"Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" (Num 12.8).
Miriam's is an honoured name in the Bible. She is mentioned with her two brothers, when the prophet Micah reminded the people how the Lord had brought them out of Egypt, and they had led them (Mic 6.4).
Miriam is introduced to us as the sister of Moses, left to watch over him in his little ark of bulrushes. Pharaoh's daughter found him and recognised him as "one of the Hebrews' children" (Ex 2.6), but her natural instinct led her to adopt Moses as her own son, even though her father had decreed that "Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river" (Ex 1.22). Alert and quick-witted, Miriam suggested she call one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child, and, this being agreed, she brought Moses' own mother to the princess. Not only was Moses' life spared, but also the Lord ensured that he would be brought up to know his people and their God. Nothing thwarts God's purposes, not even the decrees of Pharaoh, and His ways are beyond human understanding. We owe Miriam a dept of simple gratitude for what she did that day.
The next time we read of Miriam, the Israelites had escaped from Egypt and had seen the pursuing Egyptians overthrown into the Red Sea. They sang a glorious song to the Lord and Miriam took the lead as an enthusiastic and earnest encourager of praise among the women. They sang and danced their joy and praise to the accompaniment of their timbrels, a kind of early form of the modern tambourine, which frequently features in times of celebration. Miriam kept urging the women to continue their joyful song. She was obviously a woman of natural ability, a born leader. She was also a prophetess, and favoured with divine communications. In accordance with how things were done, she would not have prayed and prophesied publicly, but would have spoken the mind of God to those individuals who came to her, just as did Deborah (Judg 4.4), Huldah (2 Kings 22.14), and the four daughters of Philip the evangelist (Acts 21.9).
We could almost wish that there had never been a requirement for the events of Numbers 12 to be written, for they are a blemish on the record of Miriam's life. But we cannot undo what has been done, and we know that what happened at Hazeroth has lessons for us today. Miriam wanted a public position in the leadership of the people of God, and, using the occasion of Moses marrying an Ethiopian woman, she encouraged her weak brother Aaron to join her in confronting Moses. Her motivations and intentions were plain: "Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath He not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it" (v.2). She is the first woman in the Bible to seek to assert herself in this way, and demand equality with men in leadership among God's people.
We hear the same claims being made today, but they are inconsistent with God's revealed mind. From the time of the fall, and Eve's transgression, the woman was made subject to her husband, and this principle extends into New Testament times and is part of the apostles' doctrine (Gen 3.16; 1 Cor 11.3-16; 14.34-37; 1 Tim 2.9-15; 1 Pet 3.1-6).
So far as the gospel is concerned, there are no distinctions to be made of race, social situation, or gender, but wives and husbands, children and parents, and servants and masters are all exhorted separately regarding their position in the church (Gal 3.28,29; Eph 5.22-6.9; Col 3.18-4.1).
Miriam did not understand God's order and spoke out of turn. She may have been motivated by merely human reasoning, and probably thought that as women are equally endowed with ability and insight there was no reason she should not be as Moses. She may have felt frustrated and even ill-used after all she had done. She had shown that she had a lively mind, rational ability, and was able to encourage others. The trouble was that she did not understand Moses' special relationship with the Lord. She may even have misunderstood Moses' meekness as opposed to her own more forceful personality.
That it was Miriam who was taking the initiative in criticising Moses is plain. The word "spake" (Num 12.1) is in the feminine gender, and reads: "And Miriam speaketh - Aaron also - against Moses" (YLT). We must not forget that God hears what we say, and He was now greatly displeased. The Lord summoned Moses, Aaron and Miriam to appear before Him to address them publicly, lest there should be any doubt as to the seriousness of Miriam's fault. The Lord replied to Miriam's criticism by announcing His own confirmation of Moses special status "in all his (God's) house, as a servant" (Heb 3.5).
The Lord rebuked Aaron and Miriam. The cloud of His visible presence departed from over the tabernacle, and, due to her presumption, Miriam was stricken with leprosy in a most severe form as a punishment. King Uzziah was so stricken when he invaded the priest's office, as was Gehazi for taking for himself by deliberate deception that which the prophet Elisha had disdained (2 Chr 26.16-21; 2 Kings 5.20-27).
Forty years later Moses had to remind the people of God not to forget "what the Lord thy God did unto Miriam": a lesson which needed to be learned and remembered (Deut 24.9). At Aaron's pleading and Moses' intercession, Miriam was healed but was kept outside the camp for seven days as a mark of divine displeasure. It was the minimum sentence the Lord could allow, and He reminds Miriam (who never married) of her subjective status: "If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again".
Her punishment was to be seen to be severe, but she was restored. So it is with us when we fail: the opportunity for us to return in repentance is there, and the Lord will not continue to hold our failings against us. "He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever" (Ps 103.9; see also 1 Cor 5.1-12; 2 Cor 2.5-8).
As with all Bible characters, Miriam is an example to us of human strength and weakness, success and failure. Let us not forget all the good things about her. She died in Kadesh-barnea; her grave is in the wilderness and she never entered the Promised Land, but her cherished place in Bible history is secure. Many saints have struggled, but perhaps never were able to attain what they had hoped for in their life. Surely we cannot doubt that Miriam would have tried hard to make up for her error in the years that remained to her when the people of God resumed their journeyings (Num 20.1-6). Let us ever walk humbly before the Lord, "for we often stumble and fall, all of us" (James 3.2, Weymouth).