Another Look At Miriam

Last night we started our series on Uppity Women of The Word at our Wednesday night Bible study, and we kicked it off with Miriam. For those of you wondering who Miriam is, she is first seen (but not named) in the story of baby Moses being sent down the river in a basket. It is his sister, Miriam, who follows along the river bank and intervenes when Pharoah’s daughter draws him out of the river. She comes up and offers to find a Jewish nurse for the baby, and then goes and gets their own mother to do the job.

Miriam is seen again after another well-known story–the parting of the Red Sea. After the Hebrew children cross on to dry land and Pharaoh’s army dies a horrible death when the waters crash back over them, it is Miriam (who is given the title of prophet) who leads the celebration of song.

But Miriam’s claim to shame come in chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers

1-2 Miriam and Aaron talked against Moses behind his back of
because his Cushite wife (he had married a Cushite woman). They said, “Is it only through Moses that God speaks? Doesn’t he also speak through us?”
God overheard their talk.

3-8 Now the man Moses was a quietly humble man, more so than anyone living on Earth. God broke in suddenly on Moses and Aaron and Miriam saying, “Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.” The three went out. God descended in a Pillar of Cloud and stood at the entrance to the Tent. He called Aaron and Miriam to him. When they stepped out, he said,

Listen carefully to what I’m telling you.
If there is a prophet of God among you,
I make myself known to him in visions,
I speak to him in dreams.
But I don’t do it that way with my servant Moses;
he has the run of my entire house;
I speak to him intimately, in person,
in plain talk without riddles:
He ponders the very form of God.
So why did you show no reverence or respect
in speaking against my servant, against Moses?

9 The anger of God blazed out against them. And then he left.

10 When the Cloud moved off from the Tent, oh! Miriam had turned leprous, her skin like snow. Aaron took one look at Miriam—a leper!

11-12 He said to Moses, “Please, my master, please don’t come down so hard on us for this foolish and thoughtless sin. Please don’t make her like a stillborn baby coming out of its mother’s womb with half its body decomposed.”

13 And Moses prayed to God:

Please, God, heal her,
please heal her.

14-16 God answered Moses, “If her father had spat in her face, wouldn’t she be ostracized for seven days? Quarantine her outside the camp for seven days. Then she can be readmitted to the camp.” So Miriam was in quarantine outside the camp for seven days. The people didn’t march on until she was readmitted. Only then did the people march from Hazeroth and set up camp in the Wilderness of Paran.(The Message)

So why, when both Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses authority, did God punish only Miriam? Of course, the theory that she was punished because she was a woman was advanced. But then someone remembered that Miriam was referred to as a prophet–which perhaps was a higher calling than a priest–and suggested that God chose to punish her to set the most extreme example to the people. “See, even the great prophetess Miriam does not get to question my Moses without consequences.”

Another person suggested that the punishment wasn’t for questioning God and God’s called, but for being just plain racist. A Cushite was someone from Nubia or Ethiopia–someone with darker skin than a Semitic woman. I believe the quote was, “You have a problem with people with black skin, well, I’ll just make you really white!” I’m not sure the passage has ever been interpreted quite that way before.

Yet another insight came from a new comer who suggested that Miriam’s behavior was classic middle child syndrome. Big brother Aaron (we’re assuming he was the elder brother) gets all the attention for being the out-in-front spokesman and priest, and little brother Moses (clearly the chosen one) might not even be alive if it weren’t for Miriam’s quick thinking back when Pharaoh’s daughter drew him out of the water. She was fed up with playing second (or third?) fiddle and was acting out.

Our conversation at the wine bar last night reminded me of the importance of studying scripture in community. While we all need to have our own Bible discipline, studying The Word in the company of others gives us insight we might not gain on our own, and it causes us to clarify and articulate our own responses.

And perhaps the best part of the evening was after all but two of us had gone. Two women who were not a part of our group came up and told us that ours was the best Bible study they ever heard. We invited them to join us at church on Sunday and/or join us for Bible study next week. “We’re here every Wednesday at 6:30,” we told them. Hope to see them again.

Leave a Reply