How Nice to Have an Older Sister Like Miriam

January 25, 2024
German art handpainting on porcelain commonly called by its manufacturer name, KPM. Miriam with her baby brother Moses. From the Linda Hepner Trust.

How nice to have a sister who is older,
taking care of you when you are younger,
helping you stand on her strong broad shoulder,
satisfying pangs of heartache hunger
and parched-heart thirst, as you of younger others
would also do, as Moses always tried.
For Miriam quenched her younger helpless brother’s
thirst, and he for all Jews later who relied
on him, when helping them all parched to reach
the promised Land he sadly did not enter,
a goal by neither ever reached, since each
were then prevented by God, Moses’s mentor.

With such a sister Moses once was blessed:
she made quite sure that Pharaoh’s daughter would
retrieve him when he floated in a chest.
Like all days of creation he looked good
when he was born, and Miriam sang his praise,
a baby doomed to share with crocodiles
the water, though much later he would daze
the people he beguiled with horny rays.

His sister conned the princess with a clever
suggestion that she call a Hebrew mother
to nurse the baby––otherwise he’d never
have grown to be a strong and strapping brother.
The father of a man may be the child,
but sometimes sisters have paternal roles;
for by her brother she was most beguiled,
and was the first to help him reach his goals.

According to the midrash, she was Puah,
who helped the midwife Shifra to deliver
the baby boys whom Pharaoh tried to skewer.
If this is true, she truly was lifegiver
not only to her brother but to boys
whose lives had been endangered by decrees
of Pharaoh, using as a counterpoise
midwifery and nursing expertise
in order to frustrate the Pharaoh’s plot
to kill all Hebrews, first but not the last
of stratagems against them––for a lot
of tragedies are rooted in the past.

Events occurring first in Egypt seem
to be repeated in all generations;
the sort of plots our enemies now scheme
are like the old, with mere minute mutations,
although today our enemies are more
fanatical than Pharaoh, genocidal
like him and as attracted to the gore
of children, having offspring suicidal,
whose belts with bombs eliminate the Jews
in Shabbat parties gathered with their friends ––
for hatred causes people to confuse
what’s wrong with right, means justifying ends.

The sister disappears for eighty years while Moses
grows up, and in a Burning Bush finds God,
then saves the Israelites from bondage and exposes
dry land while stretching out his famous rod.

Once Israelites had crossed the Sea of Reeds
Egyptians followed them, but all were drowned,
not just as punishment for those misdeeds
of Pharaoh on whom God Almighty frowned,
but God’s reversal of the primal process
occurring on the second day when land
was separated from the water. Moses
made water reunite with God-dried land,
with God’s help, to be sure, as people knew
at once since fearing both the Master and
His servant when they saw the bodies strew
the Reed Sea’s shores, unburied by the sand.

At this point we find Miriam joining Moses,
and singing to the Israelites a song
that vividly to all the world exposes
God power to redress a people’s wrong.
Accompanied by drums the women danced,
while Miriam sang: “Now praise the Lord for He
has acted gloriously, His Name enhanced
when horse and rider drowned in depths of sea!”
Of Moses’ song she only sings one verse,
but it is clear for Israelites her phrasing,
which, just as brevity of wit is terse,
was more than musical––it was amazing.

The midrash says that Miriam found a well
that in the wilderness provided water
for all the Israelites.  She cast a spell
on wells as she had done on Pharaoh’s daughter,
persuading her once Moses had been raised
from waters of the Nile he should be nursed
by his own mother.  How that well was praised,
for only it could satisfy the thirst
of Israelites who wandered forty years!
Only from her well could thirst be quenched,
for with her death it seems thirst disappears,
yet both her brothers fell since they were drenched
from waters of the rock that Moses hit
instead of speaking to it — as God had
commanded.  Moses, lacking her, lacked wit,
his temper making God extremely mad,
forbidding him to lead his people to
the Promised Land, because the leader needed
a sister as a captain needs a crew.

If only she’d been there when Moses pleaded
that God forgive him for the fateful shouts
he made when standing by Meribah’s fountain!
Though of her brother she had many doubts,
God might have let him come down from the mountain
and cross the Jordan into Canaan’s land
if Miriam had been standing by his side,
to march with him to Canaan, hand-in-hand:
it didn’t happen — she’d already died.

In Miriam’s copybook there is a blot,
when she with brother Aaron cast aspersions
at Moses’ Cushite wife for being not
a Hebrew. In those days there weren’t conversions
allowing women who weren’t Hebrew to
join Israelites in marriage, with a mikveh
immersion turning gentile into Jew
who loves to sing the words of the Hatikvah.
Most scholars claim that Moses’ wife was born
in Cush, old Ethiopia, a land
where all are black and there’s no one who’ll scorn
this comely color.   Miriam, underhand,
maligned in ways that should have been more subtle
this woman of whom she so disapproved,
eliciting from God a strong rebuttal,
to show how He to anger had been moved.

In Arabic, a word for vulva‘kuss’,

sounds much like ‘kushit’. Moses’ Cushite wife
annoyed his sister, who as sourpuss
with sibling rivalry strafed him strife.
The sexual innuendo we find in
the Cushite word implies that she was rude,
and disrespected Moses’ zeal for yin
or yang, just like the serpent which was shrewd.

Defending Moses, who was very meek,
God said to her: “You mustn’t criticize
with your most inappropriate critique
the only man who’s looked Me in the eyes.
While other prophets see Me through a glass
most darkly, Moses’ vision is quite clear.
He stands alone, no other in his class,
to him there’s nobody who’s even near.
In all My house I find that he alone
is faithful: I will never find another
who’s even close to him unless I clone
from him a man who’s equal to your brother.”

So angry was the Lord that He inflicted
on her a dreadful, leprous, scale disease.
This illness is like death, that’s why He picked it,
and Moses grieved and fell upon his knees.
Then Aaron pled: “Don’t let her be like death,
or like a baby coming from the womb
before it manages to take a breath––
don’t let her body now become her tomb!”

God said to Moses: “If a father spits
into his daughter’s face he feels great shame
for seven days.” Though sometimes He acquits,
He made her suffer seven days of blame.

Two words, yaroq yaraq, denote the spitting,
but one alone can make this point quite clear:
for Aaron why were these two words found fitting
when one alone is all that should appear?
The words recall yeraqraq, which is “green”
when bible texts describe strange scale diseases.
The bible Author seems to be most keen
to show how very cleverly God teases
Aaron when he made the strange suggestion
that Miriam by near-death had been afflicted.
For vultures, birds forbidden for ingestion,
the word is raham.  Miriam is depicted
as such, since raham can denote a womb;
this is the word that Aaron uses when
for her he pleaded, not yet in her tomb.
Yeraqraq means a greenish vulture hen
in Aramaic, bird you may not eat —
and Aaron said her flesh was partly eaten!
The wordplay here is such a mighty feat
all previous bible scholars by it have been beaten:
I’m lucky to have stumbled on the truth
eluding all my studious predecessors
in towers ivoried, with tenure couth,
scholastics, clerics, poets and professors.
The wordplay here is quite beyond fantastic,
and by the readers must be understood —
the consequence of ignorance is drastic!
I really think this exegesis should
persuade all people who would understand
this very witty, complex bible story
to have a dictionary close at hand,
lest traditore they be traddutore.

In case you think, dear reader, I’m hubristic,
allow me here to qualify remarks
I made above about the Hebraistic
scholars who have failed to see the marks
that wordplay makes on bible literature,
aggrandizing myself at their expense.
It isn’t my intention, to be sure,
to cause great bible scholars some offense.
The credit should not go to me, of course;
my predecessors hardly were all dunces.
I emphasize this with the greatest force,
aware indeed of hubris consequences.
The credit should go to the authors of
the bible texts I’m honored to expound;
my exegesis labor of great love
to their great credit only should redound.

For seven days, then, Miriam was expelled.
Since all the people loved her, no one moved
until she was released.  God’s wrath was quelled,
and all the people who had disapproved
of her attack on Moses then forgave
her lapse, because such sibling rivalry
should always be resolved before the grave
makes siblings of all rivalry quite free.

Miriam died just after God had stated
the laws of the red heifer which makes pure
the people who are corpse-contaminated.
She could not die before there was a cure
for those who would take care of her and bury
her body in the Wilderness of Zin––
for Moses’ sister it was surely very
important that her death would cause no sin.
The man who buried her received the ashes
that after touching corpses made him pure,
as Miriam was, despite her soft tongue-lashes,
restored to all her sisterly allure.

Do not interpret Nehemiah nine seventeen
as suggesting Miriam thus wished to lead
the Israelites to Egypt as their queen.
On such interpretations I’m not keen,
as I am surely not on any other
describing her as discontented sibling.
Indispensable to her young brother
she was a queen deserving no such quibbling.
It’s also wrong to praise her as a fem-
inist in the contemporary progressive model.
Strongly such anachronisms I condemn,
the Bible quite unworthy of such twaddle.
Ignore all PC programs when we sing
about this heroine and all the others
who once succeeded, doing their own thing
as human beings, not as sisters, brothers.

As the father of a loving daughter
and brother of two lovely sisters, I
thank them, in peace, unlike Meribah’s water,
leaving Miriam laundered, out to dry,
for quenching my parched soul with love and kindness,
and saving me from Nile hellistic blindness.


Wendy Zierler writes in the torah.com, “Re-Encountering Miriam”:

An echo of Miriam’s name can also be heard in Nehemiah 9, 

which summarizes the history of Abraham and family and then of the Exodus story. 

God performs wonders, splits the sea, and brings the people out of Egypt, 

but almost immediately thereafter, the people rebel:

נחמיה ט:ו וַיִּתְּנוּ רֹאשׁ לָשׁוּב לְעַבְדֻתָם בְּמִרְיָם. Neh 9:17 And they resolved 

to return to their slavery b’miryam, in their defiance.

The term b’miryam, “in their defiance” or “rebellion,”

can also be understood as referring to Miriam’s name. 

According to this reading, וַיִּתְּנוּרֹאשׁ , “they resolved” or “they made up their minds,” 

can be “they appointed a leader.” The text would then mean, 

“They appointed a leader in Miriam to return to their slavery.”

I think that it is far more likely that Neh. 9:17 is alluding to rebellion

of the Israelites in Massah and Meribah,

when they complained to God about their lack of drinking water

after crossing the Reed Sea and singing the Song of the Sea

with Moses and Miriam.

Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored “Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel.” He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.

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