Scripture references: Exodus 2:1–10; 15:20, 21; Numbers 12:1–15; 20:1;
Date: About 1520–1420 b.c.
Name: Miriam [MER-eh-um: “loved by Yahweh”)
Greatest contribution: Miriam played a vital role as the protective sister of baby Moses, and later as a prophetess partner of the adult Moses in delivering the Israelites from Egypt.
Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron, the two men who play the most prominent roles in the grand adventure of the Israelites as God won their freedom from slavery in Egypt. Miriam herself played a significant role in three incidents described in Exodus and Numbers. As a child she was Moses’ sisterly protector. As an adult prophetess she led the delivered slaves in praising God. And as an unhappy woman she challenged Moses’ special relationship with God.
Exodus 15:20, 21 tells us four important things about Miriam’s role in the redeemed community.
Miriam was a prophetess (Ex. 15:20).
The Old Testament prophets were God’s spokespersons. They spoke as His mouthpieces, delivering messages that were not their own but that had the authority of the divine Word. While Moses himself was the premier prophet of the day, and indeed the prototype prophet for the future, it is significant that he was not the only prophet in the Israelite camp. Miriam, like Moses, had the prophetic gift and calling.
Miriam was the “sister of Aaron” (Ex. 15:20)
Miriam was also the sister of Moses, and her connection with Moses, established in Exodus 2, seems much closer to us than her connection with Aaron. Why then not identify her as the sister of Moses or “of Moses and Aaron”? It is quite likely that the author of the biblical text wants to remind us that in these early books, Moses was the leader. God called Moses to bring His people out of slavery, give them His Law, and fashion them into an obedient and responsive people. We can link Miriam with Aaron, for both held significant leadership positions, but we need to remember that in that era Moses was the leader.
Miriam led “all the women”in worship (Ex. 15:20)
The Lord’s victory overthe Egyptians at the Red Sea lifted the hearts of the Israelites in praise. Miriam led “all the women” to praise God for His victory. Their songs and their dances expressed the joy and wonder of the entire community.
Miriam led in praise (Ex. 15:21).
This verse underlines the point made above. In calling for the community to “sing to the Lord,” Miriam led in a spontaneousand joyous moment of pure worship.
Unfortunately, we see that even someone as gifted as Miriam can fall into bad choices (Num. 12:1–16). After leaving Sinai, Miriam and Aaron “spoke against” Moses. This extended passage raises several important issues.
The dispute (Num. 12:1–3). Clearly Miriam instigated the challenge to Moses.
Her name is mentioned first in the text. From Aaron’s readiness to make a golden calf at Sinai (see Ex. 32), we see that his was a weak character, easily led by others.
It began with criticism of Moses for his marriage to an “Ethiopian” (Cushite) woman (12:1). This was not the real problem, but rather an attempt to arouse support by appealing to a people’s prejudice. The real motive, and the thing that ate at Miriam and Aaron too, was that Moses was recognized as the leader. We can sense the jealousy in the words, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (Num. 12:3). Miriam and Aaron truly were leaders whom God was using. What ate at Miriam was that others did not perceive her as being as important as Moses was.
The gifts the two had, the privileges they each enjoyed as spiritual leaders, somehow were not enough. Miriam burned to be viewed by all as someone who was on a par with Moses, not subordinate to him.
The resolution (Num. 12:4–8)
Miriam and Aaron’s attitudes were disruptive and if they persisted they were sure to undermine Moses’ authority. So God intervened, called the three to Him, and made His will clear. God had chosen Moses as the leader. Miriam and Aaron had important ministries of their own, but they were not the ones God had chosen to fulfill the tasks assigned to Moses.
The outcome (Num. 12:9–16)
Their challenge to Moses aroused God’s anger, and when the two had been rebuked, Miriam “suddenly became leprous, as white as snow” (Num. 12:10). Leprosy, used to refer to any infectious skin disease, was a devastating punishment because the leper had to be put out of the camp, unable to participate in, much less lead, worship.
Some have felt that for Miriam to be stricken with leprosy while Aaron was not indicates a double standard. The woman got clobbered, but the man was let off! This was not, however, the case. Miriam was a prophetess, but Aaron was Israel’s high priest. Leviticus 22 makes it clear that no priest with leprosy could approach God or even eat of the holy offerings. If Aaron had been stricken with leprosy, Israel would have been left without a high priest during his time of isolation. It was not because Aaron was a man that he was not stricken with leprosy, but because he was the high priest. God would not leave the community without one qualified for that unique ministry.
Moses prayed for his sister, and God did remove the leprosy—but not for seven days. Instead of gaining honor by challenging God’s choice of Moses as Israel’s leader, Miriam experienced public disgrace and isolation from the camp. But it was temporary. In seven days God fully restored her, and we can assume thatshe continued to serve God and her people as a prophetess and as a worship leader.
Scripture references: Exodus 2:21, 22; 4:25; 18:1–6; Numbers 12:1
Date: About 1450 b.c.
Name: Zipporah [zip-POE-rah: “bird”)
Greatest contribution: Moses’ wife. She circumcised her sons as Moses began his mission for the Lord.
When Moses was forced to flee from Egypt he settled in a desolate part of the Sinai Peninsula. The area supported a few sheepherders, and long before Moses’ time it had been mined for semi-precious stones. Moses attached himself to the family of Jethro, a Midianite who lived in the Sinai. In time Moses married Zipporah, one of Jethro’s daughters.
We know little of Zipporah or of her life with Moses. We know that the couple had two sons, and that Moses brought her along when he set out for Egypt after God’s call (Ex. 4:20). Apparently Zipporah and her sons turned back after an incident reported in 4:24–26, for after the Israelites had been freed from Egypt Jethro brought Zipporah and the two sons to rejoin Moses at Mount Sinai (Ex. 18:1–6).
Some have assumed that Zipporah died and that Moses remarried, because Numbers 12:1 speaks of Moses’ marriage to an “Ethiopian,” or “Cushite.” It is more likely that the reference is to Zipporah. Cush was an imprecise term during most of the biblical era, but at all times it referred to lands south of Egypt where the Sinai lay.
The one passage in which we catch a glimpse of Zipporah in action is a puzzling one. The passage describes an incident that occurred as Moses set out with his family for Egypt to carry out the mission he had been given by God.
And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision (Ex. 4:24–26).
These verses have puzzled ancient Jewish commentators as well as Christian scholars. A few elements seem clear, however. Moses had failed to have his sons passage, however, is that Zipporah’s quick analysis of the situation and her willingness to act removed the threat to Moses, and he was able to continue on his mission.
Zipporah responded to God when, for some unknown reason, her husband Moses had refused. God was upset that Moses had neglected to circumcise his son to honor the covenant God had made with Abraham. That Zipporah knew enough to do this points to Moses having told her about this covenant and custom.
Circumcision was a rite given to Abraham that functioned as a sign of male membership in the covenant community. When God “attacked” Moses [perhaps through a sudden illness?] Zipporah was apparently aware of the importance of circumcision, and quickly acted to avert disaster by circumcising their son.
One of the puzzles here is the meaning of Zipporah’s repeated reference to Moses as a “husband of blood.” What is significant in the context of the
Scripture references: Exodus 35:22–29
Date: About 1445 b.c.
Major contribution: These women used their talents as well as their treasures to beautify the tabernacle.
At Sinai God gave the Israelites His Law; He also gave them the blueprints of a portable worship center. Men and women quickly contributed the wood, cloth, gold, silver, and precious stones required. The text then tells us that “all the women who were gifted artisans” (Ex. 35:25) spun the yarn to be used in construction.
All too often in our day we limit the idea of “spiritual gifts” to “spiritual” ministries. But any gift or ability God provides can be dedicated to God.
Scripture reference: Leviticus 24:11
Date: About 1445 b.c.
Name: Shelomith [Shih-LOE-mith: “peaceful”]
Shortly after God gave the Israelites His Law, a fight broke out in the Hebrew camp. In the heat of the struggle, the son of an Israelite woman named Shelomith and an Egyptian husband “blasphemed the name of the Lord and cursed” (Lev. 24:11). In so doing he broke the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex. 20:7).
The meaning of the commandment and the incident itself is often misunderstood. The phrase “in vain” renders a Hebrew word that indicates something that is empty or meaningless; it is frequently linked with idolatry. The “curse” mentioned here is not a swear word, but rather an occult curse: an attempt to invoke supernatural powers to harm an enemy. What Shelomith’s son did was to invoke God’s name in a curse hurled against his adversary in the same way pagans used the names of their demons and deities.
This serious violation of the third commandment led to the execution ofShelomith’s son and is an unforgettable reminder to Israel that God is to be honored always as real and present.
For those who are unmarried, Shelomith serves as a reminder that God does not want us to be unequally yoked to nonbelievers. She was an Israelite married to an Egyptian who worshiped pagan deities. This undoubtedly gave her son knowledge of these pagan gods and occult worship that led him down a path that caused him to sin and pay for it with his life. Our choice of a life-partner affects not just us but our children as well.