Bible Commentator

Articles

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

MIRIAM:


‘And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam’ (Micah 6:4)


INTRODUCTION:

Miriam appears in the Torah in only six brief references (Ex. 2:4,7-9, 15:20-21; Num. 12:1-16, 20:1; 26:59, Deut 24:8-9), and in the first two of those she is not even named – it is merely assumed that she is the sister of Moses who appears in these passages. She is mentioned again in I Chronicles. 5:29 and Micah 6:4; in the latter she is placed beside Moses and Aaron as a leader of the children of the Israel at the time of the Exodus. There is, finally, a reference to her death (Num. 20:1), but none to a husband or to children. (It is remarkable that a woman in the Bible is mentioned positively without the need for her to have a husband or children. It is only in the midrashim that a husband – Caleb – appears.) Yet, even with this sparse record, Miriam daughter of Amram is distinguished as a prophetess, (1) a poetess and musician, and an outstanding figure during the years in the wilderness. She was such a strong personality that she has inspired midrashic elaborations and commentaries on her character and her deeds.


The major events involving Miriam are the seeming conflict she leading her brother Aaron have with Moses in Numbers chapter 12.


MIRIAM AND THE CUSHITE:

When Moses takes an unnamed Cushite (Ethiopian) woman to wife, Miriam, and Aaron with her, spoke against (or ‘about’, see Rashi) Moses concerning the Cushite wife he had taken (Num. 12:1). In this passage, the verb "spoke (v'tidaber)" is grammatically in the feminine singular, which implies she took the initiative and Aaron associated himself with her stance. Most traditional commentators take the term Cushite to mean Zipporah and not a second wife. (2)


The next verse suggests another issue entirely: And they said, 'Is it but through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has He not spoken to us as well?' Now, Aaron seems to be completely involved in the issue. Here, as in the previous verse, it is not noted to whom Miriam and Aaron addressed their words. How the Cushite wife is connected to the prophetic authority of Miriam and Aaron is unclear. The dispute seems to be a non-sequitur. What does Moses marrying a Cushite have to do with God speaking to Moses? Has sibling rivalry, a major theme in Genesis, recurred here? Some commentators believe two separate stories have been conflated into one. (3)


The rabbis connect the two seeming different strains of the story thus: In the previous chapter (11:24-29), God granted the prophetic spirit to 70 elders and to Eldad and Medad. God seems to be distributing some of the responsibility of leadership, spreading it out from Moses – something originally suggested by Jethro, the father of Zipporah (Ex. 18.14-26).In the Midrash, it is said that Miriam commented to Zipporah on how happy these men and their wives should be. Zipporah then told her that she and Moses had not had marital relations since God spoke to Moses. (4)


Both Miriam and Aaron note that when they had the spirit of God upon them they did not keep away from their spouses. This story connects two seemingly unrelated incidents. Miriam is advocating for Zipporah's conjugal rights. In this view, as in the Midrash on her criticism of her father Amram, she speaks against men for forsaking their conjugal and parental responsibilities, another feminine perspective. God then summons Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to the Tabernacle, and pronounces the unique standing of 'My servant Moses' and denounces the brother and sister who were adding to his burdens (Num.12:4-10). The ancient Hebrew text regarding God's response is cryptic. (5) ; however God praises Moses as a prophet and leader and defines the issue as one of prophetic leadership, in which Moses is to be pre-eminent. Miriam is thereupon stricken with a disorder that turns her skin dead white -- punishment for criticizing Moses' dark-skinned wife. Aaron, however, was spared this punishment, according to some interpretations, because a physical affliction would disqualify him from serving as a priest. It is the simple and earnest prayer of Moses that affects her cure. While Miriam is punished for 'slandering' her brother (Deut. 24:9), perhaps by not speaking directly to him, with seven days of isolation, she is favored by the people who wait for her before proceeding. 'The people did not journey onward until Miriam was gathered back' (Num. 12:15). The Midrash says God did not have the people leave until Miriam returned to the camp (Deut. Rabbah 6:9).


MIRIAM'S DEATH AND THE WELL:

The next and last record of Miriam is when the Israelites, nearing the end of their long wandering, arrive at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin: There Miriam died and was buried (Num. 20:1).She is associated with (according to midrashic lore) the rolling well-rock that accompanied the Jewish people on their wanderings and 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. (6) Small wonder the people loved and respected her. Moses provided manna and Miriam provided water, both required for survival. When she died a strange thing happened. The well suddenly dried up, and the rock from which the water used to flow disappeared among the other rocks in the desert 'and the people gathered against Moses and Aaron' (Num. 20:1-2). Now the people knew for sure that it was in Miriam's merit that they had enjoyed fresh water all those years in the wilderness. They became fearful that they would now be left without water, and, as they had done so often before, they raised a hue and cry against Moses and Aaron. God told Moses to gather the people and, in their presence, to speak to the rock to give water. Moses said shall we bring forth water for you from this rock (20:10)? Moses, angered by the rebelliousness of the people, hit the rock twice with his staff, and the water began to gush. Moses missed an opportunity to sanctify God's name in public, hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. It would have been a great lesson to the people to see how even a rock is obedient to God's word. Moses may well have recalled an earlier event when God told him to strike the rock for water to flow (Ex. 17:6), but this time God told him to speak to the rock. In consequence, God told Moses and Aaron that they would not enter the Promised Land, and would die in the desert along with all the generation whom they had led out of Egypt. Is there a connection between Moses and Aaron striking the rock – instead of speaking – and their consequent punishment never getting to the Promised Land and Miriam's death? We can explain that Moses was so upset with his sister's death that he forgot God's instructions. Was it his reaction to his sister's death?  Did he rage over her death and violently hit the rock? Did he suddenly realize the importance to Miriam to the people's health and himself?


CONCLUSIONS:

Joshua will succeed Moses and Eleazer will succeed Aaron; who will succeed Miriam? The Midrash, but not the Torah, says that she had children with her husband Caleb, who became the ancestors of David and the kingship. Hur was one of these children. (BT Sotah 11b-12a). (7) In Ex. 17:10 it is Hur (with Aaron) who helped Moses hold up his hands as the Israelite army defeated the Amalekites. In the Midrash (Ex. Rabbah 41:7, 48:3) Hur, together with Aaron, was appointed to the leadership of the people while Moses went up Mount Sinai for forty days to receive the Torah and bring down God's Tablets. Hur was murdered by the worshippers of the Golden Calf when he opposed them and tried to prevent them from committing that grievous sin. Hur's son (or grandson) was Bezalel, the artist who built the Mishkan in the desert. .Moses, instead of speaking, acted with violence against the rock. In addition to Moses' loss of his oldest sibling, Miriam's non-elitist leadership had been lost in her death. Aaron is buried by Moses and his successor Eleazar and Moses by God's hand. Who buried Miriam? The Midrash tells us that it was her brothers, Moses carried her head and Aaron her feet. (8)


Moses, Aaron and Miriam all get the kiss of God (BT Megilla 28a), for the angel of death could not take her. There were six over whom the angel of death had no dominion; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, Aaron and Miriam' (BT Bava Batra 17a).The prophetic tradition remembers Miriam as part of a triumvirate with Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4). She was the sister of our greatest prophet and of the first high priest in Israel, and a striking personality in her own right, the first woman in the Tanakh who appears not in the role of someone's wife or mother but as an active figure in the affairs of the emerging nation of Israel. In recent days she has become a heroine and role-model for Jewish women, who go so far as to celebrate her in a Rosh Hodesh ritual, and to place a Cup of Miriam on the Passover Seder table, and even to fast on the date of her death that has been set for the 10th day of Nissan. (9)



NOTES

1. This is confirmed in the Talmud, (BT Hul. 92a and Ta'anit 9a) and Midrashim (Gen. Rabbah 88.5, Lev. Rabbah 27:6); numerous medieval Jewish commentators – Ibn Ezra, Abravanel, Malbim, and the Radak confirm Miriam's importance as a prophet. P. S. Kramer, Miriam, in Brenner, Athalya, Exodus to Deuteronomy: A Feminist Companion to the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 2000) p. 113.

2.  Some (Rashi and Ibn Ezra) say the meaning of Cushite is 'beautiful', others that it refers to her dark complexion. Some interpret Habbakuk 3:7 as linking Cush to Midian, where Moses first met and married Zipporah. Few Jewish commentators take Miriam's censure to be hostility to foreign women; Joseph had married the Egyptian Asenath, Judah had married two of his sons to the Canaanite Tamar, and Boaz was to marry the Moabite Ruth.

3.  Burns Rita, J., Has the Lord Indeed Spoken Only Through Moses?, (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987).

4.  This is noted in numerous Midrashim including Sifra Numbers 99, Midrash Tannaim 24:9, Sifre Zuta 12:1, as noted by Devorah Steinmetz, "A Portrait of Miriam in Rabbinic Midrash", Prooftexts, #8, 1988, pg. 48. See also Schwartz, Rebecca, All The Women Followed Her, (San Bruno, CA.: Rikudei Miriam Press, 2001) pp. 166-171.

5.  Alter, Robert, The Five Books of Moses, New York: Norton, 2004) p. 742. Also see Shawn Atteberry, <http://www.shawnaatteberry.com/2006/11/10/updated-standing-between-life-and-death>http://www.shawnaatteberry.com/2006/11/10/updated-standing-between-life-and-death 

6.  Kugel, James, The Bible as It Was, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1997) p. 363 and BT Ta'anit 9a; Mekhilta De-Rebbe Yishmael, Be-shallah, 7; Mekhilta De-Rebbe Shimon bar Yohai, 15:35 and Midrash Tanhuma, 2 Vayidaber.

7.  In the Talmud Sotah the name used in I Chronicles (2:18) as Caleb's wife 'Azubah' and 'Ephrath' are one or the other called a pseudonym for Miriam.

8.   Yal?u? Shimoni ha-Shalem : Josef Midreshe ?azal la-Torah Nevi?im u-Khetuvim;  mi-Yesudo shel Rabenu Shimon Darshan mi-Fran?fur?; sudar ?a. pi. defus ?arsha 638 ?im perush Zayit ra?anan le-Avraham Abeli Gombiner; ?e-?im ‘a-?un?res ha-A?aron’dibre mavo ?al ha-Yal?u? u-Me?abro me-et Betsal?el Landoi (Jerusalem, Hotsa?at Sefarim, 2002), pg. 122.

9.  Unterman, Alan, Dictionary of Jewish Legends and Lore (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991) p. 136. See also Frankel, Ellen, The Five Books of Miriam (New York: Grosset, 1996) p. 226