I bet when they were old women, they wore purple: Miriam

Exodus 2:1-10, 15:20-21; Numbers 12; Micah 6:4

The first of our stories of Miriam is the best known—
probably the one we all think of when we think of Miriam—
even though she’s not mentioned by name.
Described as a young woman—
often pictured as a young girl
(we don’t know how old she was),
watching over her baby brother—
floating down the Nile, which was supposed to be his death
according to the decree of Pharaoh,
but she watched over him,
keeping him safe until he was found.
And then, quickthinking,
she reunited the baby with his mother—her mother—their mother—
arranging for the mother to be the wet nurse—
reuniting those separated.
In this first story, Miriam’s all about
maintaining relationships—
sustaining family.

It’s interesting.
There’s an echo of creation in this story.
For the mother looked at the baby, we read, this new creation,
and saw that he was good (same words as in Genesis—
Walter Brueggemann, Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume I
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1994] 699)—
not “fine” as in our translation!
But the family was willing to risk this son—
to suffer separation in the hope of love—
in the hope of saving the innocent—
of preserving the possible—
of nurturing the hope of a better future story.

Then on the shore of the Sea of Reeds,
we encounter Miriam again,
and she’s explicitly identified as a prophet.
Now that’s huge!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us
in his wonderful two volume work on the prophets
that the prophets of God’s primary function is
to bear testimony to God’s concern for human beings.
“The fundamental experience of the prophet
is a fellowship with the feelings of God”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets, Volume I
[New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962] 26),
he writes, and Miriam, Aaron and Abraham
are the only three people designated as prophets
in the entire first five books of Scripture
(Bruce C. Birch, Numbers: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume II
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1998] 109)!

Miriam, the prophet, led the women, we read,
in recounting the mighty deeds of God on their behalf—
retelling the story in song and dance—
praising God in an emotional, liturgical
God-naming, faith-affirming, toe-tapping story telling
that scholars believe to be one of the oldest of all parts of Scripture.

And yes, it’s deliverance.
Yes, it’s God on the side of the disenfranchised.
Yes, it’s divine power on the side of the powerless
taking on the instruments of oppression and might domination.
Yes, it’s scripture acknowledging conflict
in the struggle for power and authority,
but—but it’s also disturbing,
we’ve noted before—
disturbing as a celebration of the partiality of God—
disturbing in the violence of God.

Now water, in the story, as in creation, represents chaos,
and is symbolically more palatable.
The chaos that was to consume the baby Hebrew boys thrown into the Nile
consumes instead those who condone and traffic in death and violence.
And yet still, while it’s one thing to say those who choose death
die by their vision and choice,
it’s another to image God killing them.

So while we note the significance of Miriam’s role as leader,
we’ve indubitably moved
from the innocence and purity of the first story, haven’t we?
Which is a pattern we’ve noted before in Exodus—
beginning with the absolutely successful non-violent resistance
of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, to the death dealing of Pharaoh.
That’s how Exodus begins,
but then quickly turns into something—something else.

Interesting, isn’t it?
Stories of women
(Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother, sister, Pharaoh’s daughter)
start Exodus off in peaceful resistance to oppression
and transformative possibility—
life affirming, life celebrating, life enabling—
before the stories of men
take it into violence and death.
You hear that, girls?
You hear that, boys?

And it’s not just the arc of Exodus,
but also the arc of individuals within Exodus.
And Moses before before he killed an Egyptian, lived among them—
before he took on Pharaoh, was raised in Pharaoh’s house—
and before he condemned to death
the Midianite women (Numbers 31), married one.

Then that arc extends beyond the book of Exodus
as we then come to that strange story of Miriam in Numbers.
Certainly not as well known.
In this story both Miriam and Aaron are named prophets,
both acknowledged as leaders of the people,
and both here question the marriage of Moses to a Cushite woman.
Some wonder if this was a racial issue?
Cush perhaps being Ethiopia; this woman perhaps being black.
Some broaden it to note the intermarriage laws in general.
Deuteronomy 7:3 is pretty clear:
“Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters
to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons”.
And Miriam and Aaron question the leadership of Moses,
so the one in charge can break the rules everyone else has to keep?
And she who had been all about maintaining relationships
and sustaining family
here seems to rip it apart.
But apparently for justice, right? For what’s right. Equity.

Now within all that tension,
it’s an apparently quite straightforward story:
don’t mess with God’s chosen!
Bad things happen when you do.
See God. See God’s chosen.
Respect God’s chosen. Good.
Disrespect God’s chosen. Bad.
Instruction. Motivation.
Reward and punishment.

And Moses is most strongly affirmed
not only as God’s chosen,
but as the most humble of all (now not the most meek!—
humble in Scripture is not an interpersonal character trait
[how other people would describe Moses],
but rather characteristic of Moses’ relationship with God).
And Aaron and Miriam are put in their place.

Now is this as straightforward as needing
“to maintain a hierarchy of authority” (Birch, 108)
because the boss can do whatever the boss wants?
It sure seems that way.

But let’s just suppose, for fun,
that there’s something to sequence—
to the order of events—
in the unfolding of Miriam’s story
as recounted in Scripture.

Because that’s essentially a possible paraphrase
of the song she sang, right?
“Don’t mess with God’s chosen!”

And if we see and sing of God on the side of the winner—
interceding with might and power …,
if we divide into us and them,
well, then, it doesn’t stop.
And what was the division into the children of Israel and Egypt,
becomes the division into Miriam and Moses.
Because if God works that way,
then I want God on my side!
Because I want to be a winner.
I want to be the one in control.
I want to be the one making decisions.
I want that validation.
I want to be the one who gets to do whatever I want!

It’s not such an odd story after all
if you consider it in the order it all comes

We have to be so very careful.
For the God we proclaim (more than the God who is)
shapes our behavior and attitude.
Let me say that again. Because I’m still thinking about it.
The God we proclaim (more than the God who is)
shapes our behavior and attitude.

What if, though,
let’s just suppose,
what if, we got it all wrong?
The tone. The intent.
What if Miriam’s leprosy is not meted out as punishment,
but offered as an opportunity—
as gift.

Some gift, John!
She had leprosy! Thanks a lot!
If it’s all the same to you, keep your gifts!
For seven days, we read, Miriam had to cry out “Unclean! Unclean!”
For seven days she had to live alone outside the camp (Leviticus 13:45-46)—
had to live as an outsider—
removed from those she led—
living as one of the least of these.

What did she learn?
What did she learn?

What if she learned not not to mess with Moses—
not that the boss is always right and can do whatever,
but the radical affirmation
that to know your right place before God
is more important than any of the institutional laws of religion?
What if she learned what sometimes appears unfair
can be right—
that there can be a greater truth beyond the law?
What if she learned not just something about our right place
before God in humbleness,
but something about God’s right place among us—
in humbleness?
That more than who’s in charge,
God cares about those on the fringes.

God risks those called of God—us—
God risks those called by God
to suffer separation in the hope of love—
in the hope of saving the innocent—
of preserving the possible—
of nurturing the hope of a better future story.

And the people, we read, would not leave
until she was restored to them.
She was their leader—even as a leper.

In the prophetic book of Micah,
the prophet envisions God in controversy
with God’s people, the children of Israel,
now long settled in that land of promise.
And God asks, “In what have I wearied you?”
Before going on to affirm, “For I brought you up
from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:3-4).
There they are—all three siblings—
remembered as leaders in the great Exodus.

Now, remember, the last story of Miriam was that one in Numbers.
If that was a story of failure,
it’s an interesting lead in to the affirmation of Micah!
But if it was a story about learning—
learning more about God
and learning more how to be as God, then it makes more sense.

The Micah reference to Miriam
leads up to the famous:
“What does God expect of you,
but to do justice, love kindness, and
walk humbly (there it is again!) with your God.”

It’s what Miriam learned, isn’t it?

Quick Hebrew lesson (I know you’re thrilled!).
Two words in that Micah passage sound so much alike:
“have I wearied you,” hele-tichah,
and “I brought you up,” he-eli-tichah.
There’s just not that much of a difference
between God’s bringing us out—
bringing us out of the house of slavery—
bringing us out of oppression—
God bringing us up into possibility and hope and freedom—
there’s not that much of a difference between God bringing us out,
and a burden!
Ain’t that good news?!
But it’s deeply, profoundly true.
There’s something about the call of God
that has to do with sharing the load others bear.
Moses knew that.
Miriam learned that.
And it’s a burden worth shouldering—
a vision bigger than—a goal beyond the self.
and it’s a burden shared—
a yoke made easy
because it’s God with us—
and because that’s how God is with us.

We are not brought out to celebrate ease—
comfort—to celebrate our own success,
but to challenge even our own laws—
our own customs and traditions—
in finding the lepers and the outcast
the excluded, the powerless, the voiceless,
the poor, the widows and the orphans
to tell them—to proclaim to them and to our world
that if God bringing us out
is, in truth, good news for us,
it is also good news for them—
or it’s but a warped telling of the story.

In the wilderness of Zin—
in Kadesh, we read,
Miriam died and was buried.
Joseph’s bones were carried out of Egypt
(Genesis 50:25-26; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32)
and buried in the land of promise.
But Miriam was buried on the way.
Appropriate, don’t you think?
For that was Miriam—
on the way—
ever becoming.

So girls and boys—of all ages,
you are becoming.
We each one of us have more to learn
about the gift that is a burden
until it’s a gift for all.
The gift though, that if received as it’s given,
is burden embraced—burden shared—until gift for all.

Now it won’t always be easy.
But neither can it be better.

Girls and boys, there is no richer, better, more profound way of life.
You are called by God,
and you can be a part of the world recreated—
graciously extending hospitality—
making a home for all.
You can choose to risk hoping in love
to preserve the God-possible
and to live into a land of promise
that still lies ahead.

We’ll see you on the way!


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