Miriam - From Prophet to Leper

Ita Sheres and Anne K. Blau

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The Exodus from Egypt is a defining moment in Israel's history, literature, psychology and culture. It defined the character of the nation that emerged from that upheaval and it forever changed our conceptions of slavery, freedom, leadership, revolution and redemption. The Exodus also introduced a different type of hero, one who is beholden to both the past and the future; a leader who has extraordinary charismatic qualities that elevate his followers as well as unite them in their search for a meaning in their spiritual and political journeys.

The Exodus is associated with redemption and revolution; salvation and defiance; real politics and spiritual restoration of a most extraordinary kind. It is also related to notions of spring and seasonal renewal, fertility -- both human and agricultural -- as well as ideas of purification and worthiness: concepts that involve humans attempting to get close to the Divine and the reverse. For the very first time in human experience, a God speaks aloud about choice, hope, dignity and the flight of the soul from bondage. Moreover, that God speaks to an entire community. He dares it to reject what He offers and presents it with a host of choices that underline His commitment to a new order. These choices can equalize society and can open up paths to purification once reserved for an elite priesthood to the masses of people as they acclaim, "we will do and hear!.1 The Rabbis have already noted that the Israelites were ready to "do" first and "hear" later.

The key concepts that bear further comment are revolution and redemption. The concept of revolution is purely political . It involves a leader with a vision and plan that he is able to present to a group of people who become his followers. Redemption is a more complicated concept. In Israelâs case it slowly evolved into a tremendous platform that encompassed more than just politics; it became the communityâs marker and it later enabled those who adhere to the new ideology to coherently rally around a sign -- male circumcision. Redemption, moreover, requires a redeemer who is finally identified as a man, Moses. As befitting Egyptian theology, this hero is found miraculously in the water, hidden and of uncertain parentage. And then there are the unforgettable symbols - water (and the Nile), the serpent(s) and the rod, the well of betrothal, the plagues and famines, circumcision of the flesh, songs of redemption as well as the motif of "strangers."

All signify a departure from the old and an onset of the new; all surround events of heroic proportions. But more significantly, all focus on the male and his accomplishments, men and their power, men and their God. There are the male "children of Israel" who went down to Egypt 400 years earlier and became enslaved to a new Pharaoh who did not "know (remember) Joseph" and his predecessors promises of royal protection. (Ex.1:8). We remember Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob and Rachel, who received his father's blessing (and inheritance) and who invoked the ire of his brothers. Joseph is "brought down to Egypt" by "Ishmaelites" (or Midianites) who buy and sell him. As it is told, Joseph kindles the desire of Potiphar's wife's and is put in jail (another "well," or pit/ "sheol") because of his purity, virginity, or innocence. Is there more to this tale that is related to Joseph being a stranger and aspiring to inherit the power of Potiphar? After all, it is Potiphar's wife who refers to him, contemptuously, as a strange "Hebrew man"2 who came to their house to "play with" (in the sexual sense) her3. Perhaps there is a reference here to some mixing with the Hyksos, kings of the shepherds, foreigners or strangers who ruled Egypt along with their ally "princes" or "lords" (1665-1557 B.C.E.)4. Their last Pharaoh was named Osarsiph (Kendrick, 268-269) - a Joseph-like name.

At first glance the Egyptian sojourn cycles seem to begin with Joseph, who "removed" his mother's shame of "barrenness" (Gen. 30:23), who was Jacob's beloved son and who wore the special "tunic of many colors" (37:3)which may have been indicative of some priestly and\or royal bearing. And did not this eleventh son born of a special mother and a unique birth have to travel down to "sheol"/the pit and the dark well (there is irony in the later use of Miriam's well as a symbol of regeneration and life) before assuming his special priestly duties? Was not this a typical, privileged journey that designated a hero as "chosen" for a particular fate and duty?5 Joseph's dreams all focus on agricultural cycles: the sun, moon as well as wheat and corn - all associated with the duty of a priest, all related to the grain center of the ancient Mediterranean world, Egypt.

But this is not the first collective memory of Egypt. Josephâs migration is part of the ultimate Egyptian experience which really begins with Abraham and Sarai who first travel to Egypt, also during a famine, as brother and "sister." (Gen. 12:13)6 We may also recall that Sarai's maid-servant is the Egyptian Hagar who gives birth to Ishmael (Abraham's first born). Was Hagar one of those "gifts" offered to Sarai and Abram in appreciation by the Pharaoh?7 The emotional story of the barren wife who gives her husband another woman to be a surrogate mother (Sarah)8, becomes a story of the mixing of blood between Abraham and an Egyptian. Ishmael, the product of this "mixing," not accidentally is rejected in favor of the son of Sarah, Isaac.9

There appears to be a long Hebraic tradition intimately involved with Egypt that indicates the mixing of blood as well as of culture. The "Mosaic way" attempts to refine the relationship of Hebrews to Egyptians, both physical and spiritual, and sort out that which is truly distinctive to Israel in the same way precious metals are refined to remove all impurities. (Mal. 3:3). Moreover, Moses' revolution, in its socio-political, cultural, and theological aspects, calls for a total separation between the two peoples. There are also various allusions in the story of the Exodus itself to a mixing of peoples (the "erev rav"=rabble)10 These in turn may derive from the mixing of the blood of the original shepherds and commoners who drifted into Egypt with the blood of the Egyptians themselves or even their foreign conquerors (e.g. the Hyksos). In other words, Moses may be demanding a sexual and biological separation as well.

We will see in the following analysis that the Mosaic ideology of what constitutes pollution, sin, contagion and the associated condemnation of Miriam (the "sister") to obscurity and even death (her "whitening") -- and the need to cleanse by separation (even of the foreskin from the penis), by water, fire, and from strangers may indicate some real pathology as well as potential danger. It may very well be that rather than Egyptians afflicted with boils, blood, and skin disorders, it was the Hebrews who suffered of the same thus posing real danger to the highly civilized Egyptians. Why else would there be in the text such a preoccupation with extreme measures of cleanliness and separation adopted by a group of pastorals?

The story of the Exodus from start to finish is governed by imagery which singles out "strangers," impurities and what we might call today ethnic cleansing . Pharaoh's desire to rid himself of the Hebrews is only one example. It is entirely possible that, historically speaking, the Habiru of the Delta regions could be associated with the "rabble" who are indeed the "impure ones" among the "Asiatics" or, Hyksos. In the same context the inscription on Queen Hatshpsut's Temple is telling: "Asiatics were in the midst of Avaris of the Northland and vagabonds [emphasis ours] were in the midst of them overthrowing that which had been made."11 The Pharaohs wanted to remove these polluted ones.12 There is a serious complaint about illegal immigrants in the Delta: "Foreigners have become people everywhere. There are no Egyptians anywhere."13 Also, we find that Manetho, the Ptolemaic historian, is quoted by Josephus as saying that Moses himself was a leper, as were the Children of Israel. Josephus further says that this made him "smile" because it was the Egyptian who was cursed with plagues.14

Wherever the historical truth lies, the tremendous emphasis on purity, various sources of pollution, and rules of separation became deeply embedded in Jewish ritual as well as in its theology. Skin disease, "sa'ra'at," possibly leprosy with its white and sometimes reddish spots and deformities, or other venereal diseases with skin manifestations, stand out visibly as a most dreaded, disgusting pathology. Whether the disease of sa'ra'at was leprosy or not, the intense consciousness of danger and fears (maybe for the children born to the Israelites too) is so strong that purification by water, circumcision, fire, by separation of all sorts, including shunning dangerous persons, characterize the Mosaic code. In fact, Moses is associated with a decree pronouncing that such infected people be separated out as if they were dead; they must cry out "unclean, unclean" and wander beyond the settlements (Lev. 13:45). The association of white with sa'ra'at and death, the white shroud, as well as unrighteousness and spiritual death and Godly punishment is evident here as well as in other stories of afflicted individuals.15

The most crucial issue here is purity, both in a real and symbolic context: Israel is concerned with purity -- of the heart and mind, and even more important, of the body -- and how to preserve its purity for posterity. Disease, contagion, spiritual pollution and impurity as well as other misfortunes seem to plague the Israelites and are directly linked with an angry God who uses them as a signal to an individual, even more important to a whole nation, about how much He is dissatisfied with its behavior. The image of a miserable Job sitting on the ground and scratching a severe skin infection, supposedly because of God's action (or, inaction) still haunts those who wonder about the suffering "ways of God with man." In a more direct way, Pharaoh and the Egyptians are punished with "blood in the Nile" and various other agricultural\economic disasters, including boils on the skin, which point to their "evil ways" and finally enable the Israelites and an "erev rav" to depart from Egypt towards a new life and a radical redemption. The issue of impurity of mind and body comes to full fruition here and lays the foundation for what is to follow in the desert.

Of great interest is the incident where Miriam is struck with "white leprosy." She receives this punishment from God for questioning and complaining about Moses' "Cushite" wife (Num. 12:1-15 and Deut. 24:9). But she is healed fairly quickly once her "brother," the priest Aaron, intercedes on her behalf to her other "brother"16 Moses who, in turn, asks God to remove the curse. What is the point of this episode? Maybe the metaphor tells us something about impurity, fear of "white"--death being the ultimate separation and purification -- bone white-- and political dissent (if not spiritual rebellion) more than about the medical condition of Miriam. In other words, we can learn more about the concerns of the three major political (and spiritual) operatives of this episode than about medicine. Moreover, the intent of the story is political and spiritual, revealing some of the tensions between Moses, Miriam and Aaron, and between these leaders and the community.17

We suggest that in this most elaborate (and only) story which includes the three siblings Miriamâs objection to Mosesâs marriage is justified because it is based on her possible past status as a priestess of Egypt. Indeed, it may have been Miriamâs own prerogative to marry Moses in a traditional "brother-sister" ritual marriage as practiced in Egypt.18 The message conveyed by Miriamâs punishment, her skin turning white, is clear: Her position and actions are no longer acceptable; they are "dead" for the Hebrews. Moreover Moses is assigned her song of protection. The Song of the Sea , strongly associated with a chant to the waters of Osiris is sung by "Moses and the children of Israel" (15:1a) as they cross over the boundary and into the desert and a new life.19

In this admittedly unorthodox interpretation we turn to a narrow analysis of the somewhat cryptic story about Miriam, Aaron and Moses in the desert. Our emphasis will be on the use of leprosy or some comparable disease as indicative of supernatural punishment in conjunction with the color "white" to denote not just "jealousy" (and punishment for that jealousy) on the part of Miriam20 but a whole array of political and spiritual concerns that are raised, with growing desperation, by those who remain in the minority.

The context of the story is typical of the entire Book of Numbers ("In the Wilderness"=Bamidbar) which describes numerous confrontations between Moses and various Israelites, other leaders (or those who seem to be leaders) and finally within Mosesâs own family. The Miriam episode occurs between examples of simmering rebellion, dissatisfaction and even open revolt. If Moses was leading a revolutionary movement which brought freedom to the slaves it was not a grass roots revolution, neither was it accomplished peacefully. All of the stories in the desert are fairly bloody and very contentious: former leaders were not ready to surrender power and the emerging upstarts opposed to Moses' ideology were not about to submit either.

The Miriam-Moses confrontation occurs at the end of "Beha'alotcha" ("When you will raise...[the candles]"). This portion begins a description of Aaron lighting the seven candles and the menorah that are part of the priestly ritual . In fact, the first few verses of chapter 8 ease the reader into a "bright" Godly framework which fits the "house (tent) of God" and the altar which was built for Him. The traditional number seven is a part of the ceremony and the light of fire suggests spirituality, purification, and commitment. This introduction leads us into a cleansing ceremony which involves the Levites who are the "first -born" dedicated to God's service.

Chapter 9 describes the Passover festival which is "performed" by the children of Israel with an emphasis again on "purity"; only those who are pure can "do" the Pesach; those who wish to join the congregation and are not pure have to undergo a purification\sacrificial ritual before attempting to be like the others. The "cloud" and "fire" associated with the tent of the tabernacle is the symbol of spirituality and purity in this chapter.

Chapter 10 is fully ritualized with trumpets, tribal recognition and a certain order which is crucial for creating a community. The emphasis is on the "new way" with male symbolism becoming predominant. The women become less of a factor and there is only a vague allusion to Zipporah, the wife of Moses in a description of Hovav and his membership in the community of the Exodus. Interestingly, the text seems to still continue with the "strangers" motif by placing the Midianites in the center of the Israelite experience.

In Chapter 11 the traditional food images equated with Egypt, as well as its culture and history are remembered with longing. The people, including the "asafsuf" (riff-raff)21, "desire" the Egyptian diet and particularly the "meat." Manna, described as the "soul and holy food" of God is entirely rejected and Moses is distressed, as is God Himself (11:10). When the final episode of chapter 11 is fully narrated we find ourselves in the midst of a political and spiritual crisis. Moses' spiritual leadership seems to be under attack and it is not clear that he can survive. He attempts to pacify all parties by sounding "humble" and compromising but at the end of the day there are dead covering the desert floor (v.33b). Those who perish because of "Godâs anger" are finally buried in what are called "the tombs (burial places) of desire" (v. 34). "Desire" is associated with food which must be seen as ritually important as well as psychologically comforting. The people are described as uncomfortable with Moses' "diet" and look for a way out. This episode is vaguely a memorial to an Egyptian famine-driven ritual which was performed as a hieros gamos (holy wedding) involving the priestess and the king (Pharaoh).

At this point the more "familial" rebellion occurs. It is introduced as follows: "And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, about the Cushite woman whom he had taken because it was a Cushite woman that he took." (12:1) There is no question about the centrality of the concept "Cushite" in this verse. The woman is not named nor is she present when the episode takes place. Is the subject Zipporah? Our literary sensibilities indicate that it is not. The subject is not named; we have already been introduced to Zipporah before and we have seen her perform what the text describes as an extraordinary act of courage , the circumcision that saved her son and perhaps also her husband. That specific story, although enigmatic, sounds a real alarm in the confusion that ensues. Zipporah, the priest, performs a ritual which is fully identified with the Hebrews' covenant with God. But circumcision is also an Egyptian cleansing ritual. Is Zipporah then attempting to legitimize the new revolution, and does she thus give it her stamp of approval22 Moreover, Zipporah was a Midianite, not a Cushite.

We propose that the troubling story about Miriam focuses specifically on her roots in Egypt in a more concrete sense than the Hebrew tradition allows. Miriam may have been an Egyptian-styled priest (Ex. 15 refers to her as "prophet"). Her prescribed role thus explains why she objected to Moses' marriage as well as why Moses' reaction to her was so damning. The Egyptian way or theology called for a virgin to perform a royal brother-sister marriage to address its fertility needs. (It should be noted that "sister" or "brother" were titles, not necessarily kinship relationships.) Fertility encompassed agricultural success as well as human reproduction. Both aspects were part of a program of maintaining and regenerating life; this was particularly important to elite priestly circles with divine connections and obligations.23 In that context, Miriam should have been the designated wife of the leader, not the "outsider/foreigner/Cushite" he chose. But in keeping with the rest of the new Mosaic theology, Miriam becomes "leprous"; she is now fully and completely dead ("white").

Ultimately, Moses usurps Miriamâs role for himself, including her water magic (parting the sea as well as obtaining water from the rock (Ex. 14 and Nu. 12) The name "Miriam", which in the Hebrew already has water allusions, may derive from a more ancient Egyptian origin linked with pure water.24 In any case, Miriam's life-giving well follows the Israelites through the desert and serves them when they triumph over the Egyptians (see the Song of the Sea) and until her death. Miriam's traditions reflect the popular culture. They indicate that the Mosaic way was never able to fully suppress the old traditions that Miriam the "Egyptian-Hebrew" woman represented.


1.In Egypt rites of purity were reserved for priests. The new Mosaic purity designated the Hebrews as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex.19:6); they were all "passed over" (12:13) by the avenging angel and thus became a literally a "house of life." (1:19)

2. There is thus some good reason to assume that the sitz um leben, historical setting, of this story is the period of the Hyksos a group of Asiatic foreigners who penetrated Egypt and its power structure in devastating fashion. Presumably, Joseph gained such enormous power only because the Hyksos were less sensitive to strangers in their midst. Similarly, when the text in Exodus suggests that the Pharaoh did not "know" Joseph, we are to assume that a "purer" Egyptian political establishment had been reestablished which discriminated against foreigners.

3. It is not the intent to analyze the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife but merely to point to a few significant peculiarities: First, we should disregard the traditional consensus that the Joseph story contains a reference to a merely anonymous officer of the Pharaoh and that the name Potiphar is somewhat irrelevant and unimportant (the name does not reappear ). On the contrary, since the name can easily be confused (if not identified) with Potiphera=a man of the sun (Aseneth's father and the priest of On, Heliopolis), this figure must viewed as a significant character. Second, the Masoretic text describes Potiphar as a "eunuch of Pharaoh" (37:38, 39:1) who thus has a special relationship with the main source of Egyptian power and may have some priestly connections too. If he is a eunuch Potiphar's "wife" is certainly in a unique position; if she is to have a family, she must look elsewhere for a mate,. It is also possible that she is a special "wife" who has her own agenda and loyalties in the house of Pharaoh. Third, at the conclusion of the episode Joseph ends up exactly where he is destined; indeed he does become the most powerful man in Egypt.

4. John Van Seters. 1966. The Hyksos: A New Investigation (New Haven: Yale University Press).

5. There are various legends about Joseph which place him in a specific "righteous" role. He is also an important "character" at Qumran where his attitude to "righteousness" is well documented.

6. We have already elaborated on the Sarai\Abraham episode in relation to the DSS and its perception of Sarai as the "virginal" mother who attracts men of power and who may have "saved" Egypt from the famine. See, Ita Sheres & Anne K. Blau, The Truth About the Virgin: Sex and Ritual in the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Continuum, 1995) p. 38.

7. Rashi and other commentators thought so and there are various legends to that effect.

8. The future-born of Hagar is described as Sarah's son, not Abraham's. The story evolves in a manner that frustrates Sarah who is "angered" against Abraham because he seems not to adhere to the original plan struck between the two of them. See the classical story in Gen., 16.

9. We should note here that Abraham loves Ishmael.

10. The "erev rav who also went up" with the children of Israel" (Ex. 12:38), indicates that the Exodus was not purely a nationalistic affair and that the Israelites were not a cohesive group at the time. See, D.N. Freedman, Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy: Studies in Early Hebrew Poetry (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1980).

11. Van Seters, p. 172.

12. James H Breasted, A History of Egypt: From the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (New York: Scribner, 1916) p. 215.

13. Van Seters, 116.

14. Ant., III: xi.

15. Na'aman the Syrian, another stranger, imports the disease, in a rather obscure episode which involves "an Israelite girl" who leads Na'aman to a Hebrew king and prophet (was she the source of that sa'ra'at?). Gehazi, the servant of Elisha is a greedy turncoat who eventually dies of the disease. (2Kings, 5) King Uzziah is a righteous warrior king who becomes evil and carries the mark of the disease on his forehead for the rest of his life. (2Chron. 26:19-21). See also Donald Ortner, "What Bones Tell Us" BAR, Aug. 1966, p. 52. Ortner indicates that leprosy, as well as tuberculosis, was prevalent during the Bronze Age in the Jordan area. Additionally, Encyclopedia Judaica discusses lepers and leprosy and the existence of enclosed ruins and houses for lepers in Gaza. It is also possible that bodies of lepers were burned for purification reasons. More references and discussion of the above can be found in the Tosefta 6:1 and Lev. 14:34-53.

16. Heka, the Egyptian magician-god's emblem showing his two fertility goddesses crossed over his chest (Shaul Shaked, "Peace Be Upon You, Exalted Angels - On Hekhalot, Liturgy and Incantation Bowls," Jewish Studies Quarterly vol.2 (1995) 205 and Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (Chicago: Oriental Inst., No. 54, 1993) 4 and 25).

17. Commentaries about this story abound and the most classical are concerned with "gossip and bad-mouthing" of either Zipporah or a second wife of Moses'. As a sign of his displeasure God afflicts Miriam with the disease. It is also connected by the commentators' with Moses' humility as compared to Miriam and Aaron, who in the same episode seem to be questioning Moses' authority. Contemporary scholars try to come to grips with issues of gender as well as power politics; e.g. Rita J. Burns, Has the Lord Indeed Spoken Only Through Moses: A Study of the Biblical Portrait of Miriam (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987); see particularly pp. 41-79 where the author places Miriam within the Egyptian women's oracular tradition.

18. Even the Hebrew text assigns her the title "prophetess" while describing her triumphant celebration after the Exodus (Ex. 15:20).

19. Osiris' birthplace was so honored by the love priestesses of Isis. According to Egyptian theology, Isis "artificially" inseminated herself with the seed of her dead husband Osiris to produce the savior Horus. (Diana Delia, "The Refreshing Water of Osiris," Journal of American Research in Egypt, Vol.xxvx (1992), 183-4). Additionally, theraputae choirs (male and female) of Ptolemaic Egypt were reported to have sung the song of Miriam and Moses (Judaica, Vol. 15, p. 112). At last, Moses' mouth is "opened" and his "speech impediment" (stuttering?) disappears.

20. The story clearly relates to Miriam rather than to Aaron; he is there as the priest in order to reinforce the concept of impurity and to more concretely become associated with his sister as a holy woman.

21. The reference is similar to "erev rav" which signifies the position of those who left Egypt. The discontent of those who have nothing to lose, be they slaves or poor, uprooted people, is well summarized in the sociological concept "erev rav"=a multitude of people. Not only Israelites left Egypt, and Moses has an extremely difficult task in "converting" these disparate groups to his radical Yahwhistic ideology.

22. In another context we will be discussing that obscure episode in Exodus (4:24-26).

23. Important symbols and rituals included the ankh, water baptism, healings, chants/psalms, the marking of agricultural cycles, star knowledge, etc.

24. Miriam's name is not used in other Hebrew biblical materials. It is resurrected only in the Second Temple period when it becomes a most popular aristocratic name of particular significance for the DSS sectarians. Is it Miriam's well that is dug up at Qumran? Is it her "knowledge" or theology which brings eternal life that is resurrected at Qumran?

Short Biographies

Ita Sheres is a professor of English & Comparative Literature & Judaic Studies at the San Diego State University.
Anne K. Blau is a sociologist and an independent scholar living in San Francisco.

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