I’m all about repurposing, even when it comes to blog content. I wrote this as a part of an essay on feminist biblical criticism for a hermeneutics class I took last fall. Apparently I think I am both witty and intelligent, so I’m posting it here. Enjoy.
In this story (Numbers 12:1-16), Aaron and Miriam confront Moses and God about who has divine revelation and who doesn’t, essentially asserting that they too hear the voice of God as much as Moses does. Miriam does not have any overt speaking parts in this account, but her presence is still worth discussing.
Miriam’s place and occupation in this story is a little difficult to figure out, as she appears and then quickly disappears in the middle of Exodus. Her place was probably similar to that of most Israelite women, namely, as secondary beings to men, though she may have had some notion of a higher status being that she was related to Moses. The best idea one can come up with as to her occupation is that of a worship leader, and even this is based on very little strong evidence (because there is very little strong evidence about anything concerning Miriam). Miriam is out of place here, though, in that she is approaching Moses directly and with anger, and thus, presumably, without much deliberation. The fact that she is with Aaron lessens the impact this fact might have, as one could easily say that she is merely following her brother along. Nonetheless, she is present in a place she would not normally be.
As previously mentioned, Miriam does not have a clear voice in this text, but it is easy to infer that the one line not spoken by Moses or God (Numbers 12:2, And they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”) at the very least included her (note the plural “they”), but, perhaps more likely, was her direct speech masked by writers who did not want to acknowledge such a bold and defiant act on the part of a woman. Being that, later on in the story, it is she and not Aaron who gets leprosy, I posit that the aforementioned speech was her, and not both her and Aaron. One can imagine that everyone present was shocked by her speech and the audacity with which she probably delivered it. The fact that her voice is completely edited out (and that all the pronouns in God’s speech in defense of Moses are masculine singular) speaks volumes about the patristic nature of Israel in that time.
The theme of power and experience defines this story. It is, at its most basic level, about Aaron’s and (for the purposes of this essay), more importantly, Miriam’s experience as subjects, so to speak, of Moses, who wields great power. It is easy to picture Miriam expressing to Aaron her frustration with how “high and mighty” Moses has been lately, and doesn’t God speak to us too? And telling him how tired she is of always having to do everything he says, and what, does he think that, just because he’s a man, he can tell her what to do—she is older, after all, finally asserting that she is going to give that brother of theirs a good talking to. Whether or not it is shown in the Bible, it can probably be said that many an Israelite woman had similar thoughts about a man in their lives at some point. However, Miriam’s response is unique, in that she actually does something about it—she confronts Moses—and is responded to by God, who is seemingly using power on behalf of Moses. God upholds him, and gives Miriam leprosy as a result for her actions, likening it to “spitting in her face.” The only possible conclusion that both affirms Miriam’s role in this story and does not claim that God prefers men over women is that God was standing up for Moses, the messenger, trying desperately to just keep Israel united enough to survive.