A synagogue mosaic honors Miriam the prophet

A Biblical mosaic recently uncovered at a 1,600-year-old synagogue in the Galilean town of Huqoq, includes the earliest known artistic rendering of the little-known Exodus story of Elim, and was announced on July 1,2019 by Prof. Jodi Magnes, who in 2011 discovered the relatively untouched and well-preserved Byzantine synagogue.

Until now, mosaics with Biblical scenes have included well-known stories: Jonah and the whale, the Tower of Babel, the 12 spies in Canaan, Noah’s ark, and Pharaoh’s soldiers being swept away in the Red Sea. Extra-biblical frames on synagogue floors include a myriad of secular themes, including a zodiac.

And now, joining the greatest of biblical tales is a brief narrative describing an oasis found at Elim, as described in Exodus 15:27.

The story of Elim, overlooked in Jewish art until today, occurs shortly after the Israelites fled Egypt, but prior to their arrival at Mount Sinai. Elim is an oasis, with 12 water springs and 70 date palm trees. After a short stay in Marah, where the water was bitter, the Elim campsite offered a welcome respite.

“We see clusters of dates being harvested by male agricultural workers wearing loincloths, who are sliding the dates down ropes held by other men. The middle picture shows a row of wells alternating with date palms. On the left side of the panel, a man in a short tunic is carrying a water jar and entering the arched gate of a city,” Prof. Jodi Magnes said. The identification of Elim in the depiction is confirmed by an inscription above the gate, which reads, “And they came to Elim.”

The Elim panel is interesting because it is considered just a minor episode in the Israelites’ desert wanderings ­­– which raises the question of why it was significant to this Jewish congregation in Lower Galilee.

It is clear that the 12 springs of water correspond with the 12 tribes of Israel; and the 70 date palms are the 70 elders of Israel; and row of wells alternating with date palms may be a reference to the Midrash-tradition of Miriam’s well which sustained the Jewish people throughout their years in the Sinai wilderness.

But more important than the feminine image of Miriam and her nourishing wells; is the fact that Miriam, the sister of Aaron, is called a prophetess precisely at the end of the song of the Reed Sea (Exodus 15:20) just seven verses prior to Elim (15:27).

Could it be possible that Miriam was the one who sang that song and then led all the woman in singing and dancing (15:21)? That would be the best time to refer to Miriam as a prophetess. Only a slight change would have been needed to change the original ‘az tashirah Miriam’ [Then sang Miriam] to ‘az yashir Moshe’ [Then sang Moses] since the rest of the 19 verses are in the first person.

Is there any evidence that there was a later awareness that Miriam’s prophetic role had been cut out of the Torah text; leaving only the title ‘Miriam the prophetess’ behind?

I believe that there is at least one hint in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (26:5) where the Torah text “Moses sang ‘this song’” is questioned: this song? Was it only one song? Are there not ten songs? The first (song) was in Egypt: ‘You shall have a song, as in the night when a feast is sanctified” (Isaiah 30:29); the second (song) at the sea: then sang Moses; the third was at the well (of Miriam): Then sang Israel” Numbers 21:17); the fourth was (Torah) “this song” (Deuteronomy 31:24-30): the fifth was said by Joshua (Joshua 10:12). But there is no song mentioned in that verse.

Of the 10 song verses, nine have the word song explicitly stated. Only the Joshua example is totally out of place. And the next song, the sixth song was by Deborah, although accompanied by Barak (Judges 5:1) This may be a hint that Miriam’s song (Exodus 15:1b-19) had been taken from her and given to Moses by pre-rabbinic scribes who could not ascribe such importance to a female.

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) lists Miriam as one of seven major female prophetesses of Israel, and also states that she was so righteous that due to her merit, the Israelites drank water from her well for forty years in the Wilderness (Taanit 9a). So when and what did God speak through Miriam? What was Miriam’s Torah (teaching)?

Exodus 15:20 is the only place in all of scripture where Miriam is described directly as a prophetess. The Kli Yakar commentary to this verse states that Miriam prophesied at this point, during the “Song of the Sea”. The Torah describes how Miriam called out to the women to sing; using the masculine “lahem” in place of the feminine “lahen”. Why?

The Kli Yakar commentary explains that women have often been ignored, oppressed, disadvantaged, and generally treated as second-class citizens compared to men (an amazing admission for a rabbi who lived between 1550-1619 CE).

What Miriam prophesied is that a time would come when women would be equal to men in all ways, hence the use of the masculine lahem. Also, since the song itself is grammatically in the first person, it could just as easily been first sung by Miriam and later ascribed to Moses.

Freeing ourselves from the gender assumptions of the past, we could also say Miriam wrote down the narrative oral Torah from Genesis 12 through Genesis 50 which Israel must have known, while Moses was in Midian. Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:18 and Tanhumah Va’era 6 both state that the Israelite slaves in Egypt “possessed scrolls which they read”.

This probably refers to the oral narrative Torah that Miriam the prophet wrote down for them.

And or Miriam could have written the first 15 chapters of Exodus from “these are the names” to the song that she and all the Jewish woman sang when Israel safely crossed the Sea of Reeds. As the Torah states, “Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and with all the women following her, dancing with tambourines; Miriam sang this refrain: Sing to the Lord…” (Exodus 15:21).

Finally, there is another prophet who predicts that as we approach Messianic times; male only activities will be replaced by a mixed gender society in which females will be all around males. Jeremiah describes this radical future when: “The Lord will create a new thing on earth-a woman will surround a man” (31:22). The commentator Rashi understands ‘surround’ to mean encircle. The most radical thing Rashi can think of (and in 11th century France it was radical) is that woman will propose marriage (a wedding ring/circle) to men.

In today’s feminist generation we can see women already surrounding men in professional fields once almost exclusively male such as in law, medical and rabbinical schools. In a few generations, as the Jewish People become used to Female Rabbis, the idea that Miriam the Prophetess actually wrote some parts of the Torah will seem more reasonable.

Perhaps there were scholars in this synagogue who specialized in the oral traditions of the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael; and that is why the synagogue incorporated into their mosaic, the row of wells alternating with date palms, as not only a reference to the Midrash-tradition of Miriam’s well; but also a hint of Miriam’s date palm spiritual leadership.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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