At WGMC we've been looking at characters from the bible who faced change. We chose this theme partly because this is a time of change for us. The London Mennonite Centre has sold their building where we have held many church activities over many years and which holds many happy memories. We thought we might find stories in the bible that would help us think about how to follow Jesus faithfully in these times of change.
Some weeks back I decided to preach on Miriam – and now I’m regretting that as I’m really not sure what to make of her story! But let’s start with the easy bit, the early chapters of Exodus.
Reading: Ex 1:8- 2:10
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?" The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?" Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."
Let’s think about who are the heroes and villains in this story. Who do you think is the villain?
Who is the hero?
What do you notice about the heroes?
I love the central role the women play. The midwives ignore Pharaoh’s instructions to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. Moses’ mother cleverly follows the letter of the law by throwing Moses into the Nile as Pharaoh commands – but to give him the best possible chance of survival she first puts him in a basket that can float and puts it among the reeds to stop it getting washed away.
Then we meet Moses’ sister. She’s not named but I’m going to assume this sister on the river bank is Miriam. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, Miriam bravely rushes forward. She talks as if Pharaoh’s daughter is going to keep the baby – maybe it’s even Miriam who gives her the idea. Thinking on her feet, Miriam offers to find a Hebrew nurse. She races home to fetch her mum and next thing we know Moses’ mother is not only looking after the child she so nearly lost but is actually being paid to do so. And being paid by the daughter of the man who wanted the baby dead in the first place… What a great way of resisting oppression and injustice!
(As an aside, I’m intrigued by Pharaoh’s daughter too. Surely she knew that her father was having Hebrew boys put to death. She may well have guessed too that her adopted baby’s nurse is not some random Hebrew woman but the child’s own mother. I wonder if this was her own resistance to her father’s cruelty?)
Anyway, we should get back to Miriam…
We meet her next just after the Israelites have escaped from slavery in Egypt and have seen the army that was pursuing them drowned by the sea they themselves had just crossed safely. I guess this may raise some uncomfortable questions for us about the deaths of the Egyptian men and horses, but of course the Israelites hadn’t come across Jesus and his awkward teaching about loving your enemy. Besides, they had just escaped by the skin of their teeth from an army which would probably have slaughtered them if they hadn’t drowned first.
So they were ecstatic and Moses led the people in singing – then Miriam led the women in dancing and singing: Exodus 15:20-21 tells us “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.”
So Miriam is a prophet, an inspiring leader, followed by all the women.
Micah 6:4 underlines this: “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.” The resecue from Egypt is a defining story for the Israelites. And here in Micah the sending of Miriam (and Moses and Aaron) is right up there with the Exodus as a demonstration of how much God loves Israel. It makes me wonder whether there aren’t some other amazing stories of what Miriam did, how she led the people, which have got lost over the centuries as those who wrote the bible focused so much on male leaders and prophets.
But I wonder how things were for Miriam as the weeks and months of wilderness wandering wore on. The bible only really gives us one more glimpse of her and this is where it all gets a bit puzzling. Let’s hear the story.
Reading: Numbers 12:1-16
While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?" And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting." So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, "Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed. When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. Then Aaron said to Moses, "Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother's womb." And Moses cried to the Lord, "O God, please heal her." But the Lord said to Moses, "If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp for seven days, and after that she may be brought in again." So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days; and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again. After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran.
Let’s ask the same questions again. Who are the heroes and villains here?
Well, to me this is a much more puzzling passage.
What is even going on here? What are Miriam and Aaron complaining about? Is Moses wife the same wife (Zipporah) as we’ve already met a couple of times in the book of? Or is it a new wife? Are they angry with Moses’ wife? Or are they angry with Moses? Maybe they don’t think he’s treating her well? It’s often said that Moses’ Cushite wife was probably black. Does this mean Miriam and Aaron are being racist and having a go at her in a very nasty way?
And what do we make of Aaron’s & Miriam’s complaint that God has spoken through them as well as Moses? Are they right to be feeling overlooked and aggrieved? I wonder whether Miriam at least was getting a lower profile than she deserved. Perhaps Moses DID have a habit of squeezing Aaron and Miriam out of the picture. It’s hard to tell. The text is very pro Moses but then it was handed down and written down by a long line of people who had looked to Moses as THE great prophet and leader of his people. And we do know from a story in Exodus that Moses’ father-in-law had to teach him about sharing responsibility as he tended to be a bit of a one-man show. And one of Miriam’s gifts seemed to be precisely NOT being a one-woman show – as she led all the women joined in singing and dancing.
And why did Miriam get punished and Aaron apparently not? It seems unfair and hard to explain. And what do we make of an account of God punishing someone this way, even if she is restored a week later?
Well, I don’t have answers for these questions and it’s hard to be sure how fair the writer is being to Miriam, but I do have a few reflections both on how Miriam dealt with change and how she handled conflict.
The first is that is doesn’t matter how much you have served God in the past – you may even have been well-known and respected for your prophetic ministry or your leadership – you still need to carry on being faithful. Miriam has been bold and faithful in the past but that doesn’t give her permission to switch off now and just do what she wants. Maybe Miriam found it relatively easy to be faithful and obedient in the midst of the challenge and drama of rescue from Egyptian slavery but finds it harder to keeping going weeks or months later. Maybe she was good at dealing with exciting change but less good when times of high drama changed into days of repetitive routine. There are probably moments for us all when with God’s grace we rise to a challenge but often it’s harder once things calm down and the new challenge is being faithful in small things day by day. Perhaps that’s been the experience of the young people and organisers of Junior Apprentice – a real sense of being close to God during that week and a struggle to stay in touch with God in daily life once it was all over.
It’s not just how you start that counts but also how you finish. Of course that applies in visible projects, maybe in school or at work or in church which it’s easy to start with enthusiasm and finish with bitter complaining – or not finish at all! - but I think it counts hour by hour too.
My husband Peter loves playing complicated board games frequently and for hours at a time. I quite like playing short easy board games occasionally… You can probably already see where this is going…
Sometimes, especially if Peter is feeling a bit low, in a surge of love and generosity I offer to play a game with him – but then spend so much of the game sighing and groaning about how difficult it is that the game is ruined for Peter! So I need to learn to finish as well as start…
Or take some other examples. How many of you have just got exam results?
With most exams, once you pass you’ve always passed – if your filing is good you can hang on to the certificate for the rest of your life. If you run you’re only as fit as your last few weeks of training. And I imagine that even the amazing young musicians we have here today are only as skilled as their last few months of practice and performance.
I think the Christian life is more like running or playing an instrument than doing an exam. You can’t just put previous highs of serving God or sensing God’s presence in your pocket – or your filing cabinet – and then feel free to be mean and divisive later in life because you’ve already done the following Jesus bit.
I wonder whether Miriam has also seen her role or her position changing – or at least feels that she’s not being appreciated. And we will probably often face changes in our roles. In both our congregations people come in and out of leadership - Baptist deacons and Mennonite elders step down and return to being ordinary members of the congregation. Or perhaps people who’ve been leaders in other churches or still are leaders at work are part of a church where they have less responsibility or a lower profile. Or perhaps we change role as we move to a new place or change church, school or job, retire or, in this economic climate, lose a job. What could we learn from Miriam?
Well, I have quite a bit of sympathy with Miriam. And I certainly don’t think this passage is telling us not to challenge our leaders or that when we do the leaders should clamp down hard. Notice that it’s not Moses who reproves Miriam and Aaron, it’s God. It’s not up to Moses to squash Miriam and Aaron’s challenge.
But I do think Miriam and Aaron get several things wrong. Let’s have a look.
What do you think they are really bothered about?
What do they say to Moses?
Let’s look more closely at what they do. They talk with each other behind Moses’ back. And when they do speak to Moses they don’t actually say they’re unhappy that they’re not being given enough responsibility or recognition. They go off on a completely different tack, making a complaint related to his wife. I wonder what would have happened if they’d come to Moses individually with their real grievance.
I think there are lessons here for all of us about disagreements and disappointments and conflict – in the church and elsewhere.
The Israelites were facing a lot of change. It was a tough time for the whole people and for the leaders. This was bound to bring strains in relationships.
How Miriam and Aaron deal with this is unhelpful in at least three ways. Firstly, they talk to each other before they talk to Moses. They feed each other’s grievance. The Mennonite congregation has for many years tried to follow the pattern for dealing with disagreements which Jesus talks about in Matthew 18. Verse 15 says “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It’s hard to stick to that but it’s an important principle. Instead Miriam and Aaron decided to have a good moan behind Moses’ back.
The second unhelpful thing is what they say to Moses. They don’t mention the thing they are really unhappy about - unless perhaps they’re complaining that Moses’ wife is taking some of their role.
And the third thing is that they turn the focus on Moses and attack him rather than talk about what they are finding hard and what they want to happen. They’re annoyed with him so they look around for an excuse to have a go at him. (Now that’s a temptation I recognise…)
So instead of going to Moses individually and saying “I’m unhappy at losing my role and not being properly appreciated, and I would like us to find a way of dealing with that”, they talk behind his back, go to him with a different issue and then make it all about Moses: “you are getting things wrong, you are at fault”.
These are real temptations at the best of times but I think it’s particularly easy to fall into these traps when there is lots of change around us or when our role is changing, particularly when we are feeling more on the fringes than we used to.
Reflecting on our two congregations, I think there is change for both, now and ahead of us. As Mennonites we are working out life without the London Mennonite Centre building and with a less close relationship with the Centre. Maybe we feel a bit like Miriam. As Baptists you face change now as you continue to open yourselves and your premises as widely as you can to the community and more change in the future when you appoint a minister.
So in spite of my many unanswered questions I hope we can learn from Miriam and her story. Miriam was brave and creative in a crisis. She undermined Pharaoh’s cruelty by setting up a subversive childcare arrangement for her brother. She thanked God wholeheartedly, caught the spirit of a whole community and inspired them in worship. And she made some mistakes in the way she tackled conflict at a time of change and disappointment. Maybe we can commit ourselves again to the pattern of Matthew 18, aiming to talk privately with someone we have a difficulty with – including our leaders - with them not about them behind their back and to being honest about our struggles, not just finding an excuse to attack other people. In doing that we may find that we are learning both from Miriam and from Jesus.