Moses, Miriam, and the Institutionalization of Leadership

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

Presented on June 2001 at the Newton Centre Minyan, an egalitarian Jewish congregation in Massachusetts

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.).

The transition from group to grid social structure is complicated. The process includes these elements:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.