Miriam, Sister of Moses

Today’s first Mass reading is a story I remember loving hearing when I was a child – Moses in the Bulrushes, as it is sometimes referred to. Although the focus of the story tends to be on Moses or Pharaoh’s daughter, the real hero of the story is Moses’ sister, Miriam (although she is not referred to by name in the story).

Miriam appears in several episodes in the Book of Exodus. The backdrop to this, her first appearance, is that Pharaoh has become worried that the Hebrews in Egypt are multiplying too quickly and could become a strong enemy force. As a result he decides to enslave them and then to decree that all Hebrew baby boys be put to death.

To protect Moses, his mother places him in a small basket, which she places among the reeds of the Nile. Miriam hides in the reeds to watch her baby brother. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds the basket and is “moved with pity” for Moses, Miriam emerges from her hiding place and offers to bring a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and Moses’ mother to nurse her son, who is later adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Miriam is presented as a young woman of strength and initiative. In a commentary to this passage written by a woman named Marsha Pravder Mirkin, we read:

Miriam, no matter how entrenched her faith, did not seem to accept the idea of leaving the situation up to God. Instead, she developed a partnership with God, believing that “God helps those who help themselves,” as the old adage goes. She hid near the water, available to take a proactive role if necessary in saving her brother’s life. From her hiding place, she witnessed the princess coming down to the Nile, the river that was the grave of so many Hebrew baby boys. She witnessed the princess looking at the baby with pity in her eyes. And before the princess had a chance to change her mind, Miriam was there, a powerless slave looking at a powerful regent, offering her a way to live by her conscience. Miriam suggested to the princess that Moses be nursed by a Hebrew slave. The princess not only allowed Miriam’s mother to nurse the baby, but paid her for doing so. Miriam’s relational strength permitted her to see the possibility for righteousness even in the daughter of an evil monarch, and then speak up in a voice of faith and love.

What gave Miriam the courage to speak up to the princess? What let her know she might find a sympathetic ear? From wherever came the strength arose, what she did that day changed her life, the life of Pharaoh’s daughter and the life of Moses…indeed, the lives of all of the Israelites then captive in Egypt.

On this day on which we celebrate the memorial of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, another strong woman of faith, let us also remember Miriam.