Sister of Moses and Aaron. Miriam is presumably the sister who watches over Moses in the bulrushes in the story in Exodus (2.4, 7–8; see Num. 26.59). She is called a prophet in Exodus 15.20, when she leads the women dancing with tambourines after the victory at the Sea of Reeds (cf. Jephthah's daughter in Judg. 11.34). Then in Exodus 15.21 she is said to sing the first verse of the song just attributed to Moses (15.1–18). Since both Moses and Miriam are connected in the text to this “Song of the Sea,” it has been speculated that the song was originally attributed to Miriam (cf. the Song of Hannah in 1 Sam. 2.1–10; the Song of Deborah in Judg. 5:1–30; and the reports of women singing victory songs in 1 Sam. 18:7; 21:11; 29:5; 2 Sam. 1:20). The process by which the name of a dominant figure like Moses could become attached to a piece of poetry and supplant the name of a less common figure like Miriam is more easily understood than the converse.

The other major biblical story about Miriam is her and Aaron's criticism of Moses' leadership in Numbers 12. They complain for two reasons, that Moses has married a “Cushite” woman and that Yahweh has spoken through them as well as through Moses (see Exod. 4.14–16; 15.20; Mic. 6.4). The story in fact serves to affirm Moses' position as leader (vv. 6–9). Yahweh is greatly angered by their complaints and punishes Miriam (but not Aaron, despite v. 11) for speaking against Moses. She is afflicted with a skin disease that turns her skin white. Aaron asks Moses to intercede with Yahweh on her behalf, and when he does she is healed after spending seven days outside the camp (see the reference to this story in Deut. 24.9 and cf. Lev. 13–14). The reference to a father spitting in his daughter's face and the seven‐day period of purification (v. 14) is obscure. If Cush in this story is meant to refer to Ethiopia, as it often does in the Bible, then Miriam's white‐as‐snow skin is an ironic punishment for a complaint that would have included her objection to Moses' taking an African wife. More likely Cush here refers to Midian (see Cushan in Hab. 3.7) and Moses' marriage to the Midianite woman Zipporah (Exod. 2.11–22) is the source of the criticism, although the reference could still also have suggested the dark skin color of Ethiopians in contrast to Miriam's disease.

Miriam died while the Israelites were at Kadesh, and she was buried there (Num. 20.1). She was remembered in Micah 6.4 as one of the leaders of the Exodus along with Moses and Aaron.

Jo Ann Hackett