“The Dancing Prophet”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 23, 2018
University Baptist Church
Story of Miriam
My name is Miriam or Mary for you English-speakers.
I was born in captivity, with my Hebrew people in Egypt. We came there as descendants of Joseph and his family. Through wit and grit, our ancestors saved the Egyptian people from famine. We taught them how to save their food. But that was so 400 years ago. The present administration saw us as a threat. First they made us slaves—I guess because of our ethnicity, then they tried to wipe us out by throwing all the male babies into the water to drown.
When my little brother was born, I conspired to save him and get him adopted into the royal household. I made a boat and floated it right down to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him. He became the spy inside. I arranged for him to be nursed and raised by our mother on order of Bithia, the daughter of Pharaoh. I reminded Moses of his duty to his people. He fled to Midian for about 40 years and left me to be the leader of my people. When he finally came back, all full of his call and his duty, I was his chief advisor. Pharaoh’s evil finally imploded and we were granted our freedom.
When we crossed the red sea, I took a tambourine led the people in a dance. It felt great to embody all of that pent-up frustration and ecstasy of freedom.
They call me a prophet.
Now, here’s something that happens to people like me.
On our way to the Promised Land, people were falling in behind Moses. As they should. But the scribes writing down the history were afraid of my power. So they wrote a story about me. They said I was too uppity. They said the leprosy I caught was a punishment from God for questioning Moses’ authority. That’s not how it happened. We simply asked if God spoke only through Moses. Moses did speak to God face to burning bush, we’ll give him that. But my leprosy was not God’s punishment. Aaron asked the same question as me, but he was not punished. Methinks the scribes were trying to minimize me.
Me, I kept dancing. It was how I expressed myself. I led others in the dance of freedom, too. Like my brothers, I didn’t make it to the promised land. The people mourned for 30 days when I died.
So, remember me as Miriam the dancing prophet. Remember that your Christian Mary’s were named after me. Listen to them. They are also infused with liberating power. Miriam Power. God-infused power.
This season of our worship year we are focusing our attention on people who speak the truth to power. Or maybe they speak the truth in the power of God. We picked this topic before the latest scandal broke. Before we started questioning whom to believe or not. It’s no accident that we are starting this season by telling the stories of women—too often buried between the dominant themes of scripture. The stories we are telling are the stories of people who risked everything because they believed in a higher goal, a higher purpose. Some things are worth the risk.
When I was in Seminary, my Hebrew Bible Professor Phyllis Trible gave a series of lectures on forgotten and powerful women of the Bible. One of the main characters was Miriam. There are precious few verses in scripture telling of her life, but what there is is rich and audacious. She’s Moses’ older sister. She is the first one called a prophet in the Hebrew Bible. When the command came down from Pharaoh to kill all male Hebrew babies and Moses was cast down the river in a basket, it was big sister Miriam who made sure not only that he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithia but that he was nursed by Moses’ and Miriam’s mother, Jachabed, by royal decree no less. Moses was known to the outside world as Pharaoh’s adopted grandson, but the Hebrew people knew him as Miriam’s little brother.
When the Egyptians were thrown into the sea some many years later, God’s ultimate defeat of the purveyors of slavery, it was Miriam who embodied the joy and the ecstasy of the Hebrew people. She danced. I like to think that she danced and encouraged people to embody their new found freedom. She danced for the release in the wake of years of repression of her people. Her ecstasy was not something of a dry liturgy and a formal litany of praise. Exodus 15 has Moses singing a long song of praise for the defeat of the Egyptian armies.
But then Miriam comes on the scene, repeats the first stanza of Moses’ song and then leads the people in a dance. She is uncomfortable with the staid praise. She needs to use more than her words. Her praise is full and embodied. She’s like a Pentecostal disturbing an Episcopal chant. Better yet, a Shaker disturbing a Puritan’s colonial maudlin sensibilities. When a sports team triumphs, there is not tepid applause. There is dancing on the court, dancing in the streets.
Imagine yourself being free of a burden after toiling away for generations.
Imagine an end to discrimination.
Imagine an end to prejudice.
Imagine an end to the economic fear that constricts our very air supply.
Imagine an end to the endless election season!
Imagine clean water, clean air.
Imagine elected leaders held to account for their corruption.
Imagine those sexually abused being taken so seriously that the abuse culture changes.
Imagine a world where we don’t need a #metoo movement, or a Black Lives Matter movement, or a Native Rights Matter movement.
Imagine churches free of sex scandals.
Imagine religion as a tool of unity instead of a reflection of one’s political views.
Imagine being free of all of that.
Doesn’t it make you want to dance?
That’s how I see Miriam dancing.
Nora Astorga, the Nicaraguan revolutionary from a generation ago said that if your revolution does not have dancing in it, then I don’t want a part of it.
Laura Potratz mentioned at last week’s forum that South African music is embodied. There is not singing without dancing. It elicits that kind of joy or response. We may even see our choir dancing in the coming weeks.
Miriam dances in Exodus 15. And then nothing. Nothing for months, years. They wander around the desert for 40 years. Did Moses have an aversion to asking for directions? Miriam re-emerges briefly in the book of Numbers. But she has a different role in the narrative. The passage from Numbers 12 served to make sure that Miriam took an eternal back seat to Moses the triumphant. It’s kind of like how Mary Magdalene, the only woman to witness the resurrection in all four gospels disappears from the canonical Biblical literature after being a central character. Miriam Magdelene disappears. Miriam is another sinner and goes down in history as an afterthought.
Or does she.
A hundred years ago, Harriet Beecher Stowe read between the lines of scripture and saw Miriam’s gentle hands in the partnership with the Midianite women during the long sojourn. She even sees Miriam’s influence in some of the laws attributed to Moses.
Numbers 12 is a fragment of a suppressed story of Miriam, Moses’ dancing sister. Moses, Miriam’s stuttering brother. In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron confront brother Moses for marrying a non-Israelite woman, but not only that. Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for not sharing prophetic leadership. Miriam asks, “Has YHWH spoken only through Moses?” God has clearly spoken through Aaron and Miriam. But Moses is in a sibling rivalry and demands obedience from his kin. We can’t have three candidates for Governor of the Hebrews. God has made an endorsement and it is Moses, says the book of Numbers.
And what is her punishment for being so uppity? Leprosy—making her an unclean outsider, and securing Moses’ sole leadership over the people of Israel. Why isn’t Aaron equally stricken, one wonders? She lives out her days like Tamar, disgraced and no one questions this because it is said that it was by the hand of God. What if the writer of Numbers put that in there as a warning against other uppity women? And like Moses and Aaron, she dies before the people reach the Promised Land. But there are some truths even patriarchy can’t erase.
It should not be lost upon us that the entire people of Israel refuse to continue their journey until Miriam has fulfilled her punishment term.
But what if we remembered her not for her leprosy and her being silenced and relegated to outsider status by the powers of patriarchy in the form of her little brother who stole the spotlight?
What if we remembered her as the one who defied Pharaoh’s murderous policy of ethnic cleansing?
What if we remembered her as the one who protected her brother and her mother?
What if we saw her as the bold prophet that she was?
What if we embraced her raucous embodied dancing?
Letty Russell suggested that no better model for ministry would be to be a Miriam.
Remember, the revolution of the Hebrew people was started by and facilitated by women. Moses’ own birth required the civil disobedience of no less than five women. As Exodus opens, we hear a decree from Pharaoh that all male babies need to be killed on the birth stool. The Egyptian Midwives, Shiphrah and Puah defy that order and say, “The Hebrew women are very strong and by the time we get there, the baby has already been born.” Then Moses’ mother, Jochabed puts her baby Moses in a little boat to float him down the river. Big sister Miriam keeps watch and makes sure that the little boat floats right down to the bathing area of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithia. She thinks dad is an idiot and adopts Moses on the spot. But she can’t nurse him, so out jumps Miriam from the bushes, declaring that she knows a Hebrew mother that would nurse him. It’ll cost you. So Pharaoh’s daughter Bithia pays their mother to nurse Miriam’s little brother. Don’t you love the conspiracy? Of course Miriam leads the people in a dance. She is the leader of the people, as much if not more than Moses who disappeared for 40 years. Phyllis Trible suggested, “If Pharaoh had recognized the power of women, he might well have reversed his decree and had daughters killed rather than sons.”
But patriarchy sought to minimize her role as the story continues. Sister Rahab will become a crucial figure in the journey to the Promised Land. But Miriam is a lost figure.
But there are echoes of Miriam. The Prophet Micah (6:4) lists Miriam, Aaron and Moses as equal leaders of the Hebrew people at the time of their liberation from slavery. Moses might have been the official leader, but Miriam was the one who elicited dance. She had never left her people. They trusted her.
When I think of Miriam, I think of a prophet who wanted to help the people believe in themselves. I think of a person who let the spirit move through her and encouraged the people to feel that spirit as well. When all seemed lost, I see Miriam holding an impromptu drum circle—connecting the people with the power that comes not only from their minds and their spirits, but felt in their very bones and joints.
She reminds me of Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s book Beloved. Like Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount, she gathers her congregation and delivers this powerful Sermon in the Clearing.
"She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glory bound pure.
"She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
"'Here,' she said, 'in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth.
Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don't love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver--love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.
More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.' Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh." (88-89)
What do you love? To what will you dance? What liberation? What freedom demands your dancing? What triumph elicits a joyful exuberant unorthodox manifesto of movement?
If you can tap into that place of freedom before you have been brought down by the powers and principalities of this world, where you can speak your truth and know that God is in you leading you and your people toward the Promised Land of freedom and integrity and dignity, then you will be channeling Miriam. Miriam, the Hebrew name for Mary, the one who gives birth to the ultimate freedom in Jesus Christ.
Embrace your inner Miriam. Remember Miriam, but don’t simply remember her as Moses’ dancing sister. Remember her as the embodiment of what we seek to be. The one who sets free, tells the truth, smuggles hope from despair and reveals the true nature of God. Be bold enough, sisters and brothers, to dance with Miriam today and every day.