Women in the Scriptures: Why Does God Hate Miriam?

Posted by on June 10, 2009 in feminism, Women in the Scriptures | 19 comments

by Emily CC
We believe in the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly.”  Unfortunately, I think this often means that we, Mormons, use this idea to dismiss the hard stuff.  Don’t like Isaiah?  Well, there are probably issues with the translation, and Joseph Smith told us we could ignore that provocative Song of Solomon.  Often, I’m afraid that we apply this idea to the women of the Bible.  A prophetess?  Surely, a mistranslation!  Or, um, they don’t mean that a “prophetess” is the same as what a modern day “prophet” looks like.

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.

*Like Marc Chagall’s depiction of Miriam’s dance?  Go to Exponent II’s Flickr group for more images of Miriam.

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19 Comments

  1. Quite insightful and I look forward to reading more.

  2. Maybe Miriam was the one saying things and Aaron’s mistake not standing up against her?

  3. It definitely is interesting. I mean, Aaron built a golden calf for the people to worship, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t struck down for that. I think that we do not know the whole story. Thank you for the reminder of Miriam’s greatness.

  4. Thanks, C!

    PDOE, you make a good plausible explanation In fact, Numbers 12:1 says, “Miriam and Aaron,” the verb, “spake” is conjugated in the singular feminine. Or, it could be another example of an editor messing with the text since the vowels conjugate the verb and weren’t added until much later.

    Katherine, yes, it does begin to feel like Aaron is a golden boy (no pun intended). Makes me wonder where Miriam was during the golden calf worship.

  5. If you look in Deuteronomy, Moses explains that God was so gonna snuff Aaron over the Golden Calf, but Moses intervened and God spared Aaron’s life.

    Really, there’s no place in the Pentateuch where Aaron shines. He was not the sharpest tool in the shed (I threw in the gold and out jumped this calf…), and apparently his oldest two sons took after him, because God snuffed both of them and told Aaron, Not a word out of you.

    Of the three of them, Miriam’s the only one who died a natural death. God did not say to her, You have so ticked me off that you are not going to make it in. Aaron and Moses both got the, “You are going to die today,” notice. God made it pretty obvious that it was His day of judgment for them.

  6. Love this, Emily!

    Reading it reminded me of Judith Plaskow’s work. (Have you read Standing Again At Sinai?) She puts a lot of emphasis on Miriam’s importance and the way she was buried in the text. And she discusses how there’s a contradiction between the holes in the text (no women there at that central covenant moment of Sinai) and the felt experience of Jewish women in the community. Her goal is to re-member and recreate history and Torah. Very cool stuff.

  7. Sorry, just found this cool quote from Plaskow:

    “Jewish feminists, in other words, must reclaim Torah as our own. We must render visible the presence, experience, and deeds of women erased in traditional sources. We must tell the stories of women’s encounters with God and capture the texture of their religious experience. We must expand the notion of Torah to encompass not just the five books of Moses and traditional Jewish learning, but women’s words, teachings, and actions hitherto unseen. To expand Torah, we must reconstruct Jewish history to include the history of women, and in doing so alter the shape of Jewish memory.”

  8. This is phenomenal! You raise good questions.

    I do believe that there is more to Miriam’s and many other women’s stories from the scriptures. I do think it is an interesting notion that women are punished more in the scriptures than men.

    I don’t know what to make of this and other stories though. Sometimes I wish the bible had at least one matriarchal tribe where we could see the roles reversed.

  9. Fascinating questions and ensuing discussion! I look forward to reading more such posts.

  10. IMHO, I think any and all of your explanations are plausible. What about this explanation: maybe God, who knows the end from the beginning and whose ultimate goal is the immortality and eternal life of each individual soul, knew that Miriam’s punishment was actually a blessing? When God has chastened and humbled me, it has caused me to make life-altering corrections. Just because Miriam isn’t mentioned much, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love her or that her contribution is not as significant as any man’s.

  11. Rahabsplace, excellent point about the three siblings’ death!

    Caroline, I heart Plaskow–I used some of her writings in putting this together. The Jewish feminists’ midrash is inspiring; I’d love to see Mormon feminists write our own.

    Kelly Ann, a matriarchal tribe would be so neat…I think it’s interesting that historical fiction like the Red Tent imagine what a matriarchal tribe would look like.

    ZD Eve, thanks!

    Angie, yes, this is another plausible explanation, but because it plays into one of two stereotypes that dominate women in the scriptures (the woman who rebels/sins and the woman who obeys/is submissive), I wanted to push my study a bit further. I think there is much to gain as we all search the scriptures and come up with our own interpretations, though. Don’t you?

  12. I’m gleaning some interesting points from this discussion.

    Emily CC points out that In fact, Numbers 12:1 says, “Miriam and Aaron,” the verb, “spake” is conjugated in the singular feminine. If this is the case in the original telling of the story, then Miriam is portrayed as the spokesperson who verbalizes the objection; a judgment upon another woman due to the color of her skin or her ethnicity. We may assume that she has very strong opinions on the subject.

    Angie comments about the possibility of chastening being a blessing that enables growth and understanding.

    As a mother I certainly try to make the disciplining of my children be one based upon natural or logical consequences. I don’t hand out one-size-fits-all punishments willy-nilly irrespective of the nature of the wrong-doing. I know my children well enough to have a good clue as to what it is that they aren’t understanding that is causing them to misbehave and will suit the consequences to the child and what he or she needs to learn from it. (Which sometimes makes my children whine the familiar cry of “that’s not fair!”) I suspect that God does that kind of disciplining and does so far, far better than I do.

    Miriam is struck with leprosy, a disease that changes her skin color and makes her a pariah in society. Does anyone else besides me see the keen connection between this and what her words have said and done in regards to Moses’ Ethiopian wife? I think she’s receiving an experience that will teach her much about the unimportance of skin color and the consequences of social ostracism.

    Then in verse 11 Aaron says, “Alas my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon US, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned.” Aaron doesn’t have leprosy, but he doesn’t say “don’t lay the sin upon her”, he says “don’t lay the sin upon us”. He is suffering, but his is an emotional suffering, realizing how his collusion and encouragement of Miriam’s objections have helped to put her in the position of being smitten. Watching another suffer due to something you encouraged them in is painful. Who suffers more, the child who suffers a broken leg after falling through the floor of the treehouse, or the sibling who encouraged the child to play there even though he knew it was unsafe? Personally, I’d rather have the broken leg. And if I had been the one doing the encouraging such an experience would definitely make me think twice about doing it again.

    So, I don’t think we can assume that Miriam’s punishment was greater than Aaron’s, though it certainly was more physically visible. Upon closer reading we may find it a commentary on the nature of God’s hope that his discipline will be seen as a learning experience rather than an act of vengeance. I can only hope that my children will think the same of mine.

  13. I heard one explanation for Miriam’s greater punishment for the same failing as Aaron that came from someone raised Jewish who converted. he said that you have to understandJewish culture in that an unmarried sister was the responsibility of the brothers to protect. So, Miriam getting sick was more punishment to Aaron because he was responsible for her. His duty was to do only that which was good for her and complaining about Moses just got her a fatal disease and it is HIS fault. His punishment was the guilt of having failed his duty to his sister in keeping her safe and God would have been much kinder to Aaron to have struck him dead or given him leprosy. Any mother will tell you that hurting her child hurts her more than if you hurt her. This was the same with Aaron, because his duty was to protect. Instead his behavior contributed to her being hurt.

  14. oooh, some exciting exegesis going on here!

    mb, I’m loving your ideas here about Aaron and Miriam, but I think it’s important to note that the singular feminine verb construction was added later by the Masoretes around the 7th centuries (Kiskilili, correct me if I’m wrong), so it’s not part of the original text.

    Anna, ah, a little cultural background is always helpful to understanding the text. Thank you for adding that! But, I wonder if then, the blame is unfairly heaped upon Aaron? Does Moses bear some responsibility even though he is being sinned against?

  15. Aaron was Moses’ older brother. If I remember correctly, culturally, as the oldest son in the family, he would have assumed the primary responsibility for the welfare of unmarried sisters.

  16. So while Moses would certainly have been dismayed, the sense of having failed in a responsibility would have been felt much more keenly by Aaron.

  17. Really nice analysis, EmilyCC. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    I think Anna’s explanation of Miriam’s leprosy makes the most sense.

    I’m troubled by this story in a different way, though. I’m picturing God coming to Earth and having a chat with Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, and I can’t really believe something happened like that. Maybe Moses married an Ethiopian, Aaron and Miriam didn’t like it, Miriam happened to get leprosy around the same time, and people made up this story about it later. And even if the story has more truth to it than that, it can’t all be true given all the “editing” it’s been through.

    So I’m wondering what the value of Old Testament stories is if they are so influenced by human (especially male) bias. I guess the same could be said of any story that comes through human vessels, but that’s a topic for another thread.

  18. mb, good point about Aaron–that does make sense given the time period.

    Emily U, yes! Clearly, this is a story with some heavy editing, if it even happened at all. I would argue that this story is propganda by those Moses followers, and Miriam is an unfortunate victim.

    To present my bias here: I suspect most of the stories in the Bible are not literal history, but I do believe they are divine. It is up to us to find what God wants us to find in them through study and prayer. And, I’m glad to see that thus far, everyone has been respectful about the varying interpretations.

  19. The harsher punishment on Miriam always bothered me. As for the other side (the Aaron/Miriam division), it always made sense to me (especially given the practice of gender segregated worship in ancient/classical/traditional Judaism) that Aaron was the men’s leader and Miriam was the women’s leader. We never see Aaron ministering to the women, only the men. With the exception of within her family, we never see Miriam ministering to the men — she leads rituals for women.

    Then Moses does all the big EVERYBODY stuff.

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