- A Paradoxical Prophet:Jewish Women Poets Re-Imagine Miriam
Writing of the Bible, Alicia Ostriker speaks of "the traces of women's stories embedded in the larger narrative which is overwhelmingly masculine."1 Modern and contemporary poets, both Jewish and Christian—from H.D. to Muriel Rukeyser to Ostriker herself—have responded to these tantalizing hints by expanding on them, drawing them out into fully-developed narratives. Their work, of course, belongs to the traditional category of midrash, in which rabbis filled in the gaps left in scriptural texts by imaginatively responding to what appears to be left out of the story—the white spaces between the black letters, as they metaphorically described it. In contemporary women's work, a female perspective is maintained and expanded on, connections are made between Biblical women and the poet's own experience, and, often, female characters replace male ones (I think of Susan Windle's quietly stunning poem, "The Prodigal Daughter"). These poems are often daring, provocative and highly unorthodox, but their intention is not to reject the traditional text, but to revise it, to re-arrange the spaces in the Biblical story so that women characters can emerge in all their complexity. The results are both dazzling and enlightening.
The figure of Miriam, Moses' sister in the Exodus story, has been a recurring subject in Jewish women's midrashic poems. This is not surprising. Both powerful and elusive, Miriam is a paradox. Though decidedly a Jewish heroine and a "prophetess," she only appears [End Page 4] briefly in the Jewish Bible, mentioned by name in a handful of verses (Exodus 2, Exodus 15:20, Numbers 12, Numbers 20, Numbers 26:59, Deut 24:8-9, Micah 6:4). On three occasions, she acts decisively. Each of her actions leaves trails of ambivalence in readers' minds. In traditional (rabbinic) midrash, she is both a praised, competent heroine, and a troubling presence. Miriam both sustains her people and makes them nervous. This dual set of reactions suggests that she is an off-center figure, an example of the ambivalence people—especially men—feel toward a powerful woman, particularly one who does not try to disguise or belittle her powers. (Her name in Hebrew, significantly, can mean both "bitter sea" and "rebellion.") Too, the very number and intensity of traditional midrashic responses to this character—who is mentioned so few times in the Bible—suggests, as Ostriker says, that she originally played a much larger role in the mythic history of her people.2
Ostriker has written eloquently of Miriam's erasure from the text, focusing here on her song and its true meaning:
If you listen to me onceYou will have to go on listening to meI am Miriam the prophetessMiriam who makes the songs…The horse and his riderHave you thrown into the sea—…The horse was captivityAnd its rider fear—…("The Songs of Miriam")3
Mary Harwell Sayler's poem, "The Object of Conversation" (see p. 63), recounts how pervasive this character is in our culture:
We interpret you as we see fit—appraising what was right,assessing wrong, but even now,we sing your song.
As introduction to this collection of contemporary writing on Miriam, I would like to re-visit five of the passages in the Bible in which Miriam is mentioned, pointing out how each one incorporates or provokes profound uneasiness.
We first meet Miriam as a player in her family's story in Exodus. In Chapter One of that book, we learn how Pharaoh demands the murder of Jewish male children and how two heroic midwives, Shiphra and Puah, manage to defy the monarch's wishes. In Chapter Two, we meet the couple "from the House of Levi"—Amram and Yocheved—who, in opposition to their ruler, give birth to a beautiful male infant, whom they first hide, then release on the river. In Exodus 2:4, we are told "his sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him." This as yet unnamed sister acts resourcefully to save her brother, encouraging the interest of Pharaoh's daughter, and even offering to find her a Hebrew nurse...