Leaving the enigmatic Zipporah, we move on to look at the life and experience of Moses' sister, Miriam. She figures more prominently into the story than his wife, though as always we still don't know as much about her as I'd like! The main topics we'll explore in her story are bulleted below to give you a preview. Keep reading for a deeper dive into the text.
What we learn about women:
- Miriam was known and acknowledged as a prophet.
- She led the Israelite women in singing after the Red Sea.
- When she and Aaron became confident enough to criticize Moses and believe she could equal his status, God punished her, though not to the same extent as other Israelites who asserted themselves against Moses' authority.
- There was a distinction in her rebuke from God from Aaron's, though they seem to have done the same thing.
- Moses' authority here is not how we normally think of "the man." He is plagued by his duty to keep the people safe, and prefers the idea of death to continuing in his work.
What I'm wondering:
- The obvious!: Why is Miriam punished with leprosy when Aaron is not?
- What was the role of a female prophet like in Israel?
- How far off is our regular relationship with authority, both upward and downward, from this idea of a burden to care for those under you?
A prophet in Egypt
We have already discussed Miriam a bit when we talked about Moses' birth and first escape from Pharaoh as an infant in his basket in the reeds. Remember, Miriam stayed to keep watch over Moses, and then organized the recruitment of his mother to be his nurse for Pharaoh's daughter. Already at a young age, she was displaying great resourcefulness and ingenuity in solving problems and working out God's will.
When we come back to Miriam after the story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the plagues, she is re-introduced in an exciting way, as "Miriam the prophet, Aaron's sister." So far, in the Bible we haven't heard much mention of prophets. God calls Abraham a prophet when he speaks with king Abimelech about him, but we don't hear the title "Abraham the prophet" like we do here with Miriam. There are some very tricky parts of Miriam's story coming up in Exodus, but this detail in her introduction is really cool. Apparently everyone knew and acknowledged that Miriam had a relationship with God that was close enough to deliver his messages. We haven't yet met a woman in that kind of relationship with God.
We find Miriam the prophet playing music on her timbrel and leading the women of Israel in singing and dancing for joy and victory after they escape the Red Sea and Pharaoh's army. This must have been an incredible high point in Miriam's life. She has had the honor of having first saved her brother's life, and then seen his growth from exiled murderer to rescuer of her people. She is now in place with her two brothers as a spiritual leader of the nation of Israel. Considering her leading of the women in song, perhaps we are looking at the first women's ministry leader among God's people?
From the Red Sea we enter the long and winding journey of the Israelites to the promised land, from which they will be rebuffed with unworthy faith to enter, and have to head back on another winding journey. If you, like me, are less than an Exodus scholar, you will probably, like me, find the timeline of all the camping and moving and complaining along the way to be a bit muddled in your mind. Also complicating things is that over the next few books of the Bible, there are extra details thrown in about what happened, either as further explanation, another version of the story, or recalled as summary. I am trying my best to keep it straight, but it's a little hard to follow. However, we'll see that the context of the journey: the refining of God's people as they get to know him and learn to develop awe of his holiness and fear of his power, is very important to understanding the remainder of Miriam's story.
As it unfolds, we find Miriam and Aaron complaining against and criticizing Moses. We talked about this criticism of Moses in the last post, because it had to do with Zipporah. There seem to be two parts to what Miriam and Aaron, who are not distinguished in their actions, were saying. First of all, they were "talking against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite." But also they were saying, "Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Hasn't he also spoken through us?" In my mind these are very separate critiques, first of all that Moses marriage counted against him somehow, and second, that he was almost uppity about his relationship with the Lord. The second critique is what the Lord addresses in his response, contrasting his relationship with Moses with the comparatively lower ranking relationships he has with his prophets. The consequences of the Lord's anger and disapproval with Miriam and Aaron are dramatic. "The Lord left." And when the cloud disappeared, Miriam was left "white as snow" with leprosy.
Right away, my female antennae are up. If both Aaron and Miriam were complaining against Moses, why is Miriam the only one afflicted with leprosy? Aaron is horrified, and begs for Moses forgiveness, and that he will not let Miriam remain that way. He is apparently learning the lesson that Moses is special to God, and is the person through whom he should approach God. Interestingly, he attributes the punishment to Moses rather than God, saying to Moses, "Oh my Master! Please don't punish us for the sin we have so foolishly committed!"
Moses then does cry out for God to heal her. God relents, but explains to Moses, "If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn't she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, then she may be accepted back." Ouch. If I understand this right, God is saying that what has happened to Miriam is worse than if her father had spit in her face. God has effectively "spit in her face?" This is hard to wrap your mind around.
My guess is that what we are looking at is an issue of authority, wrapped in ancient cultural trappings. Even across the millennia, it seems clear that this gesture from a father to daughter could only be understood as harsh disapproval and even humiliation. Apparently at that time it would also be associated with deserving exile outside the camp for seven days. This must have been a clear enforcement of fatherly authority, displaying the relative lack of power a daughter would have had if she would cross him. We don't like that in our culture, it definitely speaks of stronger parental authority that we would like to acknowledge. (But I think also sometimes we are unsatisfied with the amount of influence parents are able to exert over wayward kids?) So if God is saying this punishment serves a similar function, that Miriam has shown disregard for Moses', and through Moses, God's authority, she deserves and receives the same type of censure.
But still, why just Miriam, and not Aaron? Is it due to her gender, or to another distinction that the text doesn't let us in on between Miriam's and Aaron's sins? Perhaps the very fact that Miriam is punished in this way is evidence that she was somehow the main instigator?
A wider angle
Either way, we get a lot of additional context for all this when we look at the rest of Numbers. What immediately precedes this episode is Numbers 11, subtitled "The people complain to Moses," which is followed by "the complaints of Aaron and Miriam." In the preceding chapter, we have a lengthy description of how the Israelites en masse are complaining about their lack of food compared with the "melons, leeks, onions, and garlic" they used to have in Egypt. As a result of this, fire from the Lord comes and consumes some of them (!), until Moses prays for it to stop. Then Moses and the Lord both become aggravated by the continual whining of the Israelites. Moses himself actually complains to the Lord about what a burden these people are, saying he would rather God just kill him and spare him the misery, than continue serving the troublesome Israelites. At this, God tells Moses to gather 70 respected elders, whom he will also pour out his spirit upon, to help Moses govern. These men are summoned to the Tabernacle, and God does pour out his spirit upon them so they can prophesy, "but this never happened again." Later on in the chapter, Moses tells a young Joshua, son of nun, "I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them all!"
This is what immediately precedes the story of Aaron and Miriam's complaint. Moses has already been dealing with unjust whining and complaints about his leadership from the general public, and now it comes from his closest companions as well. In comparison with being consumed by fire, Miriam's temporary leprosy seems like a more measured punishment. Set alongside the complaints of the whole nation, and Moses' wish for more of God's people to share in his spirit, Aaron and Miriam's presumption, "hasn't he also spoken through us?" and complaints about Moses marriage also seem more offensive. We still have the question of why Miriam is struck with leprosy and not Aaron, but it becomes smaller in the grand scheme.
We don't hear about Miriam any more until her death, which happens just before Moses's sin involving the water from the rock, where he will be excluded from entering the promised land. The chapters in between are filled with dramatic events. When Miriam re-enters the camp, the next stop is the border of the promised land, where scouts are sent out to explore. The people rebel, refusing to enter, and are almost destroyed completely by God, except for Moses' intervention. Korah leads another rebellion a few chapters later, along the same theme of Aaron and Miriam's complaints "What right do you have to act as though you are greater than the rest of the Lord's people?" It doesn't end well for him and his followers: they are swallowed up into the ground, or consumed by fire. When rest of the people complain about this harsh punishment, a plague begins among them, and is only stopped when Aaron burns incense to purify them and runs between the healthy and sick people to stop it's spread. Following that, when the people despair that the Lord is just too dangerous for them to be around, God proves through the budding of Aaron's staff that Aaron and his descendants will be the priests who alone are allowed to approach God for the people. The Lord says "This should put an end to their complaints against me and prevent any further deaths." Alas, the complaints continue, prompting both water from the rock, and attack by poisonous snakes. This cycle of the people repenting when they see God's power, only to forget and complain again when things get difficult will characterize God's relationship with his people for the rest of history. Miriam and Aaron's complaining, set in this context, is just part of the pattern. But it does show that even they are not immune from sin and it's consequences.
Miriam is absent from any more action in the text, though Aaron is a central figure, as the first priest of Israel. Her death is announced with none of the fanfare present when Aaron is called up the mountain to join his fathers. We hadn't heard much about her before the complaining, and we have nothing afterward, so it's hard to say if her rebuke from God defined her life afterward the way it defines the story we have of her.
Authority in general
But we can combine two interesting things we know about her to create a picture that's admittedly a little vague, but still has some meaningful form. She was definitely a prophet, and yet she was singled out for rebuke by God when she critiqued the person in spiritual authority over her. God knew her and revealed himself to her, but when she became too familiar and disrespected Moses she was not immune to punishment that was only removed through his mediation. As contemporary women we can take a parallel that we may know God intimately and serve him in a powerful capacity while not being free of authority structures he has ordained.
There's also a further observation to be made here about authority in general. In these chapters where complaining and insubordination lead to such harsh punishments from God, it's interesting to note that one of the main functions of Moses authority is to protect the people from God's anger. We rebel against the idea of a head honcho resting on his laurels and bossing everyone else around. But in Moses' case, his authority is very different. Again and again, he is distraught at the burden of having to continually correct the people and keep them from getting themselves killed by God. So much of his job involves helping them, keeping them safe, and pleading for God to have mercy on them. If we could learn to view our authorities in this way, as keeping us from getting ourselves into trouble with the highest heavenly authority, and learn to view those under our authority as in need of protection from God's judgment of their offenses against him, we might improve the health of all of our hierarchical relationships. God does not appear tame and cuddly in these chapters. We tend to forget this part of his nature. When we do so, we start to forget our awe in general, and also in particular our respect toward those he sets in place to administer his will.
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