In this episode, we explore a woman so important to the Jewish people that several generations of daughters were named for her—including the mother of Yēšūa (Jesus) and at least six other Miryams in the Christian scriptures! Largely drawing on the feminine voices in Rebecca Schwartz’s work, All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus, Father Jayme helps us to imagine Miryam leading the Hebrew women in singing, “Ashira l’Adonai—I will sing to Adonai, for Adonai has triumphed gloriously!” A confident, assertive, unmarried woman, Miryam posed a threat to the social order, and her memory as priestess and prophetess was quickly suppressed by the emerging religious hierarchy of the Davidic monarchy. Father Jayme examines the story of Miryam being struck with leprosy (Numbers 12)—a story often disinterpreted with misogynistic overtones—noting that Moshe (Moses) received the same gift when he was commissioned as a prophet (Ex. 4:6). As a result, God was kindled within Miryam, and, like her brother Aharon (Aaron), who prepared himself to become a priest by spending seven days in the desert, Miryam withdrew to the desert for seven days, cementing her place as a priestess and prophetess in the ancient Jewish tradition. Father Jayme concludes with Schwartz’s words, noting that Miryam “symbolizes a messianic era of full equality… as a patron saint for any woman rabbi or scholar who has had to fight for a place at the table.”
[Becky & Terry Ann 0:03]
Welcome to “Extraordinary Catholics,” a podcast for—you guessed it—extraordinary Catholics! In a world with over a billion ordinary Catholics, the Good Samaritans of Vatican-free Catholicism are truly extraordinary, seeking to model Jesus’ inclusive spirit and his discipleship of equals. Like Roman Catholicism, Inclusive Catholicism possesses valid lines of apostolic succession and shares valid sacraments. One in every ten adult Americans self-identifies as a former Roman Catholic. If we were to band together, we would form the second-largest religion in America. In Mexico, over 1,000 Roman Catholics leave the church every single day. To learn more about Inclusive Catholicism, please visit www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith, and join our Extraordinary Catholics Facebook group. And now, meet the host of Extraordinary Catholics, the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, the only inclusive Catholic community in Austin, Texas: Father Jayme Mathias!
[Father Jayme Mathias 1:19]
Welcome, extraordinary Catholics! I am Father Jayme Mathias, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
We thank the special saints who helped make this episode possible:
* Corey Hurt Montiel of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas; and
* Bishop Jerry Brohl of the Independent Roman Catholic Church in Wyandotte, Michigan;
* Bishop Theodore Feldman of the Sanctuary of Divine Providence in Birmingham, Alabama; and
* Heather Lucas of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
Looking to earn your wings? Visit dwy.io/podcast to join the list of saints who are stepping up to sponsor future episodes.
Can I ask you a favor? Will you prayerfully consider sharing a quick rating and or review of this podcast? You are a saint!
And now, let’s continue our exploration of the theological foundations of Inclusive Catholicism!
The Most Important Woman in the Scriptures
In the last episode, as I spoke of the women who prepared the way for the liberating figure of Mosheh (Moses), I glossed over one important woman, and I noted at the end of the episode that she deserves her own episode. That woman is Mosheh’s older sister, Miryam—a woman so important that it was believed that she was one of only six people to die by “the kiss of God” rather than be taken by the angel of death.
A woman so important that generations of Jewish daughters were named for her—yes, including the protagonist of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and at least six women in the Christian scriptures: Miryam the mother of Yēšūaʿ (or Jesus), Miryam of Magdalá, Miryam of Bethany, Miryam the wife of Clopas, Miryam the mother of James (Mk. 16:1, Lk. 24:10), Miryam the mother of Joses (Mk. 15:47), Miryam the mother of James and Joses (Mk. 15:40), Miryam the mother of James and Joseph (Mt. 27:56), Miryam the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), and “the other Miryam” (Mt. 27:61 & 28:1). That’s a lot of Miryams—all named for Miryam, the sister of Mosheh and Aharon!
Of course, in English, we often translate the name Miryam as Mary—which explains why we see so many Marys in the Christian scriptures.
As we’ll see, Miryam was considered an equal with her brothers (Micah 6:4). Though she speaks less than 30 Hebrew words in the scriptures, she is called a prophetess (Ex. 15:20), and no other woman in scriptures enjoys such a high status as Miryam.
Knowing that “the Bible is not a book of history,” Miryam could be a composite figure—like the matriarchs and patriarchs—or, in the words of Rebecca Schwartz, “a mythological composite of real women from the historical period, or even, as suggested by some, a humanized portrait of a desert water-goddess of ancient days” (p. 1). I highly recommend Schwartz book, All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus. The work is rich with poetry and reflections of women on their sister, Miryam.
The Nameless, Quick-thinking Sister of Mosheh & Aharon
Like many women in the bible, Miryam first appears nameless. Pharaoh had ordered that all Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile (Ex. 1:22), so her mother, Yokheved, placed her brother, Mosheh in a little ark or basket covered in bitumen, and she did indeed place him in the water—and the ark containing him floated to the place where Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing. Everett Fox translates the story from Exodus 2:4-8 this way: “Now his sister stationed herself far off, to know what would be done to him. Now Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe at the Nile, and her girls were walking along the Nile. She saw the little ark among the reeds and sent her made, and she fetched it. She opened it and saw him, the child – here, a boy weeping! She pitied him, and she said: One of the Hebrews’ children is this! Now his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: Shall I go and call a nursing woman from the Hebrews for you, that she may nurse the child for you? Pharaoh’s daughter said to her: Go!”
We’ll later learn that this girl’s name is Miryam. Her Hebrew name, mar yam, meaning “bitter sea,” reflected the harsh reality of Hebrew enslavement and foreshadowed the drowned Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds. Here we see her saving her baby brother from the waters of the Nile in which all the Hebrew boys were to be drowned (Ex. 1:22).
According to the midrash tradition, Miryam was the oldest child born to her Hebrew parents, Amram and Yokheved. Sidenote: Here’s another instance of biblical incest, since Yokheved married her nephew, Amram (Ex. 6:20). Both were part of the tribe of Levi, the third son born to Yaakov by Leah.
Some four years later came her little brother, Aharon. His name comes from the Hebrew root aheron, “I will be pregnant,” an indication of the determination of their mother, Yokheved, to have a child despite Pharaoh’s order that the Hebrew midwives kill all newborn Hebrew boys (Ex. 1:16).
Then, some three years later came their little brother, Yekutiel, “the hope of God”—or at least that was his Hebrew name in the midrash tradition of the Sefer-haYashar (243). We know him as Mosheh, or Moses, if you prefer.
So, according to the midrash tradition Miryam was some seven years old when her baby brother, Mosheh was born.
Pause for a moment and consider the quick thinking of this seven-year-old, who saved her baby brother and even suggested that her mother—his mother—be his nurse (Ex. 2:8)
I’m fond of Rebecca Schwartz’s take on this story: “Through Miriam the stage is set for a collaboration of six women to protect Moses and eventually bring about the liberation of the Jewish people. Miriam appeals to Pharaoh’s daughter, even as a small child forming a connection with the Egyptian princess. This is but the first of many boundaries Miriam will cross, and together she and the princess represent an alliance of omen that surpasses race, class, religion and eery other form of personal status. Without all these women—Yocheved, Shiprah and Puah, Bat Pharaoh, Miriam, and even Tzipporah—there would be no Moses, no Exodus, no receiving of the Law, and no Jewish people” (p. 4).
As we said in our last episode, the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus spotlight the actions of women. After sharing the paradox that “without Moses there would be no exodus, but without these women there would be no Moses,” J. Cheryl Exum shares the “disappointment that the narrative quickly and thoroughly moves from a woman’s story to a man’s story” (pp. 81-82). She writes “While a feminist critique might want to seize onto the affirmative dimension of our paradox, accenting the important consequences of women’s actions for the divine plan, it must also acknowledge that being mothers of heroes – albeit daring, enterprising, and tenacious mothers—is not enough; acting behind the scenes is not enough” (p. 82).
The Woman Behind One of the Oldest Poems in the Scriptures
The spotlight shifts to the men—namely to Mosheh, Aharon and Pharaoh—but as soon as the Hebrews have safely crossed the Sea of Reeds, we find one of the oldest poems in the Hebrew scriptures, and it’s credited to Miryam, the only woman from the beginning of the Book of Exodus who now reappears!
As Rebecca Schwartz says, “Women surround and guide Moses like no other biblical hero. Two midwives facilitate his birth; his mother and sister hide him from Pharaoh’s wrath; and that same Pharaoh’s daughter pulls Moses from the reeds. Whereas the rest of these women disappear soon after their work is done, Miriam persists within the text, reappearing enigmatically as a leader of profound importance for the emerging Israelite nation” (p. 1).
Exodus 15:20 is a brief passage, a single verse, so listen carefully: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: Ashira l’Adonai—I will sing to Adonai, for Adonai has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver are hurled into the sea’!” [This translation of Miryam’s words is by Ruth Sohn, p. 31.]
Pause and consider the role of Miryam in leading God’s people in worship and praise!
The scriptures help us to imagine how the women, when their husbands were off at battle, gathered around the campfire at night, after daily labor, and practiced the songs that they sang with such great joy when their husbands returned home alive and triumphant!
Jephthah was provided a homecoming dance by his tambourine-playing daughter (Judges 11:34), and 1Sam. 18:6, for instance, tells us: “As they were coming home, when David returned from killing the Philistine, the women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments.” This image reminds us of the “prophetic frenzy” of the musical band of prophets in 1Samuel 10:5.
In her essay, “Journeys,” Ruth Sohn steps inside Miryam’s mind and shares: “I wanted to sing. With the song I’d heard before still in my ears, I took a timbrel. “Shiru l’Adonai,” I began. “Shiru l’Adonai shir hadash—sing unto Adonai a new song.” A song of praise, a song of hope. A new song, a song of dreams redeemed. The women began moving toward me. I took a step and we were dancing. We sang with the timbrels, with the power of our hope, our bodies and hearts whirling. Shir HaShirim. The Song of Songs. We sang to God songs of praise, songs of love” (p. 32).
Imagine for a moment the confidence and the bravery that it takes to lead people in song. Ruth Sohn captures this in her poem, “I Shall Sing to the Lord a New Song”:
I, Miriam, stand at the sea
to face the desert
stretching endless and
My eyes are dazzled
The sky brilliant blue
Sunburnt sands unyielding white.
My hands turn to dove wings.
for the sky
and I want to sing
the song rising inside me.
My mouth open
Where are the words?
Where the melody?
In a moment of panic
My eyes go blind.
Can I take a step
Without knowing a
Will I falter
Will I fall
Will the ground sink away from under me?
The song still unformed-
How can I sing?
To take the first step
To sing a new song
is to close one's eyes
into unknown waters.
For a moment knowing nothing risking all-
But then to discover
The waters are friendly
The ground is firm.
And the song-
the song rises again.
Out of my mouth
come words lifting the wind.
And I hear
for the first
that has been in my heart
even to me.
I’m also very fond of Barbara Holender’s poem, “Miriam at the Red Sea,” where Holender imagines Miryam connecting this saving event to the salvation experienced by her baby brother at the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter:
Are you satisfied, Mama?
Am I free at last
of that one neglectful moment
your eyes accused me of?
All my young years I dared not ask
how long you thought you could hide
a baby in a basket in a river.
Even now, at water's edge
with the sand still wet between my toes,
I dread to hear a child cry out,
though it would not matter-
Pharaoh's men sleep on the far shore
with the sea in their throats.
And our lost child has brought us here--
my baby brother, this marvelous stranger
who makes us one and orders us about.
I'd like to ask him where he'd be
without his three brave mothers,
but he's been taunted enough
by these stubborn slaves grumbling
all the way to salvation. Look at them-
sleeping--at a time like this!
The sounds of these nights and days
rage in my ears:
the wings of the Death Angel whistling past,
the neighbors wailing for their sons,
the stifled cries of our babies
held so close; the sound of feet,
hundreds of feet, running, shuffling, limping,
slapping into the sea;
the swish of reeds and the gasp of fish,
the shouts and the horses' shrieks,
the waters crashing together,
and from our shore of the sea
that great Hosannah as of one voice.
The Lord lifted me, I felt His hands,
and my song poured out
and the timbrel shook in my fingers
and my feet never touched the ground.
And since we don’t have Miryam’s Hebrew text, I also share the poem, “Miriam / By the Shores,” by Geela Rayzel Raphael, who helps us to imagine the song of victory that the women sang on the shore to the sound of their tambourines:
By the shores, by the shores,
of the Red, Red Sea,
By the shores of the Red, Red Sea;
The light of day lit up the night
The children, they were free.
And Miriam took her timbrel out and all the women danced. (2X)
They danced, they danced
Oh, how they danced
They danced the night away
Clapped their hands and stamped their feet
With voices loud they praised.
They danced with joy
They danced with grace
They danced on nimble feet
Kicked up their heels, threw back their heads
Hypnotic with the beat.
And Miriam took her timbrel out and all the women danced. (2X)
They danced so hard, they danced so fast;
They danced with movement strong
Laughed and cried, brought out alive
They danced until the dawn.
Some carrying child, some baking bread
Weeping as they prayed
But when they heard the music start
They put their pain away.
And Miriam took her timbrel out and all the women danced. (2X)
Enticed to sing, drawn to move
Mesmerized by such emotion
The men saw us reach out our hands
Stretching across the ocean.
As they watched, and they clapped, they began to sway
Drawn to ride the wave
and all our brothers began to dance
They dance with us today!
They danced, we dance
They danced the night away
And all the people began to sing
We're singing 'til this day!!
And Miriam took her timbrel out and all the people danced. (2X)
And the children were rockin' just as far as you could
see, by the shores, by the shores, my God, my God We were free.
The Ancestress of King David? The Difficulties Presented by Unmarried Women
We’ll only see Miryam one more time, in Numbers 12, so we have to wonder what the role of this prophetess was at other points in the journey. We also wonder about her life.
Was she married? Did she have children?
The Hebrew scriptures never tell us about any husband or children.
Rebecca Schwartz writes: “In a book that values women primarily for their maternal roles, Miriam never married or had children. Instead, the Torah presents Miriam as an equal to her brother Moses, the unquestionable leader of the Israelites” (p. 4). Schwartz continues: “An unmarried female presents difficulty in the halacha. A woman not under the jurisdiction of father or husband…poses a threat to the social order….The text offers no model for an unattached Hebrew woman who is not a harlot. On a more positive note, the Talmud gives Miriam the prominent position of becoming an ancestress of King David, probably the greatest reward the ancient rabbis could imagine for a woman. Since motherhood represented the ideal goal for a woman in their view the establishment of royal lineage for Miriam, as a reward for her faithfulness to the unborn generations of Israel and her protection of the baby Moses, must have seemed to them the highest possible honor. ” (p. 5).
Miryam as an ancestress of King David? All sorts of midrash traditions sprang up that accorded her this honor.
Many, including Josephus, say she married Caleb, one of Joshua’s spies. They gave birth to Hur. Their grandson Bezalel was the famous architect of the tabernacle. (The difficulty of this, though, is that Hur and Bezalel were also reported to be of the tribe of Judah, not Levi (Ex. 35:30).
In her essay, ““The Prophet & Singer,” Susan Phillips imagines the marriage: “Her husband, Caleb ben Jephuneh, thought Miriam the loveliest woman he had ever seen. He spent their entire marriage dazzled by her, boasting of her beautiful music and prophetic insights. In turn Miriam was proud that of the twelve spies sent out to report on the Land of Israel, only Caleb and Joshua ben Nun had defended the beauty of the land” (pp. 78-79).
Miryam & the Golden Calf: An Apocryphal Story
Let’s take the story even further: According to the midrash tradition, Miryam’s son, Hur, was killed in an episode involving the golden calf created by his uncle Aharon. Susan Phillips helps us imagine the story:
“And then Moses left the Israelites to speak with God on Mount Sinai. They waited the forty days he had said he would be gone. But their restlessness grew and, on the forty-first day, the people demanded that Aaron make them a god, a golden calf, to worship.
“Miriam was scornful. "Does anyone believe that a calf of gold is God?" she asked Caleb. He shrugged. "Perhaps we should join them," he said, "to be sure that nothing goes wrong. " Miriam hesitated. She respected her husband's opinions, but she felt uneasy. Reluctantly, she agreed.
“The next day she stood with a group of women, squinting against the sun to see what would happen. The people argued; her beloved brother Aaron argued back. Feeling both worried and proud, she watched her son Hur defend his uncle. Hur gestured toward the crowd, then pointed to the mountain where Moses had ascended. He shook his head, he shook his fist at the men closest to him, Suddenly, a group of men grabbed Hur's arms and legs. Before her horrified eyes, before she could do or say anything, the gang attacked and killed her son. She was still, as still as stone. The women surrounding her stopped talking. The quiet grew by degrees until the entire crowd was silent.
“Aaron looked up and saw his sister. "Take her away from here," he ordered. Immediately, his wife, Elisheva, and Moses's wife, Tzipporah, led Miriam back to her tent. Aaron looked down at his favorite nephew's body. Who would be next in his family to die? When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced:
“‘Tomorrow shall be a festival of God’ (Ex 32:5). A festival of mourning, I hope, thought Miriam, as she allowed her two sisters-in-law to lead her away. In the morning she sniffed the air and was repulsed by the smell. Early the next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being. It was quiet, too quiet, for hours after that. They sat down to eat and drink. In the distance she heard music. And again she knew anger. She heard familiar music, the voices of men and women singing the songs she had taught them. She heard the sound of many feet dancing, and she felt betrayed that anyone could use her gifts to debase God. And then they rose to dance (Ex 32:6).
‘For a long time after the incident, Miriam refused to sing and dance with the congregation. Aaron can forgive them, she thought, but not I. Moses Will forgive them and even God, but not I. Nothing will bring back my son.
“Her sorrow intruded on the great joys that followed. Eventually, she forgave the people. Aaron helped her, of course. He visited all the tribes and spoke to the leaders. "Miriam suffers so," he said. "She wants to forgive you for the death of her son, but her pride prevents her.
“And then he spoke with Miriam. ‘If you only knew how the people long for your forgiveness,’ he told her. ‘They need you to lead them in song and dance.’ He hesitated. ‘No one dares approach you,’ he continued, ‘no matter how much they miss you.’
“After Aaron left, Miriam wondered if her anger and isolation had gone on long enough. Staying by herself, refusing to speak to her friends, only added to her own sorrow. As she suspected, Moses and Aaron had forgiven the people. The worst sinners had already been punished. If she continued to stay apart from the congregation, someone might be tempted again to use her songs and music to worship strange gods.”
I love the image of the faithful Miryam, who, despite her brothers’ shortcomings, remained faithful to her God.
A Very Beautiful & Entirely Apocryphal Story
Speaking of the fashioning of objects from precious metals, one of my favorite stories, even if entirely apocryphal, comes from Jill Hammer’s “The Mirrors.” It’s worth quoting at length.
“Miriam, the prophetess, called to the women who had worked hard all day to spin blue, purple and scarlet thread for the Tabernacle's curtains. They wound their threads into skeins and came to sit in Miriam's tent. She taught them the Torah for hours, until their eyes drooped. The very beginning of the Torah fascinated them. They spent many days on the six days of creation, probing its mysteries, for they too were engaged in the work of creation. Finally, when they came to the creation of humankind, the women became confused, for they had read this verse "God created the adam in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" They argued about the meaning of this verse. How could God create one creature that was also two? And how could God create a mortal creature, of any gender, in God's own image? They had seen on Sinai that the Eternal was a consuming fire. No mortal could approach that presence and live.
“Miriam listened as the women argued. The debate grew more and more heated. Finally Miriam said to her disciples: "Go home and fetch your mirrors."
“The women did not understand this strange request, but they hastened to follow Miriam's bidding. Each went to her tent to find the mirror into which she looked when she braided her hair or painted her eyes. Some opened carved chests of olive wood given to them by their mothers. Some unwrapped bundles of rags. Some begged from neighbor women or from grandmothers. Some brought two or three mirrors so that others could share. Soon all came back to Miriam's tent, carrying the precious bronze circles. The firelight reflected in the many mirrors made the tent blaze like a palace of light. Then Miriam told the women to look into their mirrors.
“‘What do you see?’ she asked.
“‘I see mvself,’ each woman answered. ‘I see my eyes, which reveal my soul. I see my mouth, which speaks and sings. I see that I am different from everyone else.’
“‘Each of you is made in the image of God,’ Miriam explained. "Your soul and your speech are like God's, and your body is God's dwelling place. Each of you embodies the Divine presence in a different way. When you look into your mirror, you see a woman, but you also see the Divine image. If a man were to look into your mirror, he would see a man, but he would also see God. This is what the Torah means when it says: God created the adam in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God is like the mirror: God remains the same, but reilects, each of our image "iferently, men and women, youne, and glid This is wh;, when we study together, we can reveal different facets of the Torah to each other. Each of us is a different reflection of the One.’
The women were silent, and tor a long time they looked into their mirrors without speaking. Then one of the women said: "These mirrors are holy now, because each of them has held God's image. We can no longer use them for ourselves. They belong to everyone."
Some of the women were angry at this, for their mirrors were precious to them, but another woman said. "The people are all donating their most precious possessions for the building of the Tabernacle, and its instruments. Let us give our mirrors to become part of God's dwelling-place. Then their holiness will be honored by all the people."
Miriam smiled, for she was very pleased by what her students had said. Then Miriam said: "Let the mirrors be used to make the bronze laver which the priests will use to wash their faces and feet and hands. At each washing, they will look into the water, and they will see God's image. In this way, the mirrors will teach the priests what they have taught us."
Even the most grudging of the women consented to this plan, and each one gave her bronze mirror to be smelted for the priestly laver. And when the Tabernacle finally was finished, Moses arranged the Tabernacle, its curtains, its altar, its incense and its lamp. The Divine Presence settled upon the Tabernacle and shone radiantly throughout the camp. The women gathered and peered into the courtyard where the polished laver stood before the door of the Tent of Meeting. They made a covenant with one another to return again and again to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to pray, to study, and to see their faces in the basin made from their mirrors. And in that company Miriam was often heard to teach: On account of the one God's many images is the Eternal called Adonai Trev'aot, Lord of Hosts; and some say, Adonai Trovot-God of the women who serve the Divine dwelling-place.”
Again, that was Jill Hammer’s “The Mirrors,” in the collection that I highly recommend, All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus.
Miryam's Leprosy: God Kindled in the Prophetess & Priestess!
So, we come to the last story of Miryam in the Hebrew scriptures, in Numbers 12, where she boldly stands with her brothers, confronting authority and demanding equality.
One of the most popular translations, the New International Version, goes like this: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn’t God also spoken through us?’ And the Lord heard this….At once, the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, ‘Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.’ So the three of them went out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, the Lord said, ‘Listen to my words: When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’ The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease, and he said to Moses, ‘Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half-eaten away.’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, God, heal her!’ The Lord replied to Moses, ‘If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back.’ So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back” (Num. 12:1-15).
That is one rich story, and it’s interesting to note, in the words of Schwartz, that “rabbis, despite their conviction that Miriam sinned by speaking against Moses, nevertheless depict her as a positive and righteous woman” (p. 3).
Esteemed in the North, Suppressed in the South
Schwartz notes that all mentions of Miryam by name come to us from the Elohist author, who “was less concerned with the earthly government, espousing rather the religious and ethical obligations of the community. Although the documentary hypothesis is not universally accepted, it is interesting to imagine Miryam having a supporter among the redactors of the Bible, especially one loyal to Israel’s prophetic tradition” (p. 2). Said another way, the northern Israelite author of these stories was much less interested in showing deference to the religious systems that surrounded the Davidic kingship, which was centered around its capital in the south. Miryam embodied the spirit of the northern kingdom.
The "Leprosy" of Slander: The "Evil Tongue"
In her essay, “Did Miriam Talk Too Much?”, Naomi Graetz suggests that “Miriam was punished with leprosy because women in the biblical world were not supposed to be leaders of men, and that women with initiative were reproved when they asserted themselves with the only weapon they had, their power of language a power which could be used viciously and was, therefore, called lashon ha-ra, literally, the evil tongue.”
Commentators have mused over Miryam’s punishment, despite the fact that both she and Aharon came before their brother. The story smacks of misogyny.
In later midrash, rabbis would suggest that Aharon also had leprosy, but that his only lasted a moment; his sin was not as great as Miryam’s, since she was evidently behind the ploy.
The Deuteronomy Rabbah, a truly misogynistic text, went further, and, in the same way that we blamed Havva (Eve) for all sin and evil, Miryam was seen as the root for the generalization of all women being malicious gossips. In that work, Rabbi Issac says, “It is like the snake that bites everyone who passes by and it is surprising that anyone is willing to associate with it. So Moses said: "Miriam spoke slander against me; that we can understand since women as a rule are talkative” (DR 6:11).
In the same work, Rabbi Levi continues the malicious generalizations, saying that women are “querulous and gossips. Whence do we know that they are gossips? For it is written, ‘And Miriam spoke’” (Deut Rabbah 6:11).
In her essay, Graetz skillfully weaves a bridge between slander and leprosy: In the same way that those with leprosy must be removed from the camp, those with lashon ha-ra', the evil tongue, cause separation and isolate others from the rest of society.
She writes: “This sin was so egregious that the rabbis inserted two prayers about it into the daily silent recitation; one at the conclusion ("Keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" [Ps. 34:13]) and one a curse ("There shall be no hope for those who slander"). The rabbis think of slander as worse than rape, and equivalent to murder: The rapist must pay 50 sela to the victim, whereas whoever slanders must pay 100 sela to the slandered person (M. Arakin 3:5).
One might think that here is a case of overreaction: Surely the punishment for slander is not to be more severe than for rape. However, in the eyes of the rabbis, since the rapist also has to marry the victim and cannot ever divorce her, there is some kind of closure, whereas one never knows what the ripple effects of slander may be. The rabbis recognized the power of the spoken word to build or ruin human relationships” (pp. 151-152), which is why they were quick to point to Miryam as a lesson, even citing scripture: “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way as you came forth out of Egypt” (Deut. 24:9).
Graetz writes: “Lashon ha-ra' was considered so evil that it was prohibited even when the remarks were true (Lev 19:16)….The effects of slander (or what today we might want to call, character assassination) are deadly. They are like that of the "serpent who bites into one limb and whose poison travels to all the limbs. Lashon ha-ra' slays teller, listener and subject" (Leviticus Rabbah 26:2). Character assassination of leaders or of God's chosen is therefore, surely very serious- how serious can be seen in this final midrash, based on the passage: "Suffer not thy mouth to bring thy flesh into guilt' (Eccl 5:5). Rabbi Manni interpreted the verse as alluding to Miriam. Miriam spoke slander with her mouth, but all her limbs were punished….The rabbis glorified Miriam when she asserted herself to defend the values of nurturance and motherhood, but disparaged her when she stepped out of line and spoke up to challenge Moses' authority.”
Schwartz dedicates a section of her work to Miryam the Rebel. She writes that Miryam “may be the first female since Lilith to challenge the status quo and demand equality.”
In her essay, “If There Be a Prophet,” she writes that Miryam likely didn’t object to Tzipporah’s ethnicity, referring to her origins as a Cushite, or to the interfaith aspect of her marriage to Miryam’s brother. “Despite Judaism's strong preference for endogamy (in-group marriage), the ‘foreign wife’ has been presented as an exemplary ancestress too many times. Beginning with Genesis we see Tamar, a Canaanite woman, held up as more righteous than Judah for following the Hebrew custom of the levirate marriage (Gen. 38). Later the Book of Ruth appears as the classic tale of the non-Israelite woman who demonstrates her loyalty to the Hebrew God and community. Indeed, Tzipporah’s own quick action (Ex. 4:24-26) to circumcise her son in keeping with Israelite custom when Moses had neglected to do so speaks to her willingness as a ‘convert.’ A common and accepted interpretation of this passage suggests that Miriam was punished for slander. The halachic position on lashon ha'ra (gossip or speaking ill about another) is unequivocal: to destroy a person's reputation is tantamount to murder (Leviticus Rabbah 26.2). If Miriam has indeed been guilty of slander then the punishment is well deserved. But if so, why Aaron's exemption? And do we really know that Miriam committed an act of gossip? The text says merely, ‘And Miriam and Aaron spoke with Moses about the Cushite wife that he had married.’ We do not know that Miriam's comments about Tzipporah were critical in any way. In fact, we have even more reason to believe they were not. Many commentators (including Rashi) have read this text with the view that Miriam spoke not against Moses' wife, but rather on her behalf. The rabbis viewed this passage as confirmation that Moses held himself physically apart from his wife at all times to remain ritually pure for contact with God. This is a logical supposition, since we know God's instruction at Mount Sinai ‘Be ready for the third day,’ Moses added a warning of his own: ‘Go not near a woman.’ Aside from the larger problem that Moses seems to be addressing only men here, we can infer that to Moses the preparation to face God meant not touching a woman. Many have believed that he therefore refrained from sexual relations with his wife at all times. Miriam's complaint, then, on behalf of her sister-in-law, was to advocate for Tzipporah's conjugal rights. Traditional commentary still manages to put a negative twist on this version, claiming that Miriam and Aaron complained that Moses was being ‘too holy,’ since they did not need to keep apart from their own spouse.”
Male Hegemony: The Davidic Levites Extinguish Ancient Hebrew Priestesses
In her essay, “If There Be a Prophet,” Rebecca Schwarz links this story back to Miryam’s leadership of dancing and singing in Exodus 15. Of that dance, she writes, “This was likely a cultic or religious ritual, and not merely in a spontaneous celebration. According to Burns, ‘The dance is not merely an aesthetic pursuit... it is the service of the god…” Furthermore, if priestesses in the ancient Near East did not marry or bear children, this is yet one more clue leading us to think of Miriam as a possible priestess…. Since women commonly held priestly roles in surrounding cultures, it is likely that Miriam and other women may have in fact been priestesses, and their title changed to ‘prophetess’ by later editors. No Hebrew word for priestess (kohenet) survives [in the Hebrew scriptures], so if such a role in fact once existed it may have disappeared with the consolidation of religious power in the hands of the Levites, or at some point during the monarchy. Any trace of this tradition would have later been suppressed by the redactors of the Bible, just as they tried to suppress vestiges of idol worship and other traditions that were later condemned, or of which they disapproved” (pp. 169-170).
So now, imagine for a moment the need of men to erase not only Miryam’s historical status as a priestess, but also to highlight for all women of all time a cautionary tale of women who seek leadership over men. Yikes.
Schwartz notes that all three siblings were called into the Tent of Meeting, the holy place, to speak with God, such that, when God tells them “If there be a prophet among you” (Num. 12:6), Schwartz says, “We know there is a prophet among them, and she is Miriam” (p. 171).
So, why was Miryam punished more severely than Aharon? Schwartz plainly states: “According to Cheryl Exum, Miriam's claim threatens male hegemony, and her exclusion from the camp symbolizes woman's role as outsider in the power, structure. Aaron poses no significant challenge to the symbolic order, and he remains within the camp. A woman challenging a man's leadership is more dangerous to the status quo than a conflict between two men, between equals. However, this has not always been so.” Schwartz shares biblical examples of women challenging male authority—Sarah, Rivkah, Tamar—often succeeding and always with divine blessing.
Reinterpreting Miryam's "Punishment"
Schwartz notes that Miryam’s “punishment” was likely merely an attempt to explain her separation from the camp for a time. She writes: “If we continue with our current presumptions, that Miriam served as priestess or prophetess to the Israelites, and that her challenge to Moses demanded recognition of that status, then we must see a different outcome than that usually found in traditional readings of Numbers 12. What if Miriam was not, in fact, punished at all? What if something else entirely is going on? Abraham and Sarah were told to leave their land to follow God; Rebekah left her family to enter the covenant as Isaac's bride; Jacob left his home to become Yisrael. In the tradition of her ancestors, Miriam is called forth to leave the security of home and family, ordered by divine will into the desert. Did God indeed speak to Miriam when she was alone, separated from her people? The text names her prophetess, nevi’ah, but nowhere in the biblical writing is she credited with actual prophecy…Did God call Miriam out to the wilderness to speak to her? The text calls Miriam leprous, using the Hebrew word tzara'at. The same term, the same form of leprosy, is used during Moses' conversation with God at the burning bush (Ex. 4:7). When speaking to Moses for the first time, God chooses a physical sign, a transformation of the skin's outward appearance, as a symbol of divine communication. God chooses tzara'at. When Moses' hand turns white with leprosy, God is not punishing him, but choosing him for a special purpose. The physical change proves to his disbelieving eyes (and is intended to be a sign proving Moses' worthiness to the Israelites) that divine forces are at work in him. Why should it be impossible to believe that Miriam's tzara 'at serves a similar purpose? The text states that Miriam's skin appears white k'sheleg, as snow. White or snow are metaphors for purity- could Miriam's tzara'at be an impurity that purifies? When Moses removes his hand from his robe at the burning bush, the text also notes that his tzara'at is k'sheleg, as snow. The book of Leviticus summarizes the laws concerning tzara'at and impurity: "If the tzara'at covers the entire skin... (the Kohen) shall declare the affliction to be pure; having turned completely white, tf is pure (Lev. 13:12-17). Miriam's skin is white as snow. If she is therefore purified and not impure, why her seclusion from the camp? We know she is a prophet and receives divine inspiration. The incident described in Numbers 12 initiates and validates that status. Seven days of separation for purification also remind us of the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests, when they are instructed to remain secluded for seven days before their inauguration as kohanim (Lev. 8:33-35). Was this then Miriam's consecration as a kohenet, a priest? Most translations render Numbers 12:9 as "The wrath of God flared up against them' But the verb stem charah can be translated to mean simply "to burn or be kindled.” The interpretation of God burning with anger is up to those who perceive anger within the context of this story: This sentence just as easily reads that "God was kindled more within them." If the spirit of God is kindled within Miriam following the declaration "If there be a prophet among you." then clearly we are not reading about punishment. The "kindling of God" within Miriam seems to imply that she is receiving divine communication of some sort. The spirit of God burns within Miriam, and her skin glows pure white.”
Schwartz concludes: “The Israelites would not continue on their way to the Promised Land until Miriam had joined them again. The people for whom she spoke, the voices she represented, these remained loyal to her. Miriam the prophet went out into the desert to speak with God. What passed between God and Miriam during those seven days in the desert, however, must be left to the midrashists, for the text offers no more clues to follow. We now read the entire story of Numbers 12 quite differently. From the rabbis' use of this tale to condemn Miriam and in fact all women as gossips (Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:11), we now have evidence pointing us toward a lost tradition of women as prophets and priests. Letting go of long-held images and interpretations of familiar biblical passages is never easy. But if ever a particular chapter cried out for review, it must be this one. Looking with fresh eyes and a feminist consciousness, suspending what we have always been told to be true, we see new and exciting implications arise from the ancient and esoteric texts of our ancestors. Miriam’s rebellion may represent the last stand of disenfranchised Hebrew priestesses clinging to their way of life as a new hierarchy rose to power” (pp. 175-176).
Miryam's Death Mirrors the Death of the People
And that brings us to Miryam’s death. The Hebrew scriptures tell us very little about this event “In the first month, the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron” (Num. 20:1-2).
Wait? That was it? Simply, “Miryam died and was buried”? And then we turn to the people’s complaint about not having water?
In her essay, “The Well Dried Up: Miriam’s Death in the Bible & Midrash,” Erica Brown says, “Miriam's death in the Hebrew Bible is an occasion of loud silence on the part of the text. Although her death is recorded, no communal mourning is mentioned. Her burial place is not marked nor are her brothers engaged in her burial; the text quickly moves on to the repeated complaint of lack of water. This is a sharp contrast to Aaron's death, which occurs in the very same chapter, and to which seven verses are dedicated and the presence of the grieving children of Israel is emphasized. Miriam protected the infant Moses (Ex. 2), galvanized the women at the splitting of the sea (Ex. 15) and expressed concern over Moses' relationship with his wife (Num. 12); her death certainly warrants greater attention. A closer look at the text, its commentators and the midrash may fill in some of the narrative gaps. In linguistic and thematic terms, Miriam's death parallels the attention her life was given in the Bible. Miriam is one of the few women who occupy a frontal place in biblical lore and is not depicted as the supportive partner to a heroic male. In fact, no mention is made in the Bible of Miriam's spouse. She is a woman who appears assertive and alone, even from a tender age. Despite this portrait, we get very few glimpses into her character and her behavior. Those that we do have are usually brief one or two verses. In contrast to her two famous brothers, she is only mentioned a handful of times in the Torah and once in Chronicles (1Chrn. 5:29). When we are introduced to her she is without a name and seems a distant figure in the early life of Moses: 'And his sister stood far off to know what would be done to him' (Ex. 2:4). Her glorious moment of song at the Reed Sea only occupies two verses, and is diminished somewhat in uniqueness when we read in Judges 11:34 and Psalm 68:24-26 that it was a common custom for women to welcome men home from battlefield with timbrels and dancing. For example, 'And it came to pass on their return, when David returned from slaying the Philistines, that the women came out of the cities of Israel, singing and dancing to meet King Saul with timbrels and with joyful song and with lutes' (1Sam. 18:6-7). Perhaps Miriam's death is presented in a minimalistic fashion to convey that her life, like the verses that present it, shared this limited and ambiguous characterization. The narrative sparsity is enhanced in almost each instance that Miriam is mentioned in the Bible because her story is quickly eclipsed by the needs of the children of Israel.
“Immediately after Miriam's celebration at the Reed Sea, the text states, 'So Moses brought Israel; from the Reed Sea and they went out to the wilderness of Zur and they marched in the wilderness three days and found no water' (Ex. 15:20-21). As elsewhere, Miriam's moment is cut short by the travels of Israel in the wilderness and specifically by the persistent search for water. The deaths of Moses, Aaron and Miriam also take on greater symbolic significance when viewed in light of their respective topographic locations, each suited to the characterization they respectively receive. Aaron died on a mountain in full view of the community in which he served as high priest, an elevated position. Moses died in Moav, in a valley out of view of the children of Israel, a lonely death at the end of a leadership of persistent contention summed up in the biblical words of Deuteronomy. 'And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moav opposite Baal Pe'or, but no man knows his grave to this very day' (34:6). Miriam died in the desert, the wide anonymous expanse of monochromatic land which signified the difficulties of the journey. It is a dry place, a place of constant human urgency and vulnerability and one where perhaps death itself is too commonplace to take sufficient notice.”
A Leadership Dilemma: Personal Needs v. Communal Needs
Midrash contributes to the story of Miryam’s death.
In one tradition, Mosheh and Aharon are criticized for mourning the death of their sister when the community’s needs are so great. Brown writes: “Although this midrash does depict grieving, it also portrays a moral dilemma of leadership. Moses and Aaron are rebuked for ignoring communal needs at a time of personal difficulty. Particularly striking in this midrash is the way in which God dismisses the mourning over Miryam; her passing was not depicted as a loss for all of Israel; it was seen only as the loss of a sibling.
Another midrash connects Miryam’s death to the loss of water in Numbers 20:2.
Rabbis suggested that the well—Miryam’s Well—that accompanied them stopped providing water on the day Miryam died.
That’s right: Miryam was a holy wonder worker, and, unlike her two brothers, she died blameless. Brown writes: “In the deaths of both Moses and Aaron, the Bible uses the euphemistic expression, "to be gathered up unto one's people." However, Aaron died on a mountain high above his community, and Moses died alone. Ironically, it is Miriam who is truly gathered up to her people because-it is she who dies the death of the community at large.”
I’m very fond of Barbara Holender’s poem, “Miriam’s Well,” which plays on the similarity between Miryam’s name and mayim, the Hebrew word for water:
It followed her everywhere
like a lover, easing us to rest,
springing from hidden places
in our wanderings.
Always we were thirsty. Angered
by our wailing, she'd stamp her feet.
Even from the pools of her heelprints
Once in anguish
she beat the rocks with her bare hands
again and again, weeping.
Water gushed, cleansing her blood,
soaking her hair, her robe.
She cupped her hands, rinsed her mouth,
spat; she splashed, she played.
Laughing, we filled our bellies.
She was the one we followed,
who knew each of us by name.
Healing rose from her touch as drink
from the deep, as song from her throat.
She was the well. In our hearts
we called her not Miriam, bitter sea,
but Mayim, water.
Miryam: A Symbol of Messianic Equality
Let’s conclude with the challenge Miryam presents us.
Rebecca Schwartz writes the following words to Jewish women, but they might also summarize the call of all women, including our sisters of the Inclusive Catholic movement.
Schwartz writes: “As women today try to imagine what Jewish life would have looked like with women’s full participation from the beginning, they are echoing Miriam’s call in Numbers 12:2: Has God not spoken also through us? …As a leader of women, Miriam took center stage, the Bible tells us, and ‘all the women followed her’ (Ex. 15:20). In recent years, growing numbers of modern…women have been doing the same. As some take broader roles in…ritual, the figure of Miriam becomes central.” (pp. 6-7)
Perhaps most importantly, in the words of Schwartz, Miryam “has emerged as a symbol of the Jewish feminist movement. She represents the struggle of Jewish women to find a voice in the tradition, demanding recognition and parity, and even symbolizes a messianic era of full equality” (p. 1).
Schwartz concludes: “The women at the sea sang separately from the men, but next to them and in parallel. Here is a model for the modern…women’s movement: create new rituals by adding women’s voices, but without abandoning the tradition. Just as Miriam calls upon God and Moses, saying ‘has God not also spoken through [me],’ claiming the right of divine interpretation, modern women’s scholars of Bible and Talmud struggle for recognition of new perspectives on historical writings. Perhaps, as with the golden calf, women in some ways have stayed even more faithful to the spirit of the tradition— After all it was a man, not God, who excluded the women at Sinai. Miriam’s rebellion serves as a model for modern…feminists. Miriam may be seen as a patron saint for any woman rabbi or scholar who has had to fight for a place at the table” (p. 8).
I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: It’s a grave sin that we, as a society and as a church, have deprived our sisters, our mothers and daughters, our grandmothers and granddaughters not only of the rich spiritual tradition that belongs to them, but also of their rightful place of leadership in church and society.
Ordinary Catholics may marginalize the Miryams—the priestesses and prophetesses—among us. Ordinary Catholics may seek to use the scriptures to justify their own sexism, misogyny and the unjust systems that keep some in power at the expense of our being able to realize Jesus’ discipleship of equals and Paul’s vision of true unity and equality in the Body of Christ. Let’s not be Ordinary Catholics. Let’s be… Extraordinary Catholics!
Extraordinary Catholics Magazine
Before we go, check out the March/April issue of Extraordinary Catholics magazine, available at www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith/magazine. It contains extraordinary articles by:
So, check out the March/April issue of Extraordinary Catholics magazine, available at www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith/magazine.
[Terry Ann & Becky]
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