Miriam: Stand Firm and Watch what God will do

Songs are portable theology.  You can sing in the car, in the shower, and in group gatherings.  When we experience God’s hand at work, one of the most powerful things we can do is sing.  In the first two chapters of Exodus, there are a number of women that participate in the deliverance God’s people: Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives; Moses’ birth mom and his adopted mom, the Pharaoh’s daughter; and Moses’ sister: Miriam.  The extermination campaign of Pharaoh starts by telling the midwives to kill the baby boys, and then he says:  Every baby boy that is born must be thrown into the Nile river.  Moses’ mom and dad see that their baby is beautiful, or ‘good’, and his birth is the beginning of another major event in the lives of God’s people.  His mom gets a basket (ark), and places Moses safely inside, while he floats in the river.  But he’s not left to float aimlessly.  Exodus 2 tells us: His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.  Exodus 2:4

This is the first little snippet that we get of Miriam’s presence in the story. Last week we looked at the arms of Moses’s mom, as she placed him in the basket and put her son at the mercy of God.  We looked at the Pharaoh’s daughter, who sent her maid, or her arm, and it extended to take in a child that was out of her reach, in more ways than one.  Here, at the riverbank, Miriam is standing ‘at a distance.’  The verb can mean standing at a physical OR a mental distance.  This baby is vulnerable, and Miriam is unable to fully protect him.  He is as far from help and safety as you could imagine.[1] 

But Miriam is also STANDING.  That verb can mean ‘to take one’s stand’, and ‘to stand one’s ground.’[2]  Miriam is watching to see what God will do.  She is anticipating something great. Why do I say that? There’s a Jewish Midrash that correlates with Miriam’s role and title later in the Exodus account, and it ties together the two scenes that we’re going to look at today. It’s said that when Pharaoh had decreed that all Jewish male children should be thrown into the Nile after they were born, that Miriam’s parents separated so that they wouldn’t have any more children.  But Miriam had a prophecy: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel”.[3]  Miriam told her parents about this, and they reunited, and the woman gave birth to a son.  That’s the prophecy.  But Miriam’s prophecy isn’t fulfilled just yet.  While Moses is hiding in the basket in the reeds next to the shore of the river, Miriam is watching over him. 

There may be all kinds of questions that would run through a young girl’s mind in her situation.  If it were any one of us, we might play the ‘what if’ game: 

What if:
–a crocodile eats him?
–he gets carried downstream by the current and is swept away?
–waves drown him?
–the basket sinks?
–an Egyptian search party comes and discovers her brother in the water?

But then again:
What if:
-a princess finds him?
-she wants to raise him as her own in the palace?
-she needs someone to nurse him?
-the baby’s mother gets the job?
-the baby’s mother gets paid to do that job?

Now that’s completely, and utterly crazy. And it’s so crazy that it could never happen. Except that it did.  Miriam did not know how the salvation was going to come about. All she knew is that she had a promise that it would. When Miriam STANDS at the riverbank and watches to see what God will do, she is standing in faith and in trust.  Miriam is a model here.  She will Stand Firm and Watch what God Will Do.

When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket and lifts it from the water, Miriam appears and speaks directly to her: “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” Exodus 2:7  Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, Miriam’s mom is recruited to nurse her own son, and the child is rescued.  But what happens next?  What good is the deliverance of Moses, if he just gets to live as an elite, and it has no effect on his own people? Years go by!  Decades!  So much time has elapsed, that the people are feeling like God has forgotten all about them.  Miriam has to wonder:

What if:
–I only imagined what God was up to?
–Moses doesn’t remember us at all, and he stays in the palace, and we all just suffer and die out here?

God is at work behind the scenes, even though it takes years before Moses finally stands in front of Pharaoh and asks for the freedom of God’s people, and they are given permission to leave Egypt.   Here’s where everything comes to a head.  Picture this:  The people are camped out and they look up and Pharaoh is coming after them with chariots, cavalry, and soldiers.  Freedom is within their reach, but now they are trapped.  They are next to a huge body of water—the Sea of Reeds—think of the birth of Moses and how that moment has become full circle in this image: 

Rabbi David Fohrman notes: “One Jew, Moses, was threatened by one Egyptian, the daughter of Pharaoh, by a river, while he was in the reeds. And now it’s not just a river, it’s a whole sea; and it’s not just a couple of bulrushes, it’s a whole Sea of Reeds; and now it’s not just one Jew that’s threatened, it’s an entire Jewish people that’s threatened. And not just threatened by one particular Egyptian, but the whole army of Egypt.”

This is another moment where you and I might play the ‘what if’ game:

What if:
–we came all this way for nothing?
–this is the end?
–we had just stayed back in Egypt and played it safe?
–God is just sending us to our deaths?

Miriam is also waiting again.  She knows that the God of life; the God who used midwives and mothers and even Pharaoh’s daughter, is working on his people’s behalf. 

She may be thinking; What if: –we just watch to see what God will do?
–this is God using Moses to deliver his people right now?
–we stand firm and resolute, and have faith over fear?
–God uses this moment to rescue us?
There is dread in the minds of the people as they stand at the water with the army bearing down on them and no seeming way out.  

But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever.  Exodus 14:13

Stand by and watch.  Stand firm.  It’s the SAME WORD that was used when Miriam was by the Nile.  Stand.  Miriam stood and watched what God did for her baby brother as he was perilously floating in the reeds of the River because the Pharaoh was seeking to take his life.  Miriam is a powerful example of faith. And now that same baby brother, Moses, asks the people to do exactly what Miriam did:  Stand Firm and Watch What God Will Do.  All of this is about GOD’S power at work, as He is going to make a way through a body of water once more. 

The horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, and the Lord brought back the waters of the sea on them, but the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea. Exodus 15:19

When she was a young girl, Miriam stood alone at the waters of the Nile and watched God at work, in how he rescued her brother.  Now, many years later, Miriam stands with her brother Moses, and ALL the people who are leaving Egypt, and they are given a pathway through the Sea of Reeds.  When God’s power and triumph is evident, Miriam HAS to sing a song. 

Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing. Exodus 15:20

Miriam is introduced here for the first time as a prophetess, and as Aaron’s sister. Why is she a prophetess?  The Midrash telling gives a possible reason as to why: because what Miriam had said about Moses had come true.   The timbral is really a hand drum.  It’s the only percussion instrument mentioned in the Hebrew Bible; and guess what?  In every case—WOMEN are the drummers. (I kind of like that—I was one of those weird girls who wanted to be a drummer all my life, and I got to do it in band, and then in high school marching band.  It was one of the great joys of my teenage years!)  It’s the men who went to war and the women who stayed behind, and they greeted the soldiers when they returned from battle.  So, the composition and performance of celebratory hymns became a women’s genre in ancient Israel.[4]

Miriam grabs her hand drum, opens her mouth and leads the people in a song and dance of praise.  It’s the oldest song about the exodus.  It’s the oldest poem in the Hebrew Bible. What’s so amazing about Miriam’s song, is that she is not rejoicing in the strength or power of her brother.  She is not crowing about a battle that has been won by her people.  She is reveling in the greatness of God.

Miriam answered them,
“Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted;
The horse and his rider He has hurled into the sea.”
Exodus 15:21

Miriam is a witness by the water—both at the beginning of the Moses story and now.[5] The song of praise is all about how great GOD is. Yahweh is the opposite of the gods of the empire.  We don’t trust in our own military strength and weapons.  We trust in the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God.  In Exodus, God is showing his power through the humble and lowest in society: the midwives, Moses’ mom, Pharaoh’s daughter, and through the watchful faith of a little girl named Miriam.  Her brother was rescued, and he grew up to lead God’s people.  His promise was fulfilled, as his people finally stood on the other side of the waters in freedom. 

Martin Luther King Jr. notes that this moment in Exodus was a great moment in Israel’s history.  But he also recognizes and said this: “The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and unjust exploitation.”[6]

Miriam recognizes that God is the one who brings evil to an end and is worthy of praise.  She picks up her drum and commands the people: “Sing with me!   Men and women, young and old!  The worship of God is something for ALL people!”    Miriam song will be echoed by Hannah at the birth of Samuel as Hannah sings: ‘Not by might shall one prevail.’[7] Miriam’s song is echoed in Mary’s song at the response to the angel’s news and Elizabeth’s greeting as she says: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones,

And has exalted those who were humble.”[8]  These songs from the women of Scripture are good models for songs that help us remember.  God starts his act of redemption with women, and they invite all of us to sing to God.  Miriam’s song is a reminder to us of why we sing, why we celebrate, and why we gather in the manner that we do.  It is a reminder of the postures we can and must take towards each other-of care, compassion and encouragement, rather than rivalry, bitterness and spirits of dominance and power.  Miriam had to sing her song, and we have to sing too. 

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus said:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the favorable year of the lord.”
Luke 4:18-19

We may have a lot of questions as a community of faith:

What if: –we’re too small to make a difference in this world?
–we look silly when we attempt to help others?
–our prayers don’t seem to make any difference?
–the outside forces around us tear us apart and we’re a laughingstock in the town?

But what if: –God really does use weak people to do powerful things in his kingdom?
–we don’t try at all; and then we miss out on what God is doing?
–we dare to follow in our Savior’s footsteps and the waters part, and the seas roll back, and evil is defeated, and friends are healed…
–we dare to dream—and God steps in with more than we ever could have asked for or imagined?
–we acted like Miriam? … Let’s Stand firm and watch what God will do!

Prayer: O God—you are the one who created the heavens and the earth—The one who looked and SAW that it was good.  You are a faithful God who empowers the weak and energizes the lame, and raises the dead.  We see your vision of the future, and we want to experience it in our own lives. Help us to stand firm in your Word, to stand committed to your ways and to SEE your promises fulfilled.  May we be so captivated by what we see that we can’t help but sing and tell of your goodness and mercy of your greatness and power and of your redemption.  All this we pray, in the One named Jesus, who had all power, and yet became humble and obedient unto death, the one who rose again, and who will return and fully make all things new.  Amen.

watch more: https://vimeo.com/510946125

[1] Boesak, Allan Aubrey, The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness- Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire, Hervormde teologiese studies, 73 no 4 2017, 1-15, 2.

[2] Boesak, 2

[3] http://www.jtsa.edu/miriams-song-and-the-role-of-music-in-prayer   as is found in Sotah 12b, 13a.

[4] Carol Meyers, Exodus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 117, 118.

[5] Robert Altar, The Five Books of Moses, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004, 402. 

[6] (King, [1963] 1981:78; and Allan Boesak [1987] 2015:117; Boesak 2015:129–130)

[7] 1 Samuel 2:9

[8] Luke 1:52

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