July 7, 2019
REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
It was a number of years ago that I attended a Palm Sunday worship service in Toronto, Ontario. There was a massed choir accompanied by the Salvation Army Band. There was even a real live donkey in the narthex, braying from inside its straw-filled pen. As I stood in the choir, ready to sing the opening music, suddenly, the doors opened from the back of the church, and down the aisle came a procession of dancing women, young and older, all dressed in the traditional Salvation Army uniform. But what clearly caught my eye was that each woman was holding in her hand, a tambourine. And they came down that aisle, tapping their tambourines and waving them over their heads, the streamers attached to them brought bright arcs of colour across the room. They came down the aisles, singing and dancing, and waving their tambourines. It is a site I will never forget.
Miriam danced with a tambourine. She and other women would come out singing and dancing among the people. There was no one like her in their midst. Her walk was sure. Her eyes were direct. She was their prophet. She was legendary for her songs, songs that accompanied the people on their journey, songs of deliverance, songs of courage, songs of resilience.
In Exodus 2, we first meet Miriam when she is a girl of 10. She is standing in the shallow water of a river, amidst the bulrushes, as her mother places her 3-month old brother into a papyrus basket, that they have plastered with bitumen and pitch to make it buoyant. She places the basket among the reeds on the bank of the river. The daughter of Pharaoh has come down to bathe at the river and she sees the basket among the reeds. She sends her maid to bring it to her. When she opens it, she sees the child and says, ‘This must be one of the Hebrew’s children.’ Miriam, who had edged closer along the river bank, hears this conversation and boldly throws her voice into the air, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Yes, is the answer, and quick as a wink, she runs to get her mother and in a plan that couldn’t have been more perfectly executed, Moses and his mother are reunited.
Miriam displays enormous courage at 10 years of age in being part of a planned ‘intervention’ to save a Hebrew boy – civil disobedience amidst the bulrushes. I wonder if she didn’t sing a song on her way home – a song of deliverance for her sweet baby brother.
After this, we lose track of Miriam for many, many years. It will be later, during the time of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, that Miriam will once again sing a song of deliverance. In Exodus 15, she is there when Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea and the people walk through the waters to safety, free from the persecutions and oppression by the Egyptians. She is their prophet, a woman who listens, who has a strength that lifts the people in their times of struggle. And she sings a song: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” Her timbrel with its streamers can be seen over the heads of the people as she leads the way, singing a song of deliverance.
Once again, more years pass. Miriam is now 90. Moses is still that younger brother that she has always looked out for. But here now is a problem. In Numbers 12: 1-10, 15, 16, Miriam is criticizing her brother’s divorce of his wife Zipporah because he is marrying another woman. She is going to have a little chat with her brother.
But first let’s look at the backstory to about Moses’ wife, Zipporah. One of the first things that happens to Moses, after the bulrush event and his growing up, in Exodus 2 is that he witnesses an Egyptian killing a Hebrew, and he is so incensed, that he kills the Egyptian. Moses runs for his life because Pharaoh is out to kill him. He winds up by a well in Midian, and as luck has it, there are seven sisters at the well, who he helps, and they invite him home. Their father is the Priest of Midian and wouldn’t you know it, the father offers a daughter to Moses as a wife. That woman is Zipporah. Zipporah in essence saves his life as he flees from Pharaoh. Fast forward two chapters to Exodus 4, and in a bizarre twist, this time it is now God who is trying to kill Moses. And we then read in Exodus 4:24, 25: “On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met Moses and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So, God let him alone.”
Two times, Zipporah saves Moses’ life. How can Moses so easily dismiss this woman? This is why Miriam wants to have a chat with her brother. She sings a song of courage as she walks to his tent. She finds him. Aaron, always the quiet brother, is by her side. And she argues with Moses. You can’t pick up a new wife, when you throw away the first so cruelly. It’s wrong. And God now picks up the refrain and says to her, ‘It’s wrong’. We read, “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.” ‘It’s wrong’, says God to question Moses because he has looked upon me. When you criticize him, you criticize me. God strikes Miriam with leprosy and she is kicked out of the community for seven days. Don’t criticize the leader.
“Don’t criticize the leader” is the lesson passed on down through the centuries, and has become a systemic part of our culture, of our lived experience. Don’t rock the boat. And yet, we ask, what did Miriam do that was so wrong?
Dr. Jane Philpott is the Federal Member of Parliament for our political riding. In an interview in the May 2019 issue of MacLean’s Magazine, she is interviewed about her recent exit from the Cabinet and the Liberal caucus over the SNC-Lavalin scandal that was quite a controversy in Canada. SNC-Lavalin is an engineering and construction firm that has contracts all around the world. In 2015, the RCMP charged SNC-Lavalin with corruption and fraud in relation with their business dealings in Libya. The Attorney-General, a woman, Jody Wilson-Raybould, refused to give in to pressure from the Prime Minister’s office to intervene in the criminal case. The Attorney-General resigned.
Jane Philpott, also a senior cabinet member, also resigned, saying that “people that rise to the levels of senior positions should be expected to hold the independence of the justice system with such solemn regard that stepping anywhere close to crossing the line, to potentially interfere with a criminal trial, should just be something that is absolutely not done, not contemplated, not experimented with.” In other words, she was saying, ‘It’s wrong’. She criticized the leader. While she wasn’t sent to a camp for seven days and stricken with leprosy, she was kicked out of the inner circle of power, and kicked out of the Liberal Party.
Miriam was kicked out of the camp for seven days. Her hands, though white with leprosy, still had the will and the fire to pick up her tambourine to sing a song of resilience which was heard throughout the camp.
And now the people pick up the phrase, ‘It’s wrong’. ‘It’s wrong’ they tell Moses and God, to kick Miriam out of the camp, and we’re not moving until she’s back.
In Numbers 20 we hear about Miriam for the last time. “The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.” (Numbers 20:1) It is said that Miriam was 120 years old when she died.
She was buried. Aaron returning to the camp after the burial, looks into his sister’s tent one last time, only to see her tambourine lying on the ground.
And he remembers
her songs of deliverance.
her songs of courage.
her songs of resilience.
He looks at the tambourine lying on the ground
who will pick it up next
to let the song live on?
Thanks be to God. Amen.