The priestesses of the Ancient Near East were poets, theologians, prophets, ritual experts, political figures and administrators. They were ritual workers who, like male priests, maintained relationships between humans and deity, between this world and the spirit world. Israelite culture arose out of a milieu where, in spite of the growing inequality between men and women, both men and women served as religious workers.
If there is a priestess in the Torah—Miriam must surely be it. WE know she is a Levite by birth because, when her name first appears, in Exodus 15:20, she is described as “sister of Aaron” the high priest. She dances at the Sea of Reeds with a timbrel, one of the traditional ritual implements of Near Eastern priestesses, and leads women in choral song, another priestess role. Some have even noted that “Miriam haneviah” (Miriam the prophetess), the title of Miriam in Exodus 15, may once have read Miriam haleviah, Miriam the Levite. In Numbers 12, she appears by the high priest’s side.
Numbers 12, the incident of Miriam’s rebellion in the wilderness, is also the Torah’s most ringing condemnation of women as ritual leaders. Yet that narrative allows us to hear “Miriam the priestess” into speech.
In Numbers 12, Moses’ sister Miriam joins with her brother Aaron to complain about Moses’ Cushite wife. The two go on to criticize Moses’ failure to share leadership with his two siblings, “for God has also spoken through us.” God chastises Miriam and Aaron for their assumption that they are equal with Moses. Then God turns Miriam’s skin white and scaly with the disease known as tzara’at—often translated as leprosy, though tzara’at is not leprosy but some sort of spiritual impurity that manifests in a physical condition.
Aaron (who is not punished) pleads with Moses to heal Miriam, and Moses prays for her. God contemptuously ordains that Miriam be shut out of camp for seven days— “If her father had spat in her face, would she not hide her face in shame seven days”? Only after this period of seclusion does Miriam return. After this, we never hear from her again—Miriam dies a few chapters later. The girl who watched over Moses in the Nile and danced at the shore of the Sea of Reeds vanishes into ignominy. No mourning rites are recorded for her.
The rabbis and the later commentators say very little about Miriam’s attempt to claim equal power with Moses. They must feel that she is barking up the wrong tree. As God says in the text, “If there is a prophet of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision or I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is trusted in all my house…” (Numbers 12:7). Miriam cannot hope to equal Moses’ power. Rav Kook, in fact, emphasizes this point by stating that Miriam, by criticizing Moses, criticized the uniqueness and truth of the Torah, Moses’ prophecy (Olat Re’iyah, vol. 1, p.334). Thus the Torah commanded her “sin” be specially remembered (Deut. 24:9). No one is allowed to question the veracity of Moses’ word, and in this story, it is the woman who is specially punished for doing so.
Like other feminist readers, I have always felt the story of Miriam’s expulsion to be a massive power grab on the part of the male Israelite leadership. The tale discredits Miriam, the only woman leader we have seen among many male leaders of the Exodus (Moses, Aaron, Joshua, etc.). Miriam is banned from the camp. Psychologically, this banishment echoes the banishment of women from the priesthood. While women all over the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean serve as priestesses, Israelite women do not do so according to any mainstream text. Though there are a variety of possible priestess candidates—prophetesses; the mysterious ministering women (tzovot) who served at the Tent of Meeting; the medium (ba’alat ov) whom King Saul consults; the women who baked cakes for the Queen of Heaven and wove tapestries for Asherah—none of them appear in a way that allows us to perceive an institution or a lineage. The story of Miriam’s exile establishes the Torah’s limits on women’s spiritual leadership.
The rabbinic interpretations of this narrative focus on Miriam’s attack on Moses regarding his wife. Reading the text against the grain, these interpreters imagine that Miriam challenges Moses because she believes he is neglecting his wife (cf. Rashi on Numbers 12:1). Apparently Moses’ prophecy is so great that he cannot pause in his relations with the Divine in order to have sex. Miriam objects to this, and therefore she speaks ill of Moses. Although the sages credit Miriam with the best of intentions, they shake their heads at her behavior. They imagine that God lovingly chastises a pious woman, because she spreads rumors about her brother’s sex life. Later commentaries to the verses in Numbers dwell on how important it is not to gossip about others.
One Sabbath several years ago I went to synagogue, and the rabbi gave a sermon on Miriam’s punishment. He spoke with a great deal of nuance— pointing out, for example, how difficult it must be for siblings to accept unequal roles in leadership. Yet his sermon basically replicated the party line: Miriam was not equal to Moses in her prophetic gifts, and she was wrong to think that she was. God struck her with the scaly white skin of tzara’at to teach her this lesson.
I was not feeling well that day and was not at all prepared to cope with sitting politely through yet another sermon that did not recognize the neat way Miriam’s legacy was bundled up and discarded through this story. Though I respected the rabbi, I couldn’t bear to listen to the unintended message of exclusion. I unobtrusively left. When I returned to the sanctuary after meditating in an upstairs hallway, the Torah service had begun and the poised, well-spoken bat mitzvah was chanting the lines about Miriam’s punishment and expulsion.
I had absolutely had it. Why had I come to shul—to hear this abuse hurled upon the one female prophet of the Torah? To remember that no one could be equal to Moses, and therefore no one could ever repair the inherent sexism of this document? At that moment, I felt that if this was all the Torah had to offer me, I was through with Torah. But I couldn’t leave for a second time without feeling like a spectacle, and anyway I was feeling too ill to get up. I sat in my seat and prayed to Goddess to help me cope with this painful story. Then—I don’t know what made me do it— I closed my chumash (my copy of the five books of Moses) and opened it again at random. This is a practice known as bibliomancy—divination by choosing a verse from a sacred text at random. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Romans and Greeks have used bibliomancy since earliest times. I used to do it as a child, and in a moment of spiritual desperation I turned to it again.
The pages parted in two places—one where my finger had gone, and another place as well. I looked at both. The first one described the anointing oil used to sanctify the priests and the sacred vessels. The second—the second was really interesting. It was, I first thought, a description of the priestly ordination. A priest was anointing a man on his right ear, right thumb, and right toe with blood and oil. I assumed this man was about to become a priest. But when I looked more closely, I saw that in fact I was reading a description of the ceremony to bring a leper (a metzora, a person with tzara’at) back into the community—the very ceremony Miriam would have undergone in order to re-enter the camp.
I was thunderstruck. The only two rituals in which this threefold anointing ceremony takes place are the ordination of a priest (Leviticus 8), and the re-entry of a cured metzora into the holy shrine after his or her recovery (Leviticus 14). (Neither the king nor the nazirite receives a similar threefold anointing.) The priest is shut inside the sanctuary for seven days, after which he brings a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a meal offering and is anointed with blood and oil. The metzora too is shut up for seven days, brings a sin offering, a burnt offering, and a meal offering, and then is anointed with blood and oil. (The metzora goes through other rituals as well, many of which have resonance with the Yom Kippur rituals of the high priest.) I later learned that Rashi, the medieval scholar who comments on everything, has no comment on this similarity. Neither does Nachmanides. The tradition is silent. And well it should be, for to expose this sameness would be to expose the anointing of Miriam.
We are told in the Bible that after seven days in the wilderness, Miriam was brought back into the camp. The final ritual Miriam would have gone through, after her exclusion from the camp, is virtually identical to the ritual her brother and his sons went through in order to become priests. In terms of ritual, it could just as well be her ordination ceremony. Once the connection is made between Miriam’s re-entry and the ritual of bringing in the metzora, the image of Miriam being anointed arises in the mind. It is inevitable that this image should arise; the very image the text is trying to cover up.
What a sacred text represses must return in a hidden form. If one considers the threefold anointing, the story of Miriam’s punishment becomes a repressed narrative about her ordination as a priestess. Why else does the Bible ordain that a ceremony of priestly ordination be carried out for all those stricken with tzara’at? “In the case of a tzara’at-plague, be very careful to do all that the levitical priests shall tell you… remember what God did to Miriam on the journey as you left Egypt.” (Numbers 24:9). By assigning this ceremony to those stricken with tzara’at, the Torah hints to itself that the story of Miriam’s tzara’at is not a story of sin, arrogance or complaints about a foreign wife, but rather the story of a priestess who had to be silenced. In this respect, Miriam represents all the female leaders whom later Israelite sources suppressed and silenced.
This is what I imagine: Miriam in the wilderness, secluded for seven days. Unlike her male counterparts, who go into the womb-like space of the Tabernacle to be consecrated, Miriam wanders in the open spaces—perhaps on visionquest, perhaps to learn from the strangers and outsiders who dwell at the edge of the camp. On the eighth day Miriam returns. At the door of the tent of meeting, she brings a sin offering, a burnt offering, a meal offering. She is anointed with blood in three places: ear, thumb, toe. She is anointed with oil in the same three places. (In fact, according to the full ritual of the metzora she is also anointed on the head, as a king is.) Who anoints her? Her brother Aaron? The Talmud says that it is God, not Aaron, who acts as the high priest to bring Miriam into the camp (Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 102b). One wonders if this midrash subconsciously recognizes a spiritual equality the text cannot acknowledge.
In a rabbinic midrash on Genesis, which I saw interpreted beautifully by the dancers of the Avodah Dance Ensemble, the shepherdess Rachel suspects her father will not honor his promise to marry her to her beloved Jacob. She gives Jacob signs so that at their wedding, he will know her even though she is veiled. Later, Rachel teaches these signs to her sister Leah, to help Leah masquerade as Rachel. Rachel does this, according to the midrash, so that Leah will not be shamed. These signs are the touching of the ear, thumb, and toe: the same signs used for priestly anointing. The midrash fancifully connects the rituals of the priesthood to the priesthood’s foremother, Leah—and also raises the disquieting notion that these signs were once passed from woman to woman.
The priestly signs themselves seem to imply the ability to listen (the ear), to act (the hand), and to walk the right path (the foot). They are threefold as the stages of life are threefold: youth, maturity, age; maiden, mother, crone. Or perhaps they represent the three realms of the world: the heavens, the great deep, and the earth between. The blood of anointing represents life, while the oil represents sanctity. (The blood is animal, the oil vegetable, comprising the two major forms of life on earth.) While the blood of the biblical ritual came from an animal sacrifice, one wonders if it might hearken back to menstrual blood; the blood of a woman’s life force.
Maybe I’ll always have doubts, but I continue to believe that just as the earliest of the traditions of the ancient Near East had priestesses who served the deity and the people, my tradition did as well. The Torah hints this to us in its undercurrents, in the sediments of its inky letters, in its ritual lists to which no one pays much attention. The priestesses of the Ancient Near East, who were poets, theologians, prophets, ritual experts, political figures and administrators, are part of my history as a woman—and it’s likely that at one time Israelite women filled all these roles as well. In this generation, I look forward to reclaiming their wisdom.
I’ll always be astonished by the results of my bibliomancy. Maybe the Shekhinah does speak, even to me sometimes, even through the Torah that can also be a source of pain. Divination is, after all, a time-honored practice of priestesses. Perhaps a moment of spiritual crisis sometimes elicits help from the universe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. It’s that last piece that is most comforting.
This article originally appeared in Zeek, November 17, 2009.