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Miriam’s Error

(What follows is a talk I gave at the Church of St John & St Philip in The Hague on 23 September 2007.)

Who was Miriam? She appears three times in the Bible. The first time we see her is in Exodus 2, as the elder sister of Moses. “His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.” Pharaoh’s daughter goes down to the Nile to bathe. As she walks along the river bank, she sees a basket among the reeds and sends her slave girl to get it. She opens it and sees a baby crying and feels sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she says. Remember that Pharaoh had ordered that “every boy that is born must be thrown into the river, but let every girl live.” So technically, Moses’ mother obeyed Pharaoh’s decree. Water can drown as well as carry a watertight basket (the same Hebrew word as Noah’s ark). When Miriam sees Pharaoh’s daughter feeling sorry for her baby brother, she steps forward and asks her, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter says yes, go, and Miriam goes to get her own mother, the mother of Moses. As a child, Miriam is courageous and daring as she saves her baby brother.

Let’s put this into cultural context. The Hebrews were a slave race for the Egyptians. My view of this time period is colored by the Sunday school stories some of us have heard and somehow I got the impression that the Egyptians were fairly decent to the Hebrews. In fact, I think the gruesome details are spared in Sunday School. At the time of Moses’ birth, Pharaoh Sethos I had begun a tremendous building program in the fertile Nile delta region, including building storage cities. The Hebrew people were organized into gangs, under taskmasters, to dig out mud and make the bricks for building the new cities. So let’s step out of the Sunday school and into reality. Let’s think gulag, Russian work camps, and Solzhenitsyn. Take it a step further and recall images of Nazi concentration camps, where Jews/Hebrews/Israelites were force-marched, and worked to death. Think Indonesian camps during the war and Japanese masters. Now we feel the emotion, don’t we? The outrage, the injustice, the tragedy. This is the setting. . . .

For a little girl, a slave girl who walks up to Pharaoh’s daughter, probably a daughter of a concubine, not necessarily one of royal birth, but important nonetheless. What would be the cultural equivalent of our time? A little Jewish girl in a concentration camp goes up to the daughter of the Camp Commandant, an SS officer or member of the Gestapo. Now you feel her daring, the depth of her courage. She is an exceptional child, this Miriam.

The second time we see her is after the Red Sea parts. She is the eldest of the three, Aaron is the middle child and Moses is three years younger than Aaron. Moses is the youngest. When Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, he is a grown man with children of his own. Miriam is even older. They make it across and the Egyptians are drowned. Moses sings his triumph song and Miriam leads all the women in the refrain, dancing for joy. Ex 15.20 “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” We can see her with a timbrel, tambourines and dancing for joy, her heart full of praise for God. A woman of courage and a woman of worship.

Fast forward to the passage read to us today from Numbers (12:1-15). It is two years after the escape from Egypt. A census is taken: there are over 600,000 fighting men, which could mean a total population of some 2-3 million people. Some scholars argue that since the Canaanites were more numerous than the Israelites, perhaps the numbers have been misunderstood. The word for thousands could be captains, or perhaps families, or perhaps it was not a literal count. The most acceptable deciphering of the figures puts the number of men of fighting age at about 18,000 and the total population at 72,000. The fact remains, it was a huge number of people, at the very least, tens of thousands, that Moses, Aaron and Miriam were the leaders of. Interestingly, when a census is taken 38 years later at the end of wandering through the wilderness, the number is almost the same. Tough desert conditions and the judgments their disobedience brings down keeps the population in check.

But let’s go back to the story. In the previous chapter the people are wailing because they want meat. Moses begs to be released from leading them “Did I give birth to all of them?” he cries out, and God instructs him to appoint deputies. If Moses was feeling the strain so badly that he wanted to quit, then Aaron and Miriam must also be at their wits’ end. If Moses is so discouraged, think how Miriam and Aaron must have felt. The difference is, Aaron and Miriam succumb to the grumbling around them.

The real problem here is not Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman. She may have been Midianite, but was probably Sudanese, although sometimes this is translated as Ethiopian. The real problem is not the foreign wife. Although some of us know that being a foreign wife does have its challenges. No, the real problem is Moses’ position as leader. “Hasn’t God also spoken through us?” Aaron and Miriam say. Yes. Miriam was a prophetess, and the leader of all the women. Heart of worship. But then, the Lord hears this. There is the amazing tribute to Moses: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” God calls the three to the Tent of Meeting, He comes down in a pillar of cloud, stands at the entrance and summons Aaron and Miriam. God Himself tells them how He reveals Himself to prophets (like Miriam and Aaron) in dreams and visions. But with Moses, He speaks face to face, clearly and not in riddles. Moses sees the form of the Lord. Then the Lord asks why they were not afraid to speak against God’s servant Moses? His anger burns against them and He leaves. When the cloud lifts, there stands Miriam—leprous, like snow. The Hebrew word could be for another skin disease, but there is no mistaking the description, like snow. Nor can we mistake the description Aaron uses, when he cries out to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.”

Sounds gruesome. Would today’s equivalent of leprosy, with its emotional, social, psychologically laden meanings, be the disease aids? Then think of the woman, your sister, who agreed with you that Moses had found too much favor in God’s eyes, think of her as coming down with aids. She must be isolated. Cannot touch. Her dead skin is flaking off of her in such great quantities that it looks like snow. She looks like a dead baby, wrinkled, with its flesh half eaten away. I am remembering aids victims I have met, with sores as big as my hands and lesions discoloring their faces, hip bones and cheek bones and shoulder blades sticking out in their gauntness. A terrible disease. Now we feel the punishment of Miriam.

Aaron cries out to Moses and Moses cries out to God. “O God, please heal her!” The Lord replies that if her father had spat on her face, “would she not have been in disgrace for seven days?” In other words, had she fallen from favor from her earthly father, she would have been isolated for a week. Now this minimum penance must be carried out and after that she can be brought back, which implies she will be healed. Miriam has fallen from favor, because she questioned God’s favoring Moses, but God will heal her.

Miriam fell out of favor with God. Why? Because she and Aaron compared themselves with Moses. This is family jealousy, sibling rivalry. Why does God favor Moses (and not us)? What has Moses got that we don’t have? Why is he so special? Why does God have a special relationship with him, of all people? The foreign wife is just a scapegoat for the greater problem of difference, of distinction–in her foreignness, she highlights an aberration, and becomes an easy target that the siblings look at and pounce on.

I have three words for you. Comparisons are odious, first spoken by Sir John Fortescue in the 1400s. “Odious” means horrid and ridiculous. If you can master this mantra–comparisons are odious–it will help you rise above the rest of the world’s expectations, for the world would have us compare everything, our status, our money, our homes, our cars. If we can avoid comparisons, we are saying, I am sufficient, I am complete as God has made me.

Think of one comparison you made this last week. There is no place for comparisons in this Church. He is more prayerful. She is more gracious. He is more generous. She is less kind. The column of God came down to meet them–when we dwell in His courts, we know a secret between us and God that is that we are complete.

God said, “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” In other words, Why did you object to my choice (to distinguish Moses among prophets, among people, to designate him)? Why do you use my choice as a basis for your own feelings of inadequacy? Why do you question me? • When I formed you in the womb, and I knew you then, I set you apart. (Isaiah 43:1, Jeremiah 1:5) • And I created you (in Christ Jesus) to do good works, which I prepared for you in advance to do. (Ephesians 1:20)

Are any of us excluded from this? Does God “form” some of us, and neglect others? Does God “prepare good works” for some of us, prepare significance, and find others unworthy of His attention? I don’t think so.

Now let’s cut away to look at another woman in the Old Testament and contrast her story with Miriam’s.

Hannah was already complete in God’s eyes, although her community did not see her that way. Community grumbling and comparisons destroy the spirit.

We do not understand God’s ways. The Lord had closed Hannah’s womb for a reason. What is that reason? So she would come to God. She came to Him with her anguish and despair. She came to Him with her young son. And ultimately He blessed her with even more children, and Samuel grew to become one of the greatest prophets ever, he anointed David, the man after God’s heart. God knew all this. But it could not happen without Hannah first coming to Him.

Miriam came to God. As a child of courage, as a woman of worship. And then she chose to listen to the grumbling around her. She chose to stop trusting God’s choice. She chose to step out of the ring of endless light which was her presence with God and into the darkness, as she removed herself from dwelling in His courts.

Paul wrote the Church in Corinth, 2 Cor 10:12 “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”

I believe that when God gives a vision by His Spirit through His word of what He wants, and our minds and souls thrill to it, if we don’t walk in the light of that vision, we will sink into servitude.

As for Hannah – Hannah was already loved by Elkanah, her husband, when she was barren. Just as she was loved by God. She was already so blessed, even in her infertility. How? Because even this infertility would serve a purpose that grew into yet another blessing. Her infertility caused her to come to God. What did Aaron do when Miriam was struck down with leprosy? He went to Moses, who went to God. Much of this sermon is actually thanks to Anastasia, with whom I threw around some ideas. At some point she said, “Why did Aaron go to Moses? Why didn’t he go to God?” And I said, that was the hierarchy. But I’m wrong, because in Hannah’s day, the same hierarchy of priests interceding on behalf of the people existed, but Hannah came to God. Her priest just happened to see her and actually thought her prayers were drunken ravings. Moses came to God. Hannah came to God. What question is God longing for us to come to Him about and ask?

It is foolish (odious) to compare other people’s definitions of fortune, and judge Hannah as anything less than complete, even in her barrenness. We, like Hannah, are complete as we come to God. We are God’s creation. We are a conglomeration of gifts. In the eyes of the world, we are also a series of shortcomings, failures and misfortunes. But in God’s eyes, we have no shortcomings, failures and misfortunes. This makes the comparisons among us and other people and their experiences unnecessary because they’re shortsighted, small-minded, of this world. Forget the world.

Let’s keep our eyes skyward, or inward, wherever God is for us, and know that we are taken care of, complete in His infinite Grace. In His constellation of the universe and of creation – perspectives we cannot, in our human capacity, sense, grasp or understand, in this infinite, boundless, timeless creation of His, we are complete.

To prove this, there is one more thing I want to draw your attention to: After Miriam’s Error, the Israelites leave Mt. Sinai and head for Kadesh. Due to grumbling and moaning and disobedience, they wander for 38 years. In Numbers 20 we read of Miriam’s death. She and Moses and Aaron all die in the same year, on the brink of entry into the Promised land, 38 years of wandering have passed since the leprosy incident in our reading, 40 years in total since leaving Egypt. Moses views the promised land from Mt. Nebo, in what is now Jordan, near Amman. It overlooks Jericho. I have been there. The journey from Jebel Musa (traditional site of Mt. Sinai/Horeb) to Dahab on the east coast of Sinai, up the coast and across to Kadesh takes just 11 days on foot. The Israelites, after Miriam’s error, are on the brink of entering the Promised land. Moses is ready to lead them, but the people want to send spies ahead. Two men of faith return, but the people listen to the ten spies who predict gloom and doom. So God, and the good land are forgotten. Within 11 days walk of the promised land, a whole generation cuts itself off from all that was promised. They wander for 38 years, instead of arriving in 11 days.

Because we don’t see what we want, what we aim for, what we dream of, what we think we have a right to, right here, right now, we grumble. And compare. The desert with Egypt. One leader with the other leader. What he has with what I don’t have. Sometimes throwing a baby in a basket, into a river can end differently than expected. God’s ways are not our own. Comparisons are odious. Jesus says, Come to Me. Trust Me. The promised land is only 11 days away, not 38 years. His promises are just around the corner.

He carries us, His love like the river, when we come to God.

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