Song of the Two Miryams
Parashat B’shalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16
Rabbi Barry Rubin, Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation, Clarksville, MD
In this week’s Torah portion, we read what happened after the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage.
Of course, we know that right after Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt, he regretted his decision and went after them, pushing their backs up against the Yam Suf or Sea of Reeds. You might say they were between the devil and the deep blue sea. Yet, through a major miracle, orchestrated by Almighty God, through his prophet Moses, the Israelites were able to get across the sea on dry land and Pharaoh’s armies were drowned.
Well, it’s no wonder that the Israelites were overjoyed by this, so much so that Moses and all the people sang a song (Ex. 15:1-19): “I will sing unto Adonai, for he is highly exalted; the horse and rider he threw into the sea.” It was a great song of deliverance and celebration.
You’d think that that song, sung by Moses and all the people, might have sufficed. But then something surprising happened: Miryam, sister of Moses and Aaron, added to the celebration with her own song: “Sing to Adonai for he is highly exalted. The horse and rider he threw into the sea!” (Ex. 15:20-21).
But, this is odd. The words are the same, so, why would Miryam need her own private women’s celebration? Was she trying to one-up her younger brother Moses? Was she doing some sort of women’s lib thing? Did she think that she and her women dancers could just do a better job than all the men of Israel?
The Sages of the Talmud suggest an answer in Shemot Rabbah. They wondered why Miryam is introduced as “Miryam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron.” Why does Miryam being a prophetess help explain why she would add a conclusion to Moses’ Song of the Sea? And why mention that she was the sister of Aaron? She was also the sister of Moses, so why only mention Aaron here?
The Sages say that we need to understand two things: First, that Miryam was a prophetess; and second, that she had a prophecy when she was just the sister of Aaron, before Moses was born. If we understand that prophecy, we understand her song. And here is the story our sages tell to explain all this:
When Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish boys should be thrown into the Nile, immediately after birth, the man and woman who would become the parents of Moses separated from each other so they wouldn’t have any more children. Why bother procreating since the children are just going to be killed anyway? But Miryam, their daughter, had a prophecy: my mother is going to give birth to the rescuer of the Jewish people. She shared that prophecy with her parents; her parents then reunited. Moses was born.
And, we know from Exodus 2, the child’s mother hid him for three full months, and then she took a little basket, covered it with pitch, placed the child in it, and set the basket in the reeds next to the shore of the river to hide her baby boy so he wouldn’t be killed.
Now, what would we think were the chances of success of this plan? A defenseless child out there by the Nile where all the Egyptians were, as well as crocodiles and snakes, all over the place. Pharaoh has decreed that all Jewish baby boys should be thrown in the Nile. So, what were the chances that this child lives?
Given that, would we be willing to watch what happens next? It could become gruesome. Most of us couldn’t watch, but someone did watch. Miryam watched from afar. The sages say she wanted to know what would happen to her prophecy. Miryam must have had faith to believe God would rescue her baby brother.
Well, then the daughter of Pharaoh comes. Is that good or bad? She could well be the worst possible person, the daughter of the man who decreed genocide upon the Jews. But, unlike her father, the daughter had something about her that caused her to do what was right. She hesitated. Miryam, reading the uncertainty in Pharoah’s daughter’s eyes says, can I call a Jewish woman to nurse this child for you? And the daughter of Pharaoh says, yes. And Miryam, who “stood at a distance to see what would happen with him” (Exodus 2:4), actually becomes the agent of salvation.
Now, fast-forward to the Jews at the Sea of Reeds: a huge body of water and filled with reeds. Horses belonging to Pharaoh, chariots, cavalry, all converging upon the people. It’s like it’s all happening again as it did back in Exodus 2.
There, Moses was threatened by one Egyptian, Pharaoh’s daughter, by a river. And now it’s not just a river, it’s a whole sea, 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 by the whole army of Egypt.
“How are you going to get out of this?” Moses asks the people, “You are going to do exactly what Miryam did when I was a baby. Stand and watch what the Lord will do.” Moses would urge the people to do what Miryam did: stand and watch what the Lord would do. Have faith like Miryam did. And when they do, and when the sea splits, and everyone sings a great chorus of praise, Miryam has her own reason for doing her own song and dance. It was the fulfillment of the prophecy she once received: My mother is going to give birth to the child who will save the Jewish people.
This pattern is repeated in Israel’s history several hundred years later. The Jewish people were threatened again by a despot like Pharaoh, this time, King Herod. God revealed to another Miryam that she would have a son that would rescue his people. And, like her namesake, Moses’ sister, Yeshua’s mother knew that God would protect her people from Herod and his order that, as in the days of Pharoah, all the Jewish baby boys be killed. So Miryam sang: “My soul magnifies Adonai, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior . . . he has performed mighty deeds with his arm . . . brought down rulers from their thrones . . . mindful of the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever” (Luke 1:46-55). It’s a repeat of the promise expressed by Miryam of old.
So, in B’shalach, we see that Moses and Aaron’s sister, Miryam, had a prophecy that her brother would rescue the children of Israel. Her faith that God would protect her baby brother was a picture of the faith all Israel would need to have at the Sea of Reeds. And, this same pattern is seen again when Yeshua’s mother, also named Miryam, had the faith to believe that God would once again rescue his covenant people, Israel, and she, like her namesake before, wrote a song about it. And it boils down to this: God keeps his promises to his people. Believe it!