Salvation’s Song

Miriam led Mosheh to the edge of the Reed Sea. ‘Are you sure, sister? Can you do this?’

Once, once before she had tried to turn the tide of a river, to change the flow of the reed bed to make a bit of dry ground. It was nothing more than a dare to herself — to see how much she had learned of how the current was shaped. And then, it was a tiny flow, and small inlet. She surveyed the mass of water ahead of them. ‘Yes, if God is with us. And who knows, brother, there may be time for your wonder working too.’ She sounded calm, poised, but in her head, she prayed: ‘God, if you would give him frogs and gnats and plagues, give me this: wisdom, wit and a few well placed sand bars.’

God smiled at her daring.

She watched the wind bend the reeds, and said, ‘Quick, follow me.  And say to them: “walk where I walk, step where I step.  Do not hesitate, or change the path.’ Moses spoke to the Israelites, and Aaron did the same.  Miriam set out into the waters, ‘And brother? Remember: walk where I walk…’

Mosheh realised he was the weak point in her plan.

Miriam crept and leapt and ran through the reeds as the currents demanded. As they followed, the waters shifted: responding to their presence, adapting to the new disturbance in the flow. Miriam led them out into ever deeper waters, and then found them a resting place where the reeds grew thick.

‘Wait here!’ she cried. ‘Mosheh! Aaron! Tell them to wait here and you come with me.’

Miriam ran not across the sea, not towards their goal, but straight into the river’s source. To the top of the sandbank, where the water split around the raised bed of the sea. The people could see them — if she was lucky, they would be able to hear them too. ‘Mosheh, tell the people: “I am going to strike the sea with my rod. When the dry land appears, run. Run to the shore.’

This rod that brought vipers, Miriam whispered, let it bring life. 

Mosheh called to the people. ‘It is time. God will save us. I will strike the sea and you must run. Run as fast as you can. I will see you on the other side.’ The people looked out at the still pools of water ahead of them — the deep pools of water, that they knew they couldn’t cross, and wondered where Mosheh had taken them. But the Egyptians were closing in, and a rumour began: better to die than to go back! They prepared to run.

Mosheh was fearful.  ‘Miriam?  Will this work?  Am I really going to strike the sea?’ He liked it better when God spoke through burning bushes, than when God spoke through his eldest and bossiest sibling. ‘Yes, Mosheh. You will. But Aaron and I will be with you, and we must stand firm and spread our cloaks wide. Angled, there… like this!’  Miriam got them into position.

Mosheh raised his staff and prayed to God. He felt the winds stirring as he spoke. Miriam watched the current, and judged the angle of the flow. She leaned far out to catch the edge of the current. ‘Now, Mosheh, now! Strike the water.’

Moses brought down his staff, and the people prepared to run. Miriam watched as the current bent around them — not parting over the sandbank as it usually did, but curling around towards the Egyptian shore. Miriam knew they didn’t have long before the waters swirled back and the whole sand bar would be undermined.

‘Tell them, Mosheh. Tell them to run!’

And the Israelites saw the dry land appear. At first, they were too shocked to move, but then one of them understood what was happening and shouted, ‘This way! Follow me! Run!’ The Israelites fled across the sudden sandbanks, the ever changing reed bed, finding dry ground.

Quickly! Miriam prayed. She could feel the water swirling behind them. The sandbar was beginning to give way

As the last of the Israelites approached the shore, Miriam said to Mosheh ‘Lift your rod and flee. Get to dry land!”  And she followed behind them, pausing only to thank the water.

As she turned, she could see the Egyptians approaching. They horses swam out towards the river’s swirl.

‘Turn back!’ she cried to them. ‘You will never make it.’ But they rode on and the water hooked around the horses hooves. Miriam would never forget the scream of the first horse as it fell. Remember, little one: she whispered arks are not the only way.

Miriam reached the shore where the Israelites watched as the sea swallowed their oppressors.  Miriam hated the devastation they had caused — but she didn’t want the people burdened by the weight of it.  So she did the only thing she could: she re-told the story.

Miriam took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

The people joined in the song, and cried out their relief to God. They had escaped the Egyptians. They were free.

But God saw the tears that Miriam wept as she danced. God joined in the counterpoint: There is salvation, Miriam. The ark is not the only way.

She heard God’s whisper and laughed as she cried and danced.

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.

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.