lawgiver of the Israelites! The poor mother's heart, that had never yet dared to vent its feelings of joyful tenderness over her babe, was now released from its torturing anxiety. The young sister felt all that increase of affection which is invariably produced by conferring benefits on an object; while the princess experienced that the bliss of doing good far exceeded all the pleasures that regal pomp and splendour could bestow. No royal command she had ever uttered had given so much delight to her heart as her benevolent charge, "Take this child, and nurse it for me, and I will pay thee thy wages." (Exd 2:9.)

The heroic mother of Moses did, indeed, nurse her boy for the gentle princess; but in a yet higher sense, she nursed him for God. How perfect must have been the instructions given during the early years of the future deliverer of Israel,-instructions that so influenced his character, that no courtly splendour in the house of Pharaoh's daughter, no human learning among the ingenious and subtle Egyptians, could warp his judgment or alienate his faith from the God of his forefathers!

How completely had maternal influence triumphed in the character of Moses! His mother's religion and people were his. The lessons of childhood were never effaced, though all that pomp could offer to allure, and all that self‐interest could urge to tempt, and all that learned subtlety could devise to bewilder, assailed Moses in Pharaoh's household. Yet it is recorded, "Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season." (Hbr 11:24-25.)

We hear nothing more of Miriam through the many long years that elapsed while Moses was in Pharaoh's house, or during the subsequent period when he had left the scene of courtly splendour, and was keeping his father‐in‐law's sheep in Midian; but it is not probable that the sister who watched so tenderly over his infancy lost sight of him in after years. She is again introduced to us after many wondrous miracles had been wrought in attestation of the mighty mission of both her illustrious brothers; when the despot of Egypt had quailed before the supernatural power bestowed on Moses and Aaron, and when, after many memorable struggles, the distinguished brothers led the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, and from under the power of the oppressor. Miriam's character at that time-particularly in reference to her mental powers-appears to have equalled what might have been anticipated from her early intelligence. There is no doubt she was associated with Moses and Aaron in their authority over the children of Israel, at that great crisis of their history. The prophet Micah says, "For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam." (Mic 6:4.)

Who has not, in imagination, recalled the circumstances of the departure of the Israelites?-the rocky defile on the banks of the Red Sea, which they had reached just as they perceived the host of the Egyptians, headed by the vengeful, headstrong king, following hard after them? their terror, and complainings,-"Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (Exd 14:11) the calm determination, and heroic faith of Moses,-"Fear not. The Lord shall fight for you?" (Exd 14:13-14) the miraculous passage of the Red Sea, when the Lord caused his people to pass through on dry ground?-"The waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea:" the presumptuous daring of the oppressors, who said, "I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil?" (Exd 15:8-9) the fearful overthrow of the host, when the watery walls gave way and overwhelmed the tyrants; and Pharaoh, and all his host, "sank like lead in the mighty waters?" (Exd 15:10.) All these events present a succession of graphic images, which the vivid imagination loves to contemplate with trembling awe.

To celebrate this stupendous triumph, Moses composed his noble song. (Exd 15:1-19.) This ode was uttered six hundred and forty‐seven years before the supposed birth of Homer, the father of poetry, as he is sometimes styled. It is, therefore, the most ancient poetic effusion on record; and it affords no trifling evidence of the intellectual attributes recognised as belonging to woman, that Miriam should add her chorus to this noble song of triumph.

Not in an undistinguished manner was this chorus uttered, for the women of Israel were gathered together, "and Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances." (Exd 15:20-21.) Thus the second poetic composition on record was inspired by the genius, and uttered by the lip, of woman. "Sing ye to the Lord," was the grand burthen of Miriam's chorus: the event celebrated might be marvellous, but the deep spiritual aspirations and glowing enthusiasm of her fervid nature, sprang up in exulting thanksgivings to her deliverer God, not as a mere trembling woman rejoicing in individual or relative safety, but as a rapturous adoring saint, recognising the Lord's hand, and pouring out her full heart to him.

In tracing the further history of Miriam, we are taught an instructive lesson on the temptations and failings of genius just as in the history of the women of the patriarchal times we see the failings caused by personal beauty. All gifts of an extraordinary kind, whether mental or personal, require a sound judgment and great discretion to use them aright. Perhaps this applies with even more force to genius and to beauty: a few brief years pass away, and beauty-that "pretty trifler, dear deceit," is sure to fly. Alas! for those who have no other distinction to recommend them. A youth of folly, an old age of contempt, is their certain portion, and of all humiliating spectacles, surely the most painful is a faded beauty trying to prolong her youth by arts that deceive none but herself, and craving for admiration where she meets neglect or ridicule. Mental gifts, up to an extended period of life, are generally found to improve, rather than to deteriorate, with advancing years, and many a woman who would despise the folly of vanity, and the meanness of rivalry, in reference to personal charms, is not proof against an overweening estimation of her mental powers. This kind of vanity may not be so puerile as the former, but it is fully as sinful. To have enlarged capacity of thought, and liberal mental endowments, and to fail in the attainment of true wisdom,-to acquire knowledge, and succeed only in displaying folly, is the most lamentable exhibition of human perversity.

Hitherto we have seen Miriam as the devoted sister, the inspired poet, the enlightened pious coadjutor of that distinguished brother whose life in infancy she had assisted to preserve. And can it be that such a character, and such a mind, is deformed by the littleness of envy, the meanness of rivalry? Alas! Miriam, with all her genius, is human, and therefore liable to err; her gifts and graces required all the more care and watchfulness, because they were extraordinary; her station demanded all the more humility, because it was elevated.

Aaron and Miriam conspired against Moses. The ostensible cause of their discontent was Zipporah, the wife of Moses. "And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses, because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married." (Num 12:1.) How strange that those who had shared the authority of Moses, who had toiled and suffered with him, should have risen up against him! There is something peculiarly instructive to erring human nature in the narrative:-they, Aaron and Miriam, "spake against Moses;" not to him, but of him. Candid expostulation, in reference to any real or supposed grievance, might have been fully warranted by Miriam's near relationship and influential station; but detraction, evil‐speaking, was utterly beneath her, and the arrogant presumption in which the murmurings were couched added to the sin:-"Hath God indeed spoken only by Moses, hath he not spoken also by us?" (Num 12:12.)

It is a charge sometimes brought against women that they are addicted to the vice of detraction; some have asserted that the lives of women, passing away in limited spheres and small occupations, afford a temptation to this hateful and contemptible vice. Whether this charge be true or not, as applied to women generally, it is evident here that Aaron participated fully in Miriam's crime. The whole narrative is an exposition of a common social wrong. In how many families do we find that brothers and sisters unite against some unhappy wife who has come into their family circle; and what envy and jealousy are aroused to calumniate her! Instead of finding a home among her husband's kindred, she is environed by enemies. The ancient record of Miriam and Aaron's sin has many parallels even in this day. Sisters seem to resent, as a personal injury, the natural influence of a wife over a beloved brother's affection. They find it hard to resign the first place in that brother's heart to a stranger. Such feelings we are here plainly taught are sinful in the extreme. No matter how elevated by station, how endowed by genius, the vice of envy and detraction degrades its perpetrator to the lowest point of baseness. We are told, in reference to Miriam's envious evil‐speaking, "The Lord heard it," (Num 12:2) and that He "spake suddenly to Moses," (Num 12:4) in reference to the domestic treason, and commanded that the brothers and Miriam should appear in the tabernacle of the congregation, and there the Most High publicly honoured Moses, by manifesting his approbation of him above all others, and as publicly disgraced the calumniators by reproof and punishment. It is expressly said, "The anger of the Lord was kindled against them," "and behold Miriam became leprous, white as snow." (Num 12:9-10.)

There seems a peculiar analogy between Miriam's sin and her punishment. The foul vice of envy and detraction is so diffusive in its pollution, that, like a loathsome disease, it spreads over the whole character. No virtue can flourish where this vice exists: it is the leprosy of the soul. What an admonition is here, to guard the mind from unjust thoughts, and the tongue from malicious words! How forcibly has the Apostle spoken in reference to this offence! "The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell." (Jam 3:6.)

There is every reason from the Scripture narrative to conclude that Aaron repented of the evil he had committed more promptly than his sister. He pleaded humbly and affectionately with Moses, confessing his error:-"Alas! my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned." (Num 12:11.) It is a beautiful exemplification of the meekness of Moses, that, when he beheld the awful punishment that had fallen on Miriam, he instantly entreated the Lord to "heal her." (Num 12:13.) He remembered not her rebellion, her speaking against him, her enmity towards his wife; he remembered only the fidelity and affection of former years,-that she was his sister, and in affliction,-and he entreated the Lord for her. We can imagine how this display of brotherly piety and love would sink into the heart of Miriam-how the evil of her spirit would be subdued by his goodness. No reproof, no punishment, could be so affecting to a generous nature and enlightened mind, as this manifestation of active, unaltered affection on the part of Moses. The Lord heard the prayer of his faithful servant, and gave an answer of peace; but to mark the Divine displeasure against the sin of which Miriam had been guilty, he commanded that she should be shut out of the camp seven days.

It is an instance of the affectionate consideration in which Miriam was generally held, that the people, though wearied with their long wanderings, impatient of every delay, and longing to behold the promised land, yet tarried the seven days of her probation, and journeyed not until she was received again. Doubtless the leprosy of Miriam's mind departed with the leprosy of her body; and, admonished by the past, she returned to her place among the leaders of the people, and in the heart of her distinguished brother, purified from moral as well as physical contagion.

We hear no more of Miriam after this, until we find the record of her death. "Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin, in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there." (Num 20:1.) Her death took place at a time when the people were sore distressed,-"there was no water for the congregation," (Num 20:2)-and when their unfaithful murmurings were loud against Moses. Thus, in circumstances of sorrowful environment, Miriam's toilsome life was brought to a close, a short time prior to the decease of her brother Aaron.

The character of the first woman of sacred antiquity who was elevated to high station and authority among the chosen people, is not without a full admixture of human imperfection. It is worthy of note that her excellencies were most prominent in the time of adversity. Miriam, the child in years, yet mature in intelligence, who watched her infant brother on the banks of the Egyptian river, and who so appropriately addressed the compassionate princess-Miriam, assembling the daughters of Israel, and with timbrel and dance, and intellectual homage to God, animating the triumphant public thanksgivings of the people, on the overthrow of their enemies, was a very different character from Miriam envying and rebelling against her righteous brother. How true is it that human approbation-power-the distinction that talent confers-is apt, without due watchfulness, to deteriorate rather than elevate the character! "The blessing unimproved becomes a curse." Let us not in the spirit of presumption censure Miriam, seeing that, if she sinned, she also severely suffered,-the Lord "suddenly" sent his avenging judgment,-but rather apply the warning to ourselves. If this heroine of sacred antiquity-tender in affection, enthusiastic in spirit, wise in thought, eloquent in utterance-fell, in an evil hour, into one of the meanest of social vices, how necessary is watchfulness, lest this insidious envy, so abhorrent to God, so injurious to man, obtain an entrance into our souls, and pollute us with its foul and fearful leprosy!

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