Miriam was the firstborn child of Amram and Jochobed, born in Egypt about 90 years before the Exodus. She was the older sister to Aaron and Moses. As a young girl she watched over the basket with Moses in it, assuring that an Egyptian princess would retrieve him, fulfilling the plan by which her mother saved him.
She became a leader among the women of Israel during the exodus. She was a prophetess and accomplished worship leader in the days following the crossing of the Red Sea. However, she proved to be arrogant and sought to usurp the authority of her brother Moses. For this, she suffered rebuke from the LORD which included temporary leprosy and solitary confinement.
She died at the beginning of the fortieth year of the exodus, at Kadesh on the edge of the desert of Zin. She was around 130 years old.
The name Miriam means "rebellion" in the sense of the primitive root, which means "to be contentious." In their centuries in Egypt, the Israelites had grown to be a threat to their hosts, leading to their enslavement. The resistance movement among the slaves was obviously covert, led by members of the tribe of Levi as Jacob, the patriarch, had predicted in his pronouncements shortly before his death. It is not surprising that a leader among the Levites would name his firstborn "Rebel."
Miriam was the daughter of Amram, and the great granddaughter of Levi. She was born to Jochabed, the daughter of Levi in his old age. Her mother had thus probably known a time of peace before the rise of a new pharaoh that knew nothing of Joseph. Having married her nephew, the patriarch's daughter was likely in her early forties before bearing any children, just about the time the new pharaoh began subjugating he people. Soon after Miriam's brother Aaron was born, the attempted genocide of her people began.
When she was around 10 years old, her baby brother was born and was hidden from the authorities for three months. When he couldn't be hidden any longer, the child was put in a tiny "coffin" and laid gently in the Nile River. It is quite possibly her responsibility to do this as well as watching over the waterproofed basket. Technically, the baby had been "thrown into the river" (a probable method of killing him).
It had been a plan to play upon the emotions of the childless princess who was known to bathe nearby. When Miriam saw the servants of the princess draw her brother out of the water, she carefully approached and offered to get a nurse (a woman who could breast-feed the baby). In doing this, she saved Moses for the crucial toddler years needed to bond with his real mother before being adopted out to the princess.
It is not known what this arrangement did for the family, but the fact that her brother Aaron could freely leave Egypt to go see Moses in Midian probably indicates their lot was a bit better than many of their neighbors. At any rate, most of Miriam's life was spent among the slave population within Egypt. No husband is mentioned for her in her long life, but she is called a prophetess, leaving it possible that she had a calling from God that kept her single. If this was the case, as the firstborn child of her father she may have been "covered by the blood" at the first "Passover."
When she was about fifty years old, her brother Moses, then a favored son in the court of Pharaoh, had committed murder and became a fugitive. Even as a prince, it was hard to hide from justice when hostile witnesses wanted it. Having been seen by Hebrew slaves as part of the oppression, Moses had known he had to run. It was forty long years before Miriam would see her brother again. At the age of about 90 years old, she had probably given up hope when Aaron, then 83, came back to the family with news that Moses was coming back.
Life in the Exodus
After surviving through nine miraculous plagues which God sent to her captives, Miriam faced the task of assisting her aged father prepare the yearling lamb for a sacrifice that was part of instructions on how to survive the curse upon the firstborn children. Perhaps she prepared the hysop brushes which Armam would use to paint the doorposts with the lamb's blood. One can imagine her hands preparing the bread as she directed the younger members of the household to find all the leaven so that the house would be acceptable to Amram's inspection.
At her advanced age, Miriam seemed quite active. As a prophetess, she sought to be close to her God. She had seen the evidence and knew that God could protect her and her family. As her brothers led the way, she served as a comforting mother to countless adults who joined in the caravan that have finally been given safe passage. Along with the other women, she took the gifts of her Egyptian neighbors who were more than ready to get rid of her. Some among her Egyptian acquaintances joined the caravan in a "mixed multitude." Some of these were not particularly friendly in the days to come.
After she was safely on the other side of the Red Sea, Miriam composed a epic poem and set it to song, leading the women in a rhythmic rehearsing of God's working to save and protect them. As the worship leader, she was well respected among the women. However, when she and Aaron saw that their brother Aaron was God's chosen spokesman to the people, they were jealous. She led her brother astray, questioning whether she and Aaron have just as much a connection with God as did Moses. After a test, the LORD struck Miriam with leprosy all over her body. This moved Aaron to ask Moses to intercede on their part to preserve them from righteous anger. The prayer worked, and after a period of isolation, Miriam was restored to good health.
Miriam died shortly before the final campaign of the wilderness wanderings. Like her ancestor Sarah, her most productive years had been as an elderly person. Though we don't know her exact age, she was older than both Aaron and Moses, who outlived her by perhaps months.
The people had circled back to Kadesh, a safe area far enough away from hostile forces to live while making the final plans to enter Canaan. It was in this ancient city that she was buried.
Had it not been for Miriam, Moses would not have been exposed to the doctrine of his forefathers. It was because of the plan their mother had worked out that she was able to keep Moses with the family for those formative years before he became part of the royal family. Apart from her brief doubt concerning God's leading of her brother, she was a good example to the people of Israel.
Over fourteen hundred years later her name had become one of the most popular names to give to a young girl in what had once again become a people under bondage. Though Roman Judea and Galilee were free states under an overlord, the days were ripe for rebellion. The mother of Jesus was among several in the first century to carry a form of the name Miriam, usually transliterated Mary.