Feminist hermeneutic has made an impact on biblical scholarship because it has demonstrated to interpreters that the biblical text reflects the patriarchal views of the society which gave birth to the text.In addition, feminist interpreters have shown that some of these same patriarchal values and concerns have affected biblical translations.
Feminist writers like to emphasize that the stories in the Bible were written by men for men.In many stories about women in the Old Testament, women remain nameless, as in the case of Jephthah’s daughter and the concubine that was raped and then dismembered or they remain voiceless, their voices only heard through the voice of the male redactor.
The portrayal of Miriam in the biblical text may demonstrate how the biblical writers lessened her influence as one of the leaders of the Israelite community at the time Israel journeyed through the wilderness.
The purpose of this study is to look at Miriam and how she is portrayed in the biblical text and then focus on Micah 6:4 and how the NIV portrays Miriam in its translation of that text.
Miriam appears in five books of the Old Testament: Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 Chronicles, and Micah.Her name appears 15 times in these books, but only 13 in the NIV.On two occasions, in Numbers 12:10 and Numbers 12:15, the NIV uses the pronoun “she” instead ofusing Miriam’s name, as do most translations.
In Miriam’s first appearance in the biblical text, she is the nameless sister of Moses who watches him on the waters of the Nile.She is called only “his sister” (Exodus 2:4).In this text the reader can see the initiatives taken by Miriam: Miriam speaks to Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to find someone to take care of the child.Because of her, Moses lived his formative years with his own mother.Because of Miriam, Moses lives and does not die.Miriam saves her brother before he can save a single Hebrew.
In Exodus 15:20, Miriam is calledהנביאה “the prophetess.”A prophet (נביא) is a person called by God.Miriam was called by God to lead the people together with Moses and Aaron.Miriam was assigned a prophetical role because she led the community in celebrating God’s victory over the Egyptian army:
“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21).
And yet, the song of Miriam has been attributed to Moses:
“Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, ‘I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea’”(Exodus 15:1).
Some scholars have proposed that Miriam’s song was a response to Moses’ song.However, a critical review of Moses’ song in Exodus 15 reveals that the song was written many years after the events.Miriam’s song may be an old composition celebrating Israel’s crossing on the sea.Moses received the credit for the song, but it was Miriam who led Israel in celebrating God’s victory.
In Numbers 12:1-15 there is a controversy over the issue of leadership.In Numbers 12:2, Aaron and Miriam asked Moses: “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:12).However, Numbers 12:1 attributes the controversy to questions about Moses’ Cushite wife.
The text is not clear on the nature of the conflict, but it seems that Miriam was raising an issue that reflected a concern in the community.Although both Aaron and Miriam are involved in this controversy, only Miriam was punished as a result of this challenge to Moses’ leadership.The public nature of her punishment may indicate that the issue was of interest to the whole community.
That Miriam was a leader in Israel is clearly seen in Micah 6:4: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4 ESV).
In this text Miriam is named as one of the leaders of Israel, together with Moses and Aaron, whom God sent to lead the people out of Egypt.The prophet Micah lists Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as the three leaders of Israel.
Thus, Micah’s statement reflects an ancient tradition that affirms that Miriam had a very significant leadership role in early Israelite history, a role that in later writing was downgraded partly in order to promote Moses as the prominent leader of Israel. Although the biblical text refers to Moses and Aaron as the leaders of the community, the text in Micah 6:4 reveals that Miriam was their equal.
Anderson and Freeman acknowledge the importance of Micah’s statement.They wrote: “What makes Micah’s simple statement so remarkable, and so puzzling, is the fact that nowhere in the tradition are the three siblings presented in a shared leadership role” (p. 519).
However, the NIV’s translation of Micah 6:4 looks like an attempt to diminish Miriam as a leader in Israel.The NIV translates:“I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4 NIV).The same translation is found in the TNIV.
This translation does not reflect the biblical text.All the other translations reflect the Hebrew text: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4 ESV).
The translation of the NIV takes away the unique leadership role Miriam had in the community.By separating Aaron and Miriam from Moses, the NIV elevates Moses’ position (“I sent Moses to lead you”) and diminishes Miriam almost to an afterthought (“also. . .Miriam”).
The leadership role of Miriam is also diminished in the biblical text.In Psalm 77:20 the name of Miriam is omitted from the list of leaders in Israel: “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”Where is Miriam?Her position as a leader of Israel was marginalized by the Psalmist.The memory of what Miriam did for the community was forgotten, consigned to an ideology that minimized the contribution of women to their society.
Reading and interpreting the biblical text is not easy.At times, a translator, in order to make sense of a text, applies methods of interpretation that may reflect cultural and theological biases.
The NIV diminishes Miriam by omitting her name twice.Furthermore, the addition of the word “also” by the translators of the NIV and TNIV gives a slant to the text that serves to undervalue the role of Miriam as a leader in Israel.I do not know whether this addition to the text was intentional.However, the resulting translation has a strong theological overtone, one which may reflect an undercurrent of patriarchy.
In my judgment, the translation of Micah 6:4 in the NIV and the TNIV is not acceptable.
NOTE: For other studies on the prophet Micah, read my post Studies on Micah the Prophet.
Note: For another study of all the women in the Old Testament, read my post All the Women of the Old Testament.
Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Micah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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>Thank you for your post. I believe God can use any woman to be a leader in His work.
>Dear Friend,Thank you for your comment. I also believe that God uses men and women in the work of the kingdom.Claude Mariottini
>Dr. Mariottini, that is a very clear explanation of how insidious patriarchy can be. I do hope that the scholars invoved did not do this deliberately.We are left with all too few referrences to women in leadership positions in the history of our religion. Thankfully that is now changing!
>Sam,Thank you for your comment. Patriarchy has devalued and oppressed women for many centuries. Thank God for the liberating power of Christianity.Claude Mariottini
>A wonderful, wonderful blog entry. You make my day!
>Rubi,Thank you for your words and thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini
>Somebody had to be nurturing the Children of Israel as they trod along the desert often in advanced states of dehydration.
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Thank you for your writing. AS a joint Leader of Israel, would Miriam’s role have been a spiritual one? Would she have had some authority over men as Deborah had? I am trying to study the scriptures relating to women in leadership and some of the (apparent) misinterpretations of certain passages in the NT.
According to Micah 6:4, Miriam was one of the leaders during the Exodus. It is difficult to know whether she had authority over men, but she had a very important role among the women. On my post on Deborah, I emphasize that Deborah had authority over men.
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Many thanks for your response.
You are welcome.
Thank you for this article and the scholarship that went into it.
Thank you for your comment. I am glad you enjoyed the article on Miriam.