Parashat Beha’alotekha

Parashat Beha’alotekha
By Barbara Rosenthal Birnbaum

Until I learned the methods and strategies of feminist reading of the Bible, I would avoid rereading narratives such as the one about Miriam at the end of this week’s parashah -Beha’alotekha. This story (Numbers 12) is complex. It engenders many questions. It is fascinating.  But it always made me feel queasy, anxious, and disheartened. Both Miriam and Aaron question the prophetic authority of Moses. But only Miriam gets punished (with a skin disease). Why?

If you were sitting in synagogue, listening to the Torah reading and asking yourself this question, you might refer to one of the commentaries to see if they provide an answer. And they do! Their responses fall into two basic categories:

1. A crime in search of a punishment: It only seems that Aaron isn’t punished. Aaron actually suffers mental anguish and so his punishment is worse than Miriam’s (Plaut). Plaut supplies no evidence for his reading except wishful thinking.

2. A punishment in search of a crime*: Miriam instigates the conversation (Etz Hayim, Hertz). Miriam instigates the conversation for a good reason (Artscroll – The Stone Edition).

Artscroll bases its discussion on Midrash (although it never clearly makes that claim) and so does not provide textual evidence for its reading. Etz Hayim claims to be doing a peshat reading and provides evidence for its conclusion that Miriam instigates the offense. It cites verse 12:2 as its prooftext: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses.” The Hebrew word for spoke is in the feminine singular, va-tedabber (she spoke). Etz Hayim commentary states that the use of the feminine singular, va-tedabber, indicates “that Miriam initiated the rebellion against Moses. This would explain why she alone was punished.”

However, according to Gesenius Hebrew Grammar, it is not unusual to have the verb “agree in gender and number to the first (subject) as being the subject nearest to it.” There are at least 18 cases of this construction in the Bible.** The only possible connection I could fine among all these examples is that the first subject mentioned is the more important person in the narrative, not the instigator of the action.

So, there is no grammatical evidence that Miriam is more culpable than Aaron. And, there is no literary evidence that Aaron is punished. It is startling that so many commentaries get this wrong. It is more than startling – it is outrageous. The commentaries are all reading this story with a bias. My guess is that they want the story to describe a God who is just, a God who metes out punishment based on the crime, not based on the gender of the offender.

I have my own feminist peshat reading of this story. When I do a feminist reading, I am clearly stating my bias in advance. I am reading with the interests of women as my primary goal.

A central concern of Numbers 12 is to hammer in the important message that Moses is God’s prophet par excellance. This point is of major importance because it is Moses who reports God’s words to the people. The story in Numbers 12 establishes the prophetic hierarchy with great dramatic force. And it does it by sacrificing the expendable character – the woman.

We have seen this before. In Genesis, in separate stories, both Abraham (Gen 17) and Sarah (Gen 18) laugh at God’s promise that they will have a son. They both speak their astonishment. Abraham does so prosaically, Sarah does so poetically. There is no real difference in the meaning of their words. But it is Sarah who is admonished for her lack of belief, not Abraham. The point is made. God can do anything. The point is made by sacrificing the expendable character – the woman.

Once I understood that Miriam is the “fall guy” in this story, I can reread Numbers 12 without the queasiness. The first task of a feminist reader is to use his/her power as a reader to read against the grain and uncover the patriarchal assumptions of the narrative. It is amazing what a cure that is for anxiety! I can now stand as Miriam’s ally. She is used by the text and shafted by the commentators but I will not abandon her. I am her witness.

*I first heard this phrase used (in reference Nadav and Avihu) by Dr. Edward L.Greenstein. He taught me how to do a feminist reading of the Bible. He has my deepest gratitude.

** For a list of these examples, e-mail me at barbararosenthalbirnbaum@gmail.com<
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Barbara Rosenthal Birnbaum teaches Bible at AJR.