The Punishment of Myriam: Doubting Siblings or a Questioning Nation?
In today's first reading (Numbers 12.1-13), we are presented with the story of Moses and his siblings, who had doubts. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” Is this narrative a story of doubting siblings, or a nation questioning itself? It's easy to jump to conclusions and assume that jealousy was the root of their behaviour, but perhaps we should take a step back and consider what may have caused their reactions. In this text, I attempt to approach this narrative from different perspectives. Indeed, if you haven't previously viewed this passage as the story of siblings who were envious of their brother's close relationship with God, know that you are not alone. But, if you have always seen it from that angle, let’s take a second look at it.
First, what if we change our viewpoint from the wrongdoings of Moses' siblings and instead consider Moses an Israeli Patriarch whose decision affects the entire nation? Second, if we read the text as a group of people questioning their ancestors' choices, would some individuals question Moses' decision to marry an Ethiopian? Then, for some, wouldn't it be ironic if Moses, who was raised in Egypt, married outside his own tribe, despite his own injunction against intermarriage (as stated in Deuteronomy 7:3)? “Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons”.
While the Bible isn't a linear (chronological) history book, it can depict significant moments (Kairos) in a community's life. The book of Numbers, for instance, doesn't follow a strict chronological order, but instead documents crucial events in the life and history of God's people. It emphasizes the repercussions of the Israelites' lack of faith and disobedience towards God. Its purpose was not just to record past events, but also to reflect on their present impact and how they could affect the future survival of the community.
So, why recounting the events that led them to the promised land, they might not have ignored the decision of one of their indispensable patriarchs – Moses. This is why it might be essential to look at this passage not simply as the dissent of siblings, but as the re-establishment of a patriarch who violated a rule set by himself. Therefore, by stating that God punished Myriam (alone, even though Aaron also criticized his brother), the authors established God’s approval of Moses’ marriage.
Finally, this reinterpretation does not negate the event the text is narrating, as Myriam might represent the entire Israeli’s continuous antagonization of Moses and God. Yet, Moses's outright marriage to an Ethiopian puts his allegiance to his nation in danger and goes against the law not to marry outside the people. The passage, thus, quells any assumption that Moses – raised Egyptian – marrying an Ethiopian could mean that an apple does not fall far away from the tree.