September 21, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Miriam and Zipporah

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

Unlike in Genesis, few women are mentioned in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the remainder of the Jewish Torah. Those in this column are the exceptions.

Miriam was Moses’ older sister. It was she who stayed behind to see what would happen when Moses’ mother put the baby, Moses, in a papyrus basket, among reeds on a river bank. Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and recognized it as one of the Hebrews’ children.

At that, Miriam hurried to her and asked if she should get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her. Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, so Miriam got her own mother, who cared for Moses until he was weaned. Then his mother took him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son.

Miriam next appears after Moses has grown up and led the Israelites out of Egypt. After the Egyptian soldiers have drowned in the Red Sea, she led the Israelite women in singing the refrain to a triumphant song. At that point, the Bible calls Miriam a prophetess.

But things didn’t always go well between Miriam and Moses. At one point, Miriam and Aaron became jealous of Moses and spoke out against him because he had married a Cushite woman. In his anger, God turned Miriam into a snow-white leper. When Moses saw her like that, he prayed to God to heal her. God did, but demanded that she be confined outside the camp for seven days.

Miriam died while the Israelite community was at Kadesh in the desert of Zin.

Zipporah was another important woman. She was one of seven daughters of a Midianite priest called at different times Reuel, Jethro and Hobab. Moses met her after he fled from Egypt as a young man after killing an Egyptian. The seven women were watering their sheep when some shepherds drove them away. Moses defended them and watered their flock for them. In gratitude, the priest invited Moses to live with them and gave him Zipporah as his wife. The couple had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

After Moses was told by God to return to Egypt to lead the Israelites out, Zipporah and their son, Gershom, accompanied him. Along the way, she circumcised Gershom.

At some point while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, Moses sent Zipporah and their son back to Jethro. While the Israelites were by Mount Sinai, Jethro brought Zipporah and both boys back to Moses.

Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah were the five daughters of Zelophehad. He died without sons. The five women went to Moses and asked why their father’s name should be withdrawn from his clan merely because he had no son, and they asked for his property. Moses agreed, and decreed that the property of a man who dies without a son should pass on to a daughter.

Later, though, that was modified. The daughter could marry only within a clan of her own ancestral tribe so that the property would remain within the clan. †

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