Thursday, July 24, 2008

Miriam, a female church leader

Miriam is a minor biblical character who occurs in a few places. But those places are very telling:

2:1 A man from the household of Levi married a woman who was a descendant of Levi. 2:2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a healthy child, she hid him for three months. 2:3 But when she was no longer able to hide him, she took a papyrus basket for him and sealed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and set it among the reeds along the edge of the Nile. 2:4 His sister stationed herself at a distance to find out what would happen to him.

2:5 Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself by the Nile, while her attendants were walking alongside the river, and she saw the basket among the reeds. She sent one of her attendants, took it, 2:6 opened it, and saw the child – a boy, crying! – and she felt compassion for him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”

2:7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get a nursing woman for you from the Hebrews, so that she may nurse the child for you?” 2:8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes, do so.” So the young girl went and got the child’s mother. 2:9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.

2:10 When the child grew older she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “Because I drew him from the water.”
15:20 Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a hand-drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her with hand-drums and with dances. 15:21 Miriam sang in response to them, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and its rider he has thrown into the sea.”

12:1 Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married (for he had married an Ethiopian woman). 12:2 They said, “Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard it.

12:3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth.)

12:4 The Lord spoke immediately to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: “The three of you come to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them went. 12:5 And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent; he then called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.

12:6 The Lord said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream. 12:7 My servant Moses is not like this; he is faithful in all my house. 12:8 With him I will speak face to face, openly, and not in riddles; and he will see the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” 12:9 The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he departed. 12:10 When the cloud departed from above the tent, Miriam became leprous as snow. Then Aaron looked at Miriam, and she was leprous!

12:11 So Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, please do not hold this sin against us, in which we have acted foolishly and have sinned! 12:12 Do not let her be like a baby born dead, whose flesh is half-consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb!”

12:13 Then Moses cried to the Lord, “Heal her now, O God.” 12:14 The Lord said to Moses, “If her father had only spit in her face, would she not have been disgraced for seven days? Shut her out from the camp seven days, and afterward she can be brought back in again.”

12:15 So Miriam was shut outside of the camp for seven days, and the people did not journey on until Miriam was brought back in. 12:16 After that the people moved from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

20:1 Then the entire community of Israel entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there.

6:3 “My people, how have I wronged you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
6:4 In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
I delivered you from that place of slavery.
I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you.
The last verse particularly, Micah 6:4 indicates that Miriam is a leader at the level that Aaron is, that is Moses, Miriam and Aaron form a leadership triad but she is not on the same level as Moses. Calvin even though he disapproves of female elders agrees that both Miriam and Deborah were leaders with authority. That is he considers these two to be exceptions but does not deny they were leaders with authority. Moreover he asserts that this authority was granted directly by God:
Then he adds, I have set over thee as leaders Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam, the sister of them both.... With regard to Miriam, she also performed her part towards the women; and as we find in Exodus 15, she composed a song of thanksgiving after passing through the Red Sea: and hence arose her base envy with regard to Moses; for being highly praised, she thought herself equal to him in dignity. It is at the same time right to mention, that it was an extraordinary thing, when God gave authority to a woman, as was the case with Deborah that no one may consider this singular precedent as a common rule. (John Calvin Commentary on Micah 6:4)
Jewish legend also considers this a triad. Rashi, explains Ta’anith 9a (Ta’anith is the book of fasts and feasts) and provides the background needed to understand Micah 6:4.
Our Sages say that the three great Divine gifts that sustained the Jewish people in the desert-the Manna, the Clouds of Glory, and the Well-were in the merit of these three worthy shepherds, Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam respectively. "Miriam's Well," as it became known - a rolling rock that accompanied the Jewish people on their wanderings - provided fresh water in the desert, not only for the people, but also for their cattle and sheep. It also made the desert bloom with green pastures and beautifully scented flowers. Small wonder the people loved and respected this wise, G-d fearing and saintly prophetess. (Rashi/Chabad link)
This association with water comes from the bible itself, for those of a more mystical bent Numbers 20:1-2 presents a more interesting picture, Miriam dies and the water stops. Right after the song of Miriam the bitter water is made sweet, manah comes from heaver and Moses draws water from a rock. And of course Exodus 2:1-10 where she is associated with the river.

Going to numbers 12, this passage is often used against women teachers. However it says the exact opposite. God asserts quite clearly in 12:6-12:8 that he is directly sending Miriam visions and dreams. He contrasts that with the sort of direct conversation he has with Moses. And there is no question he considers Moses superior but the important thing in establishing female leadership that God is purposely tasking her with teaching. That is while this information is of lower quality than what Moses receives she most certainly is the recipient of revelation meant to be passed on to the people.

There is a lot of Jewish practice that is specific to women. Moses during the 40 years lays down laws that apply specifically to woman, but not in anywhere near enough detail for these instructions to be carried out. Also there are many other blessings and prayers that are woman's only, and presumably Moses wouldn't know these. That is Jews have very extensive customs and laws regarding duties including those that are exclusive and/or generally performed by woman (example menstral ritual purity and separation of dough) and mostly they are passed and taught by women to women. It would not be unreasonable that Miriam as the woman in the triad was the source of these. Especially given Aaron as the third this makes sense, i.e. Moses would have difficulty teaching things he was forbidden to actually do. So we could have Moses handles laws for the community as a whole, Aaron handled the rituals specific to priests, Miriam handled the rituals specific to woman.

So lets be clear on numbers 12. Being subordinate doesn't mean that one is not a leader. In fact in most denominations everyone is subordinate to some agency. In the Catholic church deacons to priests, priests to bishops, bishops to cardinals, cardinals to the pope and the pope to the councils (usually council of cardinals). I'd offer the story of Korah (Numbers 16) as a quick example that what happened to Miriam was because she was opposing Moses not because she was female. God himself states (Numbers 12:6-10) that it is because of his special relationship with Moses that Miriam and Aaron should not speak against Moses. There is no hint that what happened to Miriam is because she is a woman and the same thing happens to a male. So I think this proves that God did approve of Miriam as a leader, just not as one coequal to Moses. Everyone is subordinate to Moses, including Miriam, because he is a servant.

Again Jewish legend also upholds this interpretation, that the issue who she was opposing not that she wanted to teach. Rashi (commentary on Numbers 12:8):
against my servant Moses Heb. בְּעַבְדִי בְמשֶׁה, lit., against My servant, against Moses. Scripture does not say בְּעַבְדִי משֶׁה, against My servant Moses, but בְּעַבְדִי בְמשֶׁה, against My servant, against Moses . [The meaning is thus:] against My servant even if he were not Moses, and against Moses, even if he were not My servant, you should certainly have feared him, and all the more so since he is My servant, and the servant of the king is a king himself! You should have said, “The King does not love him for nothing.” If you claim that I am unaware of his actions, this [statement] is worse than your previous one. — [Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:42:8, Tanchuma Tzav 13]
In Exodus 15 she acts as a music minister leading the woman in song and worship.

Miriam does not lead in the manner of a 21st century protestant on the list, she is depicted as almost 4000 years ago. But what the bible does teach is a divinely sanctioned teacher of the word who is a leader.

1 comment:

Bryon said...

Great post on the role of a Woman (Miriam) in the Bible.