Miriam’s greatest claim to fame wasn’t that she was the daughter of Amram and Jochebed (Num 26:59). It was that she was the sister of Moses.
Though she’s not named in the famous story of the infant Moses being hidden in a basket, placed in the Nile River, then discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2), she’s almost certainly the “sister” mentioned there. In that incident, Miriam displayed both courage and resourcefulness. She proved herself to be the quintessential protective big sister.
The first time she is called by name in Scripture is when the children of Israel are celebrating their great deliverance form slavery in Egypt and safe passage through the Red Sea. Miriam is shown playing a prominent role on the great occasion, leading the fledgling nation (or at least the women) in worship (Exodus 15:20-21).
Over time, Miriam and her two brothers became a kind of “executive leadership team.” The “baby” -that is, Moses- functioned like the CEO. From Miriam’s perspective, Moses was the golden child. He was the one who survived when most of the other Hebrew boy babies didn’t. He was the one who got to be raised by Egyptian royalty in luxury. He was the one who later was handpicked by God-who spoke to Moses out of a burning bush, no less! -to lead the Israelites to freedom. He was the one who got to meet regularly face to face with God on top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:11), receiving those tablets inscribed by the very finger of God. Sometimes the glory of his lengthy one-on-ones with the Almighty was so overwhelming that Moses literally shone for weeks after the fact.
Miriam’s other brother, Aaron, acted as Moses’ chief communications officer and VP of operations. Why Moses let him stay in that position after some of his boneheaded moves (Exodus 32), Miriam couldn’t understand. But at least she had role of “prophetess” (Exodus 15:20), meaning that, like her brother Moses, she too received revelations directly from the Almighty. She most likely comforted herself with the fact that they were every bit as valid and important as anything Moses every spouted.
One day Aaron and Miriam finally had enough of playing second fiddle. They were sick of watching Moses get so much (literal) glory. When their frustration reached critical mass, they began to criticize their brother (Numbers 12:1-12). They began with verbal attacks on his wife. But that was only a smoke screen. Very quickly, their real beef surfaced. “They said, ‘Does the LORD speak only through Moses? Does He not also speak through us?’ And the LORD heard it” (Numbers 12:2).
What happened next wasn’t pretty. God called an emergency meeting of Israel’s “executive council.” When the three arrived at the tent of meeting, God told Moses be could wait outside. Then the Almighty called Miriam and Aaron inside and, in no uncertain terms, made it clear that Moses was the guy, his guy. And to underline this reality, Miriam left that meeting with a severe case of leprosy (probably because she was the instigator of this challenge to Moses’ leadership).
It was Moses who stepped forward and pleaded with God to restore his sister to health. God agreed, but first he gave Miriam seven days to stare at her diseased skin and think about what she’d done (Numbers 12). She seems to have learned some important life lessons from this incident: Do with joy the thing God has called you to do. Be thankful for the opportunity to serve, and don’t overstep your bounds. Refuse to compare yourself with others, resist the snare of envy, and don’t sinfully criticize the leaders God has installed.
Miriam isn’t mentioned again in the biblical record until the time of her death (Numbers 20:1).