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.

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Sleeping

They were young and beautiful, in the simply way the very young are. They did not realise this, the most of them anyhow, and by the time they did, the beauty would have drawn back a little. They were also, to a bridesmaid, asleep. It was late and they were young. Even excitement could not hold them awake.

The bride and groom were nowhere to be seen, delayed by the ceremonies and excitements, and the tediums of politeness at her old home. Her new one awaited. Probably with a difficult mother-in-law, but today nobody was thinking of that.

One small lamp burned. ‘Keeping the oil for the big moment,’ said Jesus, ‘but I hope they have plenty.’

‘Perhaps they should have stayed awake,’ said John, rather piously.

‘Perhaps,’ said Jesus, ‘But it can be a long wait. No the important thing is to have oil. I mean, to have what you need, to be ready when the moment comes. Because the wait is long, agonising. Justice? Love? How long a wait. It would make a good story, I think. Twelve young girls. The ones with enough oil, and the ones without. The point is, sleep, but then be ready – when the moment comes where you CAN make a difference, then be ready… I shall work on that story. It would be a good funny one.’

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.

Drink deeply

The moment I saw that child’s face was the exact moment I knew that sacrifice repulsed God. I saw the child’s face as he was drawn near to the fire, and I turned away, my ears full of the drumming they made to hide the pleas, the screams. I went behind a rock, and with shut eyes and ears full of drums, voided everything in my body. So, no, I never saw the child burnt alive.

At that very moment, I knew that that kind of sacrifice was not what Yahweh wanted. Sacrifice in the form of the death of a living being is not and never was his will. Not even animal sacrifice.

I cut my hair off. I ripped open my clothes. I wept. I wept for the child, for his father, his mother, for all the lies they had been told. I wept for their fear of invasion, the fear that led them to thrust their own child into the fire to save their country – as though it ever could. As though anything good could ever come of that. And I raged against the leaders of the people, who believed the safety of Judah lay in just the very playing of politics which caused the fear. I raged against priests, and prophets, and against the King. I came down from that valley, so near Jerusalem, so very far from everything good in civilisation, in human society, weeping for the stupid cruel waste of it all. Even in the city, I could hear the distant drums. It was a torment past bearing, made worse because I knew that up there, a far, far worse torment was going on. The day Josiah the King stopped it, that was, well, it was … But by then I had seen what I had seen, and knew what had happened to so many, many terrified children. That drumming, that sickness, had become part of each day.

Was Josiah a good King? He tried to be. Yes, he finally did away with the child sacrifice. He got his trained men into that accursed valley destroying the shrine up there. In his way, I think he believed in the Law – or in the basic rudiments of human decency. That no woman was to be blamed if a man raped her. That no seeking of justice was ever to exceed the crime done. That some things were simply evil: theft, adultery, the worship of foul gods who demanded people offer their children to fires, or their own reluctant bodies to use without love. That much he believed.

He never believed that what really mattered was doing Yahweh’s will. He never truly though his job was to make his country a place which grew strong through ensuring each person in it flourished, that none of his people remained slaves. He believed in the politics of power, in game-playing and in Judah being a strong state. He would play one of the super-powers off against the others, alliances with Egypt, or Babylon. Our country lay like a battlefield between superpowers. They courted him, and he made himself attractive to them like a whore. And like a whore he was used for an hour and then left. I never convinced him. It was doubly dangerous. First, to attract attention, flirting openly with other powers. Secondly, ignoring what was really for the good of my people; drinking deeply from the loving kindness of Yahweh, ensuring every person in Judah thrived, living as a free people without fear. Living with tender hearts, dedicated to honesty, justice, mercy. Living as though Yahweh was their tender lover.

I never convinced him, or come to that anybody else, that sacrifice should only ever be a matter of the heart, the mind. The offering of bodies, any bodies, was at the very best an irrelevance. That last was going too far for the King. Far too far for the priests.

What Yahweh was saying to me now was more and more difficult for people to hear. Telling my family that their daily lives are deeply unpleasing to God, when all they were doing is seeking to serve him. Telling the King that his every last foreign policy was downright wicked. Nobody else could see any of it. My voicing it, my voicing the commands of Yahweh, made me more and more an outsider. There are two ways of diminishing an outsider. To call them a traitor or to make them a figure of fun. Either can be dismissed. Either can be removed. I watched it become imperative that I was silenced.