This post originally appeared on Clergy Beyond Borders’ News/Views blog, June 9, 2011.
Sibling prophets argue but find a way to remain together in the third Bible portion in our “wilderness” series. The reading — Numbers 8:1-12:16 — includes a dramatic, rather cryptic, passage* involving the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, covered in “scales, white like snow” [tzaraat ka-sheleg, in Hebrew] (Numbers 12:10).
The same snowy scales appear on Moses’ arm at the Burning Bush (Exodus 4:5). In the Qur’an (7:108, 20:22), Moses’ arm becomes “[shiny] white without blemish” or “luminous.” In both Islamic and Jewish tradition, the white/shining skin is a sign of prophecy.
In Jewish and Christian tradition, tzaraat — which is often translated as “leprosy” in English bibles — is also associated with gossip and other sins of the tongue. In the passage here, Miriam and Aaron “speak against” their brother. Related commentaries include background tales of conversations involving Moses’ wife and Miriam.
Still, the “speaking against” Moses in the text and the family issues in the commentary center around prophecy. Three prophets in one family — and Moses’ wife Zipporah has her own encounter with the divine (Exodus 4:23-26) — seems to have its challenges.
God chastises the speakers, saying: “How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” However, the prophetic siblings stand up for one another before God and remain together throughout the episode. In fact, Numbers 12 is the only passage in the Torah which mentions Aaron, Miriam and Moses together.
In the Qur’an (2:136), we read:
Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants [literally: “grandchildren”], and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”
Miriam’s episode of tzaraat may be a sign of prophecy or of divisive speech, or both. But the episode is limited by God so that a joint future — with all three siblings traveling together — is possible.
This week’s “wilderness” reading is called in Hebrew “Beha’alotekha” ([“in your lighting (of the lamps)”]. One message we can glean from it is the danger of believing that ours is the only light.
CBB’s Caravan of Reconciliation offers a model of religious leaders from different faith communities traveling together as siblings.
For a thought-journey on “speaking against” others, please consider the Reconciliation Ride.
When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman [some translations: “beautiful”] he had married: “He married a Cushite [or: beautiful] woman!”
They said: “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” The LORD heard it. Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.
God calls the siblings out, not unlike a human parent chastising squabbling children: “Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting!” (Numbers 12:4).
The LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!” The two of them came forward, and He said, “Hear these My words. When a prophet of the LORD arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision. I speak with him in a dream. No so with My servant Moses: he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddle, and he beholds the likeness of the LORD. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” Still incensed with them, the LORD departed.
As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.” So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying “O, God, pray heal her!”
But the LORD said to Moses: “If her father spit in her face, would she not bear her shame seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted. So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days, and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.
This is the last time Miriam speaks in the Bible.
(Virginia A. Spatz, 6/9/11)