Sermon: Women Of Hebrew And Christian Scriptures: Miriam

2018 January 14
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons


The story of Miriam, after whom my daughter is named, begins during a terrifying episode in the biblical drama. The Israelites, Miriam’s people, are enslaved in Egypt. The Pharaoh, insecure and cruel, as wealthy men with illegitimate power often are, has decided that every male Israelite baby must be drowned in the Nile river. They are immigrants, after all, from “certain kinds of” countries and the Pharaoh doesn’t know why they let so many of them in to Egypt in the first place.


Miriam is a girl growing up during this time. As I imagine it, she watches with horror as her mother, Yochevet, gives birth to her baby sibling and it’s a boy. We heard in the story what happens: Yochevet hides the baby for as long as she can and then makes what’s described as a “little ark” for him, reminiscent of Noah’s ark. Like Noah, she makes it seaworthy, constructing it well, and sealing the edges of it with pitch.


Miriam witnesses the worst moment of her mother’s life as Yochevet places the baby in the ark, among the reeds of the river, and sets him afloat. Yochevet lets him go. Miriam, however, does not. She watches her baby brother from afar, keeping pace with the basket as it floats down the river. It floats to where the Pharaoh’s daughter happens at that moment to be bathing in the river. The Pharaoh’s daughter sees the basket, finds the crying baby, and immediately puts together what must have happened. This baby is, in some sense, the enemy of her father. But her heart is moved to compassion and love for this baby and she decides to keep him. She names the baby Moshe, or Moses, which means “drawn from the water.”


At this moment, Miriam, who has been watching all this from afar, seizes the opportunity to act. And her action changes the entire course of this epic myth for all time. She approaches the Pharaoh’s daughter (and that, by itself, is remarkable – remember that this is a member of a reviled enslaved underclass basically approaching Ivanka) she approaches the Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to solve a problem for her. Because in those days, there was no baby formula: the only way an infant could survive was to be nursed by a lactating woman. If the Pharaoh’s daughter is going to keep this baby, she needs someone to nurse him. And so Miriam comes up to her and says, “I happen to know someone who could nurse this baby for you.” The Pharaoh’s daughter agrees (not knowing that this is the baby’s sister talking about the baby’s mother) and offers to pay for the service.


Do you get the delicious irony of this? Rather than her baby brother getting killed through the Pharaoh’s decree, Miriam brokers a deal whereby her mother gets paid by the Pharaoh to nurse her own baby. Like it’s some kind of really progressive Scandinavian country. Miriam inverts fate. You can just imagine the scene as Miriam races home and says, “Mom, you’re not going to believe what just happened.”


The implications for the rest of the story are profound. Because of this deal, brokered by Miriam, Moses grows up with a dual identity. He is raised in the Pharaoh’s palace, absorbs that culture, learns the language of power, and presumably speaks Egyptian. But because of Miriam, he also is able to learn the spirituality and language and culture of his own people, literally through his mother’s milk and in his mother’s arms. Because of Miriam, Moses lives at the intersection of two worlds, hyphenated and bilingual. He has a unique vantage point from which to see the political landscape, see the injustice against his people, and ultimately lead them to freedom.


For the most part, in Scripture we are not told about the thoughts, feelings, or motivations of the characters. We have only their actions. This story is no exception. We see Miriam’s actions and we – the listeners and readers – are left on our own to reverse engineer them to try to understand the person. In Miriam’s case, it’s clear that she is not content to let fate just carry her baby brother down the river. She’s just a young girl at the time, but she already has a sense of responsibility for how things turn out. “Let go and let God” is not her thing. She is proactive.


At the same time, she has the wisdom to know that she can’t force the result that she wants. This is a kind of wisdom we all can learn from: Miriam understands the power that she has and the power that she doesn’t have. She can’t just pull her brother out of the river herself and she can’t just tell Pharaoh’s daughter to give him back. Instead, she works the system shrewdly, playing the power dynamics in a jujitsu move such that the forces of worldly power unwittingly wind up serving the resistance.


Miriam has, not only great chutzpah, but also a kind of spiritual brilliance to be able to pull this off. Now, of course, she can’t have known who her baby brother would become, but she follows – if you believe in this kind of thing – a kind of holy intuition. She is a conduit for the very same divine or energetic flow that brings that basket right to the Pharaoh’s daughter that morning. She witnesses a convergence of unlikely events, seizes the moment, and catalyzes a miracle. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Miriam is identified in the Torah as a prophet – the only woman so identified.


Years later, after Moses has grown up and become the leader of his people, after the ten plagues, after the Israelites make their dramatic escape, leaving Egypt so fast that they can’t wait for their bread to rise, just grabbing their things and running, after the parting of the Red Sea, and the journey to freedom on the other side, Miriam appears again in the narrative. This time, she appears as the leader of the celebration.


After the Israelites have safely reached the other side of the Red Sea and the waters have closed back in on the Egyptian army, the text says: “And Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron” (Aaron was her other brother) “took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out behind her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to God, for God has triumphed! Horse and its rider God cast into the sea.’”


This may sound overly violent and militaristic to our ears, but remember that she is singing on behalf of a people who have just been liberated from slavery. She is singing, in other words: “The very water that was supposed to claim my brother and our people has instead claimed our oppressors. God has inverted fate.”


So here we have another window into the character of Miriam. Because she is ready to sing this song. She is ready. I don’t think she just makes it up on the spot. I think she’s been writing this song for a long time. I think she’s been writing this song from the day she watched her heartbroken mother put her baby into that basket on the river. She’s been writing the song of her people’s liberation in her heart for as long as she can remember. And she had so much faith, she was so sure that this day would come when she could finally sing her song, that in the midst of the emergency departure from Egypt, when everybody is racing around grabbing whatever’s most precious to them, when there isn’t even enough time to let the breads in their ovens finish rising, Miriam remembers to bring her tambourine.


Miriam knows the power of celebration. In the midst of a military liberation, she brings with her the tools of spiritual liberation. She has seen in her own life how God can do the impossible and so she carries for her people a profound faith.


And so in a sense, we see two Miriams: the bold, proactive Miriam who takes matters into her own hands and bends the world to her will; and the faith-full Miriam who believes so completely and absolutely that God will work miracles that while she and her family are becoming refugees in a time of war, she packs her tambourine. In a sense, she’s the living embodiment of the aphorism, “Work like everything depends on you and pray like everything depends on God.”


This is a great aphorism for our time. It’s the exact cocktail that we need right now – the combination of hard-nosed practical work with reliance on the power of something greater. Unrelenting activism and unrelenting faith. The frequent toggle between the immediate action and the cosmic picture.


This weekend we’re celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and King, of all leaders, was virtuosic in his deployment of this exact combination. In his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech King modeled it perfectly. On one hand, he called for an economic boycott, saying, “Now we are poor people, individually we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? … And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy–what is the other bread? –Wonder Bread.” So King got really specific, really granular, really practical, really jujitsu about how to have impact when you don’t have power.


And at the same time, in the same speech, he preached a profound faith, a profound letting go. This was the last speech he ever gave, and he shared his absolute certainty that his people would get to the promised land. He said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” King was ready: his song was written and his tambourine was packed.


It may seem strange to connect these two stories, but King did it all the time. He often drew parallels between the liberation of the Israelites in Egypt and the struggles of his people. He connected the worldly powers of their time with the worldly powers of his; their God of liberation with his God of liberation. He called for unity among his people saying that Pharaoh’s favorite technique for keeping the slaves enslaved was to keep them fighting amongst themselves. He said, “When the slaves get together that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.” These traditions are timeless and deep. They allow us to draw strength and inspiration from King and all the revolutionaries before him, historic and mythic.


The lesson we take away is that it’s all one oppression and it’s all one liberation. The cycles of history repeat and the strategies of the powerless get passed down like a secret code from generation to generation. There are small-minded rulers with great power and there are those who act with courage and compassion in the face of that power. Sometimes those people are even children. Sometimes the seas will part and the impossible will happen. Communities rise up and the oppressed do not remain oppressed forever.


At our best moments, may Miriam’s chutzpa be our chutzpa. May King’s courage be our courage. And may their boundless faith be our faith. And when things are at their worst, when there is panic and dread and even death all around, may we always remember to bring our tambourine.





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