Parshat Behaalotcha: Miriam, The Discredited Prophet

Miriam is cursed with leprosy. In my second blog written a year ago, I wrote how I have been writing about Miriam for as long as I can remember. I think about her twice a year when I am in the synagogue. This year in particular, we are focusing on Miriam, because in our synagogue in Omer, we read using the triennial system. And the Torah reader, who for a change is not me, will be reading the last third of the parsha.  The Miriam of parshat behaalotcha is depicted as one who complains.  Here she and her brother Aaron accuse Moses about the Cushite woman he had married. There are midrashim which say that he is neglecting his wife, but that doesn’t really excuse them for speaking up against God’s chosen, since Moses as a leader has a right to ignore his family and focus on being the “father of the nation”.

The big question is why only Miriam is punished with leprosy for speaking up. Is it that God is a misogynist? Our sages went one step further by problematizing Miriam’s “speaking up” something which they accuse women of doing—namely gossip. The rabbis of the midrash loved Miriam when she was saving her brother and encouraging her parents to get back together again (which when they did, created baby Moses). They delighted in her singing god’s praises while playing the timbrel. Yet they cancelled her merit when she was uppity. They described Miriam’s voice as being lashon ha-ra (slander), and pointed to what happened to Miriam as a warning to all those who might in the future slander (here).

As a midrash writer, I always wondered how did Miriam feel about her banishment? Did she ask questions? Did she learn from this experience? Did she ask why those who are diseased have to be in quarantine, separated from others similarly afflicted? Did she ask, why wasn’t Aaron similarly afflicted? Did she wonder whether she wasn’t chosen to lead because she was a woman? In the following midrash that I wrote in the mid 1980’s I attempt to provide answers to these questions. The first version appeared in The Melton Journal (Fall 1987). I opened with a quotation from the end of this week’s parsha:

….When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with snow‑white scales. And Aaron said to Moses, “O my Lord, do not hold against us the sin which we unwittingly committed. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from her mother’s womb with half her flesh eaten away.” So Moses cried out to God, saying, “O Lord, please heal her!” But the Lord said to Moses, “….Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.” So Miriam was shut out of camp for seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted (Numbers 12:10‑15).

The Discredited Prophetess

This is much worse than I thought! I must find something to do. It was the morning of her third day of banishment. How much longer? I’ve never been punished like this before.

Before she was obliged to leave, Moses and Aaron had assured her that she would be outside the camp for only seven days. “Only seven days, indeed!” she thought.

There were no exceptions to the rule: Anyone who was diagnosed as having a skin disease had to go outside the camp for a week‑‑alone‑‑to simply wait for the disease to run its course. The priestly families could differentiate between various rashes, but chose to refer to each outbreak of the skin as tzara’at or leprosy. Despite its name, very few had the dreaded variety of illness called Egyptian leprosy.

Miriam was professionally interested in her own illness. She was a bat‑kohen,  a daughter of a priestly family and intimately acquainted with the diagnosis of disease. She was never consulted publicly, but her private opinions were highly valued because of her many years of experience.

The priests claimed the different categories of leprosy were all caused by sin. If the person’s contagion stopped, he would be pronounced healthy and be required to bring a sacrifice in the form of a sin offering. If not pronounced healthy, he would remain alone outside the camp for another seven days to seek out the source of his sin and engage in intensive soul‑searching.

Miriam was beset by terrible doubts about the severity of her punishment. She thought it unfair that only she was being punished, and not her brother Aaron as well. After all, together, the two of them had voiced complaints about Moses. She bitterly criticized the fact that those who were diseased had to expiate their sin by spending the entire period of quarantine alone‑‑separated from others similarly afflicted. What kind of God demands that one endure this mental and physical pain in a state of loneliness!

She had plenty of time to contemplate her “sin”. She still felt she and Aaron were right in criticizing their younger brother Moses for having married a black woman. If this was a sin, why wasn’t Aaron similarly afflicted? Is criticism of our brother now to be tabooed? After all, Moses is not God!

Miriam felt that she or Aaron would have been better qualified to lead the people out of Egypt. She had never understood why God chose Moses. Even Moses knew his own limitations. That was why he had asked for a spokesperson.

Miriam had always blamed Moses for God’s original choice of Aaron over her. This was his revenge! He resented my being the big sister, for having the gift of speech and for laughing at the way he spoke. His lisp was very precious to us. We treasured everything about this child that the astrologers feared, this one who was rescued from the waters.

Perhaps I wasn’t chosen because I am a woman. Is it God who does not want women to worship Him? Or is it those who claim to speak in His name, who control the power, who do not want women to worship Him? She asked this because the leaders, who were all men, described God as an all‑powerful and vengeful being. But women, she knew, thought God was caring and compassionate. Men had decreed that women be excluded from holy work and had elected priests to formulate laws which treated women with contempt. We are children in their eyes. I remember when it was different.

In Egypt, the women’s nurturing talents were essential, because the men were physically exhausted and emotionally drained from their demeaning work as slaves. The women had played musical instruments and worshipped the terafim,  the household gods of their ancestresses in Ur.

The new form of religion was deliberately dry and abstract. Women were not allowed into the holy area, because their form of worship was too spontaneous and earthy in contrast to the new formal rituals. No wonder our people needed a golden calf to worship. And who did they come to with their request, as usual? To me! She then went to Aaron to see what could be done. They did their best to accommodate the people; but were rebuked for it!

Miriam felt it was wrong of God to command mankind not to make any graven images of Him. He had killed hundreds of His people simply for their needing a concretized version of Him in the form of a Golden Calf to feel and touch. We were not ready to accede to His demand that we accept an intangible essence and call it God. We had not left the mental state of slavery. We needed compassion and understanding when we failed to observe the first commandment, but were expected instead to be satisfied with divine wrath and displays of power.

Miriam’s rebellious thoughts were interrupted by two people with skin diseases who hesitantly approached her for help.

Even here, I am to have no peace! she thought, but then relented. They need me! I am their leader! They have the right to ask me for help. She looked closely at one of them. It was Hur. “Who diagnosed you as having leprosy?” Miriam asked. “I’ve never seen this variety of the disease before.”

“It was my son, Bezalel the painter. He observed a change in the color of my skin and told me to go to the priests. I wanted to avoid an open trial to determine what sin caused it so I asked your nephew, Nadav for a private opinion.

“That was unwise. Nadav is not as experienced in these matters as some of the others. Let me look at your back and see if I can find the tell‑tale signs.”

Hur removed his upper garment and Miriam inspected his skin. After a few moments, she said, “I have good news. It looks like it is just a temporary rash. So you will not have to make a confession of your sins after all. Between us,” she added, “this place is atonement enough for any crime. As long as you are here, however, let us go and see who needs help.”

Miriam made the rounds outside the camp. She met people with different skin diseases. Each person’s major complaint was the loneliness. She suggested that the people congregate to take care of each other; that they put up makeshift huts for those who were really sick. The healthier people could care for the very sick.

She was pleased to be able to use her organizational abilities. She realized that she had re‑interpreted the law of badad yeshev, “you shall remain in complete isolation”  (Leviticus 13,46) and hoped she would not be punished for usurping the power of interpretation from Moses. She was aware of the danger of stepping out of line for she had witnessed what had happened to Aaron’s sons.

She had given much to this people. She had raised and advised its leader. When their fledgling nation succeeded in fleeing Pharaoh’s army, she had composed a song for the occasion. Moses insisted that it would be more seemly for him to sing God’s praises, so she had organized the women and they had accompanied him in the background with timbrels and drums. Her feelings were tinged with bitterness when she looked back on that glorious occasion. She saw it as another example of Moses’ exploitation of her: using what was hers for his own ends.

It was immediately after the singing of her Song of the Sea that the people started calling her marah, bitter, making puns of her name. She thought that one day they would no doubt call her song, shirat mar‑yam,  song of the bitter sea! Was I bitter then? Or was it after we were unable to get sweet water, when Moses implied that it was my fault that the waters were bitter. I realized then, that he was totally incapable of gratitude. That is why he saw to it that I was punished. And God sided with him!

She felt that it was going to be difficult to worship a God who afflicted people with diseases for not agreeing with Him. This is not the God we left Egypt to worship. I cannot accept that this is God’s doing. There were other things besides this which disturbed her. She had much to do! First she would speak to the women and get them on her side. I am sure the rest of the people will also support me if I handle matters tactfully. I must send a message to Aaron to plot our future course of action. Meanwhile I hope that Moses will not lead the people astray and leave me behind.


It took a great deal of convincing and cajoling, but the entire nation of Israelites waited for her. Moses was powerful enough to convince them that it would be ungrateful and wrong to leave Miriam behind after all she had done for them.

After a great show of resentment, they agreed. They would wait this time but if she sinned again they would not wait for her a second time. Who did she think she was? She would have to catch up to them just like anyone else.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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