Miriam is Not Alone

Feminism is not all the same, but one feature of all theological feminism is a heightened alert to how women are treated. Take, for example, Miriam, Moses’ sister. My colleague, Claude Mariottini in  Rereading the Biblical Text: Searching for Meaning and Understanding, wonders if translators of the Old Testament have been consistently fair to Miriam.

To begin with, though her name appears 15x in the OT, twice her name becomes “she” (Numbers 12:10, 15). Not a big issue.

In Exodus 2:4 she’s not named, she’s but “his sister” (of Moses). More importantly, she is the one who saves Moses so “Miriam saves her brother before he can save a single Hebrew” (33).

The big event about Miriam is that she’s a prophet because she interprets the exodus in the famous song of Miriam about the horse and rider. Claude Mariottini observes that the writer of Exodus just might be eclipsing Miriam a touch when in Exodus 15:1 it says that Moses sang that song, while in v. 21 it was Miriam who sang this. Is this a case of Miriam singing Moses’ song or the Moses’ singing Miriam’s song? It appears to be the second according to our author.

Only Miriam gets punished in Numbers 12 when Aaron was also involved (12:2, 12).

Here’s the issue for Dr. Mariottini — it comes from Micah 6:4.

NIV 2011: “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.” Observe the comma and the word “also.” Moses and also Aaron and Miriam.

ASV: “and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Here the three are virtual equals.

WEB: “I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Equals again.

NRSV: “and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”

In three representative translations, which can be taken as more “literal” or “word for word” translations, we have three equal names for Israel’s three great leaders: two men and one woman. But the grammar is three names … and, and. The addition of the comma and the also separates Aaron and Miriam from the status of Moses. Moses gets the attention; Miriam (and Aaron) are assigned to another status. Claude: she is “downgraded partly in order to promote Moses as the prominent leader of Israel” (33).

What is perhaps more notable here is that nowhere in the OT elsewhere do the three get the kind of status we find in Micah, so it can be said that Micah elevated Miriam to the status of Moses and Aaron while the NIV did not translate it that way.

She’s also eliminated by the psalmist in Psalm 77:20.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://prodigalthought.net/ Scott Lencke

    One thing worth noting is how the NIV2011 got all the slack from some theologians/pastors in regards to its more gender-neutral pronouns, etc. And a lot of this was brought up by many complementarians. So, I don’t know the reasons behind the NIV2011 translation of Micah 6:4 with the added word “also”. But maybe it’s not so counter-productive to egalitarianism/mutuality as it might seem.

  • LexCro

    A few things in response to this material:

    Ex. 2:4 – Of what consequence is it that Miriam is mentioned but not named here? This happens in other instances in Scripture–to men, no less! For instance, in the episode with Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5, Elisha is named and then subsequently referred to as “the man of God” (v. 15)? So what?

    Ex. 15 – Is it so inconceivable that both Moses and Miriam sang the song? Why the artificially-imposed either/or? We have no indication that the author of Exodus was trying to play copyright games with the song (and thereby subordinating Miriam’s prophetic abilities).

    Num. 12 – The question of God singling out Miriam when she and Aaron gave Moses grief over his African wife is legit. It could be that Miriam was the prime instigator. I’ve seen it suggested that Miriam was looking to build a prophetic caliphate and that she (along with Aaron) thought that the death of Zipporah would make such a plan workable. Perhaps this plan included Miriam marrying Moses to close ranks. However, when Moses married the Cushite, this threw a monkey-wrench into the scheme. It could be that God penalized Miriam more severely because she came up with the plan. Admittedly, this is speculation (though warranted, I think). But we simply don’t have enough to suppose that God is playing favorites here.

    Micah 6:4 – I’m grateful to Dr. Marriotini for pointing this one out because I’ve simply forgotten about it! I simply don’t think that the NIV 2011 rendering speaks to inequality anymore than the WEB/ASV/NRSV translations are about equality. We’re just better off saying that the latter translations are more true the original. The NIV’s “and also” is unfortunate (though by no means egregious), but I don’t think it helps to read so much into it.

    Dr. Marriotini comments: “…[Miriam] is “downgraded partly in order to promote Moses as the prominent leader of Israel”. Actually, it is God who makes this distinction between Moses and Aaron and Miriam (in tandem) in Number 12:4-9. Also, in Ps. 77:20, it makes sense for the psalmist to think Moses and Aaron as a kind of dynamic duo in light of the fact that God actually deputized Aaron to be Moses’ mouthpiece in Ex. 4:14-17. And there are numerous instances in the Exodus and Numbers in which Moses and Aaron continue to operate as a duo, with Moses clearly understood as the numero uno prophet and priest.

    Clearly, I’m responding to this snippet of Dr. Marriotini’s overall work. I would actually like to read the entire book. But this bit comes off like nitpicking.

  • scotmcknight

    Clearly, Claude’s points are not each criticisms; some are just observations. As you can see in my post, the focus is on Mic 6:4, and I’d have to say that a choice to but “, also” is a choice to disagree with the other translations where a simple list is provided. To add the comma and also separates her from the status given to Moses. There is, as you observe, reason to give Moses and Aaron their own status, but not in Mic 6:4.

  • http://jamesdowden.wordpress.com/ James Dowden

    Psalm 77.20 parallels another pair that’s arguably even more incomplete back at v15:

    “You with your arm redeemed your people,the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah”

  • Bev Murrill

    I agree with this. I also am stunned by Hebrews 11:32 which mentions Barak as the one whose faith is to be emulated rather than either Deborah or Jael. Reading the Bible in a more than casual way turns up some real anomalies… and yet God loves women as well as men, so it can’t be Him who has the problem in retelling the stories.


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