21 April 2012

Exodus 17:1-13

"Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." (v. 6)


This passage can be read in comparison with Numbers 20:1-13, which describes a similar dilemma and solution but with the additional detail that the lack of water immediately follows Miriam's death.

There is a very strong association in rabbinic tradition, between the prophetess Miriam, who is Moses' and Aaron's sister, and water. Today, some Jewish households honour her part in the liberation of the Israelites at the Passover seder meal by placing a cup of water on the table, alongside a cup of wine for Elijah. That she was held in high regard in her own right, as a leader of the people, can be seen in Micah 6:4: "I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam".

Miriam's connection with water begins in childhood (Exodus 2:1-10). She stands at the riverbank of the Nile, watching over her baby brother Moses, whose birth she is said to have predicted. She watches as the Pharaoh's daughter draws the basket containing Moses out of the water, and then intervenes to reunite the baby with his mother. Later she watches the movements of the Red Sea which allows the Israelites safe passage but drowns the pursuing army, then leads the women in praise to God, for their deliverance (Exodus 15:20-21).

Her name comes from the adjective 'bitter', and in Exodus 15:23we read of bitter water which is sweetened to be drinkable. Perhaps most remarkably, according to tradition, a well in the form of a rock from which water flows, travels with the Israelites because of Miriam. Only when she dies, does the well dry up.

Miriam, then, is given a significant position in Jewish tradition, as a prophetess and leader, through whom the people are blessed with the gift of water. Miriam's travelling well is an expression of the presence of God with the people, as a source of life.

To Ponder

What sustains you in difficult times?

Miriam is one of a number of significant women characters in the Hebrew Scriptures. Which of these women inspire you and why?

Bible notes author

Ray Gaston and Annie Heppenstall

Ray Gaston is inter faith tutor and enabler for The Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and the Birmingham Methodist. Prior to that he was in parish ministry in inner city Leeds for 12 years.