Scripture Sketches: Miriam

 •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 10
Those angels who have desired to look into the progress of earthly dispensations could hardly have had a more interesting sight than they had when, three thousand years ago, they watched little Miriam “minding the baby” —if they only could have known who the baby that lay in that rude cradle was to become, and what stupendous work he was to accomplish. But poor little Miriam, the Hebrew slave-child, could have known nothing of all that. She probably only felt a horrible dread when the retinue of the princess of Egypt approached, and a suffocating affright when the crying baby was drawn forth from his hiding-place by the people who had decreed his death. The baby however was, it appears, a singularly attractive one. His parents, we read, considered him “a goodly child,” “a proper child,” “exceeding fair.” I am not aware that that view of their progeny is very exceptional to parents, and, though I have no evidence, am bold however to say that Miriam held the same opinion and was therefore less surprised than gratified to observe that the princess was evidently pleased with the child and amiably disposed toward it. This is the moment which Miriam seizes to run forward and ask whether she would like her to fetch a Hebrew woman to nurse it for her. Do so, says the. princess, and the girl hastens away to bring Jochebed—the babe's own mother. This was one of the finest pieces of finesse ever known. The courage and resource shown by Miriam, together with her devotion to a task at once monotonous and dangerous, gives an impression of her which enables us to read without surprise later on, that she is a prophetess and leads the choral worship of the entire redeemed nation on the banks of the Red Sea. It is gratifying to find that she has thrown in her lot with the oppressed and calumniated nation, the people of God. This was outwardly an extraordinary advance in occupation. She had been faithful in that which was least, that which appeared to be a humble and menial duty; and now she was set amongst those who led in the van of God's host. The dignity of the position is manifestly vastly different, but the dignity of the service itself does not differ so greatly as might be thought. We do not, it is true, usually rate the services of a nursemaid very high—in wages at least—but still she may be, like this one whom we are considering, doing work of enormous importance in guarding the beginning of some God-inspired life. We learn that, if we willingly and thoroughly perform the humble duty, whatever it is, that lies near at hand, we shall always be doing right and may possibly be carrying out some work of stupendous and eternal importance. “What! in minding a baby"? Yes, Miriam thought she was only “minding the baby,” when all the time she was watching over the destinies of the planet! When the fabled Norse hero, Thor, smote those three mighty blows with his hammer on the face of the sleeping Giant Skrymir, he was discouraged to see so little result. But afterward they found that Skrymir was the Earth, and that the blows had dented three great valleys into its surface. Who knows what vast work he may be doing when he fulfills the most ordinary duty? Does not Mr. Herbert Spencerprove the “persistence of force,” and that the impulse caused by the lifting of a hand vibrates to the farthest star? And as to whether one duty is menial and another honorable, there can be no honest work really menial, and all honest work is honorable. What is it “holy George Herbert” says in the Elixir:— “A servant with this clause Makes drudgery divine; Who sweeps a room as for thy laws Makes that and the action fine.”
And I said “thoroughly” just now, because I think there is evidence of a thoroughness in the way in which Miriam acts that would have satisfied even Lord Strafford. When the princess had received the infant in so friendly a fashion, without doubt, most watchers, under all the circumstances, would have quietly slunk away home quite satisfied; but Miriam clinches the nail and makes it a rivet. Oh, it was very good! Again when that mighty burst of national worship rose at the Red Sea bank, it was Miriam who closed the great and glorious anthem with its final diapason. I think that had she been housemaid as well as nursemaid (which of course she was, for the poor slave Jochebed was not likely to have had other domestic servants), she would not “have swept the dust in under the mat,” but would have made “that and the action fine.” I pray you, do not consider any honest work mean or despicable. By doing it to God we can make that and the action fine. It cannot lower one to do humble duty in the poorest circumstances. Jeremy Taylor worked in a barber's shop, Copernicus in a baker's, Kepler in an innkeeper's. Bunyan was a tinker, and Carey was a cobbler, David was a shepherd, Amos a herdsman, the apostles mostly fishermen, and their Master was called “the carpenter.”
Miriam's familiarity with household duties did not incapacitate her for the highest spiritual and intellectual attainments: she became a prophetess. There is a way of speaking as if the two things were incompatible; of saying (if one gives proof of learning and devotion), that she must be neglecting her home; and that it is better to be expert at domestic cares than to be studying the “ologies.” As if one could not do both, or as if, other things being equal, the expert and thorough housekeeper would not usually be better also in everything else than the negligent one! But the superstition is too stupid to argue against. I like to think of Elihu Burritt hammering his horse-shoe, or Thomas Cooper wielding his awl, whilst they stored their minds with the love of many strange lands and languages. I like to think of Philip Melancthon holding the baby on his knee with his one hand, whilst he held his Hebrew manuscript with the other.
It may be doubted whether, to the one that loved and nursed it, “the baby” ever entirely ceases to be an object over which protection and authority (modified indeed) should be exercised. At least it was so with Miriam. When Moses had been many years arrived at maturity, he married an Ethiopian bride.1 Miriam did not at all approve and went about “saying things,” which Aaron encouraged. Was Moses the only one by whom the Lord had spoken? Had he not also spoken by them? The passage is very fine. Moses, “meek above all the men that were upon the face of the earth,” does nothing to resent this (and indeed we should, remembering that childish care by the Nile's bank long before, be distressed if we read that he had done so). But Jehovah intervenes with a sudden and terrible chastisement. Aaron, the weak-natured and misled one, is leniently dealt with; but Miriam is of a different character and greater responsibility. They are both sternly rebuked, and Miriam is smitten with leprosy!
Then there arises to her brother an opportunity for returning some of her ancient care. “Moses cried unto the LORD, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.” If she can no longer expect his submission to her will, the love of those early years is not dead. His prayer is heard.