The Waters of Life and Death

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“The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” Numbers 20:1

Many feminist commentators have noted that after the incidence where Miriam is struck with leprosy for unclear reasons, she never speaks again and in fact she disappears from the narrative until the mention of her death. It appears that there is a vendetta against her for later we are warned, “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way as you came forth out of Egypt.” (Deut. 24:9) On the other hand, “[h]owever much the detractors of Miriam have tried, they do not control the story… Beyond the Exodus and wilderness accounts, fragments of a pro-Miriamic tradition surface still later in the Hebrew Scriptures” (Trible, p. 181). In this article I will explore the evidence for this pro-Miriamic tradition, some of which is embedded in the same narrative that condemns her.

Her Name & Bitter Waters

If you have studied Miriam even briefly, undoubtedly you have been told that her name means “bitterness.” This etymology is unlikely because “the particular form of Miriam’s name does not represent any known form of this root in the Hebrew” (Burns, p.9). It is more probable that her name is a form of the Egyptian word for “the beloved,” a common women’s name, based on the extant records. Though her name may not mean “bitterness” it is possible that those who compiled the various stories of the exodus played with the similarity of Miriam’s name to the Hebrew word for bitterness “marah.” For more information about Miriam’s name, see here.

Directly after Miriam sang the Song of the Sea, the Israelites traveled three days without water until they arrived at a place called “Marah” named for the bitterness of the waters (Exodus 15). The people cried out to Moses and God provided them with fresh water. In the Rabbinic tradition a well springs up in the desert in recognition of Miriam’s song and thereafter the spring follows the people “for her capacity to redeem undrinkable water” (Zornberg, p. 232). Even after her death the well lives on in the Sea of Galilee where healing waters can still be found (Uterman, p.136).

I mention this “folk” derivation of her name because water is a particularly important motif throughout Miriam’s life, even intertwined with her death. “The themes of bitterness (marah) and water (amayim) or sea (yam) intermingle in Miriam’s name and in her story” (Schwartz, p.137). Her connection with water begins at the river’s bank where she protects her brother from a bitter death in the Nile and continues with her song at the edge of the sea, and finally directly after her death the wells dried up (Num. 20:1-2).

“While there was not necessarily a cause and effect relationship between the two events, the proximity of the two verses [Num. 20:1-2] raises the possibility that, as Miriam was associated with water during her lifetime, after her death water was lacking. Just as her life and actions were connected with life-giving water, her death was associated with the lack of this vital essential. This link indicates the high regard and deep esteem the Pentateuch held for her” (Kramer, 106).

It is as if even nature mourns her death (Trible, p.180).

It should also be noted that just before Miriam’s obituary there is a lengthy section of ritual prescriptions (Num. 19.1-22) including instructions for preparing a special water for impurity. This bitter water is composed of cedarwood, hyssop, scarlet and the ashes of a red cow. “Though the text fails to specify the meaning of the three ingredients, we know from Leviticus (14.4) that they are used in the cleansing of a leper–truly a reminder of Miriam’s punishment” (Trible, p.178). The juxtaposition of the recipe for the odd mixture along with the announcement of Miriam’s death is seen by Trible as an attempt to “taboo her to death,” a final attempt to disgrace her.

Miriam & Kadesh-Barnea

Despite her detractors who emphasize Miriam’s so-called punishment, the people show their steadfast devotion to Miriam by refusing to march until she is brought back into the camp again. “And their allegiance survives unto her death. Three references in Num. 20.1–‘the people of Israel’, ‘the whole community’ and ‘the people’–emphasize their presence when she dies and is buried in Kadesh[-Barnea]” (Trible, p.180). Kadesh-Barnea was an oasis with three major springs which flowed all year and were adjacent to extensive pastures for livestock. It is likely that the Israelites encamped at Kadesh-Barnea for the majority of the wilderness sojourn because of the water (Deut. 1:19-20).

By being buried at this abundant group of springs, Miriam is once again associated with water. Kadesh, which means “holy,” is a name used for places that were ancient sanctuaries in the land of Canaan. Von Rad writes that “Kadesh[-Barnea] was… a well-known sanctuary where divine justice was administered and cases in dispute decided.” (Old Testament Theology 1. 12) Kadesh-Barnea’s older name was En-Mishpat, the Spring of Judgment or of the Oracle (Genesis 14:7). The notice of Miriam’s burial associates her clearly with this significant sanctuary of the desert period (Nowell, p.54). Simpson and Burns suggest that Miriam was an official, perhaps even a priestess of the pre-Yahwistic cult at Kadesh-Barnea. Their analysis leads them to posit that Miriam and Aaron’s confrontation with Moses at Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 12) may have been an antagonism between the ancient cult at the oasis as represented by Miriam and the religious authority of the exodus group represented by Moses. “Numbers 12, then, might well reflect an ancient memory of Miriam’s role in voicing divine decisions in the cult of Kadesh” (Burns, p.127). Given the firm link between Miriam and Kadesh-Barnea along with several texts that link this place with a cultic administration of divine justice, it seems likely that Miriam functioned as a cult official and mediator of God’s word at this sacred site.

According to Numbers 20, it was at Kadesh-Barnea that the people murmured for lack of water (at least one of the times). Moses brought forth water by whacking a rock and for whatever reason he was banished from entering the Promised Land because of the way in which he performed the miracle. This apparently gave rise to another name for the place, Meribathkadesh, “waters of strife” (bitter waters again?). Did Moses overstep his bounds within Miriam’s  sacerdotal domaine?

Miriam the Prophet

Despite the work of a priestly redactor’s attempt to repudiate Miriam, she continues to be remembered as a great leader and prophet. Interestingly, Miriam is the only female prophet in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Torah) and mentioned as a prophet before Moses was. In the prophetic writings, Micah legitimizes Miriam as the equal of Moses and Aaron by quoting God, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Mic. 6:4).

“Miriam officiates at a celebration of the foundational event of Hebrew religion… the biblical writers use kinship terminology to express Miriam’s parallel status in religious leadership… Miriam (along with Moses and Aaron) was divinely commissioned as a leader in the wilderness” (Burns, p.121).

The prophets of Israel and Judea engaged in a broad range of activities including intercessory prayer, dancing, drumming, singing, giving and interpreting laws, delivering oracles, resolving disputes, working wonders, mustering troops, designing battle plans, scribal activities and experiencing visions (Gafney, p. 6). Miriam demonstrated her prophetic skills through singing, dancing and drumming. Her oracles were presented through music as exemplified by the Song of the Sea. As a side note, I want to mention that the Song is one of the oldest sections of the Bible and most scholars agree that it should be prescribed to Miriam not Moses (see here).

The Punishment of Miriam, Aaron and Moses

The deaths of the Miriam, Aaron and Moses coincide with the last three stops in the wilderness before the Children of Israel enter the Promised Land. As a punishment for the Israelite’s general bad behavior God made it clear that the generation that left Egypt would not cross the boundary into the land. Therefore the narrative must also find fault with the three leaders of the exodus to justify their deaths. Moses and Aaron are found guilty in the story of the waters of Meribah (Num. 20.2-13). Since Miriam is no longer alive at the time of the Meribah incident, the narrative must find a reason for Miriam’s guilt as well. Obviously Miriam’s leprosy story (Num. 12) fits the bill. If we focus just on this one episode, it appears that Miriam was singled out unfairly by God for punishment. In other words, why didn’t Aaron get leprosy too when he was equally involved in the conflict with Moses? But stepping back and looking at the whole wilderness experience we find that all three leaders were found guilty, just not as a result of the same incident (Fischer, pp. 171-2).


The last time that Miriam is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is 1 Chon. 5:29.

“This indicates that Miriam remained an active figure in Israel’s tradition until the latest periods of Hebrew canonical composition. The… texts which mention Miriam, then, span the entire period of canonical composition. From earliest times until the latest biblical writers included her as a figure from their ancient past…” (Burns, p.129).

Even after the canon was closed, her legacy continued. The early Jewish historian Josephus even omits Miriam’s leprosy and then describes in detail Miriam’s death which is honored by the people with the same thirty-day period of mourning as observed at the death of Aaron and Moses (Ant IV iv 6). According to the ancient rabbis, Miriam’s special merit earned her the privilege of being one of only six people, and the only woman, to die by the kiss of God, without being taken by the Angel of Death (Baba Batra 17a). Finally, I want to mention her legacy in the great number of women who bear her name in the New Testament (aka, Mary), Aramaic inscriptions, and the literature of the Qumran. Even today she remains alive through the enormous number of women and girls throughout the world who bear a form of her name with honor.

For Further Reading

Fischer, Irmtraud – “The Authority of Miriam: A Feminist Rereading of Numbers 12 Prompted by Jewish Interpretation” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, 2nd series, Athalya Brenner, ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001)

Gafney, Wilda C. – Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel (Fortress Press, 2008)

Schwartz, Rebecca, ed. – All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus (Mountain View, CA: Rikudei Miriam Press, 2001)

Simpson, C.A. – The Early Traditions of Israel: A Critical Analysis of the Pre-Deuteronomic Narrative of the Hexateuch (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1948)

Trible, Phyllis – “Bringing Miriam Out of the Shadows” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, (Series 1), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 6. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994)

Uterman, Alan – Dictionary of Jewish Legend and Lore (Thames & Hudson, 1997)

Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb – The Particulars of Rapture (Image, 2002)


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