The Leadership of Miriam

Anselm Feuerbach (1829–1880)

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 who 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 times in the NIV. On two occasions, in Numbers 12:10 and Numbers 12:15, the NIV uses the pronoun “she” instead of using 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 called הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה (hannebîʼah) “the prophetess.” A prophet, nābîʼ (נָבִיא) 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:

“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’” (Exodus 15:20-21).

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). Her question, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” indicates that Moses was neglecting Miriam and Aaron as leaders in the community. 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).

This translation does not reflect the biblical text. All the other translations reflect the Hebrew text as does the ESV: “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 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 is not acceptable.


Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Micah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Aaron, Book of Micah, Micah, Miriam, Moses, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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