Sunday, July 19, 2020
Unfeeling desert. Rocks and sand in every direction. Oh, the camp is just over the next rise. Just walk to the top of the berm; see the tents in the distance; hear the distant bleating of sheep.
But for the persistent thwap of the wind whipping against the cloak, it’s quiet here, so forlorn. Why doesn’t Miriam just go back and join her fellow Israelites camped at Hazeroth? She can’t, not for seven more days.
What thoughts come to one isolated in the wilderness? What does one ponder when consigned to his room in a 2-week COVID quarantine? Or, what runs through one’s mind while walking in circles for 40 years?
Surely at some point in a Coronavirus imposed internment, the stir-crazy inmate thinks through all the places he’s been; the grocery store; the doctor’s office; church; that one day at the beach; several gas stations. Where was I exposed to virus, he repeatedly asks himself as he does his own personal contact tracing. It’s a form of how did I end up here?
Alone out there in the desert we meet Miriam in Numbers 12, banned from the community. She must have asked this question over and over. You can process thousands, millions of thoughts in seven days when all you have to do is sit and think. Perhaps Aaron or Moses ventured out to leave food and water, but even they couldn’t get close. We complain about mask wearing and social distancing. We have no idea!
Read Leviticus 13. “When a person has on his skin … swelling ... and it turns leprous, … the priest shall confine the diseased person for 7 days” (v.2, 4). Confinement was actually exclusion. They didn’t want the disease to spread through the crowded camp, so the victim was kept away until she was declared ‘clean,’ healed. In Number 12, where God banishes Miriam, he follows the dictates of the law he’s just given in Leviticus. Miriam has splotchy, leprous-looking skin. She was out until the disease left her. How did it come to this, she had to be asking herself.
The Israelites were landless people moving en masse through the Sinai Desert toward Moab and the eastern banks of the Jordan River. The distance of 150 miles could be covered in a couple of weeks’ time. But once they made it through the Red Sea, once they received the law from Moses who came down from Sinai, once they found themselves in the desert wastelands thoroughly dependent upon God for survival, they turned out to be a complaining people, quick to rebellion against God.
So, at the moment they were on the cusp of the Promised Land, God forced a turn; over and over; they went in circles, taking 40 years to cover the, 150-mile walk. Slogging along day after day, did they ask themselves how did we end up here?
We live in a political wasteland. Our repetitive election cycle leaves us wandering in 4-year circles. Maybe we should take a seat with Miriam where it’s quiet and still, and listen to whispers of the wild at the fringes of our senses.
In Sacred Attunement, Michael Fishbane, writes, “The vastness of existence impinges upon us everywhere and at all times, and the theologically minded take their stand within this reality – not to carve it up into verbal objects for practical use, but to participate in its ongoing manifestation” (p.39). In case that sentence didn’t thrill you as it does me, try it this way. The universe is huge! We can ignore how big it is or be engulfed by how big it is; or, small as we are, we can look for God. We can discover our place in God’s magnificent creation.
Look at Miriam out there, under the endless nighttime desert sky. Go ahead, count the stars. I believe she saw God out there. I believe we can see Him in our wasteland and be transformed by the experience.
Miriam, thought back. Her baby brother Moses in a basket was set adrift on the Nile. Pharaoh was killing the Hebrew baby boys. Mom entrusted Moses to God, and Miriam watched as the baby floated to the shore right wear Pharaoh’s daughter bathed. She adopted the baby, and Miriam standing by, connected Pharaoh’s daughter to her mother – Moses’ mother – to be the wet nurse.
She was always standing by, supporting her little brother. He grew up and became God’s prophet. He and, Aaron, also older than Moses, brought the plagues of God until Pharaoh freed the Hebrews. She walked along side her baby brother, now the leader of the people. As the law and Numbers 12 demonstrate, in early Israelite history, women had no rights and were essentially property of their husbands or fathers, Even so, Miriam found her voice.
In Exodus, she composed and sang praise to God. In Numbers 12, she challenged Moses, and we get to the crux of matter. Having set up camp upon their arrival at Hazeroth, she and Aaron confront Moses for taking foreign wives. He had married the Midianite Zipporah. Now, we learn Moses also took a Cushite wife.
Cush was another way of referring to Ethiopian. Ethiopic was a description of very dark-skinned Africans who lived along Africa’s northeastern Red Sea coastline, modern day Sudan and Ethiopia. Miriam and Aaron were not upset that the wife was black, but that she was foreign. Moses wasn’t upset at all. His Cushite wife is one of many black Africans who play a role in the Biblical story. We don’t have her name or accounts featuring her, but we know she was approved by Moses and God.
Having double-teamed their little brother about his choice in women, Miriam and Aaron next complain about his role. They felt like they could be prophets as effective and competent as he. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses,” they demanded. As matter of fact …
Like a parent driven to fury by kids fighting in the backseat, God has had enough. Don’t make me stop this car! God stopped the car. “Come out you three to the tent of meeting,” God said. You three. Can you hear that angry dad voice? For punishment, a parent takes away an electronic device, or gives a swift smack on the rear, or at least a stern talking to. God descended in a pillar of cloud.
Miriam found her voice, but when she used it, God did not like what he heard. He had to explain to Aaron and Miriam that prophets receive visions. God speaks to them through dreams and wordless thoughts. All three siblings had likely received such visions. But God spoke to Moses face to face. No one else had that kind of relationship with God. Why was Moses privileged in this way? We aren’t told. God, though, is absolutely clear that challenging Moses will not be tolerated.
After God unleashes divine anger, Miriam contracts leprous marks on her skin. Why was only she affected, and not Aaron too. We aren’t told. But Aaron knew the score. He pleaded with Moses. Just a minute before he squared up to Moses with his brash who do you think you are? Now it’s “O my Lord, do not punish us.” Aaron calls his little brother, “My Lord.”
Moses never wanted any of this. More than once, he asked God to relieve him of the burden of leadership. In Numbers 12, he is silent in the face of the accusations hurled by his older siblings. When he finally speaks, it’s a simple prayer. “O God, please heal her.” Aaron begs Moses, Moses begs God, and God is still mad. Still God gives a prescription for healing: seven days shut out of the camp.
Again, we don’t know why Miriam was punished and not Aaron. At the end of the Gospel of John, after Jesus has predicted Peter’s death (21:19), Peter wants to know the fate of the beloved disciple. Jesus responds “What is that to you? You follow me” (v.22b). Perhaps that wisdom applies to Miriam in Numbers 12. C.S. Lewis picks up on this in the Narnia stories, several times telling characters that Aslan (who represents Christ) doesn’t tell you other people’ stories, only your own. Miriam is punished. Aaron is not. Only God knows why.
At the end of Numbers 12, the conclusion of Miriam’s desert quarantine, she is welcomed back into the community. The Israelites would not move from Hazeroth until she had been fully restored. Moses prayed for her. The community waited for her. We know that. What I’d like to know most, we are not told. What did she see and hear from God during those 7 days quarantined?
What do we see and hear from God as we wander in circles or turn circles in our minds while locked in our homes, not permitted to leave? Fight it. Complain about it. Gripe. Sulk. So many in scripture brood gloomily under God’s watchful eye: Job, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah, Samson, Amos, Peter, Paul, and maybe Miriam.
After the griping, groaning, grousing, and grieving, open your eyes. God is there to be seen, if we look. Open your ears, God is speaking and we’ll hear, if we listen. Open yourself. Nothing that nauseates us in the morass of American politics and the sense of being stuck in Coronavirus-America is any worse than the desert quarantine Miriam survived. She came out of it reassured of her place in God’s community and God’s plan. And I am sure, in some unique way, she met God. I am equally sure we can meet him in the midst of unsettling times. God is still God and He loves each one of us. He loves you and is ready sit with you in a quiet place and begin telling you your story.