She stands, an eager, anxious little figure, amongst the tall reeds and bulrushes by the river's brink, watching. Oh, how intently she watches a little ark of bulrushes, compactly made, and daubed with slime, which holds her baby brother, three months old! The precious freight lies still in the quiet water, but at any moment a current may drift it into the open river, or some reptile from the marsh attack the sleeping infant; and Miriam watches with beating heart.
Soon she sees coming along the secluded bank of the Nile a lady with delicate, fine linen hanging gracefully about her slender form, and attended by a bevy of maidens. The little Hebrew girl, daughter of an enslaved but noble race, is not afraid, though she knows that the lady approaching is none other than the daughter of Pharaoh, the mighty king, whose terrible edict of infanticide sent to the Hebrew people, "Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river," has brought such sorrow and terror into her home.
The Princess, walking along the bank to her bathing-place, sees the ark of bulrushes floating amongst the flags, and sends one of her handmaidens to fetch it. When she opens the curious cradle, the babe, disturbed from its slumbers, begins to cry. Pharaoh's daughter proves to be a woman of compassionate heart. "This is one of the Hebrew's children," she says, turning to her maidens. There is no reason to express surprise that the child has been hidden by the river; the daughter of the tyrant ruler knows the reason only too well.
"But what of Miriam?" The brave little girl holds her breath in expectation, we fancy. She guesses that the Princess intends to take her baby brother away, and now is her chance to put her plan for bringing him home again into action. She shows herself tactful and resourceful, and without revealing her relationship to the infant comes boldly forward and asks the Princess, "Shall I go and call thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?"
Something in Miriam's face must have inspired the Royal lady with confidence, for without parley or hesitation she says, "Go!"
We picture Miriam running home to tell her mother the good news, and bidding her come to receive the commands of the Princess.
When the mother and daughter reach the river bank Pharaoh's daughter meets them, and entrusts the babe to its unsuspected mother, with the words, "Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child and nursed it."
Thus ends this dramatic scene on the banks of the Nile, familiar as a household story,
Religion yet ever fresh and arresting in its vivid simplicity. The youthful Miriam, daughter of a bondman; her pious, loving Hebrew mother, and the stately daughter of Pharaoh present a remarkable trio of feminine characters, but only that of Miriam is continued into history.
Miriam is the daughter of Amram and Jochebed, his wife, both belonging to the priestly tribe of Levi. Her home is in Goshen, that favoured spot granted to Jacob and his sons when they went to join Joseph in the land of Egypt. The time is one of the saddest and most critical in the history of her people, for there is a ruler on the throne of Egypt who "knew not Joseph," and who regards the rapid increase of the Israelites with alarm.
He imposes heavy tasks upon them, but they are a strong and virile people, and still continue to grow and multiply. Baffled in his attempts to break the neck of the Israelites, Pharaoh at length sends forth the terrible edict of infanticide, "Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive." And there is weeping and wailing amongst the mothers of Israel.
Miriam had already one brother, Aaron, near to her own age, and very shortly after the issuing of the cruel command another son was born to her parents. He was a "goodly child," and they contrived to hide him for three months. When it became impossible to hide him longer the distracted mother used her woman's wit to protect the flower of her flock from the destroyer. It is noticeable that by putting her babe into an ark of bulrushes upon the river's brink she complied in part with Pharaoh's decree; but she was confident that her child would in some way be preserved from the terrible fate of her neighbours' children.
According to Hebrew legend, Miriam was endowed with the gift of prophecy, even as a child, and had predicted that a son would be born to her parents who would be miraculously preserved in infancy, and become the deliverer and ruler of his people.
The sacred narrative gives no further record of Miriam for many years after the scene enacted by the Nile. We know, however, that, according to the Hebrew custom, the infant Moses would remain for two or three years with his mother before he was weaned. Miriam would take her share in tending the brother whom she had helped to save, and not improbably would accompany her mother to the palace at such times as the child was taken to the apartments of the Princess, who, doubtless, took a loving interest in her adopted son.
Then came that sorrowful day for Miriam and her mother when Moses was taken to the palace for good, and became the son of Pharaoh's daughter.
For some years the lives of the brother and sister, which are ultimately to be united for the deliverance of Israel, lie apart. Moses is reared amidst the sumptuous ease and luxury of the women's house at the Royal palace, the idol of his adopted mother and her handmaidens. His eye dwells on all things beautiful in art, and his ear is attuned to the sound of splashing fountains, the singing of birds, and the soft music of the lute. As he grows to boyhood he is educated as a Prince, and becomes accomplished in all the learning of the Egyptians. He is a general in the Egyptian Army, and by virtue of being a son of the Royal house, is a priest also. He travels into other countries, and Josephus relates that he performed wonderworking in Ethiopia, thus foreshadowing his miraculous deeds in the desert. But the Hebrew blood is strong in him. He has imbibed patriotism with his mother's milk.