Friday, February 29, 2008

Miriam: Prophetess, Diseased and Well

[Miriam, by E.M. Lilien]

Another reader inquired about Miriam, the prophet and the sister of Moses and Aaron:
hi this is off the point, but I was wondering what your take is on Miriam...have got your book, love it, however, there seems to be a lot missing from the Miriam story, what were prophesies and why was she struck with leprosy or is it albinism when Aaron was not...

The disease in question aside (not that it's not important, but it's not the focus of the EJMMM), the fabulous traditions of Miriam are piquant but minimal. Unfortunately, the brevity of my entry in the EJMMM is a reflection of the limited material to be found on Miriam. Beyond the Bible itself, there are tantalizing yet cursory accounts of her miracles and death, but there is little elaboration on the essential statements. Longer narratives, complex intertextual readings are all but non-existent when it comes to Miriam. Here's the summary of everything I could find:

The Sages claim she had multiple names and titles, including Helah, Azubah, Efrat, Naarah and Puah (Ex. R. 1:21). Through her name "Puah" (One who coos) we learn she was one of the midwives who spared the lives of the Israelite newborn males. She was the third member of the prophetic triumvirate that led the Children of Israel through the Exodus (Micah 6:4). Unlike her brothers Aaron and Moses, nothing miraculous is explicitly credited to Miriam in the Biblical text. She is the unfortunate recipient of a miracle, however; an affliction that turns her “white as snow,” imposed as a divine punishment for attacking her brother’s authority (Num. 12).

Post-Biblically, however, she is associated with a number of miraculous feats. She prophesizes the coming of her brother as the deliverer of the Israelites (Megillah 14a; MdRI 10; Ex. R. 21:13) Through her, God manifest the miracle of the well of Miriam (Ta’anit 9a), a supernatural water source that appeared whenever the Israelites encamped during the forty-year sojourn in the desert. The death of Miriam at the end of the Book of Numbers causes the well to disappear (Rashi's comment on Numbers 20:2). The Sages credit this deprivation with causing the confrontation between Moses and the people at Meribah (Num. 20:2 >).

In one tradition, she is identified as the mother (or grandmother) of Bezalel, the mystical artisan:
Bezalel's wisdom was through Miriam's merit...Miriam received royalty and...wisdom [prophecy]. She produced Bezalel, and [eventually] from her issued David (Shemot Rabbah 48:4. Also see: Ex. R. 1:17).
Her death served as an atonement for the entire generation of the Exodus (PdRK 26:11), she died by the kiss of God (B.B. 17a; Zohar II:151b) and her body remains perfectly preserved to this day. In the afterlife she oversees one of the six palaces in paradise where the righteous souls of women reside (Seder Gan Eden; Zohar III:167a-b).

Practitioners of Hermetic arts believe she was an alchemist, though this may arise from confusing the biblical figure with Maria (Miriam) Hebraea of Greco-Roman times.
That's about it. If someone knows of a traditional source I have overlooked, I will gladly amend this to include the new material. I'd love to see more on this fascinating figure.


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