I interview Elaine Pagels on her new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the book of Revelation for Religious Dispatches. You can find it here.
In these last and evil days someone needs to be reminded and someone else needs to learn that the word of God about a woman through a woman to women on Women’s Day works for men too, because women are the image of God, not once removed, but in everyway, image-bearers. And it’s a good thing for men who are used to being at the center of the story – even sharing pronouns with God in some preacher’s mouths – to have to think about where they fit into the story and find their place in a woman’s story.
The inability to see some people as fully human, hand-crafted by God, is potentially lethal as we saw once again in the past month. But it is not only white folk (or half-Hispanic folk as it’s mow being said) who willfully ignore the divine image in other people’s bodies. There is enough murder, rape, forced prostitution, and child abuse in the black community to bear witness to our own failings. As we advocate for our Trayvons, let us not forget our Trayvinas, little (and big) black girls who suffer physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of black men and boys, sometimes with the knowledge or willful ignorance or even participation of black women. So let us women and men pray over the theme “If You Mess Up, Then You’d Better Step Up”:
My prayer is Miriam’s prayer, Mother Mary’s prayer – Let it be.
Let it be with your woman-servant according to your word.
With these words
the word of God was formed in the woman of God.
On this day, as on that day,
let your bat-kol, the daughter-voice of God
bring forth your word again. Amen.
There are two hundred and seventy-four shopping days until Christmas. There are forty weeks until Christmas. There are nine months until Christmas. Today, the Good News is that God became incarnate in the Virgin’s womb. This Good News is that God’s concern for the woman-born was manifested in God, Godself, becoming woman-born, for the redemption and liberation of all the woman-born from sin – the sin that we’ve done and the sin that has been done to us – and from death itself. Yeshua HaMeshiach, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Woman, came to seek out and save the lost and to give his life as a ransom for many. In my church we celebrate the announcement of that holy mystery today, with the Feast of the Annunciation.
The Feast of the Annunciation was once so important in Christendom that the date of the year changed then, in the middle of March, for time could no longer be the same once the Holy Spirit wrapped her glory around the Virgin of Nazareth and quickened life in her womb.
The Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary, as we call her in my church, was bat Zion, a daughter of Zion, of the tribe of Judah. But her name wasn’t Mary; it was Miriam. Names in your New Testaments have been translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin, and to German in some cases, and then into English, rendering many familiar and beloved names distantly related to their original forms.
Miriam is the most popular woman’s name in the New Testament because it was the most popular woman’s name in Jewish communities for as much as five hundred years before the time of this Miriam and her son Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth. All of those Marys, all of those Miriams, were named for one woman, the mother of them all although she never married and never gave birth, the prophet Miriam.
One of the things I like best about the prophet Miriam is that when she messed up, she stepped up. Miriam made mistakes, but she was more than her mistakes. She left a good name, a great name and an enduring legacy. Miriam is one of the most important women in the bible. She is mentioned in more books than any other woman. And she is the only woman to have her childhood, adulthood, old age, death and burial recorded in the scriptures.
You may be familiar with the first story about Miriam in the bible. She saved her baby brother Moses so that he could save their people. She saw him safely to the waters of the Nile where he could be rescued and adopted by an Egyptian princess. We don’t know how old she was but she was old enough to negotiate an employment contract for her mother and make sure that Moses was placed in an open adoption so that he would always know who his people were.
And then there is a great space in her story. The bible is full of these spaces, many, disproportionately, in the stories about women. Did Miriam continue her relationship with the Princess? Did she and her mother live in the palace while Moshe was nursing? Why did she never marry? How did she become a prophet? How did she serve God and her people? We do know that at some point in her life she becomes recognized as a woman of God, not Moses’ prophet like Aaron, but a prophet of God in her own right. God spoke to her and through her and she spoke for God in song and verse. The bible’s oldest passages are songs and poems composed by the prophets Miriam and Deborah.
Moses and the Israelites sing Miriam’s song, the Song of the Sea, at the water’s edge. But the people wouldn’t move, they wouldn’t walk through the waters. So Miriam took a small hand-drum – I know your bibles say a tambourine in Ex 15, that’s a translation error, it was a tambourine-shaped drum without the metal pieces – she took a drum in her hand and led the people through the water singing her song. First she sang by herself and danced by herself. Moses was on the side holding his arms in the air. He didn’t lead the people through the water. The prophet Miriam led her people to freedom beginning with the sisters. The women joined Miriam in the Song of the Sea and Dance of Deliverance. Leading her people through the danger water, Miriam was the first Israelite to set foot on the other side.
And when Miriam led her people to the other side of the sea she was at least ninety years old. For Moses was eighty and Aaron was eighty-three when they told Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And Miriam was their older sister, old enough to negotiate on behalf of the baby Moses.
And then one day, Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up. She got sat down. But she didn’t stay down. She got up and moved on. She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and moved on. She messed up. She made a mistake. Yet the sum of her life is so much more than her most infamous mistake. Some of you have made some mistakes.
In our lesson, Miriam has something to say about the state of Moses’ household. She was right in her criticism. Moses wasn’t God’s only prophet; she was God’s prophet too. But she was wrong in talking about Moses and not talking to him. And don’t get it twisted, Moses needed talking to. He had just shown up with a shiny new wife. Black and shiny. A Nubian sister, perhaps blacker than the range of beige, brown and black that made up Israel and the multitude that left slavery on their dime. But perhaps not. Skin color wasn’t an issue in their time. The issue was that Moses just showed up with a new woman having put out his old woman and their children. Polygamy was acceptable to the Israelites, child abandonment was a whole ‘nother issue.
In Exodus 18:2, Moses sent away his first wife Zipporah and their children. Some of you may know the passage in Malachi 2:16 where God says “I hate the sending away,” sometimes and appropriately translated as “divorce.” That’s the same word used here but some translators can’t bring themselves to write that Moses divorced his wife. Yet in Exodus 18:3 his father-in-law Jethro shows up with his wife and their children in an attempt to put the family back together, and Moses hugs his father-in-law and only his father-in-law, asks about his welfare and never says a mumbling word to his family. In fact there are no stories about Moses’ sons in the wilderness, unlike Aaron’s, suggesting that he sent them away again. Some scholars speculate that’s why Moses’ descendants were banned from the priesthood; they weren’t around to be trained with or instead of Aaron’s sons. We don’t hear anything more about Moses and his family business until he shows up in our lesson with a brand new wife.
Miriam was right to want to hold him accountable for his personal conduct. Preachers and prophets don’t get an ethical pass. But she was wrong to talk about him and not to him. Moses messed up and God would deal with him. But today we are telling Miriam’s story. Miriam messed up. She messed up and then she stepped up.
When God called her name, calling her on the carpet, calling her to account, she didn’t shuck and jive, she didn’t duck and dodge, she stepped up. She stepped up and stepped to God, placing herself, her life, her skin, her beautiful face, in the hands of a living God. First God said, all three of you, come here! And she went. She messed up so she stepped up. Then God said to Miriam and Aaron, you two, come a little closer to the Fire. And she stepped up again. She was woman enough to take responsibility for messing up. She stood up on her own two feet in her big girl pants to hear the judgment of the Fire of Sinai. She didn’t make excuses, she didn’t pass the blame or the buck; she stepped up.
She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.
Miriam – and in my reading Aaron – were punished by God with a skin disease. The text doesn’t clearly say Aaron was afflicted but the Hebrew allows for that possibility reading between the lines. Since the biblical disease is never described with the numbness and loss of body parts associated with leprosy in other parts of the world and because houses, clothing and other inanimate objects could be contaminated, most biblical scholars identify this disease as something else. What ever it was, it was disfiguring: flaky patches, oozing sores and peeling skin.
Miriam bore her punishment and never uttered a complaining word. She didn’t know how long she would be afflicted. Yet she didn’t throw Aaron under the bus for going along with her at every turn. But Aaron, her partner in crime, confessed his own part and begged Moses to intercede, and he did. And she was healed instantly, but she still had to bear the consequences of her actions. And it was decided that Miriam had to leave the community and stay in the camp beyond the camp. She was banished to the place were those who were taboo for periods ranging from one day to the rest of their lives were quarantined apart from the rest of the people. And so Miriam went into exile among the last and the least. She no longer stood up front with Moses and Aaron at the Tent of Meeting in front of the congregation. She sat down, exiled, banished.
But she didn’t sit alone. The people sat with her, and get this; they sat down on God and so God waited for her too. Ordinarily, the people followed the leading of God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day, watching over them by night as a pillar of fire by night. But Numbers 12:15 says that the people would not get up and go without their prophet. They knew she was more than her most public mistake.
I always imagine that God picked up the cloud and started out on the next day’s journey… and no one followed. So God waited on Miriam, with her waiting people, waiting on her restoration.
Miriam messed up, she stepped up, sat down and then she got up.
And when Miriam got up, God and the people got up with her. And then they got going. Miriam messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved on past her mistake. She didn’t hang on to it and she didn’t hang around with anyone who wanted to tie her to her past. She went on with her life and her life’s work. And then, one day, she died. In Israelite culture, a person had immortality through their children, specifically through their name passed down to and through their children. But Miriam didn’t have any children. She never married. Yet her name lives on forever.
There was something about Miriam. Sure some people would never allow her or anyone else to forget that one time she messed up big time. Look at Deuteronomy 24:9, Remember what the Holy One your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt.
But that’s not the only was Miriam was remembered, in 1 Chronicles 4:17, another Egyptian princess married into the tribe of Judah and named her newborn baby daughter Miriam. Miriam’s legacy to her people – and to those who were not even her own people – is more than her mistakes.
And then there is God. And when God looked back on Miriam’s life and death, all God saw was her gifts. It was how Miriam conducted herself before and after her mistakes – and I’m sure she made more than one – it was Miriam’s service to God, serving God by serving God’s people that God remembered and testified to in her memory.
Do you remember when God took the witness stand and testified about Miriam? You probably know the verdict:
God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Holy One require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
But a text without a context is a pretext. The Rev. Dr. Dennis Proctor told me that. You see in Micah 6, more than six hundred years after the death of the prophet Miriam, God is being sued by Israel. The bailiff speaks, calling the court to order in Micah 6:1-2:
Hear what the Holy One says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the dispute of the Holy One,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Holy One has a dispute with God’s people,
and God will litigate with Israel.
Then God takes the stand and testifies in verses 3-4:
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
God’s testimony, God’s self-defense was Miriam. The proof of how good God was to Israel was that God sent not just Moses, not just Moses and Aaron, but God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And the mountains and hills, serving as the jury, ruled in God’s favor.
I like to think that it was the memory of Miriam that decided things in God’s favor. Yes Miriam messed up.
She messed up and then she stepped up.
She messed up, stepped up and then she got sat down.
She messed up, stepped up, sat down and then she got up.
She messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. She moved past her mistakes.
God used the prophet Micah to vindicate and validate the prophet Miriam, she was more than the one mistake that some folk wouldn’t let her forget and talked about after her death. And her people began naming their daughters after her so frequently that in the first century her name was the most popular woman’s name among her people.
And one of the daughters of her name, named for the most famous and beloved of Israel’s women prophets elevated her name to a whole new level. Listen now to the geology behind the genealogy in Matthew 1:
A genealogy of Miriam, the daughter of Hannah called Anna:
Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.
Sarah was the mother of Isaac,
And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,
Leah was the mother of Judah,
Tamar was the mother of Perez.
The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab,
Nahshon and Salmon have been lost.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.
Obed’s wife, whose name is unknown, gave birth to Jesse.
The wife of Jesse was the mother of David.
Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,
Naamah the Ammonite, was the mother of Rehoboam.
Maacah was the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa.
Azubah was the mother of Jehoshaphat.
The name of Jehoram’s mother is unknown.
Athaliah was the mother of Ahaziah,
Zibiah of Beersheba was the mother of Joash.
Jecoliah of Jerusalem gave birth to Uzziah,
Jerusha gave birth to Jotham; Ahaz’s mother is unknown.
Abi was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hephzibah was the mother of Manasseh,
Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,
Jedidah was the mother of Josiah.
Zebidah was the mother of Jehoiakim,
Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiachin,
Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.
Then the deportation of Babylon took place.
After the deportation to Babylon
the names of the mothers go unrecorded.
The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David’s mother;
fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation;
and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Miriam, the mother of Christ.
Miriam, the prophet-woman, messed up, stepped up, sat down, got up and then she moved on. When you mess up – when and not if – when you mess up, step up. Take responsibility for your mistakes. Own it. Give it to God. And know that that you may have to pay a price and that you may have to bear the consequences, in public, in your community. You can’t run and you can’t hide. And then take the time that you need to get your life back on track. Don’t run from mistake to mistake. Sit down in the company of folk who know what it is to go through what you’re going through. And if no one sits you down, sit your own self down. But when you sit down then don’t stay down. Get up. And move on. Go forward; go with God. You have no way of knowing how God will use you, your name, your legacy, to change the world.
In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
The recent political discourse in which some politicians are seeking to modify the public square, denying access to birth control, hormone therapy and further restrict access to abortions by imposing their religious values on on society led me to reflect on the ways in which Christian faith informed the Civil Rights Movement. My reflection on the two very different appeals to religion in the public square can be found here.