Practical Christian Theology
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage
“And his sister stood afar off, to see what would be done to him”
Princess Thermutis, daughter of Pharaoh, looked out through the lattice of her bathhouse, on the banks of the River Nile, and saw a curious boat. The vessel was made of broad leaves of papyrus tightened together by bitumen. As we learn from Pliny, Herodotus, and Theophrastus, boats were sometimes made of that material; but this one, having neither oar nor helm, would have been useless for navigation. There was only one passenger, and that a baby boy. But the Mayflower that brought the Pilgrim Fathers to America carried not so precious a cargo!
THE SISTER MIRIAM
“Kill every Hebrew boy when he is born,” had been Pharaoh’s order. To save her son, Jochebed, the mother of little Moses, had put him in that strange boat and launched him at the water’s edge. His sister, Miriam, stood on the embankment watching that craft with its precious burden. She was far enough off not to draw attention to the boat, but close enough to intervene.
There she stood riverside: Miriam the poetess, Miriam the quick-witted, Miriam the faithful, though very human, for in after time she was to become so mad with that very brother for marrying a woman she did not like, that she was to make a great family row, and be struck with leprosy (Numbers 12:1-15; Deuteronomy 24:9).
Miriam was a splendid sister, but she had her faults, like the rest of us. How carefully she watched the boat bearing her baby brother! A strong wind might upset the tiny craft. The water buffaloes might sink it. Ravenous waterfowl might swoop and pick out the baby’s eyes. A crocodile or hippopotamus crawling through the rushes might craunch him.
Miriam stood guard until Princess Thermutis, a maiden on each side of her, holding palm leaves over her head to shelter her from the sun, came down and entered her bathhouse. When from the lattice she saw that boat, the princess ordered it brought; and when the leaves were pulled back from the face of the little one, he cried. He was hungry and frightened, and squirmed in this strange company. He would rather stay hungry than fall into the wrong hands.
Now Miriam, the sister, incognito, no one suspecting her relation to the child, leaps from the bank, rushes down, and offers to get a nurse to pacify the child. Consent is given. She brings Jochebed, the baby’s mother, incognito; and when Jochebed arrives, the child hushes. His fright is calmed; his hunger, appeased. You may admire Jochebed, the mother, and all the ages may admire Moses, but I clap my hands in applause at the behavior of Miriam, the faithful sister.
“Go home,” someone might have said to Miriam. “Why risk yourself out there alone on the banks of the Nile, breathing the miasma, in danger of being attacked by wild beast or ruffian. Go home!”
No. Miriam, the sister, most lovingly watched and bravely defended Moses, the baby brother. Is he worthy her care and courage? Oh, yes. Sixty centuries of world history have never known so much importance as the arrival of any ship at any port as the landing of that papyrus boat calked with bitumen. Its one passenger was to be a none-such [unique] in history: lawyer, statesman, politician, legislator, organizer, conqueror, and deliverer.
THE BROTHER MOSES
Moses, in childhood, had such remarkable beauty that, according to Josephus, when he was carried along the road, people stopped to gaze at him, and workmen would leave their work to admire him. In manhood, he spread open the palms of his hands in prayer and the Red Sea parted to let 2.5 million, or more, persons escape. He closed the palms of his hands together in prayer, and the Red Sea closed on a strangulated host (Exodus 14:15-31).
Moses’ life being unutterably grand, his burial had to be on the same scale. God would let neither man nor saint nor archangel have anything to do with weaving for him a shroud or digging for him a grave. The omnipotent God left His throne in heaven one day; and if the question was asked, “Where is the King of the Universe going?” the answer would have been, “I am going down to bury Moses.”
And the Lord took this mightiest of men to the top of a hill. The day was clear, as it usually is in desert country, and Moses ran his eye over the magnificent range of country spread before him in the valley below. Here was the valley of Esdraelon, where the final battle of all nations is to be fought. Yonder were the mountains Hermon, Lebanon, Gerizim, and the hills of Judea. The village of Bethlehem was there; the city of Jericho, yonder. The vast stretch of landscape almost took the old lawgiver’s breath away.
Then, without a pang, the eye of Moses undimmed and his natural force unabated, God touched the great lawgiver’s eyes and they closed. God touched his lungs, and they ceased breathing. God touched his heart, and it stopped. God commanded, “To the skies, you immortal spirit!” And God prepared the body a resting place on Mount Nebo, in the land of Moab. One divine hand rested against the back of Moses; the other, against the pulseless breast. The lawgiver was lifted in the Almighty’s arms, was carried to the opening of a cave, and was placed in a special crypt. One stroke of the divine hand smoothed the features into an everlasting calm. A rock was rolled to the door. It was the only obsequies [funeral rites] at which God performed all the offices of priest, undertaker, and gravedigger (Deuteronomy 34:1-12).
THE OLDER SIBLING
Oh, was not Miriam, the sister of Moses, doing a good thing, an important thing, a glorious thing when she watched the boat woven of river plants and made watertight with asphalt, carrying its one passenger? Did she not put all the ages of time and of a coming eternity under obligation, when she defended her helpless brother from the perils aquatic, reptilian, and ravenous? She it was that brought that wonderful babe and his mother together so that he was reared to be the deliverer of his nation, when otherwise, if saved at all from the rushes of the Nile, he would have been only one more of the God-defying Pharaohs. For Princess Thermutis, of the bathhouse, would have inherited the crown of Egypt; and as she had no child of her own, this adopted child would have come to coronation. If there had been no Miriam, there would have been no Moses. What a garland for faithful sisterhood!
For how many a lawgiver, how many a hero, how many a deliverer, and how many a saint are the world and the Church indebted to a watchful, loving, faithful, godly sister? Come up out of the farmhouses, come up out of the inconspicuous homes! Come up from the banks of the Hudson, the Penobscot, the Savannah, the Mobile, the Mississippi, and all the other Niles of this land and the rest of the world, and let us see you, the Miriams, who watch and protect the leaders in agriculture, art, law, industry, medicine, merchandise, and philosophy!
If I should ask to stand all these attorneys, merchants, ministers, physicians, and successful men of all professions and trades who are indebted to an older sister for good influences, and perhaps for an education or a prosperous start, they would rise by the hundreds. God knows how many of our Greek lexicons and how much of our schooling was paid for by money that would otherwise have gone for replenishing a sister’s wardrobe. While the brother sailed off for a resounding sphere, the sister watched him from the banks of self-denial.
Miriam was the oldest of the family; Moses and Aaron, her brothers, were both younger. Oh, the power of the older sister to help decide the brother’s character for usefulness and for heaven! She can keep off from her brother more evils than Miriam could have driven back waterfowl or crocodile from the ark of bulrushes. The older sister decides the direction in which the cradle-boat will sail. By gentleness, by good sense, by Christian principle she can turn it toward the palace, not of a wicked Pharaoh, but of a holy God; and a brighter princess than Thermutis will lift him out of peril, even Wisdom “whose ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17).
The older sister, how much the world owes her! Born while the family was still in limited circumstances, she had to hold and take care of her younger brothers. And if there is anything that excites my sympathy, it is a little girl lugging round a great fat child, and getting her ears boxed because she cannot keep him quiet. By the time she reaches young womanhood, she is pale and worn out; her attractiveness has been sacrificed on the altar of firstborn fidelity. She is consigned to celibacy, a virtue to which worldly society doesn’t take kindly, but in heaven they call her Miriam.
THE YOUNGER SIBLING
In most families the two most undesirable birth orders are the first and the last, the first because she is worn out with the cares of a home that cannot afford to hire help, and the last because she is spoiled as a pet. Among the grandest equipages [carriages] that sweep through the streets of heaven will be those occupied by sisters who sacrificed themselves for brothers. They will have the finest of the Apocalyptic white horses, and many who on earth looked down on them will have to turn out to let them pass.
Let sisters not begrudge the time and care bestowed on a brother. It is hard to believe that any boy that you know as well as your brother could ever turn out useful. Well, he may not be a Moses. There is only one of that kind needed for 6,000 years. But I tell you what your brother will be—either a blessing or a curse to society: a candidate for either happiness or wretchedness. He will, like Moses, have the choice between living at the palace as the heir of Pharaoh or enduring affliction with the people of God as the heir of promise (Hebrews 11:23-29); and your influence will have much to do with his decision. He may not, like Moses, be the deliverer of a nation, but he may, after your father and mother are gone, be the deliverer of a household.
What thousands of homes today are piloted by brothers! There are properties now well invested and yielding income for the support of sisters and younger brothers, because the older brother rose to the leadership from the day the father laid down to die. Whatever you do for your brother will come back to you again. If you set him an ill-natured, censorious, unaccommodating example, it will recoil on you from his own irritated and despoiled nature. If you, by patience with all his infirmities and by nobility of character, dwell with him in the few years of your companionship, you will have your counsels reflected back on you someday by his splendor of behavior in some crisis where he would have failed but for you.
If you are the sister, don’t snub your brother. Don’t depreciate his ability. Don’t talk discouragingly about his future. Don’t let Miriam get down off the bank of the Nile, and wade out and upset the ark of bulrushes. Don’t tease him.
Brothers and sisters do not consider it any harm to tease. That spirit in the family is one of the meanest and most devilish. There is a teasing that is pleasurable, and is only another form of innocent raillery; but that which provokes, irritates, and makes the eye flash with anger is to be reprehended [reprimanded]. It would be less blameworthy to take a bunch of thorns and draw them across your sister’s cheek, or to take a knife and draw its sharp edge across your brother’s hand till the blood spurts, for that would damage only the body; but teasing is the thorn and the knife, scratching and lacerating the disposition and the soul.
It is the curse of innumerable households that the brothers tease the sisters, and the sisters the brothers. Sometimes it is the color of the hair, the shape of the features, or an affair of the heart. Sometimes it is revealing a secret, giving a suggestive look, or letting out a guffaw, or an “Ahem!”
Tease! Tease! Tease! Quit it! Quit it! Quit it! Christ says, “He who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Now, when you, by teasing, make your brother or sister hate you, you turn him or her into a murderer or murderess.
Don’t let jealousy ever touch a sister’s soul, as it so often does, because her brother gets more honor or more means. Even Miriam, the heroine of the text, was struck by that evil passion of jealousy. She had possessed great influence over Moses. He had married without consulting her. He had married not only a stranger, but one of a different race, an “Ethiopian” or “a woman of Cush” (Numbers 12:1).
Miriam was so disgusted, first, that he had married behind her back, and next, that he had married outside his own people. She was drawn into a frenzy, began to turn white, then whiter, then white as a corpse, then whiter than a corpse. Her complexion was like chalk; in fact, she was leprous. Her one brother, Aaron, was so aghast he appealed to Moses. And the brother she had guarded and defended on the Nile, and now accused, came to her rescue, praying for her restoration (12:2-16).
Let there be no room in all your house for jealousy, either to sit or stand. It is a leprous abomination. Your brother’s success, O sister, is your success. His victories will be your victories; for, while Moses the brother led the vocal music after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-19), Miriam, the sister, a prophetess, with two glittering sheets of brass uplifted and glittering in the sun, led the instrumental music (15:20, 21), clapping the cymbals till the last frightened neigh of pursuing cavalry horse was smothered in the wave, and the last Egyptian helmet went under.
How strong it makes a family when all the sisters and brothers stand together, and what an awful wreck when they disintegrate, quarreling about a father’s will and making the surrogate’s office horrible with their wrangle. Better when you were little children in the nursery that with your playhouse mallets you had accidentally killed each other fighting across your cradle, than that, having come to the age of maturity, and having in your veins and arteries the blood of the same father and mother, you fight each other across the parental grave in the cemetery.
If you only knew it, your interests are mutual. Sister, you do your part, and Brother will do his part. If Miriam will lovingly watch the boat on the Nile, Moses will help her when leprosy strikes.
When Father and Mother are gone, and they soon will be, if they have not already made exit, the sorority and fraternal bond will be the only ligament that will hold the family together. How many reasons for your deep and unfaltering affection for each other! Rocked in the same cradle; bent over by the same motherly tenderness; toiled for by the same father’s weary arm and aching brow; with common inheritance of all the family secrets; and with names given you by parents who started you with the highest hopes for your happiness and prosperity—I charge you, be loving and kind and forgiving. If the sister see that the brother never wants a sympathizer, the brother will see that the sister never wants an escort.
Oh, if the sisters of a household knew through what terrific and damning temptations their brother goes in this city life, they would hardly sleep nights in the anxiety for his salvation! And if you would make a holy conspiracy of kind words, gentle attentions, and earnest prayers, that would “save his soul from death and hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). But let the sister dash off in one direction in discipleship of the world, and the brother flee in another direction in dissipation, and it will not be long before they will meet again at the iron gate of Despair, their blistered feet in the hot ashes of a consumed lifetime. Alas, that brothers and sisters, though living together for years, often do not know each other, and that they see only each other’s imperfections and none of their virtues!
A RUSSIAN BANQUET
General Bauer, of the Russian cavalry, had in early life wandered off in the army and was presumed dead. After gaining a fortune, he encamped one day in Husam, his native place, and made a banquet. Among the great military men who were to dine, he invited a plain miller and his wife, who lived nearby, and who, anxious, came, fearing some harm would be done them. The miller and his wife were seated at the table, one on each side of the general.
The general asked the miller about his family. The miller answered that he had two brothers and a sister.
“No other brother?”
“Many years ago my younger brother went off with the army and, no doubt, was killed.”
Then the general said, “Soldiers, I am this man’s younger brother whom he thought was dead.”
And how loud was the cheer, and how warm was the embrace!
Brother and Sister, you need as much of an introduction to each other as they did. You do not know each other. You think your brother is grouty, cross, and weird. He thinks you are selfish, proud, and unlovely.
You’re both wrong! That brother will be a prince in some woman’s eyes; that sister, a queen in the estimation of some man. That brother is a magnificent fellow; that sister is a morning in June.
Come, let me introduce you.
“Moses, this is Miriam.”
“Miriam, this is Moses.”
Add 75 percent to your present appreciation of each other. When you kiss good-morning, do not stick up your cold cheek, wet from the recent washing, as though you hated to touch each other. Let the familial affection have all the fondness and cordiality of a loving sister’s kiss.
Make yourselves as agreeable and helpful to each other as possible, remembering that soon you part. The few years of boyhood and girlhood will soon slip by. You will go out to homes of your own, into the battle with the world with its ever-changing vicissitudes, on paths crossed with graves, up steps hard to climb, and through shadowy ravines. But, oh, may the terminus of the journey be the same as the start; namely, at Father’s and Mother’s knee, if they have inherited the kingdom!
Then, as in boyhood and girlhood days, we rushed in after the day’s absence with much to tell of exciting adventure, and Father and Mother enjoyed the recital as much as we who made it, so we shall on the hillside of heaven rehearse to them all the scenes of our earthly expedition, and they will welcome us home, as we say, “Father and Mother, we have come, and brought our children with us.” The old revival hymn described it with glorious repetition:
Brothers and sisters there will meet,
Brothers and sisters there will meet,
Brothers and sisters there will meet,
Will meet to part no more. ~cf The Harp of Eden: A Collection of Revival Hymns
I read of a child in the country who was detained at a neighbor’s house on a stormy night with fascinating stories. Then he looked out and saw it was so dark he did not dare go home. The boy asked his friends to go with him, but they dared not. It grew later and later—seven o’clock, eight o’clock, nine o’clock. “Oh,” he said, “I wish I were home!”
As he opened the door the last time, a blinding flash of the storm and a deafening roar overcame him. But after a while he saw in the distance a lantern, and, lo, his brother was coming to fetch him home. The lad stepped out and with swift feet hastened on to his brother who took him home, where they were glad to greet him, and where for a long time supper had been waiting.
So may it be when the night of death comes and our earthly friends cannot go with us. We dare not go alone. May our Brother, our Elder Brother, our Friend “closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24), come out to meet us with the light of the promises, which will be a lantern to our feet, and then we will go in to join our loved ones waiting for us, supper all ready, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9)!
“Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love, in honor preferring one another” (Romans 12:10).
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Wedding Rings
*Adapted from “Sisterly Influence,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], The Wedding Ring: A Series of Discourses for Husbands and Wives and Those Contemplating Matrimony (New York: Louis Klopsch, 1896). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.