Exodus 15:20 Commentaries: Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.
Exodus 15:20
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(20) Miriam the prophetess.—In Miriam we have the first of that long series of religious women presented to us in Holy Scripture who are not merely pious and God-fearing, but exercise a quasi-ministerial office. Examples of other “prophetesses” will be found in Judges 4:4; 2Kings 22:14; Isaiah 8:3; Luke 2:36. In the early Christian Church there was an order of “deaconesses (Romans 16:1; Apost. Const., vi. 17). The office of “prophetess” seems to have been permitted to women in Egypt, though that of “priestess” was, until Ptolemaic times, forbidden them.

The sister of Aaron.—She is called “sister of Aaron,” rather than of Moses, because Aaron was the head of the family (Exodus 6:20; Exodus 7:7). There is no reasonable doubt that she was the sister who kept watch on Moses when he was in the ark of bulrushes (Exodus 2:3-8). On her later history, see Numbers 12:1-15. The prophet Micah regarded her as having had a part in the work of Israel’s deliverance (Micah 6:4).

Timbrels and with dances.—By “timbrels” are meant tambours, or tambourines, favourite instruments in Egypt, and usually played by women there (Wilkinson: Ancient Egyptians, vol. i., p. 93). The combination of music with song in religious worship, here for the first time brought before us, became the fixed rule of the Tabernacle service from the time of David (2Samuel 6:15; 1Chronicles 23:5; 1Chronicles 25:1-6), and was adopted into the Temple service from its first establishment (2Chronicles 5:12). Sanctioned under the new covenant by the general praise of psalmody, and by the representations given in the Apocalypse of the Church triumphant in heaven (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 14:2-3), it has always maintained itself in the Christian Church, and still holds its ground firmly. Dancing, on the contrary, though adopted into religious worship by many nations, sanctioned by the present passage, by the example of David (2Samuel 6:16), and by expressions in the Psalms (Psalm 149:3; Psalm 150:4), has never found an entrance into Christian ceremonial, unless among a few fanatic sects. The reason of this is to be found in the abuses which, through human infirmity, became by degrees connected with the practice, causing it to become unfit for a religious purpose. In the primitive times, however, solemn and stately dances were deemed appropriate to festival periods and religious rejoicings, and among the more moral tribes and nations had nothing unseemly about them.

The arrangement of the choir on this occasion into two bands—one of males, the other of females—and the combined employment of music, song, and dancing by the female band, are in close accord with Egyptian customs.

Exodus 15:20-21. Miriam the prophetess — So called, either in a general sense, because she was an instructer of other women in the praise and service of God, or in a more special sense, because she had the spirit of prophecy, Numbers 12:2; Micah 6:4. Miriam (or Mary, for it is the same name) now presided in an assembly of the women, who, according to the common usage of those times, with timbrels and dances, sung this song. Moses led the sacred song, and gave it out for the men, and then Miriam for the women. Famous victories were wont to be applauded by the daughters of Israel, (1 Samuel 18:6-7,) so was this. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, it is said, (Micah 6:4,) he sent before them Moses, Aaron, and Miriam; though we read not of any thing remarkable that Miriam did but this. But those are to be reckoned great blessings to a people, that go before them in praising God. And Miriam answered them — The men: they sung by turns, or in parts.15:1-21 This song is the most ancient we know of. It is a holy song, to the honour of God, to exalt his name, and celebrate his praise, and his only, not in the least to magnify any man. Holiness to the Lord is in every part of it. It may be considered as typical, and prophetical of the final destruction of the enemies of the church. Happy the people whose God is the Lord. They have work to do, temptations to grapple with, and afflictions to bear, and are weak in themselves; but his grace is their strength. They are often in sorrow, but in him they have comfort; he is their song. Sin, and death, and hell threaten them, but he is, and will be their salvation. The Lord is a God of almighty power, and woe to those that strive with their Maker! He is a God of matchless perfection; he is glorious in holiness; his holiness is his glory. His holiness appears in the hatred of sin, and his wrath against obstinate sinners. It appears in the deliverance of Israel, and his faithfulness to his own promise. He is fearful in praises; that which is matter of praise to the servants of God, is very dreadful to his enemies. He is doing wonders, things out of the common course of nature; wondrous to those in whose favour they are wrought, who are so unworthy, that they had no reason to expect them. There were wonders of power and wonders of grace; in both, God was to be humbly adored.And Miriam the prophetess - The part here assigned to Miriam and the women of Israel is in accordance both with Egyptian and Hebrew customs. The men are represented as singing the hymn in chorus, under the guidance of Moses; at each interval Miriam and the women sang the refrain, marking the time with the timbrel, and with the measured rhythmical movements always associated with solemn festivities. Compare Judges 11:34; 2 Samuel 6:5, and marginal references. The word used in this passage for the timbrel is Egyptian, and judging from its etymology and the figures which are joined with it in the inscriptions, it was probably the round instrument.

Miriam is called a prophetess, evidently Numbers 12:2 because she and Aaron had received divine communications. The word is used here in its proper sense of uttering words suggested by the Spirit of God. See Genesis 20:7. She is called the sister of Aaron, most probably to indicate her special position as coordinate, not with Moses the leader of the nation, but with his chief aid and instrument.

20. Miriam the prophetess—so called from her receiving divine revelations (Nu 12:1; Mic 6:4), but in this instance principally from her being eminently skilled in music, and in this sense the word "prophecy" is sometimes used in Scripture (1Ch 25:1; 1Co 11:5).

took a timbrel—or "tabret"—a musical instrument in the form of a hoop, edged round with rings or pieces of brass to make a jingling noise and covered over with tightened parchment like a drum. It was beat with the fingers, and corresponds to our tambourine.

all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances—We shall understand this by attending to the modern customs of the East, where the dance—a slow, grave, and solemn gesture, generally accompanied with singing and the sound of the timbrel, is still led by the principal female of the company, the rest imitating her movements and repeating the words of the song as they drop from her lips.

Miriam the prophetess; so called, either in a general sense, because she was an instructer of other women in the praise and service of God; or in a more special sense, because she had the Spirit of prophecy. See Numbers 12:2 Micah 6:4.

The sister of Aaron

Quest. Why not of Moses also?

Answ. 1. She might be Moses’s sister only by one parent, Aaron’s by both.

2. She was best known to the people by her relation to Aaron, with whom she had lived for many years, when Moses was banished.

With timbrels and with dances, according to their ancient custom in public solemnities. See Judges 11:34 21:21 1 Samuel 18:6 2 Samuel 6:14,21 Jer 31:4,13. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron,.... The same, it is highly probable, that is called the sister of Moses, Exodus 2:3, her name Miriam is the same as Mary with us, and signifies bitterness; and, as the Hebrews (x) observe, had it from the bitterness of the times, and the afflictions the Israelites endured and groaned under when she was born; which is a much more probable signification and reason of her name than what is given by others, that it is the same with Marjam, which signifies a drop of the sea; from whence, they fancy, came the story of Venus, and her name of Aphrodite, the froth of the sea: Miriam was a prophetess, and so called, not from this action of singing, here recorded of her, for so all the women that sung with her might be called prophetesses, though sometimes in Scripture prophesying intends singing; but rather from her having a gift of teaching and instructing, and even of foretelling things to come; for the Lord spoke by her as well as by Moses and Aaron, and she, with them, were the leaders of the people of Israel, sent to them of the Lord, see Numbers 12:2, she is particularly called the sister of Aaron, though she was likewise the sister of Moses; the reason is, that being older than Moses, she was Aaron's sister before his, and having lived all her days with Aaron almost, and very little with Moses, was best known by being the sister of Aaron; and it is possible she might be his own sister by father and mother's side, when Moses was by another woman; however, it is said of her, she

took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances; timbrels were a sort of drums or tabrets, which being beat upon gave a musical sound, somewhat perhaps like our kettledrums; and though dances were sometimes used in religious exercises, yet the word may signify another kind of musical instruments, as "pipes" or "flutes" (y), as it is by some rendered; and by the Syriac and Arabic versions, "sistrums"; which were musical instruments much used by the Egyptians, and from whom the Israelitish women had these; and as they were going to keep a feast in the wilderness, they lent them to them, it is very probable, on that account; otherwise it is not easy to conceive what use the Israelites could have for them, and put them to during their hard bondage and sore affliction in Egypt: now with these they went out of the camp or tents into the open fields, or to the shore of the Red sea, and sung as Moses and the men of Israel did: to this the psalmist seems to refer in Psalm 68:25.

(x) Seder Olam Rabba, c. 3. p. 9. Dibre Hayamim, fol. 2. 2. (y) "cum fistulis", Junius & Tremellius, Piscator; "cum tibiis", Drusius; so Ainsworth.

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with {k} dances.

(k) Signifying their great joy: a custom the Jews observed in certain situations, Jud 11:34 but it should not be used as a means to justify our wanton dances.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
20. the prophetess] See Numbers 12:2; and cf. Jdg 4:4 (of Deborah).

the sister of Aaron] Miriam being more closely associated with Aaron than with Moses: cf. Numbers 12:1 ff., where Miriam and Aaron act together, even against Moses. See also on Exodus 2:1.

a timbrel] or hand-drum, i.e. a ring of wood or metal, covered with a tightly-drawn skin, held up in one hand, and struck by the fingers of the other. The same Heb. is sometimes rendered tabret. The hand-drum was used on joyous occasions, as Genesis 31:27, 2 Samuel 6:5, and with dances, as here, Jdg 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6, Jeremiah 31:4. For women celebrating a victory, see Jdg 11:34 (Jephthah’s daughter), Psalm 68:11 (RV.), and esp. 1 Samuel 18:6-7.

went out] viz. from the camp.

dances] For dancing on joyous religious occasions, cf. Exodus 32:19, Jdg 21:21, 2 Samuel 6:14, Psalm 149:3; Psalm 150:4. ‘In the East dancing was, and is, the language of religion. David, to shew his fervour, danced before the Ark with all his might. In Hellas dancing accompanied every rite and every mystery. The choral dance afforded the outlet to religious enthusiasm which elsewhere is provided by services’ (K. J. Freeman, Schools of Hellas 600–300 b.c., 1907, p. 143 f.).

20, 21. How the opening verse of the Song was sung by Miriam.Verse 20. - Miriam, the prophetess. Miriam is regarded by the prophet Micah 6:4, as having had a share in the deliverance of Israel, and claims the prophetic gift in Numbers 12:2. Her claim appears to be allowed both in the present passage, and in Numbers 12:6-8. where the degree of her inspiration is placed below that of Moses. She is the first woman whom the Bible honours with the title of "prophetess." Prophetesses were common in Egypt at a much earlier date; and thus, that a woman should have the gift would have seemed no strange thing to the Hebrews. For examples of other prophetesses, see Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Isaiah 8:3; Luke 2:36. The sister of Aaron. Compare Numbers 26:59. Miriam is generally regarded as the sister of Moses mentioned in Exodus 2:4-8, whose name is not there given. If so, she was considerably older than either Moses or Aaron. Took a timbrel By "a timbrel" our translators meant what is now called "a tambourine." Such instruments were common in Egypt (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, vol. 1. p. 93), and in the representations are generally played by women. The separation of the men and women into distinct bands was an Egyptian custom; as likewise was the execution of dances by performers who accompanied their steps with music (ibid. vol. it. pp. 235, 301). "People hear, they are afraid; trembling seizes the inhabitants of Philistia."
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