This is the second of two blog posts about Myriam with Dr. Kirsi Cobb of Cliff College. The previous one can be accessed here.
For those of us who grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s, the baby in the basket story tended to be the extent of Myriam’s appearance in Bible stories. But in the ‘90’s, two other children’s stories became increasingly popular: Myriam’s celebrations after the crossing of the Red Sea, and her being struck with leprosy following some controversy about Moses’ wife. This last incident was overlooked in most children’s materials until relatively recently, but a quick google search will reveal that this is no longer so. Myriam’s leprosy has become as firmly established in the children’s repertoire as has baby Moses floating on the Nile, but more about that later.
The story of the Israelites’ celebration at the end of the Exodus is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, there is the way that retellings selectively draw on the Hebrew text. Secondly, there is the way this mention of Myriam attests to her importance in the children’s Bible story canon.
Kirsi Cobb observes that the Hebrew account of the celebrations after the crossing of the Red Sea contains nuance which English grammar does not allow for. The verb used by Myriam to encourage the people to praise God is in the masculine imperative, that is, the instruction is aimed at the people at large or the men of the community specifically. And the instruction is to praise, rather than to keep on praising; in other words, the instruction is to start praising, right now. On a less grammatical note, translations and retellings tend to give Myriam a “tambourine” for her singing, whereas in the Hebrew it is a drum or hand drum, which is a completely different instrument. (No-one directs troops with a tambourine!) Lastly, Myriam sings and gives the order to sing. Yet, the song of praise is rather bloodthirsty by modern standards, praising God for the multiple drownings of people and horses.
Retellings of the scene therefore distort the Biblical text by excluding the uncomfortable words of the praise offered to God, as well as by disguising what Myriam actually does in the Hebrew text and passing it off as something like leading church worship. Hebrew Myriam gives orders, imposes her rhythm on the proceedings, and glories in the death and destruction meted out on the Israelites’ enemies. Bible story Myriam dances with her tambourine so everyone can celebrate. The difference is considerable and speaks to a general unease among contemporary Christians with the text as it stands in the Bible.
But if the story is so unsuitable for children, why tell it? Why not simply avoid that scene, and cut straight from the Red Sea to the 40 years in the desert? Kirsi suspects that the inclusion of this scene in children’s Bibles today demonstrates Myriam’s stickiness as a character: she is problematic, but so much a part of wider Bible story tradition that many authors of resources just don’t feel comfortable leaving her out. This is a well-known phenomenon in children’s literature studies. When a reader encounters the story they are reading right now, they inevitably read it with all the previous versions along with all the related texts they have encountered contextualising and interpreting the new text. When I read a version of “Snow White”, I do so with all the previous versions I’ve read or seen jumbled up in my reading of this one. This remembered context makes my reading experience richer, but it also interferes with my experience of the new text. Were this the first version of the story I’d read I’d certainly interpret it differently than I will now. And so it is with Myriam. Authors know, consciously or instinctively, that their Bible stories will be read with all the other versions in mind, so if theirs is to relate well to the others, they need to include the key elements. And Myriam seems to be one of those key parts of the story people don’t want to leave out.
Myriam’s celebrations, however the retellings disguise them, would not be so sticky, or so widely included in children’s Bibles, without the third and final part of the Myriam story, which comes from Numbers 12:1-16. In this story, Myriam and Aaron are involved in “speaking against” Moses’ wife, and God punishes Myriam for it by striking her with leprosy. Moses and Aaron are horrified, Aaron pleads for Miriam and Moses prays to God; God relents, and the leprosy is withdrawn. I never heard this episode as a child, despite spending years in Sunday school and RE lessons. But it has become a common story for children, and this is evidenced by the array of illustrations available online (View some examples here.) Many of these pictures are designed for use with very young children, suggesting the story of Myriam being struck with leprosy is now seen as a crucial one for faith formation. Again, Kirsi points to the ways the retellings diverge from the Hebrew and the ancient context of the tale: differences which show the ideological tensions the story touches on.
All retellings and most translations of the tale state that “Aaron and Myriam spoke against” Moses’ “Cushite” wife, or against Moses “on account of” his Cushite wife. The assumption here is that Moses should not have married the member of a different ethnic group, in this case a black woman from Ethiopia, or the Horn of Africa more generally. And being products of the post-enlightenment West, readers are expected to assume that something like modern racism is at play: Moses should not have entered into an inter-ethnic marriage. Some interpretations of the story develop this thinking by emphasizing that in the Hebrew, Myriam’s leprosy is described as making her “white” as a punishment, an interpretation which suggests that God’s course of action has an anti-racist message. However, while Kirsi acknowledges this as part of the hermeneutic tradition, she suggests a different significance of a Cushite wife in ancient Israel: a Cushite wife may have been of high status, and marrying her could have been seen as a way for Moses to claim or emphasize his own superior position within the Israelite community: him getting “too big for his boots”. So could it be that the original tale of the controversy of Moses’ wife is not one where this Cushite lady is denigrated, but one where she is too good for Moses? If so, God might be angry at the controversy because he requires that Moses be held in higher honour than he is, in which case, a very high-class wife is exactly what God’s emissary should have. (Romance is conspicuously absent in this Old Testament text!)
Then there is the ambiguity of the Hebrew account. Where the modern versions state unequivocally that Aaron and Myriam spoke “against” Moses, the Hebrew has a more multi-purpose preposition which can mean “against” but also “with”, “through”, “about”, or just about anything at all, really. If the author had wanted to be specific, they could have used a more precise form of words. Leaving the phrase ambiguous suggests that what was actually said is not important. Perhaps, Kirsi says, Aaron and Myriam were not directly involved in the criticism, if it was criticism. Perhaps they were trying to act as intermediaries to resolve a conflict, or perhaps they were merely discussing the potential for trouble. In any case, the Hebrew seems designed to leave us guessing.
The one detail which the biblical text and the retellings agree on, however, is that Myriam is the only person who is punished. Even though the biblical text specifies that both she and Aaron are in on it together, there are only consequences for her, which seems illogical, and once again, gets the reader guessing. There are several possible explanations, but they all imply a bias against women. Firstly, maybe Aaron is exempt as high priest. However, even if he could not continue as high priest if afflicted with leprosy, there are other things God could have done to punish him had he wished, so this is not the most likely reason. Alternatively, perhaps by speaking against her brother, Myriam has committed an offense as a woman speaking against a male relative, and that is why God is angry. Although a gender hierarchy of this kind does not appear to be a major theme of the Exodus, women’s obedience to men does seem to be assumed in the Exodus and Numbers. However, there is no explanation given, so this cannot be taken as a clear explanation either.
Finally, perhaps Myriam’s punishment reflects the fact that she was doing most of the talking. After all, Kirsi remarks that the “speaking” which causes the problem is a verb conjugated in the feminine singular, which could make Miriam the primary instigator and Aaron a hapless bystander. This might imply that gossip is a feminine activity engaged in by women and effeminate men, in which case Aaron might be shamed by association with a feminine activity, implying a misogynistic attitude on the part of the author of the text. Perhaps Aaron is being shown by God to have been following his sister, failing to show leadership as a priest, or as a man. If so, then him not even meriting punishment might be extremely shaming, suggesting his participation was so ineffectual that it counts for nothing: this also has a misogynistic subtext.
The same should be said of the children’s retellings. They are generally accounts of how Aaron and Myriam get into trouble together, but Myriam is punished alone and must be rescued by prayers from her brother. And in the retellings, they always speak “against” Moses and criticise him (or their sister-in-law) and are illustrated with angry faces. It’s hard to find a reading here which doesn’t cast Myriam in a very negative light, or at least seem to be intended to. Because she is pretty much the only named female character in the Exodus or Numbers, the way she is represented is almost the only way women are represented in these books: Myriam represents all women by default, and the text makes it difficult to identify with her.
However, Kirsi suggests that there is a subtle parental theme in the Hebrew text which is always ignored in the retellings. When Aaron asks Moses to forgive him and Myriam, he describes Myriam as being “like a stillborn infant… with its flesh half-eaten away”. (NIV; Numb. 12:12) It’s a disturbing image, which is why modern authors don’t dwell on it. But it recalls Moses’ complaint to God in Numbers Numbers 11:11-15where he complains that God is behaving like a bad mother by neglecting his children the Israelites, and leaving Moses to care for them on his own. If this passage is intended as a development of Moses’ complaint, then it is possible that the incident is composed as an implicit criticism of God. Is he really justified in treating Myriam as he does? After all, Aaron reacts with horror, and seems to be reminding Moses and God that he, too, participated alongside Myriam, and possibly should be being punished too. God responds to Moses’ intercession like an abusive father: “if her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days?” (NIV, Numb. 12:14a). This makes no mention of a wrong action on the daughter’s part, but only refers to her father’s anger. It seems that God is saying that he doesn’t need a reason, and that Myriam must suffer anyway. Which she does, of course, although after three days she is presumably healed and comes home.
The Hebrew story of the “sin” of Aaron and Myriam, and the punishment of Myriam, seems designed to provoke debate around the legitimacy of God’s reported response to an ambiguous incident. It certainly leaves sufficient ambiguity for that discussion to take place. And in Jewish exegesis, it is a lively discussion. However, Christian tradition devotes a lot of energy to defending the patriarchs as paragons of virtue, holiness, and intimacy with the divine. And certainly does not incorporate criticism of God’s reported actions. So much so that Christian readings of Old Testament texts sometimes fail to engage with the ambiguities of the Hebrew. In the case of Myriam’s leprosy, this leaves us with a rather flat account of divine misogyny which seems rather removed from the Christianity of the New Testament, or even of the idea of God as mother inferred in Numbers 11:12. So why do modern authors and faith formation programmes seem so attached to this story? If there are reasons beyond the desire to suggest to girls that they should beware of speaking up for fear of attracting disproportionate punishment and exclusion from the community, what are they?
Dr Kirsi Cobb joined Cliff College in September 2013, following her PhD graduation from The University of Wales, Bangor, the year before. Her PhD dissertation was on the biblical figure of Miriam and the multiple ways her story can be read using different hermeneutic methods.
Kirsi’s main research interests are women’s studies and biblical interpretation, especially of the Old Testament. Her recent research projects centre on troubling and violent passages in the Hebrew Bible such as Hosea 2 and Miriam’s Song in Exodus 15:21, using lenses of trauma theory, autoethnography, revenge and abuse. Her research seeks to find ways to better understand such disturbing themes in the Bible and read women’s stories in more empowering ways.
Together with Dr Holly Morse of The University of Manchester, Kirsi is also the co-founder and co-director of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre. The Centre aims to foster research in biblical gender studies through various projects to effect change in the Church and academia, so both women and men can be empowered ‘to live life to the full’. (See the centre’s website here: https://cliffcollege.ac.uk/about-cliff-college/the-bible-gender-and-church-research-centre)
Kirsi’s latest publication is: ‘Reading Gomer with Questions: A Trauma-Informed Feminist Study of How the Experience of Intimate Partner Violence and the Presence of Religious Belief Shape the Reading of Hosea 2:2-23’ in K. O’Donnell and K. Cross (eds.), Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective (SCM Press), 2020. (available here: https://scmpress.hymnsam.co.uk/books/9780334058724/feminist-trauma-theologies) Kirsi can be found on twitter as @CobbKirsi, and her thesis is available at: https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.556084
Image credit: By Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3245209