Strong Women of Our Faith: “MIRIAM”
Faith In Real Life Blog: June 30, 2022
When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. 7 Not so with my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” 9 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.
10 When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam’s skin had become diseased, as white as snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam and saw that she was diseased. 11 Then Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed. 12 Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.” 13 And Moses cried to the Lord, saying, “O God, please heal her.” 14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” 15 So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days, and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again. 16 After that the people set out from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.
I want to retitle our summer series to ‘Strong Women of Our Faith” instead of Strong Women of Faith. The stories instruct us more about God than they do the particular women. Faith always includes doubt, uncertainty and unexpected outcomes. Miriam is no different. She, like the men in the bible, is not cut from one cloth. She is bold, perhaps even heroic, as well as jealous and perhaps self righteous. As is almost always the case, God uses ordinary flawed people to do extraordinary things.
Miriam is probably most noted for her role in protecting Moses when he was set adrift in the Nile. Pharoah feared his Hebrew slaves might become too numerous and if so, they might revolt. To manage this threat he ordered that all male children under two were to be thrown into the Nile. Moses’ mother kept him hidden for three months but when it was no longer practical to hide him, she took the desperate measure of setting him adrift in a basket. His older sister, Miriam “…stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. (Exodus 2:4) and then she interceded on his behalf with Pharaoh’ daughter. “Then his sister (Miriam) said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother.” (Exodus 2:7-8) Moses not only survives, he enters Pharaoh’s court with his own mother as his nursemaid. Because of the watchfulness and boldness of Miriam, the greatest prophet in Jewish tradition survives his infancy.
In her second appearance, in Exodus 15 tells of Miriam leading the people in celebratory dance when the Hebrews escape the Egyptian armies. She is specifically identified as a leader and a prophetess—not only in the Exodus narrative but also in words of the prophet Micah: “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4) She is firmly entrenched in the story and in the tradition. This is important, precisely because most of the bible is so heavily patriarchal. You will not find gender equity or ‘fairness’ in the bible. It was written in a different world. But you will find an acknowledgement of the important role women played—usually at odds with patriarchal expectations. (Please note, women are explicitly included in our most formative faith narratives— the Exodus in the Old Testament and the resurrection in the New Testament). Miriam was such a woman.
However, this does not mean she wasn’t flawed. The line between speaking out and overstepping is not obvious—except in retrospect. This is a problem for us all in real life. And it was certainly the case for Miriam.
Miriam doubts the authority of Moses. Such doubt can come from many different places in the heart—from petty jealousy to a deep concern for keeping the faith. In the jealous scenario, she is tired of the second (or third) chair. She wants recognition. After all she was a major player in the leadership of the people but her role is second to Moses. So she seeks Aaron as an ally and boldly asks: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” In this version, she is seeking to advance herself. There is hardly one of us who has not been in a situation in which we did not get credit for our contributions. It is probably unfair to label her jealousy as petty but the charge of jealousy is a reasonable one..
But on the other hand, she may well have had a legitimate complaint about Moses. It was not ok to marry outside of the faith but that is exactly what Moses did. He was breaking the rules and getting away with it because he was the boss. In this scenario, Miram is speaking truth to authority. How would any of us know? Only with the eyes of retrospect do we learn that God is on the side of Moses.
The tradition had long since recognized Moses as the greatest prophet ever. As presented, Miriam was challenging God’s authority when she challenged Moses. Before we eavesdrop on God’s words, we are told that “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” With that editorial introduction, there was no question where this conversation was headed. Miriam did not have a chance. Never mind that 8 short chapters later, Moses is forbidden to enter the promised land because of his disobedience. He does not follow God’s directions and leaves the impression that it was his actions not God’s that brought forth water in the wilderness. (But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Numbers 20:12). So much for being the most humble man on the face of the earth. Whether it is ‘fair’ or not, Moses is accused of making it about him instead of about God—and that is precisely the complaint leveled at Miriam.
What is consistent in both stories is that God is primary and his will is not to be questioned. Bad things happen when we fall outside of the boundaries of God’s will. In the story, Miriam is punished. She is afflicted with a disease and banned from the community for seven day. Later, Moses is also punished when he is prevented from entering the promised land. Don’t get caught in the ‘fairness’ of the punishment. Pay attention to what offends God. But in real life, we have the difficult problem of discernment. But, at least in retrospect, whenever we claim to ‘know’ God’s will, or whenever we usurp God’s prerogatives, we too are at risk.
Miriam may well have had a legitimate grievance in the context of her time. Marrying outside of the faith was prohibited. Such marriages ran the risk of diluting the faith. (That same risk is very much present in today’s world). But no matter how rational that concern is, we know in retrospect that God didn’t care nearly so much about marrying within the faith as Miriam did. If that was her agenda, she presumed to know God’s will. Religious people for all time have appealed to God’s will to bolster their argument. In the end, even when I seek to give Miriam maximum credit for speaking ‘truth to authority’, what she missed was that her truth may not be God’s truth. That is a hard lesson for all of us.
The first question in FIRL was: ‘Why not Aaron?’ It is a fair question for our time but remember, this story is about God more than Miriam. She was the ringleader and she was punished. This is not a story about gender equity. It is a story about God. It does not matter if Miriam responded out of petty jealousy, had a legitimate grievance about her place in leadership or is seeking to uphold the religious traditions of the day. It is clear (in retrospect) that Miriam was not aligned with God’s will. Though the penalties described are hardly imaginable in today’s world, all of us will collide with unfortunate consequences when we do not align with God’s will. If we fail, for whatever reason, there will be consequences. In today’s language, if we fail to keep love at our center, we will slide into self righteousness and find ourselves in a hostile, polarized world where the most important thing is being right. We will be isolated in our own self affirming bubble and we will sow the seeds of discord instead of reconciliation. We are living this dilemma in our political discourse.
In ordinary life, look at our sexual mores. The attitudes about marriage, sexual behavior and what is permissable has undergone a sea change. Is this a sign that the world is going to hell? And/or, is this a sign that God is a whole lot less concerned about sex than we are? I’m not looking for an answer, I am exposing the real life dilemma of faith. We always risk hubris when we appeal to God’s will to determine what is sinful and what is not. When that happens we risk advancing our own sense of righteousness. We are likely to forget to include humility and deference to God.. Just because we believe something firmly does not mean we are aligned with God. This is why we have directions to pray unceasingly. We need a counter balance to our own will. That can only happen when we stay in conversation with our God. Humility requires that we tolerate not knowing.
Finally, notice the grace note in the passage. Both Aaron and Moses come to Miriam’s aid. And though she is banned for seven days, the community does not continue their journey until she is allowed to rejoin them. There was room for her to misstep and room to be restored. That grace is what frees us to live.
May we share Miriam’s boldness. May we learn the difficult lessons of humility. And, may we have the faith that we can be restored to the community.
Let it be so.