While many people tend to be familiar with great prophets like Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, few (including myself) take the time to understand the importance of the foremost prophetesses in the Old Testament, Miriam and Deborah. It’s true that modern feminist interpretations of Scripture have somewhat muddied the waters around these two heroines, however that’s all the more reason for faithful students of Scripture to try and actually understand what their significance is. That’s what this article is an attempt to do, and ultimately I’ve found that the more we study the role of prominent women in the Old Testament, the more we come to understand the role of our Immaculate Lady in the New Testament.
To begin, the book of Exodus very much highlights the importance of women in salvation history. As the prologue informs us (Ex. 1:1-6), this narrative is a continuation of the story that began in Genesis, going back not just to Joseph and his forefathers, but really all the way back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, the woman was deceived by the serpent while her husband stood idly by and allowed it to happen. In order to reverse this, we saw women throughout Genesis deceiving wicked serpents (the lex talionis), as Sarah deceived Pharaoh and Rebekah deceived Isaac. The Hebrew midwives are no different. Like Sarah, they deceived the Pharaoh (who’s later portrayed with serpentine imagery cf. Ex. 4:3-4, 7:9-12) in order to save the promised seed (Ex. 1:19), and they did this by placing baby Moses in an “Ark” on the waters, just to make sure our eyes were focused on the Genesis themes here.
Miriam, who’s Moses’ sister, is introduced as one of the midwives who saved her baby brother (Ex. 2:3-4), and it becomes clear that this strategy of floating him down the river was more well thought out than we might have initially suspected. This is because Miriam is not only a midwife, but also one of Pharaoh’s daughter’s servants, and so it’s no surprise that she was (probably intentionally) leading the princess down the river to help her find baby Moses. Indeed, once she stumbled upon the child, Miriam was the one who offered to find a nurse who could take care of him (Ex. 2:7), thus fully revealing her as an Eve figure who both deceived the serpent and protected the seed. This is significant because, in this very context, Miriam is directly referred to as ha’almah (Ex. 2:8), which is the rare word from Isaiah 7:14 that’s (correctly) translated as “virgin” in an explicit prophecy of our Lady’s miraculous birth-giving.
And the connections between Miriam and Mary don’t end here. When Miriam’s first introduced as a prophetess in Exodus 15:20-21, it’s immediately followed by her breaking out in a song similar to Mary’s Magnificat. This occurs right after her brother, the prophet Moses, had also sung about God’s salvation (Ex. 15:1-18), thus highlighting their similar (though not equal) importance. By the time we get to Numbers 11-12, the prophetic ministry is described in more detail. When a young man complained to Moses that there were others in the camp prophesying, Moses’ response was his wish that “all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:29). Right after this, in Numbers 12, we’re fittingly given a story surrounding some of these other prophets, and Miriam is at the center of it. Her and Aaron affirm that the Lord has “spoken through us also” (Num. 12:2), not just Moses, and they use this to try and challenge Moses’ unique standing with God. This heavily suggests that Aaron and Miriam were in Moses’ inner circle, perhaps acting as “intercessors” before him, just as he was an intercessor before God.
For challenging the Lord’s highest prophet, however, Miriam was struck with biblical leprosy and her skin became white “like snow” (Num. 12:10), a fate typically reserved for prophetic figures (cf. Ex. 4:6, 2 Kg. 5:27). Due to her unclean leprosy, she had to wait outside the camp for a week, and we’re interestingly told that, “the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again” (Num. 12:15), heavily implying that she had some kind of following within Israel. This is the last time Miriam shows up in the story, however the Lord later reaffirms her importance in Micah 6:4, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” This essentially confirms that Aaron and Miriam were in Moses’ inner circle, and that the three of them were all fundamental to the inauguration of the Sinai covenant.
James Jordan further points out how this trio seemingly corresponds to the threefold “ministries” of Samson, Samuel, and Jephthah’s daughter, the last of whom also had a following in Israel that was perhaps similar to Miriam’s (cf. Judg. 11:40). This connection would be very pertinent given the fact that Jephthah’s daughter took a vow of virginity very similar to our Lady’s. Regardless, what all of this tells us is that, unlike the royal and priestly ministries in Israel, the prophetic ministry was (at least in principle) open to “all the Lord’s people,” including and especially women like Miriam. It seems that her main role was to be spiritual leader among the people of Israel, encouraging them in faith, and interceding for them before the Lord and His chosen rulers (even if it wasn’t always for noble reasons).
This makes sense of why the name “Miriam” or “Mary” was so popular in first century Judea, and why our Lord ordained His Mother to have this name as well. Just like Miriam, our Lady is the new Eve, the true “almah,” who ensured salvation for her people by bearing the promised seed. She, like Miriam, also seems to have been a kind of spiritual leader in early Christianity, helping to run the Jerusalem church with the other members of Jesus’ family (cf. Acts 1:14), in addition to being the “champion leader” of our faith. As Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were sent before Israel in the midst of the first Exodus, so were Jesus, Peter, and Mary sent before the Church for the new Exodus. And just as the old Miriam had a prophetic/intercessory standing with Moses, so now does holy Mary intercede for us before the throne of the Eternal Law-Giver, only she never does so with ill-intent.
Moving on to the prophetess Deborah, her being a type of the Theotokos can be seen by just how much she “embodies” the God of Israel. The way Deborah’s judgments are given heavily implies that she’s the mouthpiece of Yahweh, since she doesn’t need to consult with Him in order to speak on His behalf (cf. Judg. 4:5-7). And Deborah’s association with Yahweh goes even deeper when it’s recognized that, just as Yahweh’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant was key to Israel’s prior military victories (Num. 10:33-34), so now is Deborah’s presence necessary for their successful conquest. This explains why Barak was so insistent on never leaving Deborah’s side in battle, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judg. 4:8). It’s because, “Deborah functions as the alter ego of Yahweh. Her very presence guarantees victory in the same manner as the presence of a divine emissary of Yahweh” (Gafney, “Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel,” pg. 91).
In this respect, Deborah is clearly being portrayed as a new Moses, to whom the Lord previously said, “I have made you God to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1), for which cause he was also a necessary component to Israel’s military success (cf. Ex. 17:8-13). This is further confirmed by the fact that, after defeating God’s enemies, Deborah and Barak sang a song to commemorate their victory (Judg. 5:1-31), reminding us of Moses and Miriam’s prophetic songs. Just as Moses was generally seen as “the father” of Israel (as was Elijah after his exodus-crossing of the Jordan, cf. 2 Kg. 2:12), so is Deborah shown to be “a mother in Israel” (Judg. 5:7), or more precisely, the mother of Israel. The main difference between her and Moses, of course, is the fact that she’s a woman, something that’s (almost redundantly) highlighted throughout the narrative. As such, Deborah seems to emphasize the maternal reading of Genesis 3:16, wherein it’s Eve, the mother of all living, who crushes the head of the serpent.
This is confirmed in the song of Judges 5, where it’s recounted how Deborah’s prophecy that Sisera would be “delivered into the hands of a woman” (Judg. 4:9), was fulfilled by Jael “crush[ing] his head” with a tent peg, and it’s for this reason that she’s called “most blessed of women” (Judg. 5:24-26). Obviously, this is significant because our Lady was also called “blessed among women” in the context of her bearing the promised seed (Lk. 1:42).
Thus, the echoes of Deborah in the NT’s portrait of our Lady are quite apparent. Just as Deborah was, in a sense, a stand-in for the Ark of the Lord, so does Luke 1 vividly portray Mary as the Ark who bears the personal presence of Yahweh in her womb. Likewise, just as Deborah was a military leader, so is Mary portrayed as a warrior of sorts, given she’s told “the Lord is with you” (Lk. 1:28), something that was also said to great military leaders like Joshua (Josh. 1:9) and Gideon (Judg. 6:12). And of course, Deborah being the mother of Israel is ultimately fulfilled in Mary’s role as the new “mother of all living” who crushes the serpent’s head. May Miriam and Deborah intercede with the Theotokos before Christ our God, so that our souls may be saved!