Prophet Miriam dances, sings and wins at Senet

Why was Miriam, the prophetess [Exodus 15:20] so confident that the liberation of the Jewish People from the Land of Egypt would be successful; that she told all the Jewish women to take timbrels with them because they would sing and dance when it was all over?

Because Miriam had already liberated herself from gender limits. Exodus 2:4 states “His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.”

Exodus 2:5-6 tells us that baby Moses might have died if, “Pharaoh’s daughter [had not] walked down to the Nile to bathe…along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent a female slave to get it. She [Pharaoh’s daughter] opened it [the basket] and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said”.

“Then his sister [Miriam] asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” “Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. [Exodus 2:7-8]

How did Miriam, who was only eight or nine years old at that time, have the great courage to speak to the powerful Pharaoh’s daughter; and the brave wisdom to offer to “go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”

Miriam had only recently learned to speak up bravely and with wisdom through more than a year of playing Senet, the most popular board game in Egypt, which is commonly depicted as the ‘typical’ ancient Egyptian board game in Hollywood movies.

Senet dates from the Early Dynastic Period and remained popular throughout Egypt’s history. Senet was a game for two players who faced each other across a board of thirty squares using five or seven game pieces.

At age seven Miriam wanted to enter a Senet tournament that was only for boys. So her mother Jochebed, signed her up using her younger brother Aaron’s name. When she showed up to play, her opponent refused to play against her because the was only a girl. She replied,” Are you afraid a girl will beat you?”

So he played and she won. And she kept winning until she won the whole tournament. And many tournaments afterwards. That is why her mother Jochebed, knew Miriam had the courage and the wisdom to stand “at a distance to see what would happen to him.”

Also because Miriam told Jochebed she had heard that Pharaoh’s daughter and her mother both loved to play Senet.

Indeed, there still exists a painting on the wall of the wife of Ramesses II, Queen Nefertari (c. 1255 BCE) that shows her playing Senet. And the Qur’an states that it was Pharaoh’s wife herself, who made the decision to adopt baby Moses.

After three years as the nursemaid of Moses, Jochebed no longer came to Pharaoh’s court, but Miriam continued to come almost every week to play Senet with Pharaoh’s daughter and/or her mother. This went on for many years, even long after Moses fled Egypt.

Miriam kept telling the Jewish people, as well as Pharaoh’s daughter, that someday Moses would return and lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. When Moses did return, the people of Israel realized that Miriam was indeed a prophet.

When people worried that they would die from thirst in the desert of Sinai; Miriam replied that a well, called “The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.”[Genesis 24:62] would follow them and provide then with water. Again Miriam was right and the Jewish People would name the well after Miriam.

The well appears in a mural of the Dura Europus synagogue [destroyed in the third century CE], in which Miriam’s Well is portrayed, with streams of water flowing to every tent of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Pharaoh’s daughter decided she would join Miriam and Moses when the Jewish People left Egypt and and become Jewish; so Miriam gave her a Hebrew name. The Midrash relates she received her new name of Bitiah [bat-yah; literally, daughter of God] from God [through Miriam] as reward for her actions.

God told her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you are not My daughter, but I shall call you My daughter” ( Midrash Leveticus Rabbah 1:3 )

This is why Miriam, the prophetess [Exodus 15:20] was so confident that the liberation of the Jewish People from the Land of Egypt would be successful and she told all the Jewish women to take timbrels with them because they would sing and dance when it was all over.

That was why Miriam the Prophet, told all the Jewish women to take timbrels with them because they would sing and dance Az Yashir, when it was all over; and to this very day in almost every Sephardi synagogue Az Yashir, the Song of the Sea, is sung with a collective enthusiasm that defies logic.

Old men who’ve sung it every morning of their lives sing as though they themselves just emerged safe from the water; and turned back to see their enemies vanish under the waves.  Sickness, loss, dislocation, disappointment, death itself – a veritable Pharaoh’s army of the things we fear – sink like stones into the watery depths. And we, Thank God, are on dry land.

Some of the power of the Song of the Sea is preserved in every Torah scroll that makes the poetic lines of words of the Song of the Sea stand out visually because the broken lines look like waves.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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