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.

Not having and having

‘When I first came here,’ said the old man to his companion, ‘I really thought this was just a temporary place, somewhere I was passing through. I did not value it. Then, after a little, I realised it was a good place for taking one’s time. That was the first step.’ Silence fell. His companion shifted uneasily, and the old man looked at her with some concern.

After a while, he continued, ‘I soon realised that it was a place which was teaching me as much as it was teaching my companions. That was a great leveller. Then I came to see that in this place I could be near God, really near him, in a way I had never managed in the settled land.
Are you all right Rachel?’

Rachel did not speak, but silently got up, moved a little and settled with a small sigh. The old man waited, then went on, ‘I used to think that – this sounds silly. I am not sure I would tell anybody but you. I used to think I could kind-of manipulate God. Go back to places I had once found him, and find him there again. Do things he liked, and then have him protect me because of it. It was in this place I grew out of that. And the odd thing, Rachel, the really odd thing is that after I stopped looking for Him in that one place where I found a burning bush, I found him in every bush.

‘To me’ said Moses, excitedly, ‘every bush, every flower here is full of His glory.’ His companion looked at him disapprovingly. ‘Sorry, said Moses, ‘You are the important one just now. I’ll keep it a bit quieter. You know, I have never been happier. Every day, I feel closer to Yahweh. It is easier and easier to feel Him all around me.

‘I loved my people, I really did, but there was no space, and no peace. Now they are not here, it is as if a great burden is lifted. I am free to be myself for the first time ever. It is,’ he cast a glance at Rachel, and quietened his voice, ‘It is as though my spirit expands to fill all this space now I am alone. I know life in the Land is easy, but this is the place to be aware, to know Yahweh. You know, I think people will always come here when they really want to know Yahweh. I think it is here, and in places like this, that people can find him most easily. It is not a place to hurry through, hoping to get to an easy place. It is a place to come, and stay, until you can see small things, and enjoy small pleasures, and hear Yahweh without him needing to shout. It is difficult here, but if you can only love it, the very struggles of it make life sharp, true. Not having is the great richness.

‘And to think I used to fear being alone here! It is laughable. I have so many companions, not just Yahweh but all of you!’

The goat let out a small distressed bleat, and Moses sprang round to her tail, ‘Ah, not long now, Rachel,’ he comforted her.

On a ridge, far above the oasis and to the left, two men paused. ‘I wonder what terrible thing he did for his tribe to abandon him?’ asked one, ’Is he not a distant kinsman by marriage?’

‘Yes,’ replied the other, ‘he married the old chief’s daughter. I do not know what he did wrong, but it was no failing in his herdsmanship. He has the finest goats for cashmere that I know of, he tends them like a father, and his sheep have thick soft wool and spectacular fertility. He hardly loses a lamb. Yet he is old.’

‘One day he must die,’ agreed the other, ‘The right thing to do then would be to give him honourable burial as a kinsman, and afterwards to care for his flocks.’

‘Surely so fine a herdsman would want that,’ agreed the other, hopefully.

By the oasis, Moses was delivering Rachel of a second daughter. ‘Another fine, healthy kid,’ he assured her, ‘and your sister looks as if she will kid in a day or so. This year we have had a good time of it, haven’t we?’

He looked to the sky-line, and chuckled. ‘You know,’ he told Rachel who was ecstatically licking her twin daughters, ‘I used to worry over what would happen to all of you when I do die, but now I think that Yahweh has that sorted. Though I will put off dying for a year or too yet. There is still much to learn, and life is so good.’

Pass over

‘This time it is different,’ said Joshua, hotly, ‘this time they are ready. Yes, I know all about last time. I was there, remember? It was ME they did not believe. It was MY huge bunch of grapes they ignored, choosing instead the endless dust-dry manna.’

‘Yours and Caleb’s,’ said Moses, mildly. Joshua made an impatient gesture. Moses sighed. That was Joshua’s weakness, and his strength too.

Joshua headed back to plain facts. ’Last time they were afraid. Last time they listened to old men.’ He said it with breath-taking conviction, as though unaware that he was talking to one of the oldest living Israelites, ‘This time really IS different. This time they are ready to go. This time, just you are holding them back.’

And Moses knew it was true. And suddenly and with utter certainty he knew that he could not cross that river into that Promised Land, however big the bunches of grapes.

‘You are right, Joshua, I fear that Land – oh no, not what you are thinking,’ and he did not know how disparagingly he said that, and there was no Aaron to tell him. ‘I fear that moving there we will lose, we will forget, oh that there will not be the closeness to Yahweh.’

He looked at the hurt and utter incomprehension on Joshua’s face. Joshua, unbelievably resilient, fired back, ‘But we will take the Ark and the Tent with us! Yahweh will come too.’

Moses was silent for a long time. He sat looking at a small bush in the scrub land. In the end, a sense of awe started to creep over Joshua, compelling him back to respect for this exasperating old man.

Moses sat facing facts. The people had left Egypt for the Land, and he could not explain even to his lieutenant, and much less to the rest of them, how afraid he was that the soft living in the land would gradually come to make them preoccupied with huge bunches of grapes, and milk, and honey, and they would begin to seek these things alone, and not ask what they cost in terms of misplaced priorities. Moses himself could not continue to hold out against the certainties which Joshua saw, not only in this matter of going into the Land, but in any other of the now almost daily clashes between them. Nor would it be in any way right for Moses himself to cross the river and live in the Land. To do so would be, for him, death of the worst kind. He needed an explanation that Joshua could in some way understand.

‘I have sinned, Joshua,’ he said, ‘I have sinned, and Yahweh forbids me to cross into the Land. You will have to lead the people there – you will have to take over from me.’ Joshua looked stunned, and, having put it into words, Moses felt cold to the core. ‘We will celebrate one final Passover, and then …’

Moses ate the feast in one big group with his children and grand-children, and one great-grandchild, little Miriam, a dead-ringer for her great great aunt, who asked the question, ‘Tell me, great-grandfather, why are we eating this lamb?’ Moses launched into the story. Miriam would remember, and would tell her own grand-children, how the old man’s eyes sparkled as he told of the apparent impossibility of getting out of Egypt at all, then escape and then of the sickening discovery they were being followed, of the fording of the Reed Sea, of his sister dancing, and of manna and judges, and quail. ‘And you will remember this night, too,’ he ended, ‘How once again you eat with everything packed up around you, and with hope and with fear in your hearts, knowing that tomorrow you set off for the far, far on the side of a great river, starting a new adventure with Yahweh.’ That she remembered.

She did not remember, of course, how, when she had fallen asleep among the packages, he had sat gazing at her, until her father came, and lifted her sleeping up to his shoulder. She had not seen and could not have interpreted the half-pitying, half–guilty expressions on the faces of her parents. It was years later that she heard from others how the old man, with a face as blank as weathered wilderness rock, blessed his family one by one, and then each tribe in turn as they came past him.

It was only when he was sure he could no longer be seen Moses sat down and pulled his cloak over his head and wept: for the dangers his people would face, and for the loss of the privilege of leading them, and for utter loneliness.

In the evening his people camped in a place they had never seen before, and Joshua went from group to group talking of the hopes for the future until something of his certainty became part of their thoughts.

The Israelites comforted each other with words and with small kindnesses, but there was nobody to console or strengthen the old man sitting beside the small fire in the wilderness.