Why was Miriam punished for speaking out?

Source: Unsplash/Milan Popovic

Miriam was a skilled, female prophet who did not receive fair credit. 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. Miriam is one of few women prophets identified in scripture. She is a worship 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 Promise Land.

Miriam is spirited, strong, and not afraid to speak up for herself. And God punishes her for it.

We enter the scene in Numbers 12. Aaron and Miriam have both leveled serious criticism at 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 my Bible 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 truthful? Wasn’t it, in fact, true 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!

Whereas God, on the other hand, was very unhappy with Miriam and Aaron’s line of questioning. He calls them forth and harshly rebukes them, reminding them of Moses’ favored status and 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.” Therefore, God admonishes that they should not have spoken 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, “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 a small comfort that the Israelites wait for Miriam’s isolation period to end. Miriam is welcomed back into the camp and continues along with her people on their journey. Picking up right where she left off, she remains their leader. Nevertheless, as Japinga notes, during Miriam’s seven days of quarantine, it is unclear as to whether she even had access to food or water!

Honestly, this is a cringeworthy passage to read through in its entirety. From Moses’ pitiful begging, “Oh God, please heal her!” 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.” How as a person of faith—as a woman of faith—am I supposed with 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?” Besides a few choice expletives, 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 to a high prophetic station, but 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 could well argue that Miriam and Aaron mishandled their approach. They publicly questioned their leader in front of others rather than privately approach Moses. Even if the content of their criticism was correct, their means to that end was rash and misguided. Did they honestly think that God wouldn’t overhear them?

Of course, discerning how and when to speak up is always complicated. Even if Miriam was in the right, clearly she was part of a system that wasn’t ready for change. Sadly, as a result, she was punished and put in her place. But isn’t it possible that incremental changes happened behind the scenes? Perhaps Miriam’s voice helped pave the way for other spiritual leaders to step up—and other female prophets to be called in later generations. At the very least, Moses and Aaron must have been inwardly changed after witnessing Miriam’s courage to speak and her grace in accepting the consequences for her actions.

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—regarding small things but also big things as well. Then, there have been times when I’ve raised concerns about something I thought was wrong and suffered the consequences. Whether those consequences were warranted or not, 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…

As a female pastor, I grieve with Miriam. Her is a story that shows how women leaders throughout history have been silenced. Even after spending considerable time with this story, I still don’t understand why she was punished for speaking out. Regardless, I celebrate her courage and strength as an example to model. 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. 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 how far the Church has come already.