on Exodus 15 :20
And Miriam the prophetess - We have already seen that Miriam was older than either Moses or Aaron: for when Moses was exposed on the Nile, she was a young girl capable of managing the stratagem used for the preservation of his life; and then Aaron was only three years and three months old, for he was fourscore and three years old when Moses was but fourscore, (see Exodus 7:7); so that Aaron was older than Moses, and Miriam considerably older than either, not less probably than nine or ten years of age. See Clarke's notes on Exodus 2:2. There is great diversity of opinion on the origin of the name of Miriam, which is the same with the Greek Μαριαμ, the Latin Maria, and the English Mary. Some suppose it to be compounded of מר mar, a drop, (Isaiah 40:15), and ים yam, the sea, and that from this etymology the heathens formed their Venus, whom they feign to have sprung from the sea. St. Jerome gives several etymologies for the name, which at once show how difficult it is to ascertain it: she who enlightens me, or she who enlightens them, or the star of the sea. Others, the lady of the sea, the bitterness of the sea, etc. It is probable that the first or the last is the true one, but it is a matter of little importance, as we have not the circumstance marked, as in the case of Moses and many others, that gave rise to the name.
The prophetess - הנביאה hannebiah. For the meaning of the word prophet, נביא nabi, see the note on Genesis 20:7. It is very likely that Miriam was inspired by the Spirit of God to instruct the Hebrew women, as Moses and Aaron were to instruct the men; and when she and her brother Aaron sought to share in the government of the people with Moses, we find her laying claim to the prophetic influence, Numbers 12:2 : Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not Spoken Also By Us? And that she was constituted joint leader of the people with her two brothers, we have the express word of God by the Prophet Micah, Micah 6:4 : For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt - and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Hence it is very likely that she was the instructress of the women, and regulated the times, places, etc., of their devotional acts; for it appears that from the beginning to the present day the Jewish women all worshipped apart.
A timbrel - תף toph, the same word which is translated tabret, Genesis 31:27, on which the reader is desired to consult the note. See Clarke's note on Genesis 31:27.
And with dances - מחלת mecholoth. Many learned men suppose that this word means some instruments of wind music, because the word comes from the root חלל chalal, the ideal meaning of which is to perforate, penetrate, pierce, stab, and hence to wound. Pipes or hollow tubes, such as flutes, hautboys, and the like, may be intended. Both the Arabic and Persian understand it as meaning instruments of music of the pipe, drum, or sistrum kind; and this seems to comport better with the scope and design of the place than the term dances. It must however be allowed that religious dances have been in use from the remotest times; and yet in most of the places where the term occurs in our translation, an instrument of music bids as fair to be its meaning as a dance of any kind. Miriam is the first prophetess on record, and by this we find that God not only poured out his Spirit upon men, but upon women also; and we learn also that Miriam was not only a prophetess, but a poetess also, and must have had considerable skill in music to have been able to conduct her part of these solemnities. It may appear strange that during so long an oppression in Egypt, the Israelites were able to cultivate the fine arts; but that they did so there is the utmost evidence from the Pentateuch. Not only architecture, weaving, and such necessary arts, were well known among them, but also the arts that are called ornamental, such as those of the goldsmith, lapidary, embroiderer, furrier, etc., of which we have ample proof in the construction of the tabernacle and its utensils. However ungrateful, rebellious, etc., the Jews may have been, the praise of industry and economy can never be denied them. In former ages, and in all places even of their dispersions, they appear to have been frugal and industrious, and capable of great proficiency in the most elegant and curious arts; but they are now greatly degenerated.
Exodus 15:20, 21So Jephthah's daughter collected a chorus or virgins, and with dances and songs came out to meet her father, and to celebrate his victory, Judges 11:34. After David's conquest of Goliath, "all the women came out of the cities of Israel singing and dancing to meet Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of music;" and, forming themselves into two choruses, they sang alternately: -
"Saul has slain his thousands:
And David his ten thousands."
on Exodus 15 :20
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.
on Exodus 15 :20
15:20 Miriam (or Mary, it is the same name) 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 psalm, 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, 1Sam 18:6,7, so was this. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, it is said, Mic 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.