Numbers 12:1-10, 15
While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed. When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. . . . . So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days; and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again.
When last we left our biblical heroine, Miriam was dancing and singing and celebrating her people’s freedom. I would like to end the story of Prophet Miriam in celebration, not disgrace, but there is one more episode to tell, a confusing and troubling one, found in Numbers, chapter 12. Unfortunately, Miriam’s celebration and her honor were short-lived. Egyptian captivity was over but finding a new home was forty years and many miles away. Her worshiping community had many more challenges yet to face—including interpersonal challenges. Finding the next home for our congregation has also had its challenges—and we hope in the exciting process of moving to another location, that we, too, will leave no one behind.
Today’s story picks up as Miriam and Aaron criticize their brother Moses for marrying one of the Cushites. Miriam and Aaron felt justified to speak against Moses because they understood that God has forbidden intermarriage and God had authorized them to speak prophetically. Although there are other scriptures supporting Aaron and Miriam’s point about intermarriage, this story says that God took Moses’ side in this sibling squabble.
Imagine on this long journey that Daddy God has heard the fussing and fighting coming from the backseat. “Don’t make me have to pull over and settle this myself,” he calls over his shoulder. But the children keep at it. Instead of continuing their journey to a new home, God has to “pull over” and summon the three siblings to a family meeting. Daddy God’s displeasure rises up like a cloud, maybe like a cloud of dust not yet settling from a car’s swift path on a dirt road. He reprimands Aaron and Miriam for speaking against brother Moses. Instantly, Miriam is afflicted with a skin condition that made her as white as snow. God might just as well have sewn a scarlet T on her robe—for Tattle Tale—she was that clearly branded the Bad Girl. Aaron, for some reason, was not so punished. Moses, the winner of the dispute, suddenly feels sorry for Miriam and cries to God to heal his sister, though perhaps he objects because her punishment means the whole family will be affected by Miriam’s disgrace. Daddy God explains that Miriam is grounded—but for seven days only. She will be shut out of the happy circle of a dancing, singing family. But after seven days she may return. In the meantime, everyone else stays put until Miriam can rejoin them once more. They will not leave without her.
What do we make of this final tale about Miriam? Since Miriam and Aaron complained about their brother’s marriage outside their ethnic and religious community, is this a story that condemns prejudice? We oppose such prejudice, but does this text? Perhaps, but as I just mentioned, the Bible in other places condemns intermarriage and therefore could seem to side with Miriam in this regard. Well, maybe this story cautions against sibling rivalry or rivalry among leaders. Perhaps, but why wasn’t Aaron, who also blamed Moses, punished as well? The old double standard? Maybe this story upholds religious hierarchy as it elevates some prophets over others. Maybe it condemns uppity women. Textual evidence shows later editing of earlier stories wanted to make that very point by lowering our opinion of the powerful Miriam lest her reputation eclipse that of Moses.[i]
There are other possible interpretations. Miriam may be seen as guilty of—or the victim of—a family problem, a social problem, or a leadership problem. But today I want to read her story as a reminder that religious leaders can fail, lay leaders can disrupt the fellowship, pastors can make mistakes, people in the pews are imperfect. Yet here is a word of hope in this troubling part of Miriam’s story: the people did not march on ahead without Miriam until she could rejoin them. Miriam was soon healed and incorporated back into the community. No one was left behind after this period of conflict. A worshiping community will inevitably have interpersonal conflicts. There may be moments when some folks—even leaders—need a “time out.” But reconciliation is always our ultimate aim. As our congregation makes decisions along our own wilderness journey toward an eventual church home, there will inevitably be times when some of us read a situation differently than others, when some of us read God’s direction differently than others. Certainly there are times when some will choose to leave Open Table, over small matters or large. We want to be able to bless those people for their service with us to that point—and bless them in their future life elsewhere. But our fundamental response and aim is reconciliation and a unity overarching our diversity.
It’s significant that the confusing story of Miriam’s ostracism has many points of view. It’s hard to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. Moses may have transmitted the Ten Commandments, but Miriam is the moralist here. She was trying to uphold one of God’s laws as she understood it. And Miriam was emboldened to use her own prophetic voice. Shouldn’t God have sided with her? After all, at the end of the story even Moses, the recipient of her moral indictment, took her part. This story, like most, is more complicated that one person’s version. Maybe Moses was wrong (in that culture) to marry outside his religion, but maybe Miriam was “wrong-er” to blame her brother.
If we contrast this story of Miriam’s disgrace with last week’s story of Miriam’s acclaim, we get a clearer sense of at least one moral issue here. The primary difference that I see between Exodus 15 and Numbers 12 is that Miriam was proclaiming God’s greatness in the earlier event, and criticizing a brother in the later event. Perhaps Miriam needed to focus on pointing to the things of God rather than pointing the finger of blame at her brother. I’ve found that whenever I’ve moved from speaking on behalf of goodness to speaking against a person—I’ve come to regret it.
I wonder: is there a way that the prophetic Miriam, who truly believed Moses had seriously erred, could have maintained her moral position without attacking her brother? As you and I witness injustice in this world, are there ways we can stand for justice without naming others as enemies? Some social justice-oriented individuals and churches can let righteous indignation send them charging into situations that might be more morally complex than first assumed. Father Richard Rohr’s call to nondualistic thinking rings true for me here. We can work for justice without vilifying those with whom we vehemently disagree.
I love the passion that fuels our congregational discussions about our calling in this world. May God continue to make each of us a prophet who attests to that which is good and just and decries all that diminishes the full humanity of any other person. Let’s not be tepid in our convictions. But Miriam’s story tells us that even when we as a congregation might own the moral high ground, it’s still important to be in right relationship with others.
Let me confess now, new church, that the responsibility of pastoral leadership weighs heavily upon me at times—as well it should. When I consider the responsibility we all bear in ministering to folks who’ve been disillusioned and even harmed by other churches, claiming as we do that our expression of church will be welcoming and affirming of all–I tremble with awareness that despite our best intentions, great harm can still be done to God’s children by God’s church. It doesn’t take much to reopen old wounds. God help us. What makes us think we can dabble with such potentially explosive spiritual chemistry? How dare we, like Miriam, presume to know the mind of God? Can we lead out with conviction and commitment—but tempered by compassion? Who do we think we are?
We are church. We are human. We will inevitably make mistakes. Of course, there are some missteps that clergy can make from which they cannot and should not come back. But for the most part here at Open Table, you and I can express our sincere regrets, learn from our errors, and reconnect with that singing and dancing and forgiving circle of fellowship that always opens up for us. We don’t have to walk on eggshells, but we do want to bear in mind what a fine line we walk when we speak for God’s justice and try to love ALL God’s children.
Miriam was a dynamic spiritual leader–and as flawed as the rest of us. When in error, she humbly accepted the forgiveness of God and the people of God. But before she ever imagined gaining her voice to lead worship or challenge Moses’s authority, she was just a quiet presence caring for her baby brother, a girl who was told to wait and watch and not really do or say anything.
Let’s return to that theme we sounded two weeks ago with a closing story. Because a major role we play for one another is to BE with those who have been wounded and to listen to their stories. No need to judge the moral high ground. Just standing beside another is enough.
In a short story by Kathleen Hill, the narrator is a 7th grade girl in awe of her wise and compassionate music teacher, Miss Hughes. This young narrator has also, during that year, befriended Norman, the school loner, an odd new boy in town who lived with his reclusive father. When the narrator and the rest of her class return to school after the Thanksgiving break, they learn that Norman’s father had committed suicide during the holiday. The students enter their classroom the next Monday to see Norman already sitting in his usual place in the back row, staring straight ahead. Miss Hughes for a time tries to conduct the music class as usual. But soon her gaze rests upon Norman’s lowered head. So she decides not to move on with the class without attending to him. “Is there anything we can DO for you, Norman?” she asks at last.
There is silence. The snow begins falling outside the classroom window and the narrator imagines the snow beginning to cover the grave of Norman’s father.
Miss Hughes continues. “Because we would like you to know that you are sitting in the company of friends.”
Miss Hughes then turns her eyes from Norman to the others. For long moments she broods over the class as before she had brooded over Norman. Then she speaks: “We cannot see into the mysteries of another person’s life, dear boys and girls. We have no way of knowing what deaths a soul has sustained before the final one. It is for this reason that we must never presume to judge or to speak in careless ways about lives of which we understand nothing. I tell you this so that you may not forget it. We may honor many things in life. But for someone else’s sorrow, we must reserve our deepest bow.”
The music teacher then plays a recording of Mozart’s Requiem. When the record spins to its end, when there is nothing more to listen for, the class files out of the room in silence. But as the narrator leaves, she looks back to see Miss Hughes still standing at attention before the phonograph, her hands clasped together in front of her. Norman has not moved; his face is hidden in his arms. Already shadows are falling, over Miss Hughes’ face; over Norman bowed at his desk. The story ends with this image: of Miss Hughes simply standing watch over a hurting child.[ii]
In our ministries, you and I are sometimes called simply to bow to the grief of another, to stand watch as God’s sentry among a people with regrets or wounds, to refuse to leave another behind in their aloneness and hurt. Sometimes we offer up a spiritual kind of music that might express hurts—hurts of an entire nation nursing again 10-year-old wounds with no adequate words for what happened then and what continues to unfold on this violent planet. So we gather “in the company of friends” as Miss Hughes put it. We bow to the sorrows of others. We keep the circle open for reconciliation—between individuals, between nations. We stand for God’s justice. But mainly in our daily life we stand alongside those who need a sister or a friend more than they need a prophet. The Good News of God’s reconciling work in the world is that this is a ministry for all of us—to all of us. Thanks be to God.
[i] Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisvile: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994. See “The Women in Exodus and Numbers,” 101-106, for various interpretations of Miriam’s role and especially for evidences of patriarchal editing of the Miriam tradition into a diminished role.
[ii] You may read the entire version of Kathleen Hill’s “The Anointed” at http://www.kathleenhillwriter.com/theannointed.html. My summary of the conclusion does no justice to one of the Best Short Stories of 2000. Thanks to friend and former colleague Annette Sisson for sharing this beautiful work of fiction with me some years ago.