There is a rich narrative tradition of children possessing divine insight and speaking prophetically within Judaism. Two of the most significant prophets in the Tanakh — Miriam and Samuel— began their prophetic careers as children. According to Jewish tradition, Miriam was but 5 years old when she began issuing prophetic critiques and Samuel was only 12 years old. Thus they are both prime examples of how God gifts children with divine insight and speech.
Miriam is introduced at the beginning of the Book of Exodus. She is born to Amram and Yocheved. She is the older sister of Aaron and Moses, born 4 years before the former and 7 years before the latter.[i] The context of her life is the tyrannical government instituted by a new Egyptian Pharaoh, described in Exodus 1:8-22. The Pharaoh decides the people of Israel, who are living in Egypt, “are too many and too mighty.” Thus he plans to enslave them, forcing them into slave labor to “afflict them with heavy burdens.” However, his plan backfires, as “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad.” This causes the Pharaoh to double-down on his oppression. He “made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.” His empire shows the Israelites no mercy in their slavery; the biblical narrative describes the Pharaoh’s empire as “ruthless.”
In a cruel act of desperation, the Pharaoh decides that slavery is not enough. He thus implements a systematic genocide of the male Israelite children. To do so he attempts to enlist the aid of two Hebrew midwives,” one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah.” Judaic tradition holds that Shiphrah is Yocheved and Puah is Miriam.[ii] The Pharaoh instructs them, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” Yocheved and Miriam engage in one of the first ever known cases of civil disobedience, refusing to kill the children.
The next time we encounter Miriam is after the birth of her youngest brother, Moses. Yocheved gives birth to Moses and “hid him for three months,” in order to save him from the mandated infanticide. After the three months pass, Yocheved places the infant in a basket and puts the basket “among the reeds by the river bank.” Miriam watches from afar, standing “at a distance to know what would be done to him.” When the Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the river to bathe and discovers the child, Miriam creates an elaborate ruse to get Moses back to Yocheved. She asks the Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” When the Pharaoh’s daughter says yes, Miriam brings Yocheved to nurse Moses, thus re-uniting mother and child. In this way Miriam not only saves the life of Moses, but also gives Moses’s mother the chance to continue to be in his life.
The Tanakh describes Miriam as a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). Indeed, the first time she is mentioned by name in the biblical narrative is “in the Song at the Sea, where she is called (Ex. 15:20) ‘Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister.’” Judaic midrash tradition takes the description of Miriam as “Aaron’s sister” to mean that, “Miriam prophesied even before the birth of Moses, when Aaron was her only brother.”[iii] The tradition thus holds that “the spirit of prophecy came to her when she was still a child. Her earliest prophecy was that her mother was going to give birth to a son who would free the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage. This is one of the reasons why she was also called Puah, meaning ‘Whisperer,’ for she was whispering words of prophecy.” Her prophecy regarding Moses occurred when she was 5 years old.[iv]
Miriam, however, was not only a prophet in the sense of possessing divine insight. She was also a prophet in the sense of sociopolitical prophetic critique, issuing bold challenges to the authorities in her culture — most notably, her father, who was also a leading religious authority in the Jewish community (“the outstanding scholar and leader of his generation”[v]). Judaic tradition holds that when the Pharaoh instituted the systematic genocide of Jewish children, Miriam’s father Amram decided to separate from Yocheved, no longer have children, and encouraged the rest of the Jewish community to do the same:
When he saw that Pharaoh had decreed that all the boys be cast into the Nile, he proclaimed: “Are we laboring in vain” [we give birth to sons who will eventually be killed], and so he divorced his wife. All Israel saw this, and in consequence they also divorced their wives.[vi]
Miriam, but 6 years old at the time, courageously called out her father for betraying not only his own family, but also his culture’s family values. She proclaimed,
Father, Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you have decreed against both the males and the females. Pharaoh decreed only for this world, but you decreed both for this world and the next. It is doubtful whether the decree of the wicked Pharaoh will be fulfilled, but you are righteous, and your decree will undoubtedly be fulfilled.[vii]
Miriam’s prophetic critique of her father had a profound impact on not only her own family, but also the entire Israelite people. Maggy Whitehouse says,
[Miriam] made Amram realize that he was preventing girls from being born at all and that any baby that was born and died as a result of Pharaoh’s decree would still reach the World to Come; but an unborn child would never exist. Amram heeded his daughter, and remarried his wife.[viii]
By having the courage to speak up and out against her father, a power-holder in a patriarchal world, Miriam saves the well-being of all the Israelite women and also ensures the lives of all future Israelite children. This included Moses, who was born a year later and would eventually liberate the Israelites from the oppressive empire of the Egyptians. Through her brave prophetic critique as a 6-year-old child, Miriam saves an entire nation.
While Miriam’s story disappears from the biblical narrative after she successfully convinces the Pharaoh’s daughter to care for the infant Moses, it resurfaces years later during the Israelites’ flight through the Red Sea. As the Red Sea envelops the terrifying military might of Egypt, completely engulfing them such that “not one of them remained,” the Israelites begin rejoicing. Moses and all of the Israelites sing a song of praise to their God detailed in Exodus 15. And as their song comes to a close, we are told that Miriam — the once-child prophet, now a courageous political leader in her own right — leads the women in music and dance. As she does so, the narrative of Exodus 15:19-21 reminds us that she is a prophet: “Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.”
This is an important anecdote because within the Judaic tradition there is a belief in the supernatural singing of children, a belief that dates back to Miriam’s song and dance by the Red Sea. In fact, some scholars believe that the pericope in Matthew (Matthew 21:12-16) refers to this moment. New Testament scholar Judith M. Gundry-Volf says,
W.D. Davies and Dale L. Allison suggest that Matthew is alluding here to the tradition of the supernatural singing of Israelite children by the Red Sea when Moses led the people out of Egypt (cf. Wisd. 10:21).[ix]
The passage that Gundry-Volf references, Wisdom 10:21, is from the Book of Wisdom. For those raised evangelical and unfamiliar with this book, it is considered part of the biblical canon by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the greatest authorities of the early Christian church, Bishop Melito of Sardis (died c. 180), considered it to be one of the books of the Christian canon.[x] The following is the section from the Book of Wisdom that Gundry-Volf references, Wisdom 10:18-21:
[Wisdom] carried them across the Red Sea and led them through deep waters. She drowned their enemies and caused the depths to boil up over them. The people who did what was right then stripped the ungodly of their weapons. All together they sang hymns to your holy name, Lord. They praised your hand, which had defended and fought for them. Wisdom opens the mouths of those who can’t speak and puts clear words on the tongues of infants.
Miriam is a concrete and important example of how “Wisdom” or God does indeed open up the mouths of young children and puts clear words on their tongues. At 6 years old, Miriam’s prophetic critique of her father is impressively mature and thoughtful as well as incinerating in its impact. She also — as nothing more than a young person, and a female young person in a patriarchal society at that — has the bravery to say what no one else did, thereby changing the fate of the Jewish people.
[i] Nissan Mindel, “Miriam,” Chabad.org, link, accessed on June 30, 2015.
[ii] Ibid: “She was also called Puah, meaning ‘Whisperer,’ for she was whispering words of prophecy.”
[iii] Tamar Meir, “Miriam: Midrash and Aggadah,” Jewish Women’s Archive, link, accessed on June 30, 2015.
[vii] Pesikta Rabbati 43.
[viii] Maggy Whitehouse, A Woman’s Worth: The Divine Feminine in the Hebrew Bible, John Hunt Publishing, 2013, p. 126.
[ix] Judith M. Gundry-Volf, “The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. by Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 47.
[x] Eusebius, Church History, Book IV, Chapter 26, Section 14: “When I went East and came to the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and send them to you as written below. Their names are as follows: Of Moses, five books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Jesus Nave, Judges, Ruth; of Kings, four books; of Chronicles, two; the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, Wisdom also, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah; of the twelve prophets, one book ; Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras. From which also I have made the extracts, dividing them into six books. Such are the words of Melito.”
Featured image: Simeon Solomon’s 1860 painting “The Mother of Moses,” public domain.