Women in the Scriptures: Why Does God Hate Miriam?
By seeing the Bible as an inspired yet flawed work, we have the unique opportunity as Mormon feminists to look for the very real presence of misogyny as we study the scriptures. So, for the next few months, I’ll be posting about stories of women in the scriptures that have made me stop and say, “Wait a minute…” When women are depicted in the scriptures, it is important to think about why they were included. Are they particularly virtuous?, Why?, Were they evil?, What did they do that was so bad? Sometimes, by asking these questions, we can see that there are discrepancies that are worth discussing.
The first time I remember thinking, “Wait, something about this story isn’t right…” happened when my seminary teacher told us the story of Miriam and Aaron complaining to/about their brother, Moses (Numbers 12). In this story, Miriam is stricken with leprosy, punished by God, for doing the EXACT same thing that Aaron does—complain about Moses. Aaron is not punished and in fact, goes to plead to Moses on Miriam’s behalf.
One could say that this is a cautionary tale about how we shouldn’t question our leaders, shrug off Miriam’s more severe punishment by believing that she was sassing Moses more than Aaron. But, there must be more to this story.
Miriam is a strong woman with significant traits that set her apart from other women in the Old Testament. In Exodus 15:20, she becomes the first woman in the Old Testament to be called a prophetess although we don’t see any of her prophecies in the scriptures. Although, if we’re going to be good feminist biblical scholars, it behooves us to remember that each descriptor assigned to women in the Bible was carefully chosen (and carefully edited).
Her position in the often-dull genealogies is also significant. There is nothing that indicates that Miriam had children or married. Instead, we see her listed with her brothers (as equals, one may wonder). Unlike most women, she is mentioned with her brothers in genealogy lists (Num 26:59, 1 Chro 6:3), and in Micah 6:4.
And, lest we forget, she is the woman who saved Moses’ life and brought him to the position that singularly suited him to lead the Exodus.
Though her role isn’t as fleshed out as Moses’ in the scriptures, her continual association with her brother in the genealogies, descriptions like “prophetess,” and even her rebuke of Moses in Numbers 12 can make a case that those Israelites may have been seen Miriam as a female counterpart to Moses.
In Exodus 15:20, Miriam leads the women in song and dance to celebrate the destruction of the Pharaoh. This was a significant victory for the Israelites, so it is worthwhile to note that it is Miriam who leads the celebration. Furthermore, the roles of song and dance in religious celebration and adoration in the Old Testament (Psalms 149:3 and 2 Samuel 6:14 offer examples) could indicate that Miriam is leading a religious ritual here.
With such an illustrious past, the story in Numbers 12 becomes all the more strange and disheartening.
The story begins with Miriam and Aaron speaking out against Moses because he married an Ethiopian woman. That’s all it says. Is this a story, then, about racism? An argument could definitely be made for that (and someone who is more experienced in race issues, please take this up!), but I want to focus on Numbers 12:2, “And they said, Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the LORD heard it.”
It appears that both Aaron and Miriam felt like their leadership roles were as big as those of Moses. Again, more interesting questions to ponder–Why would they think that? What stories of their leadership have we lost? Is this a simple case of sibling rivalry?
Now the damage is done, and God is mad, calling all three of them to the tabernacle. God yells at Miriam and Aaron, storms off, and Miriam is left with leprosy and has skin as white as snow (which, if she’s being punished for being racist, would be quite appropriate).
Aaron apologizes to Moses for both himself and Miriam, wherein he acknowledges that he sinned as did she. Moses serves as an intermediary and asks God to heal Miriam. God agrees to heal her after she has been isolated for seven days.
This is where Mormons usually finish thinking about the story. Clearly, Miriam and Aaron have sinned. They have gotten too big for their britches. They want power. They apologize and all is well.
But, HELLO?…Why was Miriam punished when Aaron, who admitted his responsibility, not? Did God like Aaron more than Miriam?
Here is where I (and biblical scholars far more talented than myself) would say we can see misogyny at work, but it is not God who is the misogynist. It is the biased writers of the Bible who are at fault.
Much like we see the followers of Paul and James/Peter in the New Testament deal with leadership and authority (Galatians 2), there were priests who aligned themselves with Aaron and those who followed Moses. Both groups of priests are writers of the Bible. The group who wrote the story in Numbers 12 are followers of Moses (also known as the author, “E”). So, they’re not fans of Aaron, which explains why they’d put this story in the canon.
They are bold enough to write a story with Aaron being rebellious and invoking God’s wrath, but they are not so brash as to have him be punished. (Priests who were leprous were no longer priests because they were considered unclean.)
Nevertheless, to drive home the point that Aaron had done something really wrong, the reader has to see what the punishment looks like, and thus, we see Miriam punished.
Yet, even after being punished, we get to see one last time a glimmer of Miriam’s power. Although she is punished by God and cursed with the disease of the unclean, the children of Israel don’t leave her behind. They don’t travel until the end of her illness (vs 15). Miriam was stricken with a disfiguring and contagious disease, yet, the people (her people?) wouldn’t leave without her and accepted her when she returned.
It appears that Miriam is accepted when she returns, but there are lasting repercussions. There are no more stories of Miriam until we read of her death (Numbers 20:1). With no redeeming stories after this event, she becomes a warning of speaking ill of the Lord’s anointed, and we see that Aaron remains as popular as ever though he is guilty of the same crime.
Is this the work of an unjust God?
Or, are there authors mucking with the text resulting in Miriam paying the price?
If there are authors and editors of the Bible doing such thing, what else have we lost by making Miriam the convenient scapegoat. Did the editors feel free to cut out her other stories?
I believe that while we have an ugly story like Miriam’s leprosy in the Bible, we still have verses like Exodus 15:20 and Micah 6:4 that have slipped through to give us a glimpse of her greatness (I like to think those verses are God’s way of saying, “I know, I know, those editors are so silly, but look…I didn’t let them take these out.”). And, as we study the stories of women in the scriptures, we can find their power and voices and in turn, can find our own.