By Tevyn East, Carnival de Resistance
“So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days; and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again.” Numbers 12: 15
In May of 2012, I entered into an artistic collaboration with Jay Beck, my now husband and partner in producing the Carnival de Resistance. We had established that I would come up to Philadelphia and together we would create works of theater that re-contextualize stories from scripture, based around each of the four elements: Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. Immediately upon landing, we discerned that we would first focus on the voice of water and that I would delve into the story of Miriam, Moses’ sister. Little did I know that this choice would throw me straight into the deep end!
Although not often realized, Moses’ destiny and the destiny of the Hebrew people is birthed in the Nile river in an unlikely alliance between women, both privileged and oppressed, who are ready to defy the cruel mandates of an imperial system. Focusing on Miriam’s experience, within this conspiracy and the unfolding Exodus story, was rich fodder for our water piece. I felt wonder at her euphoric dance and song toward liberation as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-27). This account is immediately followed by a story of healing and promise and bitter water being turned sweet (a curious twist on her name’s meaning, “Bitterness”). However, it shocked my system as I began working through the later part of Miriam’s grievous story. Miriam is struck with leprosy and punitively expelled from the Israelite’s camp for hers and Aaron’s attempt to question their brother, Moses’, absolute authority (Numbers 12: 1-15). After Aaron and the entire camp advocate for her restored relationship within the community, we hear nothing more from Miriam until the report of her death. And the sequence is simple – She died, was buried. there was no water. the people were thirsty and gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:1,2).
I began to take in the reality of Miriam being the priestess of water within the Hebrew scriptures and delighted to learn of a Jewish midrash that suggests a fresh spring followed Miraim through the dessert. This is ritually memorialized in modern Seders that incorporate a cup of Miriam, containing water. I envision that Miriam’s watery and rebellious spirit is guided by the primary Exodus teachings – God hears the cries of those suffering and God’s goodness is miraculously sufficient. That goodness is demonstrated in the wilderness and it leads us to freedom. And when she leaves the scene the ability to trust and live in right relationship with Creation weakens within the whole community, even within Moses. In the immediate verses that follow, Moses is cut off from entering into the promised land because of a lack of reverence and restraint. Miriam’s death in a dry place indicates a building sickness within the social fabric of her community. Also, our collective amnesia around Miriam’s critical role points to a spiritual poverty and “dryness” within our own religious tradition.
I know a delicious love of water, of rivers that teach and oceans that swallow pain. Like all of us, I know the threat of thirst and the relief of water’s cleansing power. So it was no surprise, that as Miriam called me into her mysterious journey, the first step was weeping with waves of emotion. What tremendous grief this woman would wade through, I would wade through, as her story painfully illuminated age old and contemporary patterns of violation. Her body and spirit endured both bondage to gross oppression and restrictive social constructs even among her closest kin and chosen community. But my tears were not simply of sadness, as there was miraculous wisdom born of that endurance. I just knew, that despite the vicious narrative that encircled her, she had a tenacious, full-bodied, contagiously jubilant experience of the Creator’s Love.
In order to digest the account of Miriam’s sickness and exile in the book of Numbers, I looked at how feminist Jewish scholars have metabolized the poisonous message of exclusion within this story. I came across Jill Hamer’s brilliant essay, Priestesses, Bibliomancy and The Annointing of Miriam, which suggests that this seemingly punitive and repressive action may in fact be a disguise for an initiatory rite that brought Miriam into great authority and mystical intimacy with God. Hamer discovers a link between the ritual gestures of bringing a leper back into the community and a priest’s ordination. Both the “re-entry of a cured metzora (leper) back into the holy shrine” and the priestly ordination involves seven days of seclusion, sin offerings, burnt offerings, meal offerings, and an anointing of oil and blood. For the cured metzora this annointing includes the ear, hand and foot. In the Carnival, our Water performance ends with a water blessing which mimics these gestures. As Miriam, I call all to be rehydrated and rehabilitated by a connection with the divine feminine as the dancers encircle and touch each attendee on the head, hand and foot. We imitate the ritual gestures that Miriam might have received, which could be said to impart healing, induction and holy communion all in one.
Hammer’s grief around the suppression of the divine feminine within her tradition combined with her stubborn commitment to uncover the unique gifts of sacred women is a modern example of Miriam’s well emerging and offering me living waters! For deep within me, I am simultaneously thirsty for women’s wisdom and angry at our world’s dismissal of this divine and earthy source of healing! If an aspect of God’s expression is through the divine feminine, we do ourselves and God a dis-service when that is suppressed. I’m not just talking about global patterns of violence against women and girls, but of the suspicion, exasperation or ‘tolerance’ that we give to empowered women within our communities (though we should be sure the two are linked).
I had a long stint in my life where I wondered if my nature (and my body-based art form) had some irreconcilable contrasts with the path of Christian ‘faithfulness’. These insecurities were reinforced, not only by the patriarchal and anti-body narratives within Christendom but also by my southern middle class upbringing that demanded women to be beautiful, but generally unobtrusive. As an emotive, creative, compulsive, stubborn, brazen, sensual and ambitious woman some have said, I’m a lot to “cope with”, a suggestion that there is something wrong with me. In response, my internal conflicts have swung all over the place- from a fear of being “big” (and so getting small) to a fear of not being “worthy”. But eventually, the radical message of the gospels liberated me from the nit-picking and fear mongering of Christendom and helped me focus on the overarching message of Love and reconciliation within the stories. God does not want me to repress and deny parts of myself, but to engage all of myself in the work of redemption and restoration. And thank God, She is empowering me to use my voice, my body, and my imagination to reflect out into the world, the greatest Love that I’ve known. As I enter the Water performance as Miriam, I imagine her singing within her seven days of seclusion. I sing Sheila Chandra’s ballad “Ever So Lonely Without You”, which goes on to says “The ocean refuses no river. Your love is an ocean”.
Finally, Miriam’s story not only taught me about women’s spiritual gifts, historical trials and miraculous endurance, but about the suffering earth that also sustains male domination and imperial might! This point deserves more unpacking at a later date. For let us be sure, like many women of this world, the earth threatens to sustain it no longer.
Miriam’s bold drink helps us raise our voices against the injustices of the world, helps us heal from our broken understandings internalized from the world’s perverse narratives, and helps us celebrate the rush of abundant love that busts through the cracks and breaks the dam!
To learn more about the Carnival de Resistance and their Ceremonial Theater, visit www.carnivalderesistance.com
This is part of an ongoing series on badass women of the bible. If you are interested in contributing a poem, reflection, sermon, art, etc on women in the bible email firstname.lastname@example.org.