The girl hid at a safe distance, her eyes focused on a spot among the reeds. She held still, every muscle tensed, as the great river Nile slid slowly by. Time dragged on, but she kept waiting and watching, trying to ignore the insects that buzzed idly around her. There, where she gazed, a watertight basket was hidden; within it lay her baby brother. To think of him in there, alone and helpless, tore at her heart. But she knew that her parents were right; this was the baby’s only hope in this terrible time.
That young girl was showing remarkable bravery, and she was about to show still more. In her heart a wonderful quality was already taking shape—faith. It would show itself clearly in the following moments, and it would shape the whole course of her life. Years later, in her old age, her faith would guide her during the most thrilling time in the history of her people. The same quality would again help her when she made a serious mistake. Who was she? And what can we learn from her faith?
Miriam the Child of Slavery
The Bible account does not name the child, but there can be little doubt as to her identity. She was Miriam, the oldest offspring of Amram and Jochebed, Hebrew slaves in the land of Egypt. (Numbers 26:59) Her baby brother would later be named Moses. Aaron, the baby’s older brother, was about three at this time. It is not certain how old Miriam was, but it seems reasonable to suggest that she was under ten years of age.
Miriam lived in dark times. The Egyptians saw her people, the Hebrews, as a great threat, so they enslaved and oppressed them. When the slaves kept thriving and growing in number, the fearful Egyptians resorted to an even more vicious tactic. Pharaoh ordered that all male babies of the Hebrews be killed off at birth. Miriam surely knew of the faith shown by the two midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who quietly defied the order.—Exodus 1:8-22.
Miriam saw the faith of her own parents as well. After the birth of this beautiful third child, Amram and Jochebed kept him hidden for the first three months of his life. They did not let a morbid fear of the king’s order push them into getting rid of their child. (Hebrews 11:23) But it is a hard thing to hide a baby, and soon they faced an agonizing choice. Jochebed had to conceal the child and leave him where someone might find him, someone who could protect him and raise him. Imagine the mother’s fervent prayers as she fashioned a basket of reeds, coated it with bitumen and pitch to keep it watertight, and left her beloved child in the Nile River! No doubt she told Miriam to stay and watch to see what would happen.—Exodus 2:1-4.
Miriam the Rescuer
So Miriam waited. In time, she caught sight of movement. A group of women approached. And they were no ordinary Egyptians. It was Pharaoh’s daughter and her female attendants, coming to bathe in the Nile. Perhaps Miriam’s heart sank. Could she even dare to hope that Pharaoh’s own daughter would violate the king’s order and choose to protect this Hebrew baby? Miriam surely prayed intensely in those moments.
It was Pharaoh’s daughter who first caught sight of the basket in the reeds. She sent her slave girl to bring it to her. The account then says of the princess: “When she opened it, she saw the child, and the boy was crying.” She quickly surmised what had happened: Some Hebrew mother was attempting to spare her child’s life. But compassion for that beautiful baby stirred the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter. (Exodus 2:5, 6) Alert Miriam surely read the expression on the woman’s face. The child knew that her moment had come, the time to put her faith in Jehovah into action. Mustering her courage, she approached the royal party.
We cannot know what treatment a young Hebrew slave girl might expect for daring to approach royalty and speak up. Yet, Miriam asked a direct question of the princess: “Shall I go and call a nursing woman from the Hebrews to nurse the child for you?” This was the right question to ask. Pharaoh’s daughter knew that she was in no position to nurse a baby. Perhaps she felt that it would be more discreet if the boy was nursed among his own people; she could bring him into her own home later as her adopted son and then see to his upbringing and education. Miriam’s heart must have leaped when the princess answered her in a single word: “Go!”—Exodus 2:7, 8.
Miriam raced home to her anxious parents. Imagine the words tumbling excitedly from her mouth as she told her mother the news. Jochebed, surely convinced that this was Jehovah’s doing, went with Miriam back to Pharaoh’s daughter. Perhaps Jochebed tried to hide her delight and relief when the princess ordered: “Take this child with you and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.”—Exodus 2:9.
Miriam learned a lot about her God, Jehovah, that day. She learned that he cares about his people and listens to their prayers. And she learned that courage and faith are limited neither to adults nor to men. Jehovah listens to all of his faithful servants. (Psalm 65:2) All of us today—young and old, male and female—need to remember this in these difficult times.
Miriam the Patient Sister
Jochebed nursed and cared for the baby. We may well imagine how attached Miriam became to the brother she had helped to save. Perhaps she helped him learn to speak and was thrilled when he first spoke the name of his God, Jehovah. When the child grew older, the time came to take him to Pharaoh’s daughter. (Exodus 2:10) The separation was surely painful for the entire family. How eager Miriam must have been to see how Moses, as Pharaoh’s daughter named him, would turn out when he became a man! Would he maintain his love for Jehovah as he grew up among Egyptian royalty?
In time, the answer became clear. Miriam’s heart doubtless swelled with pride as she learned that her little brother grew up to be a man who chose to serve his God rather than avail himself of the opportunities offered him by the royal house of Pharaoh! When Moses was 40 years old, he took a stand for his people. He killed an Egyptian for abusing a Hebrew slave. In danger of losing his life, Moses fled Egypt.—Exodus 2:11-15; Acts 7:23-29; Hebrews 11:24-26.
Miriam may have heard no more from her brother for the next four decades while he lived in obscurity in far-off Midian, herding sheep. (Exodus 3:1; Acts 7:29, 30) As Miriam patiently endured into old age, she saw the suffering of her people steadily grow worse.
Miriam the Prophetess
Miriam was likely well into her 80’s when Moses returned, sent by God to deliver His people. Aaron served as Moses’ spokesman, and together Miriam’s two brothers approached Pharaoh to request that he let God’s people go. She surely did her best to support and encourage them after Pharaoh rebuffed them and when they returned again and again while Jehovah sent ten plagues to warn the Egyptians. Finally, with the last plague—the execution of all the firstborn sons of Egypt—the time came for the great Exodus of Israel! Imagine Miriam tirelessly helping her people as they left with Moses taking the lead.—Exodus 4:14-16, 27-31; 7:1–12:51.
Later, when Israel was trapped between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army, Miriam saw her brother Moses stand before the sea and raise his staff. The sea parted! As he led the people across the dry seabed, Miriam surely felt her faith in Jehovah swelling to its strongest. She served a God who could do anything, fulfill any promise!—Exodus 14:1-31.
Afterward, when the people were safely across and the sea came crashing down on Pharaoh and his army, Miriam saw that Jehovah was stronger than the mightiest army in the world. The people were moved to sing a song to Jehovah. In response, Miriam led the women in singing these words: “Sing to Jehovah, for he has become highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea.”—Exodus 15:20, 21; Psalm 136:15.
It was a high point in Miriam’s life, a moment she would never forget. At this point in the narrative, the Bible calls Miriam a prophetess. Miriam is the first woman so designated. Miriam is one of a few select women who served Jehovah in this special way.—Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Isaiah 8:3; Luke 2:36.
The Bible thus reminds us that Jehovah is watching us and is eager to honor our humble efforts, our patience, and our desire to praise him. Young or old, male or female, we may show faith in Jehovah. Such faith delights him; he never forgets it, and he is happy to reward it. (Hebrews 6:10; 11:6) What a good reason to imitate the faith of Miriam!
Miriam the Proud
Privileges and prominence bring blessings as well as dangers. At the time Israel was freed from slavery, Miriam was likely the most prominent woman in the nation. Would she succumb to pride or ambition? (Proverbs 16:18) Sadly, for a time she did.
A few months after the Exodus, Moses welcomed a group that came from afar—it was his father-in-law, Jethro, bringing along Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their two sons. Moses had married her during his 40-year sojourn in Midian. Zipporah had earlier returned to her family in Midian, perhaps for a visit, and now her father was bringing her to the Israelite encampment. (Exodus 18:1-5) Imagine the stir their arrival caused among Moses’ people! Likely, many were eager to see the wife of the man God had chosen to lead them out of Egypt.
Was Miriam pleased as well? Perhaps at first. But it seems that in time she gave in to pride. She might have felt threatened, thinking that Zipporah would replace her as the most prominent woman in the nation. In any case, Miriam and Aaron engaged in negative talk. And such talk, as it often does, soon turned bitter and spiteful. At first their talk focused on Zipporah; they complained that she was not an Israelite but a Cushite.* But the talk escalated into complaining about Moses himself. Miriam and Aaron were saying: “Is it only by Moses that Jehovah has spoken? Has he not also spoken through us?”—Numbers 12:1, 2.
Miriam the Leper
In those words, we see that a potent poison was brewing in Miriam and Aaron. Dissatisfied with the way Jehovah was using Moses, they wanted more authority and influence for themselves. Was it because Moses was overbearing, a proud glory-seeker? He surely had his faults, but ambition and pride were not among them. The inspired record says: “Now the man Moses was by far the meekest of all the men on the face of the earth.” At any rate, Miriam and Aaron were out of line, and they were in danger. As the account says, “Jehovah was listening.”—Numbers 12:2, 3.
Suddenly Jehovah summoned the three siblings to the tent of meeting. There the awesome pillar of cloud, representing the presence of Jehovah, descended and stood by the entrance. Then Jehovah spoke. He rebuked Miriam and Aaron, reminding them of the unique relationship He had with Moses and of the great trust He had chosen to place in that man. “Why, then,” Jehovah asked, “did you not fear to speak against my servant, against Moses?” Miriam and Aaron surely trembled. Jehovah saw the disrespect they had shown Moses as disrespect for Jehovah himself.—Numbers 12:4-8.
Miriam evidently had been the instigator in the matter, leading her younger brother to side with her against their sister-in-law. That would help explain why it was Miriam who was then punished. Jehovah struck her with leprosy. The terrifying disease left her skin “as white as snow.” Aaron immediately humbled himself before Moses, begging him to intercede, saying: “We have acted foolishly in what we have done.” Moses, meek man that he was, cried out to Jehovah: “Oh God, please heal her! Please!” (Numbers 12:9-13) The anguished response of both brothers reveals how much they loved their older sister, despite her flaws.
Jehovah responded with mercy. He did heal repentant Miriam. However, he required that she spend seven days in quarantine outside the camp of Israel. It must have been deeply humiliating for Miriam to obey, leaving the camp in disgrace. But her faith saved her. In her heart, she surely knew that her Father, Jehovah, was just and that he was disciplining her out of love. So she did as she was told. The seven lonely days passed while the encampment waited. Then Miriam showed her faith again—this time by humbly allowing herself to be “brought back in.”—Numbers 12:14, 15.
Jehovah disciplines those he loves. (Hebrews 12:5, 6) He loved Miriam far too much to let her pride go uncorrected. The correction hurt, but it saved her too. Because she accepted the discipline in good faith, she was restored to God’s favor. She lived on until near the very end of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. When she died at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, she was likely nearing 130 years of age.* (Numbers 20:1) Centuries afterward, Jehovah lovingly honored Miriam for her faithful service. Through his prophet Micah, he reminded his people: “From the house of slavery I redeemed you; I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”—Micah 6:4.
We can learn a lot from Miriam’s life. We need to protect the defenseless and speak up boldly for what is right, as she did as a child. (James 1:27) Like her, we need to share God’s pronouncements joyously. (Romans 10:15) Like her, we must learn to avoid the poison of jealousy and bitterness. (Proverbs 14:30) And like her, we need to accept correction from Jehovah with humility. (Hebrews 12:5) As we do those things, we will truly imitate the faith of Miriam.
In Zipporah’s case, the word “Cushite” evidently meant that she was from Arabia, like other Midianites, and not from Ethiopia.
The three siblings died in the order of their birth—first Miriam, then Aaron, and then Moses—evidently within about a year.