The Old Testament stories sometimes gain a twist in the telling, which can cause Christians to draw lessons from them that are quite different from those understood in Jewish tradition. In looking at this story, I found it very helpful to turn to the Midrash, the collection of Rabbinic teaching that accompanies the Torah.
Moses had taken a Cushite wife. We may take this simply to mean Ethiopian (as Cush was the Hebrew name for Ethiopia), but this overlooks the idiomatic meaning. Cushite referred to anything that stood out so obviously that anyone could see it, in the way that a dark-skinned Ethiopian stood out in a crowd of people with lighter skins. It was a positive term; a Cushite was someone unique and outstanding. Moses had one wife, Zipporah, who was a Midianite. Her exceptional beauty and virtue are what made her stand out among other women, according to the rabbinic teachings. She was a Cushite in the sense that she was an absolute gem, and anyone could see it.
In the previous chapter of Numbers, two young men (Eldad and Medad) are preaching in the camp. According to Jewish texts, Miriam hears Zipporah saying, “Alas for the wives of these men. If they are moved to prophecy, they will separate from their wives the way my husband separated from me.” This doesn’t mean that Moses and Zipporah had divorced, but that they were no longer having any kind of sexual intimacy.
So Miriam goes to challenge Moses on Zipporah’s behalf. It is their separation she objects to, not their marriage. Once we understand this, it makes sense of Miriam and Aaron pointing out that they are also prophets. They prophesy, despite not keeping themselves set apart from other people, and ritually pure. (Although there is no reference to Miriam ever having married or borne children, Aaron was certainly married.) Why, Miriam asks Moses, should being a prophet cause you to abandon your wife in this manner? It’s not fair on her.
The three are then suddenly summoned before God, who explains that Moses is different from other prophets because of the way he might be in the presence of God at any moment. The unspoken part is that he must therefore be ritually pure. God’s immediate presence burns Aaron and Miriam, because they aren’t prepared for this meeting. Miriam is then struck with a skin disease. Our texts label it leprosy. The Hebrew word for a leper derives from a phrase meaning ‘bringing out a bad name’; in other words, a slanderer. So Miriam’s slander has bounced off Moses and stuck to her as a skin condition that leaves her ritually impure. It is Moses’ great humility in prayer that alleviates God’s anger and leads to Miriam’s healing.
I don’t know what you make of this story. As with so many Old Testament stories, I don’t feel that God comes out of it looking very good! In some ways, it leaves me with more questions than answers. But these are ancient stories of an ancient people, with fragments missing or distorted. So I think we must draw from it what we can, and accept a degree of mystery and of difference in thinking between us and the people who first told these stories.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and the lectionary gives the Gospel reading from Mark that we heard from in our call to worship. Jesus encounters God at his baptism, and is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where wild beasts and angels attend him. When I was thinking about this, I thought of the reading we heard a few weeks ago about how Jesus made his sacrifice outside the camp. Paul said, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:13-14) And I thought about the ten lepers Tony talked to us about a couple of weeks back, and the idea of the flow being reversed between Jesus and the lepers; so that, instead of being infected, he purified them.
And I thought about Miriam outside the camp, and how the people of God waited for her. When I think about this story in terms of anger and punishment, it feels unfair. Miriam was advocating for Zipporah in a patriarchal system, and what she said to Moses was fair comment, it seems to me. But when I think of this story alongside the story of Jesus in the wilderness, I draw some different things from it. The wilderness, in the Bible, is indeed a place for the unwanted and the unclean; the place where the scapegoat is driven, bearing the sins of the people, the place where the rubbish is burned in Gehenna. But it’s also a place of shriving, a place of encounter with God, and a place to go after seeing the face of God.
Jesus and Miriam were both touched by God and were both driven into the wilderness. Perhaps, for Miriam, like Jesus, this was a place of facing demons. Perhaps it was a place of change, of stripping things away, of preparing for the challenge of a unique role in the service of God. Miriam was a midwife of the faith, a gateway person, like Jesus. She was a prophetess, a teacher and a leader. She had stood alone by the river, watching over the baby Moses, just as God watched over his people in exile; and therefore, Moses and the people of God waited for her.
Perhaps this pandemic time, with its own wilderness spirit, gives us some insight into this situation. A mystery disease strikes, and this ancient people knows that quarantine is important, however painful, to save lives and keep disaster at bay. We are well placed to understand the loneliness that entails, the sense of injustice, the fear and the unknowing. Will Miriam, beloved by the people, return? They can only wait and see if God will answer their prayers.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a shriving time – that is a time of confession and absolution, a spring cleaning of the soul. And it was a shriving time for Miriam. Her encounter with God had marked her on the outside. After seven days, she was readmitted into the camp, healed of this affliction. But I wonder how it marked her on the inside? Had she needed that wilderness time to recover from her meeting with God? Did she make confession? Did she remain unbowed in holding power to account? Did she need time to recover from the wilderness upon her return to the camp?
Jesus came back from the wilderness to his family and friends, and began his ministry. Miriam already had a ministry to return to, teaching Torah to the women, prophesying, and leading the people alongside her brothers. Years later, when she died at Kadesh, the people were without water. The association of these two things leads to the Jewish folk tale about the miraculous well that moved with the people of God, which was attributed to Miriam (as the pillars of cloud and fire were attributed to Aaron, and the manna to Moses). Without Miriam, a source of sustenance and strength dries up. Aaron and Moses are immediately almost overwhelmed by the challenge of providing for the people. Without the courage and passion of Miriam, even these great men of God will not reach the Promised Land.
Standing alone, guarding the infant Moses, and standing alone outside the camp, Miriam was undaunted and undiminished in her determination to see the people of God to safety. So, whatever happened between Miriam and God in the wilderness, it didn’t take away her unique gifts. It didn’t disconnect her from God or from her people. It was a necessary part of her journey with God. As for the people, I think Moses and Aaron’s terror over something bad happening to Miriam, and the willingness of the people (who loved to complain) to wait with her – to wait for her – speaks volumes about what she meant to them. Miriam, with Moses and Aaron, had brought the people out of slavery, and through the wilderness towards the Promised Land.
We, too, are going outside the camp now. We are going with Jesus into the wilderness. We do not need to be afraid, even though we know where this road is heading. Death is not the end – it is a doorway to life, and to the city that is to come.