I am blessed to have two sisters. They are as different as night and day but, they are both an essential part of my life. In this month’s parsha, “Chukat”, we read of Moses’ sister Miriam in Numbers 20:1, “Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there.”
Miriam was an essential part of Moses’ life. She was involved in every aspect of his life and ministry. God provided Aaron and Miriam for Moses, and also for Israel. In Micah 6:4 it says, “Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.” God provided each one to work together to accomplish the task that God had for them.
When Pharoah declared the male Hebrew children to be cast into the Nile, Jochebed (Moses’ mother) and Miriam devised a plan to save him. Miriam stood by the bank of the Nile nervously waiting as she stood watch over Moses in the basket, and waited for Pharoah’s daughter. She was the one who spoke to the daughter of Pharoah saying in Exodus 2:7, “Shall I go and call a nurse for you from the Hebrew women that she may nurse the child for you?” Miriam exhibited such courage and determination to save her little brother Moses. How frightened she must have been waiting there by the bank of the Nile! This plan that was undertaken by Jochebed and Miriam saved Moses’ life. Moses knew that he owed his life to his older sister.
As Moses led the people out of Egypt, it was Miriam who led the women in worship to the Lord in Exodus 15:20, “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.” The term prophetess can mean a woman who teaches the word of God, a wife of a prophet, or a poetess (singer of songs). Miriam worshipped God and the victory that God had provided.
As siblings their connection was close even with disagreements as all siblings have. That’s why I find the next few verses in Numbers chapter 20 so interesting. In verses 2-5, we see Israel complaining once again that there was no water, and blaming Moses and Aaron for the death that was surely going to happen in the wilderness without water. In verses 6-7, Moses and Aaron do what they always do which is go to the tent of meeting and fall on their faces. The glory of the Lord appears to them and speaks to Moses saying in verse 8, “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beast’s drink.” Moses and Aaron assemble the congregation, and in verse 10-11 Moses says, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.” The Lord answers Moses and Aaron in verse 12, “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”
Why did Moses react in this way? What made this time different? Moses had faced this same trial two previous times (Exodus 15:22-25 and Exodus 17:1-7) but this time we see a different Moses. In the previous two examples, we see a Moses “crying out to God” this time Moses goes to the tent of meeting but something has changed in him. The compassion that he’s always had for the people is missing and in place of it there is anger. Moses is grieving his sister. He is mourning his sister who protected him, encouraged him, watched over him as a child, and helped him carry the burden of leadership. The author Alice Hoffman writes, “Who can you trust if not your sister? Who knows your story better than she?” Now the sister who knew him, knew his story, his strengths and weaknesses has gone. When we experience grief, we become extremely vulnerable, we can find it difficult to control our emotions, along with having a lack of judgment. Moses cannot control his emotions at this time to follow the instructions that God has given him. Can we blame him? Losing a parent is very difficult but losing a brother or sister reminds us of our own mortality and comes very close to home.
One of the things that I love about the bible is how it uses ordinary people to teach extraordinary lessons. Moses may have been a great prophet but, he was only a man. As a man he made mistakes that were costly to him, just like we all do. What will we do when we make those costly mistakes? Will we continue to trust God? Will we still bless God? May we be faithful as Moses was faithful!