Shut up and Dance? Myriam’s Tambourine, and other modern Inventions

Painting of woman with tambourine, by Anselm Feuerbach

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

Little Women and Little Girls: Talking about Myriam in the Bible

The biblical character Myriam, sister of Moses, features relatively prominently in children’s Bibles and Bible stories, despite only appearing a handful of times in Exodus and Numbers. Sacred Texts’ Cath Kennedy sat down with Kirsi Cobb who lectures in Old Testament at Cliff College and specialised in the portrayal of Myriam in the Old Testament for her PhD. Their conversation produced two blog posts. In this, the first, they discuss the story of baby Moses and Myriam’s role in it and find traces of sexism and antisemitism in the traditional form of the story.

Moses’ sister Myriam is well-known to children who attend Sunday school. She is the brave big sister who oversees baby Moses’ rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter. There may be no bulrushes in Exodus, but from the mid-19th century onwards in the West, the story was often entitled “Moses in the Bulrushes” and was the only episode of Myriam’s life which most children heard. So what is at stake in this traditional Bible tale, and how accurate is it to the biblical narrative?

Moses in the Bulrushes: the plot

A mother needs to protect her son from the henchmen of a wicked king who has ordered all baby boys from her community be killed (Exodus 1:22; 2:1-10). He is getting too big to be hidden (to be disguised as a girl??) so she devises a radical plan. She floats him on the Nile in a basket, and he is retrieved by a princess who decides to adopt him. The baby’s sister has been left to keep watch, and she suggests that the baby might be wet nursed by a local woman of the same ethnicity. And so baby Moses’ natural mother is employed by his adoptive mother to foster him. These elements are usually present to some degree in children’s versions of this story from Exodus chapter one.

Analysis and Discussion

How does this compare to the canonical text? Well, the sister is unnamed in Exodus, but Kirsi points out that there is a strong tradition in Judaism and Christianity associating her with Moses’ adult sister Myriam (Numbers 26:59; 1 Chron 6:3), who features later in Exodus 15 and Numbers 12. However, Moses’ unnamed mother is described literally in the Hebrew as the “daughter of a priest”, and here, translation tradition gets controversial. For example, where men are described as “sons of” prophets or priests they are translated as prophets and priests themselves. However, women are systematically translated differently: they remain daughters, rather than having roles of their own. Would it be more accurate to translate Moses’ mother as a priest(ess) than as the daughter of one? Such a translation would, in fact, accord with the overall narrative. Moses’ wife Zipporah, whom he marries in Exodus 1:21 is the daughter of Jethro the priest, and she performs the ritual of circumcision on their sons, saving Moses from divine wrath in Exodus 4:24-26. She certainly sounds like a priestly character. And then there is Pharaoh’s daughter herself. Pharaohs’ daughters generally became either diplomatic wives or priests/priestesses of various Egyptian cults. Perhaps, if we are very bold here, the transaction between the distraught mother and the princess was an arrangement between two priestly women who knew each other but possibly pretended not to. In the biblical text, Moses’ destiny can be read as determined and steered by priestly women, even if other interpretations are available.

Given that these female priests are soon replaced by the very male Aaronic priesthood, so I wondered if it would be fair to say that the Exodus is concerned to exclude women from the religious life of the community? Kirsi thinks not, or not necessarily. It is true that the Aaronic priesthood is exclusively male and that no formal role for women in worship is mentioned in the Pentateuch, but the Exodus is more complex than this one theme. For a start, in Kirsi’s reading, the Hebrews are saved by women’s actions in chapters one and two, with no angelic appearances or divine instructions. They simply do the sorts of things that women would do; they bear children, protect them and care for them, often as a team. This contrasts starkly with the male characters who require burning bushes, magical snakes, plagues, and constant divine pep-talks. As Kirsi puts it, “Moses seems almost incapable of thinking for himself!”

Furthermore, there are occasions in the Pentateuch where God is described in maternal terms, which are rare, but significant. Moses asks God if he, Moses, should have to care for “all these people”, since he did not give birth to them (Numbers 11:11-15). By implication, God did, and ought to be mothering them himself. God’s actions in the desert are also to do with providing sustenance, shelter and basic discipline to a very immature group. On the other hand, some of the threats to God’s people in Numbers could be read as a result of God not providing like a good parent, or not like a good mother: the quail he “provides” when the people pine for meat kills them (11:4-6, 18-23; 31-34). Yet, in Exodus 16 the provision of quail illustrates God’s care without the presence of any death threats. and snakes he sends punish the group indiscriminately for complaints which were made, but probably not by everyone. God is obviously capable of looking after the Hebrews, so the question must be asked why he at times seems to be prone to somewhat extreme parenting strategies? Ultimately, is there something about God being recognized as maternal that God, or the author, is uncomfortable with?

According to Kirsi, the story of the infant Moses being saved by three women can be read as a preamble setting up the major themes of the book of Exodus, establishing the things that women do spontaneously as not only essential to God’s plan, but participating directly in God’s own nature and action. While the story of the infant Moses can be read as signifying that women should stick to childbearing and childrearing, it also promotes a more subtle theological theme of a God who is more than just stereotypically male. A theme continued through the other appearances of women in the book, especially at the end of the Exodus narrative, on the other side of the Red Sea, as will be discussed in our next blog post.

            Kirsi and I discussed the implications of the children’s story at some length and reached some conclusions. In the ‘baby in the basket’ story, Myriam is presented as a child who charms a rather dim princess into returning the baby to his mother, at least temporarily. This contrasts with the suggestion in the biblical text that Miriam as a ‘young woman’ (Exodus 2:8) would probably be a teenager who understands the drama being played out and her role in it. The sister is neither named nor described, but she is bold enough to approach a princess’s entourage and speak directly to her. She is decisive and self-assured. The adaptations we present to children fail to reflect these more adult attributes, and make a formidable young woman, daughter to a (presumably) even more formidable priestly mother, into little more than a baby herself. Because of this, child readers and hearers of the story are deprived of a valuable assertive female role model. Although the story is charming, it falls short of passing on everything the Exodus narrative has to offer, especially in its portrayal of Myriam. Perhaps future retellings could engage a little more with adolescent Myriam, her Mother, and their royal ally, and showcase some female leadership for a change.

However, another issue tends to be obscured by this discussion of gender politics: latent antisemitism. It is worth bearing in mind that the story of the baby in the basket which is so familiar to us is mostly a product of Victorian Christianity, which developed the orientalist presentation of children’s Bible stories we are so familiar with to such an extent that we no longer question it. Before the Victorian era, biblical characters were often portrayed in contemporary dress, to prompt comparisons with the readers’ context. This was extensive in Judaism as well as Christianity, as the 14th century Haggadah in the Rylands library shows. (Pages viewable here : bit.ly/38afyKe) But 19th century Christianity moved away from this, picturing Bible stories as taking place in faraway lands inhabited by people wearing oriental clothing such as head cloths, who were often barefoot. The Jewishness of these characters was emphasized, associating Jewish identity with distant places and contexts, delegitimising Jewish participation in British national life, and subtly suggesting Jewish people did not belong in Britain. The dominant presentation of Old Testament stories for children continues to reflect this, although the anti-Semitism and racism of the Victorian era is no longer acceptable in mainstream churches.

The story of baby Moses compounds the problems of orientalist presentation when it presents Moses’ mother and sister as manipulative and sly, and the princess as too daft to see she is being played. It perpetuates colonialist tropes which applied sweeping negative stereotyping to ethnic groups, perceiving this to be the application of science. Today, we know better than to suggest that ethnicity dictates individuals’ moral failings, but the Bible stories told to children have not necessarily kept up with cultural progress. Beyond gender stereotyping and the failure of this children’s story to reflect the complexity of the biblical narrative, a greater sensitivity to outdated ideologies of a different kind would serve us well when we select materials for use in Churches and schools. Not all versions of the Moses in the bulrushes story perpetuate these problems, but those which do are possibly not what we would choose to use.

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: via Wikimedia Commons. “Book of the Exodus Chapter 3 – 7” Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0