RITA JEAN BURNS, Marquette University


The present study is an effort to characterize the portrait of Miriam which arises from the seven biblical texts which mention her. In order to do this, it is necessary first of all to outline the individual pieces of her portrait. The dance and song attributed to Miriam (Ex. 15: 20-21) are ritual actions characteristically used in Israel's celebrations of the Divine Warrior. In representing Miriam as leading this celebration, an early writer portrayed a religious and cultic leader at the foundational event of Hebrew religion. An account of her rise to such a position is conspicuously absent. Although Miriam is called a prophetess, she is not firmly cast in this role in the texts. The designation which appears in Ex. 15:20 is best viewed as an anachronism. In addition, although Miriam is portrayed as claiming authority as a mediator of God's word (Nm. 12:2-9), in doing so she represents a priestly, not a prophetic group. Miriam is portrayed as one who authentically spoke God's word although her authority in doing so was subordinate to that of Moses. Nm. 12:2-9 has been conflated with an earlier story in which Miriam confronted Moses over his Cushite wife and was struck with leprosy as a result (Nm. 12:1, 10ff.). In raising the issue alluded to in Nm. 12:1 Miriam was probably voicing a community concern. Thus, Nm. 12, like Ex. 15:20-21, portrays Miriam as a leader in the community. Her punishment is temporary and her reinstatement in the community is specifically presented as an act of divine clemency. In linking Miriam to Aaron and Moses by the use of kinship terminology, Ex. 15:20, Nm. 26:59 and 1 Chr. 5:29 also witness to the tradition's view of Miriam as a religious leader. As "sister" she is a "colleague" to the two in the area of religious leadership. Dt. 24:8-9 and Micah 6:4 shed little light on the tradition's view of Miriam. They do, however, confirm that Miriam was remembered as belonging to the wilderness period and Micah 6:4 regards her as a divinely commissioned leader there. The tradition of Miriam's death and burial at Kadesh (Nm. 20:1b) does not seem to have arisen from literary or theological considerations. It has the appearance of an early, and possibly authentic tradition. If so, this notice which firmly links Miriam with the important wilderness shrine of Kadesh, may have been the starting point for Miriam's portrait in the texts. In appending this early notice of Miriam's death and burial to the itinerary of Nm. 20:1a (instead of to another reference to Kadesh) a late writer (editor) implicitly contributes to the tradition that Miriam was a leader of significant import in the wilderness community for it can hardly be accidental that, in the texts as they now stand, the deaths of Miriam, Aaron and Moses coincide with the last three stops on the wilderness journey. Taken together, the pieces of Miriam's biblical portrait present a leader in the Israelite community who belonged to the wilderness period. Her mediatorial role was specifically religious in character. The texts suggest a dual aspect regarding the sphere of her leadership: she was an official in the cult and one who authentically rendered God's word to the community. The seven texts span the entire period of canonical composition. From earliest times until the latest, biblical writers portrayed Miriam as a figure from their ancient past whose memory was valued. The very tenacity of the tradition of Miriam as a leader in the wilderness community might be cited as Israel's answer to a question Miriam herself is said to have voiced: "Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses?"

Recommended Citation

BURNS, RITA JEAN, ""HAS THE LORD INDEED SPOKEN ONLY THROUGH MOSES?" A STUDY OF THE BIBLICAL PORTRAIT OF MIRIAM" (1980). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI8104800.