“O Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Sister Miriam’s Jesus

The Exodus story doesn’t begin with Moses.  It begins with Moses and his sister Miriam.  Moses is a defenseless infant floating in the Nile.  Miriam is a bold young woman, cooking up a plan of redemption.

Baby Moses in this precarious position because Pharaoh is bent on genocide.  This isn’t the Pharaoh who chased the Israelites to the Red Sea.  Different guy; same title.  None of the Pharaohs in Exodus are named.  They’re just Pharaoh.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  “Pharaoh” is a state of mind.  A paranoid state of mind.  A genocidal state of mind. 

First, Pharaoh enslaves his Hebrew subjects and tries to work them to death.  It doesn’t work; so, he orders the Hebrew midwives, Puah and Shiprah, to slay all the baby boys born to Hebrew women.  But these women are crafty.  The Hebrew women are so vigorous, they tell Pharaoh, that by the time the midwife arrives, the baby is delivered and spirited away.

So, Pharaoh orders that every male son born of a Hebrew woman should parish in the life-giving waters of the Nile.  And that’s why little Moses is afloat in his tiny ark, hiding from Pharaoh’s army.

Miriam places baby Moses in the bullrushes where Pharaoh’s daughter bathes.  She can’t be sure that the sight of a cooing infant will melt this woman’s heart; but it’s her only chance of saving her brother.  And it works.  Love at first sight.  Babies can do that to you.

Miriam announces that she knows the perfect wet nurse for the infant.  “Terrific,” says the princess.  So, Moses spends the first years of his tenuous life in the arms of his loving mother.  He’s too young to know it, but he owes his life to sister Miriam.

Like most women, Miriam occupies a spotty place in the biblical record.  There are strong indications that an extensive Miriam tradition once existed, but has been lost (the same is likely true of Aaron).  In the sixth chapter of Micah, Yahweh is remonstrating with Israel. “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery;” the LORD says, “and I sent you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.” It is appropriate that these words appear right before the “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” admonition for which Micah is famous.  That definition of genuine faith is all Miriam.

Miriam’s final appearance in the biblical story is found in the book of Numbers.  Moses has married “a Cushite woman”, a move that, for reasons unstipulated, displeased Miriam and her brother Aaron.  A medieval Jewish midrash suggests that Moses had turned his attention to a sweet young thing after losing interest in his first wife.  Miriam and Aaron thought this was a shabby move and said so.

Yahweh is displeased.  He calls the three siblings to the tent of meeting and reads Aaron and Miriam their rights.  “I speak to all my prophets in dreams and visions,” Yahweh tells the trio, “But with Moses I speak face-to-face (literally, “mouth-to-mouth”) not in riddles.”

For some reason, Aaron escapes punishment while poor Miriam is afflicted with leprosy and forced out of the camp.  It was one thing for a male prophet to question Moses; the crime is far more egregious, the text impliess, when committed by a woman. Miriam may well have been afflicted with leprosy, but how did we come to know what Yahweh said at the tent of meeting?  It is unlikely that Aaron and Miriam reported God’s verdict.  If Moses spilled the beans, he isn’t nearly as humble as Numbers 12 suggests.  I suspect the story was designed to silence poor Miriam. 

In between the bullrushes story and the nasty showdown at the tent of meeting, Miriam gets her best lines.  Standing on the shore of the Red Sea, she snatches up her tambourine and leads the women in an impromptu song of celebration, “Sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

In the version of the story recorded in Exodus, Miriam’s one-verse song is a mere echo of the eighteen-verse song of Moses.  Although the matter is contested, the scholarly consensus is that Miriam’s one-verse exaltation is the original. In fact, the song of Miriam may be the earliest fragment of tradition captured in the entire Hebrew Bible. 

The song of Moses ends with an awkward anachronism.  Yahweh’s act of salvation at the Red Sea is celebrated as a form of terrorism that forces the surrounding nations to lay down their weapons in despair.  God is then praised for bringing his people into the Promised Land and for selecting the temple in Jerusalem as his sanctuary.  That didn’t happen until the days of David and Solomon. 

Miriam’s song points us in a very different direction. Her God is a champion of the oppressed.  Nothing is said of the conquest and dispossession of Canaan.  It’s all about the downfall of empire.  Pharaoh is brought low, and a people as defenseless as Moses floating in the bullrushes is saved.

The song of Moses established a narrative tradition.  You’ll find it in the Book of Joshua.  Yahweh as warrior.  This is the dominant tradition.

But the song of Miriam also established a tradition.  Her exultant phrasing is picked up by Hanna, the mother of Samuel, after Yahweh “opened her womb”.

The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn . . .
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.

Once again, Yahweh is worshipped as the champion of the weak and oppressed. The anti-imperial sentiment is obvious.

If Miriam’s song provided a model for Hannah, Hannah’s song provided inspiration for Miriam (Mary), the mother of Jesus.  Once again, the emphasis is on the exaltation of the humiliated, and the humiliation of the exalted:

The Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

The song of Moses anticipates the conquest of Joshua. The song of Miriam anticipates Jesus, the second Joshua.

Following the lead of Joshua, American white evangelicals have embraced the spirit of Pharaoh.  And this embrace is nowhere more evident than in the imperious ban on women preachers.  In many evangelical churches, women can’t even teach if men are in the room.

This isn’t of academic interest for me.  My wife, Nancy, attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with me in the late 1970s.  The seminary administration kept encouraging Nancy to change her degree program, but she insisted on getting her Master of Divinity.  In this, she had the encouragement of professors like Frank Stagg, Bill Leonard and Glen Stassen, professors making a persuasive case for the ordination of women.  Nancy and I believed their gospel.

Nancy and I accepted a call to a joint pastorate in Medicine Hat, Alberta.  Shortly after we arrived, we were told that the co-pastorate idea had only been floated to lure us back to Canada.  Nancy could preach if she wanted, we were told, but the checks were written in my name alone.  When it came time for new pastors to appear before the denomination’s ordination council, I was told that Nancy wouldn’t be invited. 

Which is why Nancy and I were both ordained in an American Baptist Church.

I wish this was an isolated story.  It is not.  Our personal tragedy played out in countless other lives across North America.  By the time Nancy graduated from Southern Seminary in 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention was already consumed by a bitter civil war.  The conservatives claimed to be fighting for the Bible; but the big concern was the proper place of women in the church.

A number of prominent scholars, most recently Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer, have argued that prolife politics have never really been about abortion.    As Balmer makes clear in “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right,” the evangelical world regarded abortion as a Catholic issue until it provided an effective cudgel for attacking liberal Christians. The real impetus was racial politics; but it was also about the place of women in the church.

The battle for the Bible and the rise of prolife activism coincided with the emergence of second wave feminism.  The first feminist wave was all about reforming besotted husbands and winning the vote for women.  The second wave introduced the word “patriarchy” into the popular vocabulary.  Women wanted equal pay for equal work and access to professions from which they had previously been barred.  Women wanted to dismantle the good-old-boys club that controlled big business, the professional world, the entertainment industry, the academy and American religion.

Evangelicalism was every bit as patriarchal as the rest of America; in fact, it was decidedly more so.  “Radical feminists” were lifting their voices and the all-male leadership of the evangelical establishment was recoiling in holy horror.  We can’t trust women to preach sensible sermons, they said.  God only knows what the ladies might say if they wandered into the pulpit.

But weren’t women created in the divine image just like men?  Yes and no, the late twentieth-century patriarchs replied.  Women are every bit as worthy as men, it is true; but the divine gift of leadership has been reserved for men alone.  God isn’t being arbitrary, the patriarchs insisted.  Men are wired for leadership; women are not.  Women are wired for domestic life; men are not.  Each has a role to play, but those roles are very different.  Different and complementary.  They cooked up a multi-syllabic name for their clever theory: “complementarianism”.

Moses and Miriam certainly thought in divergent ways, and a difference in cognitive wiring may be part of the explanation.  The difference is also a function of life experience. For whatever reason, there was always a bit of Pharaoh in Moses, and, I must add, in the God of Moses.

Women tend to be far more critical of injustice because, like people of color, they have battled bigots all their lives.  Not all women were critical of “the patriarchy”, but the women who felt called to ministry were, even if they didn’t employ that precise phrase.

A direct, unrelenting encounter with gross forms of oppression changes a person. Or a people. The song “O Mary, Don’t you weep,” could only be the product of an enslaved community.  It begins with Mary (Miriam) of Bethany weeping for her dead brother Lazarus.  Then it leaps to the triumph song of Miriam, “Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary, don’t you weep.”  The song breathes the spirit of Mary’s Magnificat.  Dry your tears, Mary, it says, the Lord “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In short, Pharaoh’s army got drownded!

As Kristen Kobes Du Mez documents in chilling detail in her best-selling Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, American evangelicalism has been swimming in theological testosterone for decades now.  The militant, kick-ass mentality reflected in Moses’ song of triumph at the Red Sea is regaining its popularity.  But Du Mez’s earlier book, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (Oxford, 2015), argues that women didn’t start asking hard questions in 1980.  As Ms. Bushnell surveyed the religious scene in the late nineteenth century, she grew increasingly perplexed by masculine morality.

“What puzzled Bushnell”, Du Mez writes, “was that men who purported to follow Christ—the incarnate God who emptied himself and submitted to death on a cross—did so by claiming power over women. As she understood the gospel message, only a sinner would wish ‘to exalt himself and have dominion over others’—and he would do so ‘in exact proportion to the degree of selfishness in his heart.’”

Back in 2013, Rachel Held Evans recounted a conversation she once had with a male Bible study leader. The topic du jour was Joshua and the battle of Jericho. Rachel raised her hand. She wanted to know why God was so intent on slaying every man, woman and child in the city. The teacher shrugged. “Doesn’t that bother you,” she asked. He smiled. “Not if it’s in the Bible,” he said.

“But genocide always bothers me,” Rachel replied, “especially when it’s in the Bible. And I get the idea that maybe it’s supposed to. I get the idea that maybe God created me to be bothered by evil like that, even when it’s said to have been orchestrated by God.”

Rachel wanted to sing Miriam’s song even if that meant challenging Moses theology.

Luke places the Magnificat in the mouth of Miriam-Mary, the mother of Jesus for a good reason.  The elevation of the weak and the humiliation of the oppressor is a distinctly feminine sentiment.  O Mary, don’t you weep!  The Beatitudes of Jesus sing the same song to the same melody.  Like Joshua, his namesake, Jesus could have followed the Moses narrative.  He could have solved his problems by calling down the angel of death.  But he didn’t. Instead, he “emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”

American white evangelicals have been riding the war horse of complementarianism a long time.  It’s been an impressive run, but it’s over.   That horse and that rider are being cast into the sea of forgetfulness.  Pharaoh’s army is drowning.  Beth Moore’s highly publicized departure from the Southern Baptist Convention is a sign of things to come.  For decades, Moore went along with the complementarian orthodoxy: the idea that, though of equal dignity in the eyes of God, men and women have different native gifts and, therefore, different roles to play in the family and the family of God. 

The evangelical worship of Donald Trump gradually forced the scales from her eyes.  “I beg your forgiveness where I was complicit,” she said in a tweet heard around the world. “I could not see it for what it was until 2016. I plead your forgiveness for how I just submitted to it and supported it and taught it.”

Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, isn’t the only work by a Christian woman to set sales records; Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, has also rocked the evangelical establishment.  Complementarianism will survive, of course.  Having chained itself to this anti-gospel proposition, American white evangelicalism isn’t going to back down now.  A captain goes down with the ship.  Or, to stick with our metaphor, the horse. 

But Miriam isn’t just calling us to bask in irony, poetic justice and schadenfreude.  We drop a false gospel to free our hands for the old, old story of Jesus and his love.  Miriam, you’ve been dissed and discarded long enough, sister. You’re finally getting through.  O Mary, don’t you weep!   

2 thoughts on ““O Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Sister Miriam’s Jesus

  1. As usual, my SBTS professor gets it right!! Thank God for the beacon of hope you’ve provided all these years.

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