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Miriam - sister of Moses
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Having now considered the law of God under all its various bearings relative to woman, it only remains to prove, from the female characters of Scripture, in what manner that law was obeyed; and whether it be possible to discover any trace of statutes which, in direct contradistinction to the changeless law of the Eternal, tend to degrade, instead of to elevate, the female character; or whether we cannot bring forward some sufficiently convincing arguments in favour of our deeply-studied theory, that the law of the Eternal is explained, by its practical illustration, through the whole history of the Bible.
To the oralist [those who rely on the spoken word of God as well as the written Bible], or non-oralist, this consideration ought to be of equal weight. Keeping aloof entirely from the discussion which has of late too painfully agitated the whole Jewish nation, we would yet present to both parties the simple fact that the supposed degradation of the women of Israel can have no existence whatever in the Oral Law, or we must find some trace of this abasement in this and the succeeding periods of our history.
If both were given at the same time, the women of Israel whom we are about to bring forward must have lived under the jurisdiction of both; and as their lives, feelings, and actions are all in exact accordance with the spirit and the form of the written law, it is clearly evident that the modern accusation against us can have no foundation whatever in the Oral Law, or we must have discovered it in the female characters of Scripture. Nor will the groundless assertion of our individual inferiority and social abasement find confirmation in the writings of our ancient fathers, whose beautiful parables and tales all tend to illustrate alike the spirit of our law and the axiom of our wise man, ‘Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.’ [Proverbs 31:10.]
We will proceed, then, without further introduction, to our history, convinced that, were the Word of the Eternal more deeply studied, the love and peace it breathes must infuse themselves unconsciously in every human heart, and strife and discord melt away before the inspired transcript of the love and mercy of our God.
The character of Miriam is one of the most perfect delineations [descriptions] of woman, in her mixed nature of good and evil, which the Bible gives. Her first introduction we have already noticed – a young girl watching, at the command of her mother, the fate of the ark which held her baby brother, and boldly addressing the princess of Egypt in the child’s behalf. [Exodus 2:4.]
Her next mention is her sharing the holy triumph of that brother, and responding, with apparently her whole heart, to the song of praise bursting forth from the assembled Israelites on the shores of the Red Sea: ‘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. And Miriam answered them, Sing, sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.’ [Exodus 15:21.]
The Hebrew word, [Hebrew character], here used, and translated prophetess, means also a poetess, and the wife of a prophet, and is applied sometimes to a singer of hymns. In this latter meaning, and perhaps also as a poetess, it must be applied to Miriam, as she was neither the wife of a prophet, nor, as in the case of Deborah, and afterwards Huldah, endowed by the Eternal with the power of prophecy itself. She appears to have been one of those gifted beings, from whom the words of sacred song flow spontaneously.
The miracles performed in their very sight were sufficient to excite enthusiasm in a woman’s heart, and awaken the burst of thanksgiving; and Miriam might have fancied herself at that moment as zealous and earnest in the cause of God as she appeared to be. But for true piety, something more is wanted than the mere enthusiasm of the moment, or the high-sounding religion of flowing verse.
By Miriam not being permitted to enter the promised land, it is evident that she ‘had not followed the Lord fully,’ but had probably joined in the rebellions and murmurings which characterized almost the whole body of the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness. The very next mention of her after her song of praise is her presumptuous attack upon Moses, and daring insult to the power of the Lord, contained in the twelfth chapter of Numbers. Some chronologists believe this incident occurred only one year after the passage of the Red Sea, a period not sufficiently long for circumstances to have changed the character of Miriam so completely, had not jealousy and presumption been secretly inmates of her heart before. Unknown, perhaps, even to herself, for how few of us know our ‘secret sins,’ until they are roused into action, by some unlooked-for temptation in a unguarded moment, and we are startled at ourselves!
The feelings of Miriam, recorded in this chapter, are so perfectly accordant with woman’s nature, that surely no woman of Israel will turn from it, believing the length of time which has elapsed removes all the warning which it would inculcate [teach].
One of the most prominent of female failings is secret jealousy, quite distinct, however, from the fearful passion [also] so called. We allude simply to that species of secret and unconfessed jealousy, which is the real origin of detraction [hurtful gossip], so often, unhappily, practised by woman upon woman. We are not now writing of any class, or creed, or people in particular, but of women in general. There never yet was gossip, without some species of detraction spoken or implied; and never yet has detraction been probed candidly and fairly (disregarding the pain of so doing) to its root, without being traced to either jealousy or envy of some quality, or possession, of the more favoured being so unkindly judged.
Women, and single women more especially, are more liable to petty failings than man, simply because they have less to engross their minds, and less of consequence to employ their hands. Unless taught from earliest years to find and take pleasure in resources within, they must look without, and busy themselves with the characters, and conduct, and concerns of their neighbours.
Now, acknowledged merit to such characters gives very little food for cosy chat; it wants [lacks] esprit [wit], and so they are never content, till something doubtful or suspicious is discovered, or supposed to be, and then the lovers of gossip may be found in full conclave [secret meeting], marvelling, and wondering, and turning, and twisting, and blaming, and pitying, till the very object of such animadversion [criticism] might find it difficult to trace of whom they speak, and know infinitely less of her own concerns, intentions, and feelings, than her reporters.
As Miriam acted, so would most women, unenlightened by that pure spirit of religious love, which alone can conquer the natural inclination towards detraction, and subdue secret jealousy, by making us aware of its existence. ‘And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses, because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married.’ [Numbers 12:1.] The very thing to arouse jealousy and disturbance in an unenlightened woman’s mind.
Miriam had never been thrown in contact with her sister-in-law till within the last few months: Moses having sent his wife for safety, with his two sons, to her father Jethro, during the troubles in Egypt and their subsequent redemption.
From the silence with regard to Zipporah, we are led to infer that she was a woman of meek and retiring habits, but of course, as the wife of their great leader Moses, held in higher repute by the people than his sister. And this, trifling as it seems, is now, as it always has been, a trial to some of our sex.
Few single women there are who can look upon the elevation of a brother’s wife without some secret feelings of pain, which will be subdued and changed into warmest affection, or gain ascendency and violence, finding vent in petty malice or half-concealed detraction, according as religion, and candour, and self-knowledge are, or are not, predominant in the sister’s character.
Perhaps it is hard, in some cases, to see one younger and fairer, and only known but a few years or months, as the case may be, usurp entire possession of a beloved brother’s heart; wherein we, who have been his hand-in-hand companions from earliest infancy, must now be content with but a very secondary place. But such is one of the many trials peculiarly woman’s, - permitted [by God], that from her very loneliness below, she may look above for that fulness of love and tenderness for which she yearns.
And thrice happy is that woman who, conscious of this, can yet be content with, and value as before, the love her brother has still to spare for her; who will so subdue natural feeling as to find in very truth a friend and sister in a brother’s wife, and subjects of deepest interest in her children.
Miriam, as we may infer from her punishment, was not one of these. That an Ethiopian should be raised above herself, who was a daughter of Israel, was, to one of her evidently proud spirit, unendurable. Unable, however, to discover aught in Zipporah herself for a publicly-avowed scorn, she sought to lessen the holiness and greatness of her brother by daring to declare that the Lord had spoken through her and Aaron also. [Numbers 12:2.]
That this jealously arose because of the ‘Ethiopian woman whom he had married,’ Holy Writ itself informs us; and from Miriam’s name being mentioned before that of Aaron, and yet more, from the wrath of the Lord being manifested towards her alone, it is evident that hers was the greater sin.
Her individual assumption of prophetic power, she knew, would avail her nothing; but, uniting Aaron in the declaration, she sought to make it appear that God had breathed His spirit into every member of Amram’s [their father] family. She had too much policy [cunning] to endeavour to deprive Moses of all his granted and allowed privileges. Her only wish was, to decrease the value and spirituality of those privileges to him individually, and elevate herself and Aaron on his descent; emboldened so to do by the excessive meekness and forbearance of Moses, which she knew would shield her from all human reproof. She might, perhaps, [like Satan] have so dwelt upon her own imaginary importance, as really to believe what she asserted, and so feel more and more galled at the little account in which she was held.
It is quite possible for woman so to feel and so to act, and for all to proceed from the petty feelings of jealousy and malice, first excited by the higher grade and more considered position of a brother’s wife. ‘Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath He not spoken also by us?’ were the words they said. Brief, and perchance of little weight considered by themselves, but, in a people ever ready to revolt and murmur, more than likely to kindle sedition and disturbance. ‘And the Lord heard it, and the Lord spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation: and they three came out, and the Lord came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forth.’ [Verse 4.]
Where now could have been the presumptuous self-importance of Miriam, called thus by Him at whose word might be annihilation? With what fearful terror must she have heard that summons, and listened to the reproving words of the Eternal? – Exalting Moses above even His inspired prophets; for to them He declared He would make Himself known in a vision, and speak unto them in a dream, ‘but My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all Mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude [likeness] of the Lord shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant Moses? And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and He departed. And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam was leprous, as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.’
It is from this awful chastisement, inflicted by the Lord Himself, that we must judge of the heinousness [seriousness] of her sin; that presumption and arrogancy are no small crimes in His sight, and that God Himself was insulted in the insult offered to His chosen servant. ‘My servant Moses,’ He ever designates him; implying the severest reproof in those simple words.
Even were they endowed with prophetic power, He tells them they would be less than Moses; for to Moses alone would He deign to speak mouth to mouth. Had Miriam’s sin been but the impulse of the moment, the reproof would have been sufficient, as we see in other cases in Scripture; but, effectually to root out the sinful presumption which probably had lain dormant for months, the Eternal, in His perfect justice, inflicted such chastisement as would cause her to be shunned and loathed by the very people whom when had sought to impress with her individual importance.
Human reproof, indeed, she had not; for Moses, ‘meek above all the men which were on the face of the earth,’ had not even answered the detracting words, conscious that his power was not his own, and that He who gave it would, if needed, appear in his defence. Had Miriam’s heart been perfect towards God, neither her sin nor her punishment would have taken place. Pride and presumption cannot exist with true piety; and we are therefore justified in supposing that the awful infliction was not only a chastisement for present sin, but to awaken her to all the neglectfulness and presumption dividing her from the Lord in years long past. She was now not only to feel His stupendous power, but the true forgiving meekness and piety of the brother she had scorned and spoken against only ‘because of his Ethiopian wife.’
Stunned and appalled with the suddenness of the infliction, and dumb perhaps from awakening shame, Miriam herself stood silent before Moses; and Aaron therefore appealed for her.
‘Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed as in the moment of his birth.’ And Moses, without pause, without one word of reproof, or just indignation at being thus appealed to by the very persons who had sought to injure him, lifted up his voice in earnest prayer unto the Lord, saying, ‘Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.’ And God heard the prayer, and in His infinite goodness so answered it, as to temper justice with mercy, promising to withdraw His hand after seven days, during which time, in obedience to the already instituted laws for lepers, she was to be shut out from the camp. ‘And the people journeyed not till she was healed.’
As there is no farther mention of Miriam, except her death, in Numbers 20, we may infer that her chastisement had its effect, and that her haughty and seditious spirit was sufficiently subdued. We learn, from her brief history, much to guide us as women in general, and much to support our position as women of Israel. In the former, we see in what light presumption is regarded by the Lord – that, would we retain His favour, we must be content with our own position, and in no way interfere, or seek to depreciate those whom, even in our own families, it may have pleased Him to set above us. That even from so small a beginning as jealousy of a brother’s wife, simply because she was the daughter of a stranger, sin gained such powerful ascendency as to demand the most awful punishment for its subjection.
We learn, that according to the nature of our transgression, so will be its chastisement.
Miriam sought to raise herself not only above her brother’s wife, but to an equality with that brother himself; and, by the infliction of a loathsome disease, she sunk at once below the lowest of her people. No one dared approach her; she was cut off even from employment, from every former object of interest, banished from the camp; and she would have thus remained till her death, had not Moses interfered to beseech and obtain forgiveness.
The direct interposition of the Lord in punishing sin, and rewarding virtue, is no longer visible; but few who study His Word, their own hearts, and the face of the world, both past and present, will not acknowledge that He is still the same, retributing and rewarding as when His ways were made manifest to all.
By the example of Scripture characters, He reveals to us now that which is still acceptable or unacceptable to Him. Presumption, jealousy, the scorn of individual blessings, in the coveting [of] others, may no longer be punished by leprosy, but ‘the Lord’s arm is not shortened,’ and He may afflict us in a variety of ways, and through the very feelings which we so sinfully encourage. Let us beware, then, of detraction, of jealousy, of presumption; for our Father in heaven abhors these things. Let us look only for the blessings granted us individually, in our inward and outward lot, and comparing them with the sorrowing and afflicted, bless God for what He has given us; not insult Him, by looking with an eye of envy only on those to whom His wisdom has given more. There is not a thought, not a feeling, unknown to Him; and oh, let us so guard our hearts, that we may be aware of the first whispering of sin, and banish it, even if it be in seeming but a thought.
As women of Israel, the history of Miriam is fraught with particular interest [to us], from its so undeniably proving that woman must be quite as responsible a being as man before the Lord, or He certainly would not have deigned to appear Himself as her judge.
Were woman unable of herself to eschew [give up] sin, Miriam’s punishment would have been undoubtedly unjust. Nay, were she not responsible for feelings, as well as acts, God would not thus have stretched forth His avenging hand. Her feelings had only been formed into words, not yet into actions; still the Lord punished. And would He have done so, did He not wish to make manifest, in the sight of the whole people, that both sexes were alike before Him? Were woman in a degraded position, Miriam, in the first place, would not have had sufficient power for her seditious words to be of any consequence; and, in the next, it would have been incumbent on man to chastise – there needed no interference of the Lord.
We see, therefore, the very sinfulness of Jewish women, as recorded in the Bible, is undeniable evidence of their equality, alike in their power to subdue sin, and in its responsibility before God.
That the Eternal graciously pardoned at the Word of Moses, is no proof that Miriam needed the supplication of man to bring her cause before the Lord, but simply that forgiveness and intercession from the injured for the injurer are peculiarly acceptable to Him, and will ever bring reply. Miriam had equal power to pray and be heard, as Rebekah, Hannah, and other female characters of Scripture; but her punishment was no doubt to be increased by the painful feelings which, if she were not quite hardened, must have been excited by the appeal of Moses in her favour, and in receiving the remission of her sentence through him.
It at once proclaimed his power with the Lord, which she had sought to depreciate, and his still continued affection for herself. That the whole camp of Israel should halt in its march seven days for her alone – that she should suffer less than were she shut out from her fellows in the act of travelling, argues pretty strongly, that her being a woman in no degree lessened her importance, or rendered the men of Israel less careful for her comfort. They could not have done more, had the chastised been Aaron in her stead.
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