Moses, Miriam, and the Institutionalization of Leadership

Parashat Beha’alotekha  Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

Presented on June 2001

History is written by the victors, and in case we don’t know who the victors are here, the text in this parasha gives us a clear editorial clue: Ch. 12 vs. 3ff – Moses is the meekest man on earth and God clarifies to Miriam and Aaron (his sister and brother who also played pivotal roles leading up to and during the exodus from Egypt) that He only speaks to Moses mouth to mouth.

If the Book of Leviticus focuses on laws of behavior, the book of Numbers focuses on establishing social organization and structure, and especially leadership structure

This parasha is part of the larger project describing the shift from what anthropologist Mary Douglas calls the group structure of slave society to grid structure (institutionalized, hierarchically organized, emphasis on rules rather than informal mutual aid). Slave cultures – and here we can think of the African diasporas in North and South America as good examples – tend to be characterized by charismatic rather than institutionalized leadership (they are not allowed to have the structures that enforce institutionalized leadership), by bonds of affinity rather than bonds of bureaucracy or status, and by matrilineal family structures (because there is no property to pass on to children so no interest in patrilineal structure, and because fathers typically have no rights over their children in slave cultures, and often are sent off or sold to other masters), and often by strong brother-sister bonds rather than husband-wife bonds. This is connected to the matrilineal and matrifocal social organization – in which the most significant family bonds are via the mother thus brother and sister – children of the same mother – supersede husband and wife (where there is little meaning to that relationship because no property, no paternal rights in children, etc.).

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