Why was Miriam punished for speaking out?

Katy Shevel wrestles with Numbers 12 where Miriam is punished by God for questioning Moses.

Image by Cara Quinn, Know Your Mothers .

Miriam was a skilled, female prophet who did not receive fair credit. When God punishes her for speaking her mind in Numbers 12, are we really supposed to believe that she should have kept silent and taken it in stride?

After all, nothing in this woman’s background is commensurate with timidity. In the Old Testament, Miriam is faithful and fearless, equally as courageous of a leader as she is full of compassion. She saves her baby brother Moses’ life. She stands beside him as they grow up together and he becomes the great liberator of the Hebrew people from Egypt. She is a prophetic and liturgical leader, striking up her tambourine and leading a triumphant song of praise after the Egyptians’ watery demise in the Red Sea. She is indispensable to Moses and Aaron as they tirelessly shepherd the Israelites through the desert in the hopes that one day, at long last, they will reach the Promised Land.

Miriam is spirited, strong, and not afraid to speak up for herself. Yet God punishes her for it in Numbers 12.

In this chapter, Aaron and Miriam both level serious criticisms against Moses. Firstly, they take issue with his marriage to a Cushite woman. Whether their concern is because his new wife is not an Israelite or for another reason, the text is unclear. Then they pose a second issue: “Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

The editor’s heading in the NRSV translation clearly presumes Miriam and Aaron’s intentions behind questioning their leader: “Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses.” Though even if jealousy contributed, wasn’t their critique also truthful? Wasn’t it, in fact, correct that Aaron and Miriam were called to lead alongside Moses?

Why, even in the previous chapter of Numbers, Moses himself rebukes Joshua for attempting to stop others from exercising leadership! He demands, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Here Moses seems rather favorable of the team approach!

On the other hand, Numbers 12 depicts God as unhappy with Miriam and Aaron’s line of questioning. God calls them forth and harshly rebukes them, restating Moses’ favored status and reminding them that other prophets only speak to God indirectly through visions and dreams. “Not so with my servant Moses,” says God. “With him I speak face to face — clearly, not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (v. 8). Therefore, God admonishes them for speaking against Moses!

What comes next truly baffles me. Both Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses, but only Miriam is penalized. At God’s hand, she is stricken with leprosy. Furthermore, she is forced to quarantine outside of their camp for seven days. Of Miriam’s predicament, pastor and professor Lynn Japinga writes in her book From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament, “This ‘time-out’ may seem innocuous, but imagine a woman living alone outside the camp without shelter or protection from predators or the elements.” I suppose it is small comfort that the Israelites wait for Miriam’s isolation period to end. At the end of the seven days, Miriam is welcomed back into the camp and continues along with her people on their journey. Nevertheless, as Japinga notes, during Miriam’s quarantine, it is unclear as to whether she even has access to food or water!

Honestly, there are plenty of moments I find disconcerting in this passage. From Moses’ woeful begging, “O God, please heal her!” (v. 13). To Aaron’s disquieting appeal that she would not be “like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb” (v.12). How as a person of faith – as a woman of faith – am I supposed to reconcile with the divine punishment for Miriam’s choice to speak? Even if her intentions were less than noble, still Aaron ostensibly would share the blame — and despite his guilt-wracked conscience, he walks away without a blemish!

In her study on this biblical story, Japinga poses a question for reflection to her readers: “Had you been Miriam, what would you have said to God when you were struck with leprosy?” Readers do not get to learn Miriam’s response, but nonetheless, the passage invites us to learn about ourselves. My initial response to God would have been disbelief. Had I been Miriam, I would have wondered why I was being punished for speaking out and for holding those in power to a high standard. Moses may be called as a prophet but so was Miriam! Moreover, is he not also a flawed and finite human being, prone to mistakes and in need of accountability, just like everyone else?

To play the devil’s advocate, one might argue that Miriam and Aaron mishandled their approach. They publicly questioned their leader in front of others rather than privately approaching Moses. Even if the content of their criticism was correct, their means to that end were rash and misguided.

Of course, discerning how and when to speak up is always challenging. There have been plenty of points in my life when I’ve failed to speak up against wrongdoing or to advocate for myself or for others. Then, there have been times when I’ve raised concerns about something I thought was wrong and suffered the consequences. I’ve certainly indulged in that torturous exercise of replaying scenarios over and over in my head, wondering what I might have done or said differently, wondering whether my actions had, in the end, made any difference at all. All in all, I think I have a pretty good idea what Miriam’s inner dialogue was for those seven long, lonely days quarantined outside of camp…

Throughout all my reflections upon this passage, I remain disturbed by God’s treatment of Miriam. I wonder about the intersection between this passage and the church’s complicated relationship with women’s leadership. Miriam is punished while Aaron is not. Does this passage reinforce the historical subjugation and silencing of women? It has unfortunately been interpreted that way. For example, Japinga cites a Sunday school lesson for teenagers in which Miriam is compared to “a girl in a high school youth group who helped plan the youth Sunday service but was angry when she was asked to sing rather than preach.” However, to read this passage with such a narrow perspective is to drastically reduce its significance as part of the broader biblical narrative. This scene does not exist in a vacuum and is hardly the sole portrayal of a female spiritual leader in Scripture.

In other words, the story does not end here! (Thanks be to God!)

Grace prevails as the biblical account stretches to the Promised Land and beyond. Miriam’s prophetic role remains intact, and she continues to exercise leadership alongside her brother Moses for the rest of their lives. Miriam is a forerunner for others, as God continues to ordain women as prophets throughout Scripture. Miriam’s position of authority is an extension of a divinely-instituted system of biblical leadership in which God calls both men and women to serve as prophets. Women prophets like Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Huldah (2 Kings 22) are commissioned to lead. In Nehemiah 6:14, a female prophet named Noadiah is explicitly named. In Luke 2, the prophet Anna is one of a select few blessed to encounter the infant Messiah on the day of his presentation in the Temple.

If we hold up this story of Miriam within the fullness of the broader scriptural narrative, we see that God has always called women to all leadership roles within the church. Yes, Miriam’s tale in Number 12 is a tragic one. As a female pastor, I grieve with her. But this one incident does not preclude her unique calling by God to continue to serve her people for the remainder of her life as only she could. This story should not be cited as an example to omit women from leadership. If anything, Miriam’s courage and strength are examples to model in the life of the church today. The faithfulness of God to call all types of people into positions of authority is the encouraging word in this passage, the word to carry with us when we face adversity in our own lives. Even if female leaders speak up today and get shut down, maybe the door cracks open a little wider for tomorrow’s possibilities. Incremental changes add up. One voice makes space for other voices. With God’s help, we can lean on the saints who have come before us to show us how to speak up for ourselves and others — and also to learn how the church can do better at listening to stories of exclusion.

Miriam’s story gives me hope. She reminds me that the church, through the Spirit, is not a stagnate thing. We grow and evolve. By God’s grace, we reform.