The transition from group to grid social structure is complicated. The process includes these elements:
- Levites (priests) are taken from among bnei Yisrael (the people or children of Israel) and dramatic initiation ceremony of shaving all their flesh and bathing and washing clothes, and sacrifice, and the gathering of the children of Israel (all of them maybe even) lay hands on the Levites. Numbers 8:14 –“ and you shall separate the Levites from among the bnei Israel and the Levites shall be mine.” After the initiation they conduct the service in the Tent of Meeting, under the leadership of Aaron. In this process the Levites replace the traditional decentralized family style of religious leadership in which the ones who “open the womb” (a matrilineal measure) were the rituals leaders into a centralized form of ritual leadership under the auspices of Moses’s brother.
- We then read the names of the ones who are “over” – the leaders of – each tribe. This follows a theme begun in the first parasha of the Book of Numbers – the theme of appointing princes from among each tribe.
- God tells Moses to gather seventy elders who share some of the spirit of the Lord and become Moses’s government. Together with identifying the official leaders of each tribe, this move centralizes power by incorporating (co-opting?) and / or excluding other leaders in the community.
For Moses (or for the redactors of the Bible) Miriam presents a key complication in the transition from group to grid society. Miriam (whose name includes the Hebrew word for sea “yam”) is associated with water and is both a prophet and a leader. She had the wits and the courage to save the baby Moses by setting up Pharaoh’s daughter to rescue him from the Nile (Ex. 2:4 and 7). She leads the celebration when crossing the Red Sea (Ex. 15:20). And, in Numbers 20:1 we read that she died and “there was no water for the congregation” – suggesting that her presence in some way was responsible for the single most important resource needed for survival in the wilderness.
In our parasha “problem” of Miriam is dealt with in a politically sophisticated and savvy way.
We learn that Miriam and Aaron complain that Moses had taken a Cushite (usually translated as Ethiopian) wife. This passage tends nowadays to be read anachronistically in terms of contemporary racial attitudes – that Aaron and Miriam objected to the race of Moshe’s wife. But there is no reason to think this was relevant back then. I would argue that what they don’t like – and perhaps esp. Miriam doesn’t like – is his taking a wife at all. And indeed, they say “Has the Lord spoken only with Moses and no to us?”
Then comes the interesting part: God punishes Miriam by afflicting her with “leprosy” (some sort of skin condition) but not Aaron. Why? The answer, I believe, is that in this cosmic showdown over leadership, Aaron is useful to Moshe in that he has been incorporated into the new style of institutionalized hierarchical leadership – the Levites work under Aaron. Miriam, however, is superfluous, and perhaps even bothersome, to the new style of “grid” leadership. She is a woman, she is a charismatic leader, perhaps associated with nature worship of some sort.
And at least in part her claim to leadership is in the old “slave culture” style of matrilineality – the brother – sister bond she has with Moshe. So what happens here. Miriam and Aaron complain that Moses has taken a wife (let’s forget about her identity as Cushite for this discussion). The husband-wife relationship is replacing the brother-sister one as primary.
Now, let’s look at the nature of Miriam’s punishment. My argument is that Moses, Moses’s followers, and/or the victors who construct the text and tell their version of history — basically wants to get rid of her. But – and here I am reminded of the dilemma of the Israeli govt. in dealing with leaders of terrorist organizations – and esp. religious leaders. If you kill them they become martyrs and their popularity often grows even larger. Much more effective is to neutralize or undermine them. And that is exactly what happens to Miriam. Her punishment demotes her – makes her unclean in front of the community. The substance of her punishment – white stuff on her skin, is the inverse of the purification of the Levites (whose hair is shaved off).
In the text, Moses “saves” Miriam from God’s wrath – He prays to God to heal her and God listens to him. This is a great tactic for a leader trying to gain the loyalty of his competitor’s followers. The community remains faithful to Miriam – they don’t continue the journey until she is “brought in” (note the passive language) to the camp. But they see her humiliated by God and saved only by the mercy and power of Moses. In this final scene her ritual leadership – leadership grounded in personal charisma and the brother-sister bond, is firmly replaced by male only institutionalized leadership.