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Miriam


Miriam's story appears in short segments throughout the books of Moses, providing a symbol of every person of faith's journey from bitterness to openness and to freedom and justice. Miriam is valued by many women as one of the earliest female leaders of the Jewish people; and she is valued in Jewish tradition as one of the people honored in the 'seven remembrances.'


Here is one way to read Miriam's story, as a five-part journey.

[1.] Bitterness. Her name - Miriam - means bitter. When she was born, her family was facing the worst period in the slavery in Eygpt. The Pharaoh had commanded that newborn sons of the Hebrew slaves be killed. Brave women - including the midwives Shiprah and Puah - defied the order, with mothers giving birth in hidden caves, living in secret, hiding boys from the authorities. But imagine how many male children were lost during that time!

[2.] Openness. Miriam was a young girl when she and her mother put the 3-month-old Moses into a basket in the river, open to the hope that he could be somehow saved. Miriam was watching nearby when the best thing they could have hoped for happened. The Pharaoh's daughter discovered the boy and loved him and decided to adopt him. Miriam came forth out of the reeds and offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse him -- her own mother. Moses grows up, with a heart for people who are oppressed and an openness to see and listen to God.

[3.] Freedom and Justice. Years later freedom comes! After the Israelites cross the Red Sea, we see Miriam leading the women in song, dancing and playing tambourines. They glory in the goodness of God and in the justice done to the soldiers who had pursued them across the sea. Much later, we might struggle with this early concept of retributive justice (and look for options of nonviolence) but here we are simply celebrating freedom from slavery and the justice on those who had forced the Hebrew people to lose so many sons and to labor in slavery for so many years of their lives.

[4.] Cleansing of bitterness. Generations are commanded to remember Miriam and to remember an affliction that struck her for seven days. After some years in the desert, Miriam and Aaron began grumbling about Moses, about his marriage to an outsider, about whether Moses was the sole voice of God. God confers with all three - Moses, Miriam and Aaron - and Miriam is suddenly afflicted with a leprous condition. She follows instructions, stays outside the camp for seven days, and at the end of the seven days she is healed and restored to the camp.

Readers can wonder why -- in the midst of such an amazing life -- we see and remember a story of Miriam afflicted with a leprous condition. Sometimes, especially for a faithful person like Miriam, a period of illness and recovery can be a period of meditation and spiritual healing and cleansing. In the New Testament, there is a somewhat similar story of a righteous person - the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist - temporarily afflicted. God tells Zechariah that his wife will have a son, and his son will be a messenger for the Messiah. Zechariah doesn't believe, and God leaves him without speech. Zechariah is unable to speak from that moment until the baby is born. I think that for Zechariah, a man who loved God, that period of silence was a gift more than a judgment. Sometimes an affliction is just an affliction, sometimes a sign, and sometimes a time of cleansing and reflection, even for the most righteous person of faith. For Miriam, with a heart for justice and freedom, I think that the seven days outside the camp were a period of cleansing and reflection, a time to restore the spirit of openness that she carried throughout her life.

[5] Miriam's Legacy. Many years later, Miriam died while the people were camped in the wilderness of Zin, at a place called Kadesh. After her death, while the people were in Kadesh, there was another story of grumbling and restoration. The people complained to Moses and Aaron that there was no water, complaining that they would have been better off staying in Egypt in slavery. God told Moses to gather the people near a rock, and God brought water from the rock, flowing plentifully. This story, and each of the stories of her life, have so many layers of meaning; so many potential connections from one story to the next; so many parallels between the life Miriam lived and the entire history of the Israelites in slavery and freedom.

In Deuteronomy 24, the Jewish people are commanded to remember Miriam. In the same chapter, they are commanded to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, to treat fellow Israelites with justice, to treat all laborers fairly, both Israelites and foreigners, to leave some of the harvest for widows, orphans and others who need food. The Deuteronomy 24 chapter gives us her legacy - to remember the past without bitterness and to act with justice and fairness.


J.M.L.
July 2014