Why was Miriam punished for speaking out?

Source: Unsplash/Milan Popovic

Miriam was a skilled, female prophet who did not receive fair credit. Are we really supposed to believe that she should have kept silent and taken it in stride?

After all, nothing in this woman’s background is commensurate with timidity. In the Old Testament, Miriam is faithful and fearless, equally as courageous of a leader as she is full of compassion. She saves her baby brother Moses’ life. She stands beside him as they grow up together and he becomes the great liberator of the Hebrew people from Egypt. Miriam is one of few women prophets identified in scripture. She is a worship leader, striking up her tambourine and leading a triumphant song of praise after the Egyptians’ watery demise in the Red Sea. She is indispensable to Moses and Aaron as they tirelessly shepherd the Israelites through the desert, in the hopes that one day, at long last, they will reach the Promise Land.

Miriam is spirited, strong, and not afraid to speak up for herself. And God punishes her for it.

We enter the scene in Numbers 12. Aaron and Miriam have both leveled serious criticism at Moses. Firstly, they take issue with his marriage to a Cushite woman. Whether their concern is because his new wife is not an Israelite or for another reason, the text is unclear. Then they pose a second issue: “Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

The editor’s heading in my Bible clearly presumes Miriam and Aaron’s intentions behind questioning their leader: “Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses.”Though even if jealousy contributed, wasn’t their critique truthful? Wasn’t it, in fact, true that Aaron and Miriam were called to lead alongside Moses?

Why, even in the previous chapter of Numbers, Moses himself rebukes Joshua for attempting to stop others from exercising leadership! He demands, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Here Moses seems rather favorable of the team approach!

Whereas God, on the other hand, was very unhappy with Miriam and Aaron’s line of questioning. He calls them forth and harshly rebukes them, reminding them of Moses’ favored status and that other prophets only speak to God indirectly through visions and dreams. “Not so with my servant Moses…,” says God, “with him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.” Therefore, God admonishes that they should not have spoken against Moses!

What comes next truly baffles me. Both Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses, but only Miriam is penalized! At God’s hand, she is stricken with leprosy. Furthermore, she is forced to quarantine outside of their camp for seven days. Of Miriam’s predicament, pastor and professor Lynn Japinga writes, “This ‘time-out’ may seem innocuous, but imagine a woman living alone outside the camp without shelter or protection from predators or the elements.” I suppose it is a small comfort that the Israelites wait for Miriam’s isolation period to end. Miriam is welcomed back into the camp and continues along with her people on their journey. Picking up right where she left off, she remains their leader. Nevertheless, as Japinga notes, during Miriam’s seven days of quarantine, it is unclear as to whether she even had access to food or water!

Honestly, this is a cringeworthy passage to read through in its entirety. From Moses’ pitiful begging, “Oh God, please heal her!” To Aaron’s disquieting appeal that she would not be, “like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.” How as a person of faith—as a woman of faith—am I supposed with reconcile with the divine punishment for Miriam’s choice to speak? Even if her intentions were less than noble, still Aaron ostensibly would share the blame—and despite his guilt-wracked conscience, he walks away without a blemish!

In her study on this biblical story, Japinga poses a question for reflection to her readers: “Had you been Miriam, what would you have said to God when you were struck with leprosy?” Besides a few choice expletives, my initial response to God would have been disbelief. Had I been Miriam, I would have wondered why I was being punished for speaking out and for holding those in power to a high standard. Moses may be called to a high prophetic station, but is he not also a flawed and finite human being, prone to mistakes and in need of accountability, just like everyone else?

To play the devil’s advocate, one could well argue that Miriam and Aaron mishandled their approach. They publicly questioned their leader in front of others rather than privately approach Moses. Even if the content of their criticism was correct, their means to that end was rash and misguided. Did they honestly think that God wouldn’t overhear them?

Of course, discerning how and when to speak up is always complicated. Even if Miriam was in the right, clearly she was part of a system that wasn’t ready for change. Sadly, as a result, she was punished and put in her place. But isn’t it possible that incremental changes happened behind the scenes? Perhaps Miriam’s voice helped pave the way for other spiritual leaders to step up—and other female prophets to be called in later generations. At the very least, Moses and Aaron must have been inwardly changed after witnessing Miriam’s courage to speak and her grace in accepting the consequences for her actions.

There have been plenty of points in my life when I’ve failed to speak up against wrongdoing, or to advocate for myself or for others—regarding small things but also big things as well. Then, there have been times when I’ve raised concerns about something I thought was wrong and suffered the consequences. Whether those consequences were warranted or not, I’ve certainly indulged in that torturous exercise of replaying scenarios over and over in my head, wondering what I might have done or said differently, wondering whether my actions had, in the end, made any difference at all. All in all, I think I have a pretty good idea what Miriam’s inner dialogue was for those seven long, lonely days quarantined outside of camp…

As a female pastor, I grieve with Miriam. Her is a story that shows how women leaders throughout history have been silenced. Even after spending considerable time with this story, I still don’t understand why she was punished for speaking out. Regardless, I celebrate her courage and strength as an example to model. Even if female leaders speak up today and get shut down, maybe the door cracks open a little wider for tomorrow’s possibilities. Incremental changes add up. One voice makes space for other voices. We can lean on the saints who have come before us to show us how to speak up for ourselves and others—and also to learn how the Church can do better at listening to stories of exclusion.

Miriam’s story gives me hope. She reminds me how far the Church has come already.   

Enduring Grace, Imperfect Community

Source: Unsplash/Hannah Busing

Each Wednesday morning, I make a piping mug of tea, click a Zoom link, and am soon heartened by the panel of sleepy, smiling female faces checkered across my computer screen. Our Women’s Bible study has gathered early and faithfully throughout the pandemic. They graciously invited me to lead them on a journey through the Old Testament, specifically, to examine stories of biblical women. We started in Genesis, continued sequentially, and recently concluded with the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Together, we encountered the tragic pain, tender love, and resilient faith of the brave women of the bible.

We laughed with Sarah. We encountered God in the desert with Hagar. The collective courage of the daughters of Zelophehad empowered us. The appalling fate of the Levite’s concubine horrified us. The swift courage of Jael and her silent tent peg shocked us. We mourned and kept watch in the darkness with Rizpah. We discovered a model of resistance in Vashti and an advocate for justice in Esther.

The female saints of the Bible give voice to the failings of its many patriarchs, not to mention the pervasive brokenness of the whole community of faith. In scripture, God’s people repeatedly exploit the powerless and distort God’s teachings. Women and children are too often oppressed and violated. As our Bible study wrestled with these texts together, we never lost sight of the truth that these stories—however ugly or tragic—are all a part of our story.

Over and against harmful supercessionist interpretations of scripture, the Reformed tradition emphasizes our common kinship with the community of faith in the Old Testament. Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “The church hears the judgments and promises of the Old Testament as God’s Word to them. The idolatries of the Old Testament are snapshots from the church’s family album. Both Israel and the Church struggle to be obedient and faithful; both often fail.” Our journey through the Old Testament this year reminded us how broken the church has been from its beginnings—and how much we utterly depend upon God’s grace to sustain us.

A global pandemic has taught us all a thing or two about the imperfections of our earthly community of God. Our collective experience has dealt us each a sobering reminder of human mortality—and made the institutional church acutely aware of its own fragility. Dispersed and scattered from our buildings last year, we worried how our congregations would survive. Now as we reopen our physical spaces for Sunday worship, church leaders wonder who will return—and what the future holds.

My suspicion is that we, the Church, will probably fail in many ways to meet this watershed moment: that once back in our buildings, many congregations will hastily revert to old patterns of “business as usual.” I think we need to accept now that the Church will not be radically different than it was before the pandemic, at least not overnight. Yet whatever happens next, God’s promise to the Israelites and to us remains the same: I am with you. When the Israelites were in exile, God promised them: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you know perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God promised new possibilities for God’s people. These new possibilities were not contingent upon a perfect record of faithful obedience going forward. God’s people had already established a long track record of screwing things up. God hadn’t forgotten that—and yet God promised them a future with hope anyway!

God made a way for the Israelites through the wilderness and will make a way for us, too. What “way” will God show us forward? That has yet to be seen. The Church has overcome many trials and taken on so many forms over the course of history. Our Reformed tradition relativizes all singular forms of church worship or procedure. The Scots Confession states that no “policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places…” The architects of our early Reformed theology recognized that all earthly church forms are fragile and finite. As we discovered, our pandemic season ushered forth rapid innovation.  The church had to quickly adapt to fit the current context and to become an exclusively virtual community during a time of physical quarantine. What a pivotal moment in our church’s story! Together, we have demonstrated that God’s community on earth is truly capable of faithfully stepping out in hope to meet our future.    

Friends, we must not lose sight of our church’s story: that in all times and places the community of faith has been utterly dependent upon the grace of God. So why shouldn’t we boldly step out in hope for new possibilities now? We can learn much from the brave biblical women who relied on God’s grace to sustain them in troubled times. Now more than ever: let’s welcome the stranger, become fierce advocates for justice, and bear witness to this amazing story of God’s enduring grace for us.

Challenging stories of women in the Bible

Jael and Sisera
Source: Artemisia Gentileschi/Wikimedia Commons

On most Wednesday mornings these days, you’ll find me on Zoom, engaged in deep discussion about one of the many fascinating women in the bible. Our women’s early morning Bible study group has graciously invited me to lead us on a journey through the Old Testament. It is utterly astounding to me that the protagonists who greet us from the pages of scripture have voices, strengths, and struggles that resonate with us so plainly still today—even in these Ancient Near Eastern narratives that have been told for some three thousand years!

I confess, never before have I read through all the stories of women in the Old Testament one after another sequentially.[1] We are presently navigating our way through the books of Joshua and Judges. As we read, we can’t help but take note of one glaring recurring theme: violence.

The Israelites’ first encounter with a woman in the Promised Land is just before the bloody battle of Jericho. Joshua sends two spies into the city for a reconnaissance mission. Rahab, a citizen of the city who works as a prostitute, a notably dangerous profession, hides the Israelites in her home. She puts herself and her family at great personal risk in order to save the lives of two strangers. In the battle of Jericho, Joshua and his army “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city,” including women, children, and livestock (Joshua 6:21). Only Rahab and her family are spared. All their friends and neighbors are slaughtered.

Emerging from this story of ultraviolence, Rahab is remembered for her bravery and public profession of faith in the God of Israel. She goes down in biblical canon as an exemplar of faithfulness. She is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, even appearing in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Another woman extoled for her virtue is Jael, lifted up in song as the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24). The Canaanite army has just been overtaken by the Israelites, with the Canaanite general Sisera on the run. Sisera sought shelter in Jael’s tent. Jael made Sisera comfortable, covering him in a blanket and even giving him milk when he asked for water. Once Sisera fell asleep, Jael “went softly to him” (4:21) and drove a tent peg through his head with a hammer “until it went down into the ground.” When the Israelite general Barak came searching for Sisera, Jael showed him to her tent, where he found Sisera “lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple” (4:22).

Lynn Japinga writes, “The story of Jael confounds stereotypes and assumptions about women in the Bible. She was not a quiet nurturing woman in need of protection and guidance. Instead, she committed a violent act and was praised for it.” As a matter of fact, just before Jael’s act, Deborah, a female prophet and military advisor, predicted that a woman would receive all the glory for Israel’s victory!

These Old Testament stories are immersed in violence. And with a few exceptions, the women generally aren’t the ones with any agency within this culture of violence. In this biblical wartime context, women are raped, murdered, and taken captive as slaves. In Judges 11, Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter as a burnt offering to God for his recent victory in battle. Judges 19 is a horrible tale of a poor woman who is gang raped to death. The woman’s master cuts her body into twelve pieces, subsequently sending them out to the twelve tribes of Israel with the intent purpose to incite a war. As a result, the entire Book of Judges ends with the gruesome slaughter of thousands and the mass abduction of hundreds of young virgin girls.

But then, preluded by this depraved scene of graphic cruelty, we find one of our fondest narratives of biblical women. For just after the bloody conclusion of the Book of Judges, we turn immediately to the beloved story of Ruth and Naomi…

Violence surrounds women in the Old Testament, whether explicitly or implicitly. Women in the Bible have scarce agency over their own lives. Whether it’s a narrative of rape (like that of Tamar or Dinah), or the story of young Achsah being forcibly given away by her father to another man as a prize won in battle, women in the Bible are stripped of their power and choices, brutalized, and forced to do whatever it takes to survive.

Specifically, the Book of Judges is a story of a community collapsing in on itself in a perpetual cycle of sin. Judges like Deborah are appointed to lead and advise, but again and again, the people fall away into moral depravity. God is, at best, a background character, advising and infrequently pouring out God’s Spirit. Though one commentator notes, “In Judges, the occasional outpouring of the Spirit is, itself, diverted and perverted as Israel falls under the weight of its own corruption.”

In her book From Widows to Warriors, Lynn Japinga laments that God often doesn’t explicitly condemn the bad actors.[2] Notably though, at the very end of the Book of Judges, the narrator does. In Judges 21:25 it states: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Japinga writes, “Still, the narrator at least made it clear that this kind of ridiculous violence was no way for a community to live.”

The voices of the women in these biblical stories cry out to me. I feel their pain. Their suffering mirrors the suffering of women throughout history. Through the words on these pages, the women of scripture publicly face their accusers—and we, the readers of scripture, are their witnesses. God’s presence may not always be made apparent in these stories, just as God’s presence sadly isn’t always clear in lived moments of acute trauma.

When we step back and take the Bible into consideration as a whole, we see how God’s faithful presence pervades throughout the whole of the biblical narrative. Though I admit, this may not be a satisfying answer to the problem of God’s absence in certain individual bible stories. I’m reminded these days that scripture isn’t always satisfying; sometimes it’s messy and complicated, often leaving us with more questions than answers.

This is one reason why, in my Presbyterian faith tradition, we don’t worship the Bible. We worship God. So we can lift up these difficult stories of the Bible to God, in the same way we entrust God to carry the burdens of our troubled souls. We ask the Holy Spirit to shed some illuminating light upon these stories, to reveal for us how these stories of human evil might bear witness to the truth of God’s salvation for us.

As women, as persons of all genders, and as survivors of trauma and violence today, may these stories of brave, strong, and faithful women serve for us as God’s Word in a very special way. The world is a fragile, broken place, ever dependent upon the grace of God. Yet the women in these stories demonstrate anything but fragility. These biblical women are fierce warriors; protective mothers, wives, and daughters; intelligent and wise counselors; and courageous saints of the faith. The voices of the women of the Bible rise up and speak to us from generation to generation, reminding us today that we need not be defined by the brokenness of the world around us. By God’s grace, we are so much more.

By God’s grace, we are strong, beautiful, and beloved.

[1] Our Bible study companion book has been Lynn Japina’s From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories from the Old Testament.

[2] Lynn Japinga, From Widows to Warriors: Women’s Stories form the Old Testament (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2020), p. 87.