Passover

Miriam blamed Moseh for this. The more she thought about it, the more she was sure:  these plagues were Mosheh’s doing. Her arrogant, fool-hearty brother.

When she sent Aaron after him — when he brought him home — she had been so full of hope. All those years of teaching him to watch for God in the reeds, to watch for God in the unexpected places, and finally Moses had seen. A burning bush. He let himself be deflected from his path. For once in his life, he turned away from his own plans and stopped to notice what God was doing. And Miriam had hoped at last that salvation was on its way: that Moseh would take up the task for which he was born.

But no. He decided to be a wonder-worker instead. Miriam spit the words out as she beat the dead gnats out of cushions.

‘But Miriam, God wants me to do this. It’s what he told me!’
What did he tell you, Mosheh?’

But the trouble was, Mosheh wasn’t sure any more. The story had become all confused — and each person who told it told it a bit more grandly, till neither Miriam nor Mosheh were sure what had really been said.

This much she knew: when God came to Moses in that bush, the bush was not consumed. This was supposed to be about life, not death.  But her timid, fearful, arrogant, infuriating brother had missed the point.   She could just hear his whining: ‘But God, they won’t believe me.  So what if I say you sent me? So what if I say that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent me? Even if I say that you have given me your name — they will not believe me unless you send signs of power.’

So God had relented. Mosheh remembered that bit. God had said, ‘Take up your staff and cast it down,’ and when Mosheh did it became a snake. ‘Reach down, and pick him up by the tail.’ Mosheh did, and the staff was restored. He thought it was a sign of power. A sign of God’s favour.

‘But Mosheh, don’t you see?’ she’d pleaded. ‘If you cast it down, it becomes poisonous; you send out vipers that you cannot control.’
‘But I can stop it, Miriam. See: if I catch the viper’s tail…’
‘You can stop it, but you can’t control it. There’s a difference. Don’t do this Mosheh!’ But he would not listen.

‘Miriam, look: it’s not just the staff!’ Mosheh put his hand in his cloak and took it out again. It was white as snow and cold like ice. The blood drained from Miriam’s face when she saw it. ‘It is a sign of death, Mosheh.  The worst kind of disease.’
‘But look, look!  If it I put it in again, it is healed. God has given me the power to bring sickness or healing.’
‘Don’t do this Mosheh.’ But he would not listen.’

One more time, he tried to persuade her:  ‘Look, Miriam! God said that if the Pharoah wouldn’t believe me after the snake, and wouldn’t believe me after seeing my  hand, I should take water from the Nile and pour it on dry ground, and it would become blood.’
‘And what good does that do, my brother? Shall we convince Pharoah that we worship a monster?’ But he would not listen to her.

And so it had begun. Moses struck the Nile — not just a bit of water he’d poured out, but the whole bloody river — and the fish died and the people suffered, and Moses said it was of God. Then the frogs came — for weeks Miriam had been delighting as the frog-spawn danced in the sunlight. But now, with no fish to eat them, they hatched, and hatched and hatched till the land was overrun.  A plague of frogs, let loose from the rivers only to die in the town. Misery and mess everywhere. ‘Is this God too, brother?’ Miriam asked pointedly, but he insisted it was.

‘Try again, brother. Try telling a story. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob called to you. The God of Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah came to you. God says that he has heard the cries of his people and will set them free. God says that there will be no more slavery and no more oppression.  All we need to do is set out from Egypt, and God will make us free.’ But he would not listen. He claimed the people would not listen. ‘It is not so easy to liberate a people, sister.’ And on that one point they agreed.

Miriam had had her own conversations with God. Conversations about life, not death. Conversations about sacrifice, and not plague. And she had begun to devise a plan.

If she left it to her brother, these plagues would never end. Fish and frogs, gnats and flies, livestock and humans covered in weeping sores.  Death was piling up all around, and even though it was the Egyptians who were dying, they were all being changed. It was time for the plagues to stop.

What they needed was a ritual. What they needed was an end point that would cease the escalation and draw a line under the destruction her brother had let loose. God did not bring plagues — he saved from plague. God did not bring death — he saved from death. Miriam thought of Sarah’s wrath when she realised that Abraham had assumed God wanted Isaac dead, and she remembered the ram that God sent to stop Abraham in his tracks.

‘That’s it!’ Miriam cried, ‘We need a ram!’

Miriam worked out the idea: Our God is a God of life not death. She is so powerful that she has no need of violence. God passes over the violence of this world, and leads her people to freedom.

Miriam laughed and cried and danced as the plan became clear.  Then, she began to prepare for the passover.

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burning gold

Salvation takes risks.

Miriam had learned that the day she built Moseh his very own ark and send him down river, whispering prayers to God. God had favoured her then, and the Princess too: ‘Shall I get you a nursemaid for you? Can we help you raise your new son?’ The princess had arched her brow and looked straight into Miriam’s heart and said, ‘yes: bring him a nursemaid.’

And so it began: the years at the palace. Miriam watched the Pharaoh’s daughters as carefully as she watched the dragonflies. She leaned when to laugh and when to remain silent; when to fuss over them, and when to disappear. Miriam wrapped herself in deference as a cloak, and tossed it off again just as soon as she could.

Once Mosheh grew, Miriam left. She preferred freedom to palaces, and the wild God of the reedbed to the Pharoah’s restraining ways. Her brother might seem to be the princess’ son, but she knew better — and she would make sure he knew better too.

Salvation took risks. So Miriam waited as Mosheh grew.

Finally, the day came. She saw Mosheh walking by the river alone and she ran after him.  It had been years since they’d met this way — and she greeted him with the memories ofchildhood.

‘Look Mosheh! God comes to his people. Look, Mosheh! The reeds burn gold!’

Mosheh spun at her words, caught between delight and confusion. He was never sure how to read her — was she mocking him, or praising him? Inviting him to share her joy, or chastising him for not being there more often? Still he was glad for her. Miriam: mistress of dragonflies, watcher of radiance. Sister and wisdom and friend.

‘And what do you see today, sister? What has God been showing you now?’
‘Come with me.’

This was an old game. She’d lead him through the reed bed, down paths only she knew. She would show him a deer, a fish, a nest of fragile eggs. But today, she surprised him. She hitched her skirts and ran away from the river. Back to the town, down through the streets, further and further from the palace to places he had never seen.

‘Miriam, wait!’ but he could never catch her. She was wild and he was used to comfort. ‘Where are we going, sister?  What have you seen?’

To see our people, she whispered.  To show you our God. But he could not hear.

She ran and ran till the streets were no more. She ran through the wastelands to the very crest of the hill. And there she waited for Mosheh to reach her. For Moseh to see what she saw.

Mosheh had heard of the brick-makers, of course. He knew that it was what his people did. But he had not known what that meant till he stood beside his sister and watched men binding mud with tears; men building bricks with blood.

They stood for a long time watching. The labour, the cruelty, the despair. Hundreds of men being broken; thousands of bricks in the sun.

‘Look, Mosheh. God comes to his people. Look Mosheh. The reeds burn gold.’

dragonfly

Carefully, she picked her way through the reeds. At last she had learned; at last her mother believed she had learned. At last, she was allowed to go down to the river on her own.

What her mother didn’t know was that she had become very good at finding dry land. Where others stayed by the banks, Miriam explored the channels. She’d realised that if you watched where the water was still and where it rippled, where the reeds were bent and where they danced, the paths went well out into the water. There was dry land everywhere, if only you knew where to look. And Miriam had found it.

She pushed her way into a clearing and thanked the deer who had slept there. If she settled right on the edge, she could dip her toes in the water and not be seen. She smoothed her skirts and took the ribbon from her pocket. The ribbon was her most prized possession. Another secret. She had found it one day, caught in the reed bed, lost by a careless princess. It was dyed with azure and woven with gold, and she had never seen anything so beautiful.  But more importantly, the dragonflies loved it. Miriam had learned that if she was very patient and let the bright ribbon trail across her tan skirts, blue would be drawn to blue. The dragonflies would rest on her lap, and she would feel richer than any queen.

Miriam stared at the water and watched them dart back and forth. She loved it here — dragonflies and sunbirds, deer and frogs. She imagined the reed bed was an ark, and all the animals were hers.

The ark. Now there was a troublesome story. She had been told it all her days as a sign of God’s goodness, but she wasn’t sure. If there were to be a great flood, then she liked the thought that God would take time to make sure the animals were safe. But if God sent the flood, then that was another matter all together.

‘What about you, little one? Were you on the ark?’ She whispered to the dragonfly who had at last settled on her skirts. She barely breathed lest she disturb him, but she asked again: ‘did you sit Naamah’s knee, or did you find your own way through the waters?’

For this was her newest theory. Some of the animals were indeed kept safe on the ark. Burrowing creatures, and grazers who were particularly vulnerable to flood. Voles and fox, cats and dogs, deer and milk-yielding goats. But some — like Miriam herself — would have known were the paths were, and ran fast to dry land.  And others — like her dragonfly — could find their own means of escape. God did not need to trap everyone in a boat.  God would let each one find their own way, and the ark was there for those who needed help and safety. 

‘I wish I had an ark for Moseh,’ she thought, and she began plaiting reeds.

‘What are you doing here?’

Raphael watched as the coins fell into Judas’ hand.

Judas bowed to the priest, but there was no response. Judas flinched and looked afraid. Had he really expected more?

Raphael sat in a pile of feathers. They’d been at the temple all morning, and one by one, Raphael had plucked a fair patch of wing. He was angry — at Judas. At the priests. At the crowds as they prepared for the passover. Even at the lambs — poor things — who were everywhere, and causing chaos.

But mostly, he was angry with himself. How had it come to this?

As Raphael tidied the lost feathers into straight rows, seeking comfort. He barely rose his head when Michael appeared.

‘What are you doing here, Raphael?’
‘You saw, didn’t you? He went to the priests. We cannot stop this now.’
Michael looked unperturbed. ‘What made you think we could?’

Raphael scowled at him, and stood to walk away. Michael stopped him, holding his hand on his shoulder.

‘Raphael, what are you doing here?’

‘I tried to stop him. Someone had to! Ever since he saw that Centurion — saw power, and looked there for salvation — I’ve been pleading with him. “Judas, please. This is not who you are. You want Justice. You want Salvation. Stay with us. Jesus is the one you need.” He just kept shaking me off, and told me to go back to Peter.’

Michael laughed, ‘He wasn’t wrong — in that at least.’

Raphael was furious. He was not prepared to concede that Judas was right about anything — after what he’d just done?

Michael spoke again, ‘Just out of curiosity: when did you stop hearing the hissing?’

Raphael looked confused. ‘The hissing? It began when Judas met the Centurion. It lasted for a few days, and then it stopped.’

‘No, Raphael. It never stops.’

Raphael shook his head, trying to dismiss Michael’s words. But he knew he was right. It never stops. So when had he stopped hearing it?

‘What did Judas want, Raphael. Think: why are we here?’

‘Judas wanted his own way. He wanted to be the one to fix everything. He couldn’t bear it that Jesus chose Peter — that he trusted Mary. He couldn’t bear that he was not the one.’

‘And so?’

‘And so: that is why we are here.’

‘No. That is why Judas is here. Why are you here?’

Raphael opened his mouth, but found no words. Before he could speak, the truth hit him.

‘I am like him…’ he whispered, facing more fear than he had ever known.

‘No, you’re not. But finish the thought.’

‘I wanted to be the one. I wanted to stop him.’

‘Yes. But why were you sent?’

‘I was sent to work with Jesus, to learn from him, to befriend Peter.’

‘And Judas — did he seek healing?’

‘No — but he needed it. Someone needed to try. He had to be stopped.’

‘Maybe not.’

Raphael’s anger flared again. ‘Of course he did. Look what he’s done! If you had helped me, maybe we could have stopped him.’

Suddenly, the sound of hissing returned. Raphael heard it swirling around him — there in his blame. He began to sob.

Michael came to him, and held him in his wings. ‘Raphael: no one asked you to save him. Let it go.’

‘But to fail now! How could I have failed now — when it matters so much?’

‘You failed because you failed. We do sometimes. It’s what happens when the world won’t conform to our will.’

Raphael looked up, and saw that Michael was smiling. Raphael was cross — but he began to see his own folly. Finally he laughed, and the hissing faltered.

‘My timing was bad, wasn’t it?’ Raphael asked, chagrin.

‘How can we know? The failure isn’t the point, really. It’s what you do with it. What happens next?’

Raphael had calmed down, and they were walking together around the square.

‘I was sent to help Jesus, to learn from him, and to befriend Peter…’

Michael nodded. ‘So, shall we find them, then? The passover is near.’