The Song of Miriam

Exodus 15:19-21

Robert Van Kooten

Each Saturday morning, I meet with some of the men from my congregation for prayer. I often begin the prayer meeting by reading the next morning's sermon text and then sharing with them a preview of the message. As I was preaching through the book of Exodus, I found myself at a transition point in chapter 15. I had preached on the Song of Moses (vv. 1-18) and I was preparing to preach on the Waters of Marah (vv. 22-27). On the particular Saturday morning in question, I told the men that I was going to skip the Song of Miriam (vv. 19-21) and go on to the Waters of Marah (vv. 22-27).

The men expressed great disappointment in skipping over a portion of God's Word. After the prayer meeting, I took their disappointment to heart and returned to my study to reexamine my research on the Song of Miriam. As I looked over my sources again, I discovered that over the years most conservative scholars have handled the Song of Miriam in very much the same way that I had originally planned. They skip over verses 19-21. Most conservatives skip over these verses because they seem to tell us very little that is new. We already know what happened to Pharaoh and his army (v. 19), because we have been told that at the end of chapter 14. We also already know the words of Miriam in verse 21 because they are almost the exact same words as the beginning of the Song of Moses in chapter 15, verse 1. In fact the only new thing that we are told in these verses is found in verse 20. Here we are told that Miriam was a prophetess and that as Aaron's sister, she took the tambourine in her hand and, with all the women of Israel following her, started singing and dancing before the Lord.

I believe that a second reason that most conservatives skip over these verses is because verse 20 scares them. Miriam is described as a prophetess. In our day of women's ordination, most conservatives would rather not touch this verse because of all the questions it raises. And so to be on the safe side, most conservatives move right on.

But what about the liberals? How do they look at the text? Most liberals pick up right where the conservatives left off. They know the reason why conservatives skip over these verses and so this is the very issue that they raise. The liberals claim that Miriam is being neglected by the church. They charge conservatives with ignoring her and her song because she is a woman. They claim that the church needs to reexamine Miriam's identity and her role in this passage. Some of them go so far as to claim that both the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam should be credited to Miriam because the narrative of verses 19-20 seems out of place and would be better placed at the beginning of chapter 15. This means that verse 21 ought to replace verse 1. Some liberals conclude that conservatives have taken the Song of Moses right out of Miriam's mouth and credited it to Moses because he is a man. After all, these authors claim, we are told in the text that Miriam is the prophetess, not Moses.

As I concluded my research on that particular day, I came to the conclusion that neither side is correct. We should not take the conservative route and skip over the verses. Nor should we take the liberal route and try to change the text. What then should we do?

Let's take a little closer look at our text. The first question to ask is why does the author of Exodus separate the poems with the narrative of verses 19 and 20? Verse 19 does not give us any new information and to some it seems as if it should be at the end of chapter 14. However, when you examine the Hebrew verbs of verse 20, they indicate a sequence following upon verse 19. This is why some liberal scholars conclude that these three verses really belong at the beginning of chapter 15, for verse 20 follows what happened in verse 19 and should be displaced to the end of chapter 14.

On a closer look at the whole chapter, there is no indication that Moses sang his song first and then Miriam sang hers. When you observe the sequence of the verbs in verses 19 and 20, you notice that Miriam's song was sung immediately after God's deliverance. The verbs are telling you that both songs probably were sung at exactly the same time, meaning that both of these songs are equally important.

But why then is Miriam's song included here after the song of Moses? Remember we are in the book of Exodus. The Lord has delivered his people from the land of Egypt. Since the very beginning of the book, we have read about the fulfillment of God's promises. God has promised his people that he would free them from the land of slavery and destroy the Egyptian army. This has been the story of the book of Exodus since chapter 1. And now that the army of Pharaoh is destroyed and Israel is on the other side of the sea they are completely free from slavery and from Pharaoh's grip. His army and chariots have been destroyed!

Thus as we look at these two songs, we must keep in mind that they are the conclusion to the deliverance of the Lord for his people. God's people are now free from slavery! And how do we know this? How are we sure that this is the end of the story of God's deliverance from slavery? Because the salvation story for God's chosen people Israel is bracketed with the story of Miriam.

Remember how our story began? In Exodus 2, Miriam is by the bank of the Nile. Pharaoh has made an edict that all the Hebrew boys that are born should be thrown into the river. Miriam stands by the bank of the Nile and watches her brother float away in a tiny basket. When Pharaoh's daughter sees the boy, we are told that Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, goes to talk with Pharaoh's daughter. She brings her brother Moses back to his mother to nurse, so that Moses, God's appointed savior of Israel, will live.

In the next twelve chapters of the book of Exodus, we read nothing more about Miriam. But now at the end of the story, Miriam reappears. Once more she is again standing on the banks of the water. This time it is the Red Sea, where she has witnessed the reversal of Pharaoh's wicked edict. In chapter 1, Pharaoh makes an edict that all the Hebrew boys are to be thrown into the water and drowned, lest they become so numerous that his power in the land is threatened. And now in chapter 15, at the end of God's deliverance, Pharaoh's army is drowned and he has no more power. Miriam now stands on the banks of the Sea and sings the song of the Lord's deliverance. "Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea."

The story of the salvation of Israel delivered from Egyptian bondage begins and ends with Miriam. God has placed this song in our text immediately after the song of Moses not because it is less important. God has carefully placed the song here because Miriam's story brackets the salvation of the Lord! Israel's salvation from Egypt begins when Miriam saves Moses and it ends when Miriam sings her song.

As you look at these verses, it is clear that the Lord's salvation is not just for men. For in verse 20, Miriam leads all the women of Israel in song. It was common in the ancient Near East for the women of a nation to greet their warriors with dancing and song when they returned victorious from battle. Now the women of Israel sing their song about their warrior, the Lord—who has delivered them and all Israel.

But you will notice that the song in verse 21 is not a different song. The first verse of the Song of Moses (15:1) and the Song of Miriam are almost identical. The intent of the author of Exodus is not for us to compare the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam so that we can try to determine which song is better. The author is telling us that they are the same song! There is only one change in verse 21 as compared to verse 1. That change is in the first word. When Moses sings the song, he sings the song himself. He starts out singing, "I will sing to the Lord." When Miriam sings her song, she includes everyone by singing, "Sing to the Lord." Her song lets us know that the Song of Victory to the Lord is for the salvation of both the men and the women of Israel.

In some ways, the liberal scholars do have a point. These three verses of Exodus 15 are not to be skipped over as so many conservatives do. God has placed these three verses here to remind the church of all ages of the importance of women within the kingdom of heaven. In his plan of salvation, God has equally redeemed both men and women together, just as he redeemed both men and women in the Exodus. Women also participate in the salvation that God has provided for his people. In Exodus 1, the Hebrew midwives save the Hebrew babies; in Exodus 2, Miriam saves Moses so that the promised savior of Israel may live. Finally, in Exodus 15, Miriam the prophetess joins with Moses in singing the song of the Lord's deliverance.

The story of salvation in Exodus also anticipates God's greater salvation—the salvation which has come to us in Jesus Christ. For women also bracket the salvation story of Jesus Christ as it is revealed to us in the gospels. In Luke 1 and 2, we read that at the beginning of the gospel story an angel appears to the Virgin Mary and tells her that she is to be with child. Upon the news that she would be the mother of Jesus, Mary burst out into song. And at the end of the gospel story on that resurrection morning when God reveals to the world that his people have been freed from bondage and death, it is Mary the mother of Jesus and other women who first discover the empty tomb.

The Song of Miriam is truly an eschatological event. God uses both men and women mightily in the salvation he brings to his people. And when his final victory is complete, all those (men and women) who are victorious will stand alongside of the sea of glass in heaven, singing together the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb in celebration of the destruction of the beast (Rev. 15). Indeed they will reprise once and for all what the men and women of Israel once did when Pharaoh and his army were cast into the sea.

The Song of Miriam reminds us that God has an important place for women in the salvation that he provides, but it also means that he has given them a specific role. In Exodus 15, Miriam is a prophetess and she sings the song of deliverance, but she also knows her role. After Moses is delivered from the Nile and taken into the palace, we read nothing about Miriam until chapter 15. God brings about the salvation of Israel through her brothers, Moses and Aaron, as they go to confront Pharaoh. God uses Moses and Aaron to lead the people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. But Miriam comes back into our story at the end. She also has a role in God's plan. She leads the women of Israel, not the women and men, in singing the song of God's deliverance that he has brought about through her brother Moses.

And even though Miriam has an important role, some time later she must be reminded of her role. In Numbers 12, Miriam, the prophetess opposes Moses and claims that God has also spoken through her. She wants to take on a role that God has not planned for her. God punishes her for her rebellion with leprosy and she is put out of the fellowship of God's people. But Moses, her brother, prays for her and she is delivered from this uncleanness and restored to fellowship with the Lord and his people.

Miriam functions as a prophetess—an office for a specific time and a specific place. God has granted her an exceptional gift and an exceptional role. As a prophetess, she sings the song of deliverance! Yet in her specific role and office, she is clearly not to take over for her brother, Moses, in his office or her brother, Aaron, in his office. God reminds her of that in Numbers 12.

In New Testament passages such as 1 Timothy 3, the apostle Paul spells out for the New Testament church specific instructions about the qualifications of officers. The elders and the deacons of the church are to be men. But this does not diminish the role of women. Sometimes conservative Christians begin to look down on women because the Bible forbids them to hold church office. Sometimes they make the women of Christ's church feel less important.

But the Song of Miriam reminds us that the women of the church have a very important role in God's plan of salvation. God uses Miriam in Exodus 2 to protect Moses so that he can save Israel. God uses Mary in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 and 2 to bring Jesus into the world. Thus it is Miriam who participates in the song of deliverance in Exodus 15, as at the end of time Mary and all believers who are victorious in Christ, will participate in the Song of Deliverance by the sea of glass in Heaven.

Perhaps the way conservatives have skipped over this song is a reflection of how the church has looked at the role of women. The church must always be thankful for the way that each female member of the church serves and the love that they have for the Savior. They have a very important role, which sometimes the men do not recognize. Remember how the disciples sat in stunned silence as a woman anointed Jesus's body for burial by pouring out expensive perfume upon his feet and drying it with her hair (Mark 14). This woman recognized something that they did not. God uses both men and women to bring about his salvation, as they serve Christ by fulfilling their specific roles in his church. May we not forget the Song of Miriam and may we never forget the important role of women within the church of Christ.

Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Oak Harbor, Washington