I live in a small oasis town in Northern Saudi Arabia. On a clear day, from the roof of my building, I can clearly see the desert, its hilly dunes, and the never-ending sand. Well, I suppose it ends somewhere. This is an open country where you can see for miles and miles, the line of sight never interrupted by buildings or smog.
Like any lover of the Bible would, I spend a lot of time thinking about the Children of Israel and their desert sojourn. I wonder if their desert landscape was like the one that stretches before me, and I marvel that they somehow navigated through sand and more sand. Even now, where I live, we don’t have real addresses and only a few street names. Even with God on your side, this is a hard place.
In today’s reading, the Children of Israel have come to an especially hard place. They have no water, and they are unhappy with the cuisine:
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
They had been in the wilderness for almost 40 years at this point and had still not learned to trust the God who had been providing for them all along. God must have been short on patience, too, because when the people became short with him, he sent some fiery serpents to bite them, and a bunch of them died. If you read it in Hebrew, there’s a cute play on words between serpent and bite. But, I digress. In fact, I think the whole story of the serpents can be a digression for this week. Here’s a more interesting question:
Why, after all this time, had the Israelites run out of water?
Oh, sure, they had run out of water before. But in this parsha, they complained two times. Why the sudden crises? I think that if we look at the longer Parsha Chukat, which covers about 38 years, we will see the answer to our question.
Parsha Chukat begins at Chapter 19, which is all about the Red Heifer. It is a set of instructions regarding purity, and a careful reading will link it to the mikva. It is a sacrifice that effects atonement, just as the mikva changes one’s status from unclean to clean. But the Red Heifer is also about life and death. These are themes we will have to consider as we answer our question about the water.
Chapter 20 begins with two very short statements about Miriam:
- She died.
- She was buried.
Seriously. That is all it says.
The death of Miriam occurred a long time after the instructions on the Red Heifer, but the Torah writer put those two things right together because he wants us to realize that Miriam’s death was also an atoning sacrifice.
So, that’s the first verse of Chapter 20. The last six verses of chapter 20 are about Aaron’s death. Right… One verse for Miriam and six for Aaron. To be fair Aaron was the first high priest, he was a prophet, and Moses’s brother. Tradition holds that Aaron was also a peacemaker, his very presence caused people to refrain from sin, and many marriages were saved on account of Aaron’s wisdom. Surely people would grieve over the loss of a man like Aaron, and rightly so. They wept for Aaron for thirty days.
But, what of Miriam? Well, she was also a prophet, and she was Moses’s older sister, probably the one who saved his life. Oh, and one other little thing, for nearly forty years the Israelites had water because of Miriam.
Many Christian readers will not know the story, but God made a traveling well, in the shape of a beehive, which rolled along with the Israelites on their journey. When the Israelites stopped, the well stopped too and provided them with water.
Through her righteousness, Miriam provided nearly forty years worth of water for the Israelites, but they couldn’t squeeze out even one little tear for her. When Miriam died, they skipped the grieving and went right to the complaining. That is why God sent those red-hot, biting serpents, and if women don’t start getting better treatment today I suspect God might have a few more biting serpents to send down.
It is no longer a secret from even the most sheltered among us that women have endured harassment, inequality, mental and physical abuse, rape, and general disrespect for all of recorded history. And for most of that history women have remained silent, righteous, and the main providers of the water — that is, the nurture, the care, the life energy that keeps this earth, our island home, on its axis and the patriarchy moving dully forward.
Most recently our own Episcopal bishops announced that they, too, are aware of this situation and they have so graciously carved out nearly two whole hours during dinnertime to listen to the stories of women who feel they have been abused. Two hours. Perhaps the mascot for GC 2018 should be a biting serpent. They are treating women the same way the Israelites treated Miriam.
As long as Miriam was providing the water everything was good. When she died, and the water stopped, nobody mourned the loss of her life, they complained because their own needs weren’t getting met anymore. It was never about Miriam as a person, someone whole and complete, a human being. It was just Miriam, the one who meets my needs. Miriam, the one who gives life and demands nothing in return. Miriam, who was never known except for what she could give.
Last week our own bishops asked women to give again. They want to hear stories about abuse, vulnerability, and what for some women are their most shameful moments. In two hours. While having dinner? Because for them it is not about women’s lives, it is only about what women can do for them: They can provide a thin sheen of pastoral care for an oblivious House of Bishops, they might give a good photo opportunity, and help everybody to feel all better. One wonders what the bishops have planned for the rest of the evening, after the women’s two hours are up… desert?
The Israelites got their water. A lot of Israelites died from the serpent bites, but a lot were healed too. Things always do return to an equilibrium. If I were a prophet, though, I think I’d predict that there’s going to be something that feels a lot like fire biting at the conscience of a lot of people before this is all over. After all, we are not off to a very auspicious start.
The bishops have said that they, “…now invite the church to a deeper examination of what God intends for our relationships.” In fairness to the bishops, relationships can be hard to navigate. It’s a little like traversing a desert filled with sand, shifting sand, and more sand. But, really, adult Christians do it every day. We don’t need an invitation. It is not an easy path, but it is the required path. Respecting the dignity of every person is the insurance that we will not use them only for what they can do for us, it’s the thing that forces us to see them as whole and complete human beings.
As the bishops consider what God intends for their relationships — and may God help them — the rest of us should take a look at our relationships too. Because it’s easy enough to see how others might have missed the mark, but not so easy to see our own mistakes.
- Is there anyone you have dismissed, or not treated with the dignity you’d give to a child of God?
- Are there people you think are too conservative/liberal/weird for you to have anything to do with?
- Who are the people you are only willing to listen to if you’re promised desert afterward?
- Who does things for you for no pay/appreciation/recognition… without the benefit of their full humanity?
Oh, I am not innocent. Are you?
On this Sunday, sometimes called Mothering Sunday, when we (at least mentally) return to our home churches, how can we also return to our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being, loving our neighbor as ourselves? It is very simple, the Baptismal Covenant. But, and I’ll risk another simile here, it’s like the ukulele: Easy to play, difficult to master.
You may be like me, pretty good at quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, but not so good at the everyday challenges of living out its nuances. Not to worry. This is Lent. This is the time we step back, see our faults, and try again.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakaka, Saudi Arabia
Some Notes of Possible Interest
We can put aside one story in order to get a better look at something else. We can’t ignore it altogether or pretend that it isn’t there. I am not saying that. I am just saying that for today we will consider the surrounding stories more carefully.
The Jewish world has something like a lectionary. That is, they have certain “readings,” called a parsha, which the rabbis and other teachers treat as a whole. Our lectionary readings for today are part of Parsha Chukat; that is, Bamidbar, or Numbers, 19:1-22:1. In this longer passage, we can see the placement and treatment of Miriam’s and Aaron’s deaths and that they are related to the lack of water. Actually, the Red Heifer is significant here too, but that essay might be much longer so I’ve just considered this one point. The Red Heifer, or the parah adumah, though, is about life and death, purity and impurity. It is one of the four Torah laws that is really hard to explain. We say it is Chukkat.
Rashi said that the death of the righteous effects atonement.
The Mishna has a list of ten things that were created on the first Friday night, or the evening before the first Shabbat. Miriam’s Well is one of those things. Interestingly, it is believed that Miriam’s well still exists and still effects healings. I don’t know where exactly, but I’ve heard about it. Both Rashi and the Ramban write about Miriam’s Well too.
A lot of other interesting things are said to have happened at Miriam’s Well: It is said that it gave water to Ishmael at Beersheba, it is where Isaac’s servant met Rachel, it’s where Moses met Tziporah. Who knows, maybe it is the well at which Jesus met the Samaritan woman. Throughout the Bible, you will find a connection between wells of living water and righteous women.
Statement from the Bishops
Statement on Sexual Harassment, Gender Violence
This is the first time the House of Bishops has met as a body since the #MeToo movement began last fall, bringing to light the reality of sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and the cultural stronghold of gender bias and inequity. We continue our own work of reconciliation within our branch of God’s Church, honoring what we have learned and accomplished, as well as acknowledging the distance we still must travel. Reconciliation is the long work of healing offered by the Spirit, made possible by grace, which requires our truth-telling and repentance.
Many of us have experienced sexual harassment and perhaps sexual violence. Bishops who are women know the “me-too” experience. Some bishops who are men know it as well. We live with different experiences of the cultural endowment of power. We know the Church has fallen short of our responsibility to listen and respond. In this time of heightened awareness it is with greater intention that we now invite the church to a deeper examination of what God intends for our relationships.
This work will take courage. As many women and men bravely come forward to speak the truth of their experience, courageous men and women will listen, where appropriate repent, and take an active role in repairing the brokenness, working to change the culture of our church.
We will offer a listening process in an open meeting at General Convention to hear more fully the stories of those who have been victims of sexual harassment and violence in the church. The date and time is July 4, 5:15 pm to 7:00 pm in the House of Bishops convention meeting space. The design of this process is being developed. Further details will be posted via social media and through Episcopal news outlets.
Together women and men can form partnerships for reconciliation. We seek a more faithful, just and holy life together. We welcome the Spirit’s renewing work among us as we seek faithfully to walk in the way of Jesus.