Women, too, were redeemed in Egypt

It is Moses who sings a long and festive song with the children of Israel; the reader is never told the content of the song sung by Miriam and the women she sweeps up in her enthusiasm.

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March 31, 2015 21:40
3 minute read.
Moses painting

Moses receives God’s Holy Commandments, in a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from ‘Die Bibel in Bildern,’ 1860.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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‘Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver he has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).

In this scene, Miriam seems to be returning to the traditional feminine role, which befits the general outlook of the Bible on male-female relationships. She becomes a secondary character who echoes men’s minds.

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It is Moses who sings a long and festive song with the children of Israel; the reader is never told the content of the song sung by Miriam and the women she sweeps up in her enthusiasm. But in spite of the brevity of the text, Miriam’s feminine and inclusive approach is readily apparent, and she is being referred to as a “prophetess.”

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Moses sings his song in first person, “I will sing to the Lord,” whereas Miriam uses the plural imperative, “Sing to the Lord” – a grammatic expression of a feminine worldview that relates to the collective and not to the individual out of a sense of cooperationand egalitarianism.

The presentation of Miriam as a prophetess is rather anticipated, since according to the Bible, the spirit of prophecy can rest upon women as well as upon men. She raises her voice in public, without hesitation.

As a prophetess authorized to publicly express the experience of crossing the Sea of Reeds, there is no difference in status between her and Moses.

And what was the role of those women who sang and after men gained military victories in ancient world? Their role, first and foremost, was to welcome those warriors returning from battle – a war in which they did not take part – and to glorify the heroes who had distinguished themselves.



In the ancient world, so it seems, woman’s voice was not considered a disgrace, and she participated often in public life, as opposed to later historical developments that carried over into modern days. However Miriam the prophetess, who, like Moses, composed her own Song of the Sea with a chorus of dancing and drumming women, was a poet in her own right, and not just someone who echoed the words of her male predecessors.

Miriam, who was first introduced as Moses’ sister with no mention of her own name, demonstrates tremendous courage and resourcefulness when she watches over the infant Moses floating in the basket on the Nile. She turns to Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes mercy on the baby, and immediately proposes an Israelite wet nurse for him. Miriam thus emerges as an independent and enterprising figure, who displays responsibility and courage, a woman who confronts reality and challenges it headon.

Unlike the Israelite men, who accept and submit to Pharaoh’s orders, Miriam is not prepared to submit to God’s decree, and she prophesies a different fate. Perhaps she is called Miriam from the Hebrew word “meri”; revolution and uprising are the derivatives of the same Hebrew root.

In the story of how Moses was saved from death, women banded together: the midwives Shifra and Puah, Moses’ mother and sister, and even Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved him even though she knew of her father’s commands, and who gave him his name, Moses. They are tremendously brave, and the perspective of the weak and helpless awakens their moral sentiment and inspires their humane response.

Need is the father of invention, and in this case, perhaps its mother, or its sister.

With men on the highest rungs of the social ladder and women below, only when this system is undermined can women spring into action.

It was true in those days and it is truer in that time: the exclusive right of men to participate in public discourse is boldly undermined.

The writer is a professor and is the provost of the Yezreel Valley College.

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