Approaching the Text as a Feminist Literary Interpreter and a Religious Jew
Like many feminist readers of the Bible, I often come to biblical texts with an awareness of the gap between my feminist values and the text’s worldview. At the same time, like my teacher Ilana Pardes, I find that close readings can reveal anti-patriarchal perspectives, preserved in fragmentary form, which emerge from the text in surprising ways.
As a literary interpreter, I read the Bible as a polyphonous, composite whole, an edited work of literary complexity and artistry, with wordplays and canny symmetries and repetitions that generate new meanings for the attentive reader. As Robert Alter notes in The Art of Biblical Narrative, there are some similarities between a literary reading of the Bible and midrash, insofar as “the makers of Midrash were often exquisitely attuned to small verbal signals of continuity and to significant lexical nuances.” My literary readings sometimes draw on the observations of the classical midrashists, but unlike traditional midrash, I focus less on explaining contradictions in the text than on highlighting the diverse voices and perspectives that the text embodies.
As a religious Jew, I am interested, ultimately, not in living in skepticism and at cross purposes with the central texts of our tradition, but in combining interpretation and imagination to find a reading that can affirm and enrich my religious commitments. As the pioneering feminist Bible interpreter Phyllis Trible put it, “reinterpretation does not mean making the Bible say whatever the reader wants it to say.” Rather, by recognizing the “diversity of Scripture,” the interpreter is able to draw out marginalized voices and generate new readings.
Finally, as a professor of Hebrew literature and a writer myself, I am committed to showing how modern literary sources, especially those written in Hebrew, can serve as a source of modern midrash, helping to forge a connection between the ancient biblical text and the contemporary situation.
These are the reading strategies that I bring to the task of re-encountering the biblical Miriam, beginning with the way she is introduced in the Song of the Sea.
A Miriam Associated with Bitterness and Rebellion
Communally Received Readings
Many of us who grew up in observant households or went to traditional Jewish schools and camps are familiar with the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) from its place in the daily morning service. This portion of the service begins by invoking Moses and the Israelites as the singers of the song and concludes with a series of verses proclaiming God’s kingship, taken from Psalms 22, Ovadiah 1, and Zechariah 14. Nowhere in the liturgy do we acknowledge what follows in the Torah: the role of Miriam and the women, who sang and danced with timbrels (Exodus 15:20–21).
By contrast, my students at the HUC-JIR are most familiar with the Song of the Sea through Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song”:
And the women dancing with their timbrels, Followed Miriam as she sang her song, Sing a song to the One whom we've exalted, Miriam and the women danced and danced the whole night long.
For my students who regularly sing about her, Miriam is a positive, generative, inspiring leader and role model.
Negative Associations with Miriam
While the Song of the Sea creates an opening for a positive view of Miriam, much of the Torah and a certain substratum of rabbinic midrash paint a more negative picture, associating Miriam with bitterness and rebellion.
The Bitterness of Slavery
Unlike the case of Moses, whose name is explicitly explained (Exodus 2:10), the biblical text offers no etymology for Miriam’s name. Commenting on the first mention of her name (Exodus 15:20), the midrash in Pesikta Zutra asks:
ולמה נקרא שמה מרים שבחייה מררו המצרים את חיי אבותינו במצרים
Why is her name called “Miriam”? Because in her lifetime, the Egyptians embittered (Exodus 1:14) the lives of our ancestors in Egypt.
According to this reading, Miriam’s name derives from the root מרר, “to embitter,” specifically referring to the communal bitterness of slavery.
The Bitter Waters
In fact, more proximate textual evidence in the Bible itself connects the name Miriam and the idea of bitterness. Right after the first mention of Miriam’s name and the description of her song, we read about the bitter waters of Marah:
שמות טו:כג וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמָהּ מָרָה.
Exod 15:23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink of the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was named Marah.
In unvocalized Hebrew, as in the Torah scroll, the name Miriam (מרים) and the word marim, “bitter,” are identical. If marim is read as “Miriam,” the final part of the verse can be read, “That is why she [Miriam] is named Bitter.” Both narrative contiguity and wordplay associate Miriam’s name with bitterness.
The Rebellion of the People
An echo of Miriam’s name can also be heard in Nehemiah 9, which summarizes the history of Abraham and family and then of the Exodus story. God performs wonders, splits the sea, and brings the people out of Egypt, but almost immediately thereafter, the people rebel:
נחמיה ט:ו וַיִּתְּנוּ רֹאשׁ לָשׁוּב לְעַבְדֻתָם בְּמִרְיָם.
Neh 9:17 In their defiance, they resolved to return to their slavery.
The term miryam, “their defiance” or “rebellion,” can also be understood as referring to Miriam’s name. According to this reading, וַיִּתְּנוּ-רֹאשׁ , “they resolved” or “they made up their minds,” can be “they appointed a leader.” The text would then mean, “They appointed a leader in Miriam to return to their slavery.”
Through wordplay, Miriam here becomes a rebel who threatens the future of Israel as a people dedicated to God and to Moses as God’s emissary.
The Challenge to Moses
The reading of Miriam as a rebellious threat to Moses’ authority is supported by Numbers 12, where Miriam and Aaron speak about the Cushite woman that Moses took and then challenge Moses’ unique prophetic position. God rebukes them and departs, leaving Miriam stricken with tzara’at, conventionally translated as “leprosy.” After this episode, Miriam never again speaks and is never again spoken to in the Bible. Her voice and visionary role are as if banished from the pages of the text.
Recalling this episode, Deuteronomy 24:9 cautions the people to take special care with regard to the laws of tzara’at and points to Miriam as an object lesson of transgression:
דברים כד:ט זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה' אֱלֹקיךָ לְמִרְיָם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Deut 24:9 Remember what the Eternal your God did to Miriam, by the way as you came forth out of Egypt.
The Rebellion at the Waters of Merivah
When Miriam’s death is reported (Numbers 20:1), it is without ceremony, comment, or lament. Immediately thereafter, we learn that the people have no water to drink. Before striking the rock to bring out water, Moses calls out to the people, שמעו נא המרים, “Listen ye rebels,” using a term for “rebels,” מֹרִים, that is identical to Miriam’s name in the unvocalized text. Once again, a wordplay on “Miriam” strengthens the notion that Miriam is somehow synonymous with Israelite insurrection.
A Fragmented Narrative
These biblical sources on Miriam are not only bitter and derogatory but fragmented and sparse, comprised of slivers of text rather than of developed, fluid narrative units. Miriam’s name does not even appear in the list of Yocheved and Amram’s children recorded in Exodus 6:20.
This fragmented portrait gives rise to the sense that something is missing from Miriam’s legacy. The many subsequent rabbinic midrashim that add details or backstory to Miriam’s prophetic status all reflect the sense that there is more to Miriam’s story than seems to have been preserved in the Torah.
Miriam: A Leadership of her Own
Miriam on Par with Moses and Aaron
This sense is heightened when we consider the vaunted position occupied by Miriam in Micah 6:4, where she is lovingly remembered alongside Moses and Aaron as one of God’s messengers of deliverance:
מיכה ו:ד כִּי הֶעֱלִתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּמִבֵּית עֲבָדִים פְּדִיתִיךָ וָאֶשְׁלַח לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת מֹשֶׁה אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם.
Micah 6:4 For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
Note that this mention of Miriam follows a verse that enacts yet another striking wordplay:
מיכה ו:ב שִׁמְעוּ הָרִים אֶת רִיב ה' וְהָאֵתָנִים מוֹסְדֵי אָרֶץ כִּי רִיב ה' עִם עַמּוֹ וְעִם יִשְׂרָאֵל יִתְוַכָּח.
Micah 6:2 Hear, O mountains, the Eternal’s controversy, and O enduring rocks, the foundations of the earth; for the Eternal has a controversy with the people, and will argue with Israel.
The phrases ‘ריב ה, “the Eternal’s controversy,” and שמעו הרים, “Hear, O mountains,” distinctly recall Moses’ angry call to the people in Numbers 20, שמעו נא המרים, “Listen ye rebels.” But in contrast to Numbers 20, where Miriam is dead and Moses and Aaron face the people alone, in these verses from the prophet Micah, Miriam stands alongside her brothers as an emissary of God’s salvation.
Micah 6:4 calls out for a different portrait of Miriam, which foregrounds not bitterness but triumph, not rebellion but divinely ordained leadership. Where can one turn for such a reading?
Miriam at the Nile
One can begin by highlighting, as so many of our midrashic sources do, the caring and redemptive role played by Moses’ older sister, still unnamed in the text, at the beginning of the Exodus narrative: וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק “and his sister stood herself from afar” (Exodus 2:4). At first, Moses’ sister stands from a concerned distance to see what will happen to her baby brother as he floats down the Nile. When Pharaoh’s daughter draws the baby out of the water, the sister boldly traverses this distance and does the unthinkable: the slave girl dares to speak to the princess and offers to bring her a Hebrew wet nurse.
From the very beginning, Moses’ sister shows a willingness to challenge the social norms and pursue an alternative, redemptive course.
Miriam at the Sea
Note as well how Miriam’s role brackets the Exodus story at its beginning and end. The story begins with Moses’ sister standing by the threatening banks of a river, watching as her baby brother is drawn safely from the water. It ends with Miriam standing by the previously threatening banks of the Re(e)d Sea, watching as the people are drawn safely out of the parted waters, and then singing and dancing in triumph.
Some feminist readers view Miriam’s chorus in Exodus 15:21 as but a faint echo of Moses’ longer song. Miriam’s clipped song renders her a kind of back-up vocalist to Moses’ lead vocals. Others, however, see evidence for identifying the song more closely with Miriam than with Moses. Source critics observe that the identification of the song with Moses was likely secondary, and historians and archaeologists point to evidence of ancient women’s leadership roles, particularly in composing and performing songs of triumph, to suggest that the song may have been ascribed to Miriam before it was transferred to Moses.
Returning to the final form of the text, we can see evidence that Miriam, not Moses, sings for the entire people. Whereas Moses opens his song with אָשִׁירָה, “I shall sing” (Exodus 15:1), Miriam says שִׁירוּ, “sing” (15:21), in the imperative plural, suggesting that she is leading the entire congregation.
Miriam’s name is sometimes understood to mean “Bitter Sea” (mar-yam), evoking both the bitterness associated with Miriam and her connections with water. But given the nature of water as flowing and ever changing, her name might just as well as be associated with the verbal root מור, which means “to change,” “alter,” or “exchange.” Read this way, Miriam’s name might be translated as “Changing Sea” or “Transforming Sea.”
Under Miriam’s aegis, life-threatening waters prove lifesaving. Dangerous speech, like the sister’s address to the princess, propels the narrative of redemption.
Miriam: A Role Model for a New Era
Miriam’s daring speech and song make her a significant foremother for the first modern Hebrew women poets who stood on the threshold of a new Zionist era and a new age for Jewish women’s writing. From the close of the biblical period through the end of nineteenth century, only a handful of women wrote anything at all in the Hebrew language. Lacking immediate female predecessors, the first Hebrew women writers turned to such biblical women poets and prophets as Miriam, and rewrote their stories in relation to their own.
One such pioneering poet was the Russian-born Yocheved Zhelezhniak (1901–1980), who adopted the matronymic penname Yocheved Bat-Miriam, in part to spiritually connect to the biblical Miriam. Bat Miriam entitled her first book, Meraḥok, “From Afar,” after Miriam’s standing “from afar” as she watched her brother float down the Nile (Exodus 2:4), and she wrote several poems that portray Miriam as a foremother for her poetry. In her 1939 poem “Miriam,” for example, Bat Miriam imaginatively resurrects Miriam and then pictures herself joining Miriam in her various biblical exploits:
עמדה מול הסוף והגומא ונשמה כוכבים ומדבר. עין אפיס עגולה ורודמת הציפה כחולה המוזהר
She stood facing the reeds and papyrus and breathed the stars and desert. The eye of Apis, round and slumbering, flooded its glimmered blue.
על החול על אושתו הזוהבת, על חיוך בת מלכים הנלאט, על שיח חרטומים עלי אבן וזמר היכלים המוצעד.
Upon the sand, on its goldening rustle, upon the hidden smile of a princess, upon a dialogue of hieroglyphs on stone and a marched palace song.
מנגד, בדשן הזכר, כשפפון בתאות עולם, אמצה גושן הנדרכת דמיון שבטים מעומעם.
From afar, in the ashes of memory,like a horned viper in everlasting desire,trodden Goshen adopted,a dim imagination of tribes.
—אתך, אתך בסער גופך משתרבב כתוף, אתך במחולך מול להט ריח חולות ואין סוף.
—With you, with you in the storm,your body protruding like a timbrel,with you in your dance facing enchantment,smell of sands and infinity.
—אספר מקנאה ומצורעת, אספר מלינה על עצמי. השבעתיך בנזירותך לא נכנעת, בבדותך הזהורה נא חיי!
—I shall tell, jealous and leprous,I shall tell, complaining, of myself.I adjure you, in your unrelenting seclusion,in your resplendent isolation, do live!
מדה מהלחש מנודנדת במלובן פעמי הגל. גחנה על התינוק כנדר, כצו,
She stood rocked by the spellas by white steps of waves.She leaned over the baby as a vow,as command,
At the beginning of the poem, Bat Miriam depicts the biblical Miriam standing by the banks of the Nile against the backdrop of Egyptian idolatry and iconography. This part of the poem barely contains any verbs of real motion, with the exceptions of the quiet verb נשמה, “breathed,” and the more active word הציפה, “flooded,” the latter suggesting the ways in which water, and by association, Miriam, serve as catalysts for change and deliverance.
In the fourth stanza, the poet crosses the boundaries of time and imagines herself dancing and singing along with the biblical Miriam by the banks of the Re(e)d Sea. And in the fifth stanza, the poet pledges to emulate Miriam even in her behavior in Numbers 12: אספר מקנאה ומצורעת, “I shall tell, jealous and leprous.”
Rethinking Miriam’s Tzara’at
The poet’s attraction to the image of Miriam singing and dancing by the sea is understandable. But what would make her want to emulate or inherit Miriam’s tzara’at? One possible answer to this question is that even as a metzora’at, a leper, Miriam was beloved. While God shows anger toward Miriam for her brazen speech, neither her brothers nor anyone else in the nation will proceed on their desert journey without her (see Numbers 12:15). All this suggests that there was something about Miriam’s leadership and speech that was universally admired and embraced.
Tzara’at as an Acknowledgement of Transformative Prophetic Power
Miriam is not the only person in her family who speaks before God with temerity and as a result is temporarily rendered a leper. When Moses initially refuses God’s command from the burning bush to go back to Egypt, God responds by giving him tzara’at, providing confirmation for the Israelites that Moses is to be heeded as a prophet of God (Exodus 4:1).
שמות ד:ו וַיֹּאמֶר ה' לוֹ עוֹד הָבֵא נָא יָדְךָ בְּחֵיקֶךָ וַיָּבֵא יָדוֹ בְּחֵיקוֹ וַיּוֹצִאָהּ וְהִנֵּה יָדוֹ מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג.
Exodus 4:6 The Eternal said to him, “Put your hand into your bosom.” He put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales!
What, then, if we were to read the story of Miriam’s leprosy not as the silencing and punishment of an embittered, rebellious woman, but as an acknowledgment of her transformative prophetic power? What if this part of Miriam’s story were to be read not as a prelude to her erasure from the narrative, but as part of the ongoing story of her leadership role, alongside that of Moses?
God Etches the Power of Prophecy onto Miriam’s Skin: A Contemporary Midrash
Along these lines, I will offer my own modern midrash on Miriam’s tzara’at and how it might serve not just as a cautionary tale but as a model for women’s spiritual leadership. In presenting this version of the story, I am choosing, like the rabbis of old, to highlight certain verses in the text and downplay or ignore others, while supplying additional detail to round out the portrait.
Before she could utter another word, a dark cloud appeared and rumbled above them like a rebuke. When the cloud lifted, as suddenly as it appeared, the skin on Miriam’s arm was stricken with snow-white scales. In panic and confusion, Aaron banished her from the camp. For days, Miriam sat outside, seething in her exile, her arm a scaly blaze of white fire. Then, late on the seventh day, alone and looking uneasy, Moses appeared. Miriam remained silent, her eyes glaring. Moses looked at her arm and hesitatingly began to speak:
“You know, sister. I never wanted this post. I tried to tell the voice in the burning bush that I was not suited for this. But God insisted and told me to make snakes out of sticks. The voice in the burning bush said, ‘If you want to see My powers as expressed in you, put your hand into your bosom and then pull it out.’ And there it was before me: covered with snowy scales! Don’t you see? God has now spoken to you too from a cloud. Beware of what you ask for, my sister. For God has answered you and etched the power of prophecy onto your skin. Now you too can bear the burden of this people, whom I have neither fathered nor mothered, but nevertheless, carry on my back.”
Miriam looked down at her arm, and behold, the scales were healed. Her arm tingling, she followed her brother back to the camp. Reverently, the people waited as she gathered her things, and took her place at the head of the line.
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June 20, 2016
September 13, 2020
Prof. Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and her M.A. from Princeton University, her MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and her B.A. from Stern College (YU). She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing, and co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History.
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