The Voice of Miriam

I’ve often questioned – is the Bible written in a way designed to allow its readers to infuse its passages with their own individual thoughts and experiences? In other words, can we/should we read the Bible through the prism of our own lives? I myself hold the view that, yes, looking at the Bible that way is not only proper, but a needed step to understanding and relating to our religion.

Over the years, I’ve written works Biblical fiction through the eyes of Biblical personalities, including three books – “Moses: A Memoir” (Paulist Press, 2003), “Moses & Jesus: A Conversation” (Dorrance Publishing Co., 2006) , and “David and Bathsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes” (Paulist Press, 2007). What follows is my first in a series of essays written in the same genre.

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SCRIPTURE

When the Children of Israel were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh, fearful that a redeemer would be born to liberate them from servitude, decreed that all males of the House of Israel be killed. Miriam – the Prophetess – knew she had to save her brother, the newborn Moses. She collaborated with their mother Jochebed, to place him in a woven basket along the riverside, where Miriam would watch over him. When, one day, Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, found the baby floating in the water seemingly unattended, and suffering the agony of childlessness, she took Moses to the Palace to raise him as her own child. Miriam persuaded Bithiah to let Jochebed, their own mother, wet nurse the baby Moses.

While the Bible is unclear as to the timing of it, when Moses, raised as an Egyptian in the Palace, in fact became the Redeemer, and led Israel out of Egypt on Passover, Miriam rejoined him and their brother Aaron in the Exodus, and at the crossing of the Red Sea. She later led the Women of Israel in dancing and singing to celebrate their liberation from Egypt.

Many Egyptians also left Egypt in the Exodus. Among them was the Princess Bithiah, daughter of Pharaoh and adoptive mother of Moses. In an era when polygamy was traditional and acceptable, she became the second wife, after Miriam, of Caleb son of Yefuneh – a prince of the tribe of Judah. (It was, parenthetically, Caleb who, with Joshua, stood up to the spies who feared invading Canaan).

Later, though, Miriam became discontented (perhaps “bitter,” as her name tells us) with Moses. Along with their brother Aaron she spoke malevolently about Moses over the Midianite woman to whom he was married – although it is unclear whether the Midianite was Zipporah whom he had wed before reentering Egypt for the liberation, or a second wife whose identify is undisclosed. Purportedly, Miriam became angry that Moses had declined conjugal relations with his wife, as he believed that he needed to remain pure because God might summon him for Divine work at any moment. And Miriam complained bitterly to Aaron, effectively saying: “Aren’t we too prophets of God, but yet we, unlike Moses, don’t act holier than thou?”

For her sin of evil gossip, God caused an arresting leprosy to descend upon Miriam, and she was sent outside the camp to a leper’s colony. It was Moses who, despite his victimization by her, ironically, begged for his sister’s recovery: “Oh God, pray heal her.” And while God heeded Moses’s words, He insisted that she bear the shame of her handiwork for seven days.

While in the desert, it was Miriam’s Well which provided water, not only for the people but for their cattle and sheep. After Miriam died – while the Israelites were still in the desert – her Well dried and there was no water to satisfy the Israelites’ thirst. They once again complained to Moses, until God allowed the water to return.

BELIEF

The Bible speaks with literalness.

But life is not that way. The Bible’s reader brings to his individual reading the sum total of his own life experience. How he perceives a moment. The way her heart is drawn to an episode. The process by which he rejects what his mind tells him cannot be true.

And, beyond that, one’s personal experiences inform precisely how she imagines its characters – for the Bible’s descriptions are so laconic. Perhaps he imagines them influenced by his perception of persons he admires; those he despises; those who share the same name. Who has not prejudged a person, for better or worse, enervated by a bias toward or against the name that identified them?

Miriam, the Prophetess, is a mercurial figure who lived always in the shadow of her famous brother Moses. When, in later life, she detoured from her life’s path of rectitude and sinned against God with gossip about Moses, leprosy – arresting leprosy – afflicted her. How did that disease affect her life thereafter?

The author’s mother, Miriam, also suffered a disease later in life – in her case, dementia, brought on increasingly by the aftereffects of a brain aneurysm. An affliction of a far different kind. Or was it?

In this essay, the author seeks to examine – but likely only imagines – the Prophetess Miriam, in her reverie, through the prism of the challenging infirmity of his own Miriam.

MAYBE

I sit on the bank beside a pool of water. Its clarity is unnerving to me. Earlier pools of water such as this almost led to the House of Israel’s undoing in the Wilderness twice before. But the water is so pristinely clear as I look deep into it, I see a reflection I haven’t seen in so long. It is a young girl, a child, who sits beside the River in Egypt watching over the safety of her baby brother. The skin on her face is taut. Her eyes sparkle with innocence. The sins and ripples of the Waters of Merivah have momentarily disappeared. I see everything as if it happened just yesterday, maybe today. How can I see the distant past so clearly, but not recall the present?

But quickly an unsettling, sporadic breeze and then a wind come along. I’m unsure whether they come from my future or my past. And with the occasional gusts come the ripples; ripples that seem to emulate the ebb and flow, the tides of life. They run lightly, but swiftly, through the water. And when they do, the clear portrait that I saw, maybe even willed, is gone. The ripples cause rippling wrinkles in the reflection of me – was it me? – that I saw before the ripples came.

The portrait in the water is now murky and shadowy. As a cloud passes overhead, the image in the water seems to have disappeared. Soon the sun emerges from behind the cloud, and momentarily it seems, I see two portraits of me in the water – vacillating from one portrait to two and back again, as I stare deeply into what lurks beneath. Are there two of me now facing back upward to me?

And soon I am lost in what I see. I see an old wrinkled woman, then another – maybe a sister. Do I, did I, have a sister? My cognition has ebbed, and I can’t remember what has happened just today. I’m ashamed even to ask. What happened to me? Did the leprosy that only lasted seven days infect my mind? Will it remain with me until I go? I almost see the leprosy on my arms; the pockmark scars have never left, as I look at them. But when did the leprosy leave me? Did it leave me?

My husband comes to fetch me. To take me back to our tent, he says. He seems worried. Never a worrier in years past, unlike all the Hebrew princes God tells us that “a different [brave, wondrous] spirit is within him.” And I have come to know that well. I say, “Moses, let me tell you what I saw, or tried to see in the waters.” But a sad look comes over him – a look I have seen before – as he grabs me, almost hostilely, by the arms: “I’m not Moses. I’m Caleb, son of Yefuneh. Moses is your brother, the Redeemer. I’ve told you a thousand times, and a thousand times again.” In turn, I say, “I’m sorry. Yes, I know.” But I don’t know. I say it only to hide my embarrassment, or his. I can’t dwell on the present. Isn’t Moses my husband?

Too painful, too frustrating. And I don’t know, really know, what truly occurs in the present. Is it the present, or the past? Or the future? I’m in a quandary trying to know whether what I see in my mind’s eye is what has happened, or what will happen. Caleb tells me – every day, he says – that I am a prophetess, and I accept his calming words with gratitude.

He brings me, this time, cool water to drink, like Moses had brought to the House of Israel when they craved it. It quenches my physical thirst. But my mind remains adrift, and he must surely see it on my face. As the blowing wind dies down, I beg him to let me stay a while longer beside the now peaceful waters, assuring him, though not myself, that I will find my way back when the sun begins to set once more. He is unpersuaded, but relents, to leave me alone in thought.

Perhaps my confusion lies in deciphering what was intended for me by God, the God who punished me when I sinned so badly. What was my sin? Was it that I uttered aloud what I – a supposed Woman of God, a Prophetess of Israel – truly believed about Moses’s flawed behavior? Did God intentionally wreak upon me what seems will be my lot until my life is over? For some of the bad we do, we never outlive.

Or is it a test? A test to prove Moses’s teaching that God never visits upon us a fate we can’t endure. Surely, others whose minds have been scorched over time can’t bear to know that reality, and so they don’t. Might it have been too easy for me to live in blissful obliviousness to the lost years of my memory? Was that the reason I was denied by God that lesser pain?

Now that the pool’s waters are still once again, I return, looking deeply into them in reverie. I see the young child I once was. I see a five-year-old girl along with her mother, Jochebed, helping to midwife the Israelite mothers. We – called Shifrah and Puah by the Hebrew slaves – aimed our lives at the evil decree of the tyrant Pharaoh who would impose genocide upon the male offspring of the House of Israel.

Even as a child I saw these names as a clever disguise to accord us anonymity: Pharaoh’s henchman wanted to locate the “obstacles” to his cruel edict to kill our firstborn sons. And strangely the younger “obstacle” actually bore the improbable name “Miriam,” meaning bitterness, named for the bitterness that Pharaoh’s slavery presented to us. But, as I look into the waters, I wonder still why my parents, though enduring the terrible hardship of the Israelites, would name an innocent baby thusly. Could they actually have intended the pain it caused me for people to utter my true name?

In looking back, Pharaoh deeply feared that he would lose his slaves who built his cities. He feared the Hebrews’ “Redeemer,” whose birth his astrologers prophesied. And he and they were right. But from what Power did the prophecies of these heathens derive?

And from what Power, what prophecy, could my father Amram have drawn his poor decision? I could see, even as a child, as I see my face in the water now, the misjudgment of my own father Amram. After my brother Aaron’s birth, he withdrew from my mother Jochebed to circumvent Pharaoh’s evil decree. Worse than what the tyrant was doing, my father’s good intentions aside, in his own way he was “killing” baby daughters that might be brought forth from their union. I pleaded incessantly that he return to my mother’s bed. Were my words of remonstration the intelligent wisdom of a child-like Prophetess of Israel, as the Hebrews often told me? Or simply the manifestation of a young girl’s longing for a baby sister?

The answer is now blurry. Still, my words seem to have persuaded my father to “repent ”and return to her. Sometimes, yearnings and aspirations take on the label of “prophecy.”

But little did Pharaoh and his henchman know that nine months later my baby brother would be born. The infant was destined to escape the evil decree through the stratagem of our gifted mother. She placed his frail body in a basket on the edge of the River, dispatching me to watch over him from a distance. She would come by frequently to give him the breast of his true mother.

However, in my constant duty to “the Redeemer,” I abandoned the rest of the House of Israel. As a child I seemed to forget my broader “duty” almost instantly. Strangely, almost as quickly as I now forget the identity of the man who came to retrieve me, mere moments ago.

Looking back, one day, Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter, Princess of Egypt, barren of children, came to the River. She wished to “save” my baby brother whom I called Jered, for he “descended” to the stream to learn his fate. But I knew better than she, that he would never suck the breast of an Egyptian. I persuaded her to let my mother come to feed him, and she did. In her own way, it is true, Bithiah saved Moses, having rescued him from the water.

I believed always, however, that Bithiah saved Moses not out of love for the Hebrews, as she claimed, but out of her special sorrow over her childlessness. The wise men told me otherwise. She truly despised our enslavement and the idol worship of the Egyptians, and thus given the name Bithiah: “Daughter of God.” She, my partner in saving Moses and my people, “Daughter of God.” But I, “Bitterness”!

I was grateful that Bithiah had become Moses’s special savior. I needed to be: my life’s purpose was his survival. But, sadly, my envy of her knew no bounds, though she never seemed jealous of me.

My jealousy, however, worsened after the Exodus. My husband Caleb, Prince of the Tribe of Judah, would come to marry Bithiah after we left Egypt. She had after all left Egypt with us, but he remained oblivious to what his choice in a second wife would do to me. Still, with a culture of polygamy, I was a prophetess without recourse. Perhaps, Bithiah, who now shares all that is mine, now even my facial image, is the “sister” I saw earlier in the waters below.

After the Exodus, my “bitterness” over Bithiah, perhaps due to the duality of Caleb’s marital tents, drove me back more urgently to my “duties” – no longer to Moses himself, but now to the House of Israel. As a woman, just a woman, as my mother Jochebed showed me always, I had only been a “helpmate” to the Redeemer, though I had saved his life.

But at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, I emerged – a heroine of sorts in my own right. After the Israelites had safely crossed, we saw the dead carcasses of the Egyptian soldiers on the shore. Moses and the House of Israel sang a Song to God, proclaiming the great hand He inflicted on Egypt. The song’s verses were composed, it seemed, by a warrior, but finally spoke to the Greater Glory of God. Its words and melody uplifted a nation that had surmounted the insurmountable. The moment moved me.

But, curiously, the moment didn’t move me to compose a verse that would preach the greatness of God for gaining His people’s safety. No. With my timbrel in hand, I sang “Sing to God for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.” But I am a woman, a mother. Where was the motherly spirit I had showed as a protector of life years before?

Why, at my “heroic” moment did I choose to extol God’s capacity to impart death, not secure life? Would those have been the words of my “sister” Bithiah – “Daughter of God”? My son Bezalel, the Tabernacle’s great artisan, created a likeness of me to memorialize the moment. It strangely, though, served as a reminding rebuke given my misgivings. It saddened me like the cold look on Moses’s face at the shore that rebuked me for having glorified God’s wrath, not his Saving Grace.

But rebukes often take different forms. Sometimes, much time transpires anticipating retaliation for them. And, often the motivation for rebukes is obscure or concealed. Sometimes they are shrouded in gossip.

Later in our lives, I came to deeply admire and love Moses’s Cushite wife, Zipporah, as if she were my own sister. Zipporah, the dark-skinned, tender beauty he married when he left Egypt as a fugitive. Because he profoundly perceived his need to be in constant purity for God, he withdrew from her marital bed. Zipporah confided it to me – but not in complaint of Moses whom she loved with all her being.

But it troubled me greatly. I complained bitterly, as my name signifies, to Aaron, in private. And then to Moses directly. Not that Moses wasn’t the “chosen” of God, for he surely was. Examining inside myself, I was troubled because I too, along with Aaron, was a prophet who received Divine Revelation. We, I believed, were “chosen” too because of what we had done for our people.

Was I so angered that Moses’s supposed special “purity” communicated that he alone was “worthy”? Was it the cold, rebuking glance at me after the Egyptians died in the Sea of Reeds? Was it that Moses never seemed to thank me for saving him along the River?

Or was it my personal torment, feeling betrayed when my husband often left me, too, to be with Bithiah? Was it my bitterness over how my father Amram treated my mother in withdrawing from her. Thus, were my motives pure in complaint about Moses’s withdrawal from Zipporah, as were Moses’s motives in the withdrawal itself? Whatever the cause, I instantly knew I was wrong. True, Aaron, too, was wrong in speaking ill of Moses – but his motives were pure, not motives burdened down by life’s baggage.

When God brought Aaron and me to His Tent, descending in a cloud to reproach us, I saw my life as over. Leprosy was at hand, the very likeness of death itself. The pain of seeing what had become of me over life’s journey, however, was far worse than the pain that the leprosy would cause me.

The scars and torment of the leprosy would eventually leave, but never the scars of being an outcast. And I suspected that my offense in invading Moses’s sacred privacy left him unwilling – even unable – to cry out for God to heal me, that is, until Aaron interceded with him. Notwithstanding his fervent prayer to God for my recovery, even “the humblest man that had ever walked the earth,” as God described Moses to Aaron and me from the pillar of cloud, couldn’t find words to personally forgive me. Some cuts never heal.

Who could have foretold, when I ministered to “little Jered” in the bulrushes alongside the Nile so long ago, that it would come to this? My life’s portrait that I see in the pool of waters below today, I could not have foreseen in the Nile’s waters as I watched over “the Redeemer.” Divine Revelation doesn’t circumvent the stumbling blocks of life.

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But in the end, life does ebb and flow. The ripples have again departed. Over these last moments, when looking back at all my days, I find myself content.

It seems now that all of the House of Israel will come to know me that way. They will see me as the protector of Moses, and in some way the protector of Israel. They won’t know of my jealousies that I share secretly with the waters below. They will see me as a prophetess who persuaded her father to “return,” allowing Moses to reach this world. They will see me leading the Hebrew women with jubilation upon reaching the dry land. They will see my slander against Moses as a means to teach the Israelites to not repeat my wrongful ways.

The luminous waters at hand that depict my days as clear and simple, are now gone behind a cloud of uncertainty and forgetfulness. I saw in those waters my days past as days of righteousness and sacrifice to God and His people. They were days that escaped the “bitterness” that identified me at birth.

I don’t clearly see those righteous days just now. Life is no longer so easily deciphered. With the return of the ripples, the confusion is reborn. Life is no longer free of the blemishes that remain.

But just as quickly, the sun briefly returns. Looking at the now-clear water, life is beautiful again. I see Moses ministering to the people, telling them the importance of family, how much he has cherished Zipporah. And he reminds them, too, how I saved him from certain death, and led the Women of Israel in triumph.

I see walking toward me from across the pond my husband, my only husband, Caleb, whom I have loved with all my heart. I know, truly I know, that Caleb married Bithiah too; but it doesn’t trouble me any longer. I forgive him, honored that he gave me Bezalel whose line will give rise one day to King David, and then in turn the Messiah.

Despite the trouble that will surely confound me again when the sun next hides and the water’s ripples return, I will always remember what was lovely and beautiful in my life before the infirmity befell me. Despite my torment of today, that truth will never die. That truth will never elude me, nor elude all the House of Israel.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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