Lech Lecha: the covenant of Abraham and Sarah

The idea of covenant with God was already present with the narratives of Noah. In Genesis Chapter 6 we find “And God said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make an ark of gopher wood…. I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort you will bring into the ark to keep them alive with you….So did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.”

After the flood comes another covenant – (Genesis Ch.9) “And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you… never shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; nor shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. …And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.’ And God said to Noah: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

So when God makes the covenant of the pieces with Abram in Genesis 15 “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. In that day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” while we may find the description opaque, the idea of the divine promise given to one individual but extending into the future is familiar.

Parashat Lech Lecha introduces the covenant that is central to Jews and Judaism – brit milah – circumcision.  In Genesis 17 we read “God appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ ‘ My covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall not anymore be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…And I will make you exceeding fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant….. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed…must be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. …..And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”

Judaism is based on the particular covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. And this relationship begins with Abraham and Sarah, travelling down the generations through their son Isaac. This covenant relationship is unbreakable, however much we let God down or God lets us down. God has other covenantal relationships with humanity, but the specific Jewish relationship of responsibility and purpose is the one that underpins all Jewish teaching.

Pretty much every Jewish family circumcises their 8 day old baby boy in the ceremony of brit milah as bible requires. The child is brought in ceremonially to the mohel and blessings said, which include the blessing “who has commanded us con­cerning circumcision” and   “who has commanded us to  enter [him] into  the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Bible is clear on this – all baby boys, whether born into the Jewish family or adopted into the household, are to be given this sign in their flesh that they too are part of the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patriarchal society into which they are born, the brit is their male right – but what exactly is the position of women in this covenant so central to Jewish self-understanding?

A closer reading of our texts reveals something interesting. The covenant of the pieces, opaque and full of dark magical symbolism, is deeply patriarchal and refers to the continuity of possession and power of the Abrahamic line. There is a prefiguring of the terrifying experience at Sinai, with smoke and fire and a God who overawes. Yes the childless Abram will have heirs, countless descendants, but their fate will be difficult and painful as slaves and exiles,  until they finally inherit the land, displacing the nations living upon it. Abram himself will die peacefully in old age encountering nothing of the complex future.  The second covenant is different – here it is personal and intimate. While land and descendants are still the critical core of the covenant, here the land is an ahuzah, a family holding, rather than a nation state as in the earlier covenant. Here  Abram’s line is described in terms of family, it is described positively as being fruitful, a multitude of nations including king. There is no mention of a terrible period of time in exile and slavery, instead the focus is on the mutuality of the covenant – Abram and his line must keep the covenant as well as God, and his name is changed to show the personal transformation. And in parallel we are told that Sarai too is part of this promise, she will bear a son, and through that son nations and kings will be born, and the covenant will be held within this familial line. She too has her name changed; she too is radically altered by the encounter. This is a covenant with real people who are active in the creation and expression of the covenant, and who are transformed by the event – both have the letter ה added to their names, a letter used to signify God and both will shortly by transformed by the birth of their child.

While the sign of the covenant is to be embedded in the flesh of the male member, the covenant itself is not limited to those who carry the sign – it is enshrined in the peoplehood that descends from Abraham and Sarah, in their activity and participation.

Looking at the biblical texts we can see that each covenant apparently made with one individual is in reality made with an extension from that individual – be it the covenants with Noah that are in reality made also with his extended family or secondly with the whole of humanity, or the covenants with Abraham which extend to his descendants through Sarah, the notion of the individual limited covenant is a mistake. When we get to Sinai it is clear that while the discussion is with Moses, the covenant is actually with all the people both present and yet to be born or to choose Judaism. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim make this clear – everyone, male, female, adult, child, high status or low – is in the covenant.

So how come we only seem to celebrate or mark the entry into the covenant of male children? How are women supposed to see themselves as integral to the covenant too?  Traditional texts assume simply that women need no such entry point. In the Talmud (avodah zarah 87a) we read a debate about who can perform circumcision. The focus is on the repeated words “himol yimol” in the passage from Genesis 17 – this can be translated as the individual must be circumcised to enter the covenant, or it can be understood as ‘the circumciser needs to be circumcised’. Following this second reading, one would imagine that only a man can act as mohel (circumcisor) and yet we know that Zipporah herself circumcised her child. From this the Talmud decides that women are classed as ‘among the circumcised’ – in other words, women are already born with the sign of the covenant in their bodies, and need no extra marking in their flesh.

What this natural state is is subject to debate – it seems to have something to do with the blood released- could it be menstruation or the ability to give birth, both of which involved natural bleeding?  Is it to do with the ability to procreate – certainly the idea of circumcision is also seen in the treatment of fruit trees whose fruit cannot be eaten for three years – they are ‘orlah’, literally ‘uncircumcised’. So possibly the act of milah is an act to make the male ‘fruitful’, something a woman is seen as being ab initio?

But while our texts understand women to be part of the covenant even without ceremony, and the traditional debate is only to clarify the reason for this, it seems to me that a real issue is being overlooked. We bring a boy child into the covenant surrounded by family and community, with great joy and love, a week after his birth. But a girl child is simply noted, a mi sheberach (blessing) recited in her father’s synagogue when neither she nor her mother are present, end of story.

It is not enough. It is not enough to say that women are on a spiritually higher level than men and therefore need not be obligated to do mitzvot. It is not enough to teach that a woman’s glory is internal, that she should be shielded from the outside world, protected from public space. It is not enough to recite platitudes to try to flatter or distract women from living full and public lives, from actively taking their place in the covenant, from operating openly in public space, their voices and ideas heard in study and in action.

By denying women a public recognition of our place in the covenant, we have slid into the position where women’s roles have become seen as lesser than those of men, where women are somehow not counted in the legal or spiritual community of Jews.  It begins to be taught that women are only in the covenant by virtue of their relationship with men – fathers or husbands or sons. It begins to be understood that women’s rights and women’s voices are contingent on their relationship with men. And then we slide into a deeply dangerous place, where women are not only removed from the public space, their voices silenced to protect male ‘sensibilities’, but women’s reality is eroded, women’s experience downplayed, and the covenant is deprived of what was clearly there at the beginning – the particular contribution of women.

Judaism is not only a religion, not only a set of beliefs, not only a genetic inheritance, not only a set of shared values and stories and way of seeing the world – it is a peoplehood in covenant with God. And that peoplehood contains a complex variety of souls. Like the lulav and etrog which are seen as symbolising the Jewish people – some with learning but no mitzvot, others with mitzvot but no learning, yet others with both learning and mitzvot and still others with no learning and no mitzvot – we encompass the full range of what is possible in a people, and we need each other to fulfil ourselves.

So the ceremonies that bring daughters into the covenant – simchat bat, zeved habat, brit bat, – these are important ceremonies and while some date to the 17th century, they are not yet in common usage across the community, nor always recognised as being more than a nice way to celebrate having a new baby in the family or to welcome a daughter into the world.

Women are, and always have been, part of the covenant. Abraham may have had to circumcise himself, but Sarah too was physically altered, bringing her child into world long past the age of childbearing. Both were named, both were transformed, both were necessary

It is time we took more seriously the rite of passage to bring a daughter into the covenant. Time to bring the creative ceremonials out of the shadows and into the mainstream liturgy and life of the synagogue community. Respect for women begins with treating the births of female children with the same communal enthusiasm and joy as the birth of male children is celebrated. From publicly entering a girl child into the covenant may come a greater understanding that women have our own part in the covenant, must explore it and explain it and be creative with it as the men have over the centuries.

Merle Feld’s poem “We all stood together at Sinai” is a salutary reminder of what happens when we don’t give equal value time and space to women’s covenant experience.

We All Stood Together   By Merle Feld   (for Rachel Adler)

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

 

 

 

 

 

Zipporah: unsung heroine of parshat Yitro

The sidra is named for Yitro, the priest of Midian and father of seven daughters and indeed Yitro deserves the honour for he takes in the fugitive Moses, provides him with shelter, with work and with a wife – his daughter Zipporah, and he teaches him a great deal about leadership and about relationship with God.

But it is his daughters I would like to focus on, and in particular the long suffering Zipporah.

Moses, having fled the wrath of Pharaoh after he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster, fled to Midian and sat down by a well. The verse repeats one verb – וַיֵּשֶׁב – “to sit or to stay”, which alerts us to pay close attention. Rashi quotes midrash: – the first “staying” means that he settled in Midian, and the second that he deliberately sat near the well. Just as Jacob met Rachel and Eliezer found Rebecca at a well, it seems clear that Moses was intending to find himself a partner. Sure enough, he meets and subsequently helps the seven daughters of the priest of Midian who have come to get water for their father’s flocks. Having filled the troughs with water for their animals, the women are chased away by the shepherds – something that is apparently their usual experience as after Moses helps them they arrive home earlier than usual, an event noted by their surprised father.

Why do the shepherds chase the girls away? Scripture gives us no clue, but midrash comes to our rescue. According to Shemot Rabbah (1:32), the priest of Midian had abandoned idolatry and so had been excluded from the community, and his daughters were treated harshly because of this ban. It is a curious lacuna in the text,  tantalising us with the unexplained punitive treatment of the vulnerable daughters of a man of status even while appearing not to care very much.  At this point we do not know the name of their father, only that he is a “cohen Midian”, a priest of Midian.

Unlike the meetings that lead to the marriages of Rachel and Rebecca there seems to be no special relationship created between Moses and any of the women at the well. Indeed they do not invite him back to their home in order to thank him with their hospitality, but they leave him at the well; indeed the encounter would end there except that  their father asks what has happened that  they are back earlier than usual. Only then do they recount the event, and their father exclaims at their omission and tells them to call Moses in order to offer him a meal. Laconically the text then tells us that  “Moses was וַיּוֹאֶל – willing or content to stay with the man, and he gave Zipporah his daughter to Moses”. Having met all seven daughters without being given any sense of their individuality or their difference, we now find that one of the daughters is given as a wife to Moses. There has been no courtship, no sense that they were interested in each other or found any connection with each other, Zipporah is simply an object here, given to the “ger Toshav” and she bears him a child whom he (not she) names Gershom, a signifier of Moses’ experience as a stranger in a strange land. It is not indicative of any closeness of relationship or belief in a shared future through the child.

Zipporah is almost invisible. She appears to have no agency whatsoever, no personality is evinced and no relationship with Moses on show. All we have is her name – which probably derives from the root meaning ‘bird’- in particular a sparrow, and seems to gloss the meaning that she is unremarkable and unappreciated.

But our next meeting with Zipporah changes all of that.

While acting as shepherd for his father in law Moses had met God near Horeb at the bush that burned but was not consumed, and been told to return to Egypt and to take out God’s people who were suffering there.  Moses is not at all keen. First he asks God “who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out?” and God reassures him – “I will be with you, and as proof when you have done it you will worship me here”. Moses finds another reason to avoid the task –“no one will believe me. They will ask me for your name and I don’t know what to say”. God responds with a phrase that will answer this fear “ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I will be” God extends the instruction – “Go tell them I sent you, Go gather the elders and tell them I have remembered them and will bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey. Go with the elders and tell Pharaoh to let you take three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. And when Pharaoh refuses, I will smite Egypt and you will be allowed to go. And then when you go, ask for compensation from the Egyptians, you will not leave empty handed”.

Moses responds once more with anxiety:  “They won’t believe me. They won’t think I have met You”. God responds with admirable patience and firstly turns Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back into a staff, and then turns Moses’ hand leprous and then returned it to its healthy state.  These are to be signs Moses can use to convince the Israelites of the authenticity of his meeting with God.

Leaving aside the whiff of bad magical tricks, what we are left with is Moses’ desire not to get involved, not to take any initiative or risk, even at the direct request of God. God even offers him a third sign to show the disbelieving Israelites – the changing of water to blood – it smacks a little of desperation, how many tricks does one need if one actually believes in what you are saying?

Moses finds another reason not to go – he is not an orator, he finds public speaking hard and he is not convinced by God’s response to him that as God has chosen him his speaking skills will be adequate. Only then does God get angry – this dissembling has gone on long enough. Moses will have the help of Aaron, he will have his staff and the various tricks. He should get going.

Interestingly Moses does not get going immediately – instead he goes to Yitro his father in law and asks for permission to leave to see if any of his family in Egypt are still alive. And Yitro tells him to go in peace. Was he hoping that Yitro would not give permission? Who are the brothers in Egypt whose status Moses is referring to?  God seems to respond to an unsaid remark – “everyone who sought your death in Egypt is now dead. Go.”

Moses takes Zipporah and his two sons to journey to Egypt and while they travel God tells him that while he may create magical effects with his staff, Pharaoh will not give the people permission to leave. Then follows an opaque and quite terrifying text.

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israel is the first born son of God.  Pharaoh has been asked to let God’s first born son travel to worship God, but Pharaoh has refused and so God will kill the son, the first born son of Pharaoh.

The theme of the first born son, of the primacy of that role and the specialness of that child, is emphasised and established. We are prefiguring the final plague when the first born son of everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the animals in the fields, will be slain during one terrible night. All will be killed except the first born of those Israelites who have enacted the ritual of the night of Pesach, slaying a lamb and displaying its blood on their doorpost. There is a time slippage – this is being said before anything has really happened. There is a person slippage – quite who is who is unclear. All we know is that the first born son belongs to God in a way that others do not.

Moses is travelling with his own first born son, Gershom.

On the way to the lodging house, God encountered him (וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ) and sought to kill him.

What is the nature of the encounter? Who does God encounter? Who does God seek to kill?

Is it Moses? Is it Gershom?

Moses is entirely passive. Rigid with shock? Prepared to acquiesce? Unwilling to act? Up till now he has mainly been avoiding what God  asks of him. This seems to be part of the same behaviour.

But Zipporah is having none of it. The daughter of a Cohen Midian, a Midianite Priest, she immediately recognises the danger and the need to act. She becomes a Priestess, performing the ritual that will avert the danger.

Zipporah takes a flint and circumcises her son – presumably Gershom her first born rather than Eliezer.        She touches/approaches ‘his feet’ She declares “כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי:”

It is a priestly ritual with an act and a declaration. The blood seems to be the sacrifice that propitiates God and also binds her to the divine. It also seems to save the life of Moses and/or Gershom.

What is a “hatan damim”. Often translated as a “bridegroom of blood”, it may refer to the newly circumcised Gershom (a child being circumcised is described as Hatan); or to Moses (Hatan can mean bridegroom) in that this act is the one that really binds them together as equal partners in the work of God; or even to God – does she bind God to her in her ritual action where she offers the blood of her own first born? And here is God the Hatan (bridegroom) of the Hatan (father in law)? Has she bought into Moses’ relationship with God by virtue of circumcising her son?

Whatever happens in this night, God withdraws the danger, and Zipporah clarifies that the ritual is to do with the act of circumcision: חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת

One might think that this act by Zipporah is enough to give her status and place in the leadership going into Egypt, but bizarrely it appears to have the opposite effect. There is no record that she ever goes to Egypt, and no record that she is part of the events there, and no record that she is part of the Exodus.  Instead she disappears from the text until all these events are over, and then we have an insight into where she had gone.

In this sidra (exodus 18) we find that Yitro, the priest of Midian and hatan (father in law) of Moses , has heard about God having brought the Israelites out of Egypt and he brings Zipporah and their two sons to Moses

We are told

 וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ:

Yitro, the Hoten of Moses, took Zipporah the wife of Moses, after he had sent her away.

The word for sending away here is the same as that used for divorcing a wife (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Had Moses divorced Zipporah? Had he sent her back to her father’s house in order to protect her from what was to happen in Egypt? Was the sending away an act of shielding love or of punitive revenge? We cannot know. But we do know that Yitro feels confident enough to bring her and the two sons to Moses at the mountain where God will be revealed to Israel.

Is he ensuring his daughter is able to be present at the giving of Torah? Is he ensuring that his grandchildren take their appropriate place in Israelite history? Torah stays silent on the subject. Neither Zipporah nor her two sons with Moses will have any role in the future narrative. Moses is the ultimate high achieving father/husband who has no time for family – everything is focused on his love of his work/God – a personal life is irrelevant.

Poor Zipporah. Moses isn’t even interested to see the family. He welcomes Yitro his father in law, he performs all the social niceties with him, he brings him into the tent and updates him about what has happened and Yitro behaves like a priest. Once again there is a meal – they eat bread together as when Moses first met Yitro.

And Zipporah fades out of the narrative. She is, we assume, at Sinai – but Moses is determined to stay focussed and pure and instructs men and women not to be together for the days of preparation. Their relationship – never close or personal – is now over. Only with the story in the book of Numbers of the complaining about Moses (second) wife being Cushite brings her back to mind. But even here it is not clear – is this a new wife or the same one? There are no children. Moses is not interested in relationships. He is married to his job, to God, to his position as leader.

Zipporah is a woman who, like the other women in the early chapters of Exodus, saves the life of Moses and allows him to grow and mature into the person able to fulfil God’s work. From the midwives who facilitate his birth and his mother who carefully hides him where he will be found, through Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh, the protective function is carried out by women – a relic maybe of an earlier tradition of guardian goddess, that has been subverted by the paternal and patriarchal characteristic of the Hebrew God.

Zipporah forms no close relationship with a peer. She cuts a lonely figure despite being one of seven sisters.  Her marriage is loveless and cold. She is given no obvious honour or status, does not seem to have any contact with her sister-in-law Miriam (unless one reads Miriam’s complaint about the Cushite wife as being one of sisterly solidarity with Zipporah – a reading that would be quite a stretch).  She stands alone, but she is powerful. She takes on God and makes God back off. She protects her young son and saves his life. She protects her husband and saves his life too. I can only hope she got more pleasure from Gershom and Eliezer, that they honoured and respected her and understood just what a brave and competent woman she was. I like to think of her rising to the priesthood, an early role model who understood ritual and liturgical formula and could use them to best effect.

Whoever she was and whatever happened to her, her name gives us some optimism. Like a sparrow she flies unnoticed, getting on with her life, able to see from her own perspective. As psalm 84 reminds us

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר ׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר ׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֢תָה אֶפְרֹ֫חֶ֥יהָ אֶת־מִ֭זְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מַ֝לְכִּ֗י וֵאלֹהָֽי:

Even a sparrow finds a home and a swallow a nest where she may lay her young, Your altars Adonai tzeva’ot, my sovereign and my ruler.

Zipporah the priestess of Midian both challenges God and is brought by God into the inner circle of God. Where Moses fails her, let’s hope God supports her. She is at Sinai and she is unencumbered by her husband. Who knows what she could have achieved that bible has chosen not to record.

 

Shifra & Puah, midwives of our history. Parashat Shemot names some strong women without whom Moses would not have survived.

After a dearth of women in the last sidra, the beginning of the book of Exodus simply teems with them.  Many are unnamed and described only in their relationship to men : We meet the daughter of the tribe of Levi who marries a man of Levi at the beginning of Chapter 2. In the dangerous world of a Pharaoh determined to suppress the Israelite population by killing every male child not only has a baby but hides him for three months, before making a vessel of bulrushes and placing the child in it to be caught in the reeds at the river’s edge.

We meet the sister of this child who watches to see what will happen.  She observes  the daughter of Pharaoh who comes with her maids to bathe in the river. Seeing the little vessel  she sends one maid to fetch it and on finding  the baby expresses compassion for him. The sister comes from her hiding place and suggests to the Pharaoh’s daughter that she can find a wet-nurse.  On gaining approval for this suggestion the sister calls the child’s mother who agrees to nurse the child in exchange for money from the Pharaoh’s daughter.

The baby is the centre of the story here, but there are three women who contrive to save his life, two of whom we will later learn are Yocheved his mother and Miriam his sister. The daughter of Pharaoh remains anonymous.

Once the baby is grown, he is brought back to the daughter of Pharaoh who names him Moses, because, bible reports, “ I drew him out of the water”.  While we may know that the blood relatives of the baby are present, at this moment there is a formal adoption of the child into the Egyptian fold.

The next thing we know is that Moses, having killed an Egyptian taskmaster  for hurting an Israelite man, is fleeing for his life from the anger of Pharaoh, and now we meet seven more unidentified women – the seven daughters of Reuel, priest of Midian.

One of these women will shortly be named as she is given to Moses for a wife – Zipporah. And Zipporah gives birth to a boy, Gershom, named for Moses’ alienation: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.‘ It seems that Moses does not circumcise his son or bring him into the brit/covenant of Abraham, either because this is unknown to him or because his alienation extends to his relationship with the Israelites. When, after his meeting with God in the wilderness, he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews, his life is once again in danger, it is Zipporah who saves him. In an obscure passage “God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it as his feet, and she said ‘surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me”. So God let him alone, and she said “A bridegroom of blood in regard to circumcision”

Two more figures make up the set of women in this passage who surround and support Moses – the midwives Shifra and Puah.

Shifra and Puah are midwives in Egypt. They are therefore at the cutting-edge of the Royal decree to ensure that all the Hebrew baby boys are murdered at birth.  The survival of the Israelite people is dependent on their actions. Shifra and Puah disobey the Royal decree, because , the text tells us, they feared/revered God. When called to account by Pharaoh this is not what they tell him, instead they say the Hebrew women are like animals (חָיוֹת) and before the midwives can get to them they have already delivered their babies. The narrator then tells us that  “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that God made households  בָּתִּים for them” – a reference to both material goods and to children.

The story (and the chapter) ends with Pharoah’s decree repeated, but this time he broadens his audience from the midwives to the whole people: And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (1:22).  While he does not challenge the midwives’ version of the story he extends the diktat to all of the people.

So who are these women who pivot our history so decisively and so bravely?

While the Masoretic tradition assumes that they are themselves Hebrew women, this is by no means clear.  Their names are understood as more likely to be Semitic than Egyptian. Shifra (from the root שפר) means something along the lines of beauty/clarity but the root also gives us the noun “shofar” the horn that is blown to call to attention. The name Puah is likely also to mean to shine/beauty but neither of these names is easy to translate or to mine meaning from – or even identity – from.

The Talmud tells us “Rav and Shmuel [interpreted the verse העבריות למילדות ] One said: a woman and her daughter, and one said: a woman and her mother in-law. He who said a woman and a daughter: they were Yocheved and Miriam. He who said a women and her mother in law: they were  Yocheved and Elisheva.” (BT Sotah 11b)

From this interpretation emerged all the midrashim and commentary (and Masoretic vocalisation) that Shifra and Puah were both Hebrew women and of the family of Moses.

But the interpretation conflicts both with what the text tells us and with the emotional ‘sense’ of the piece. Would Pharaoh really ask Hebrew women to murder the baby boys of their fellow women?  Surely this is a task he would entrust to women from another ethnic identity? And when the midwives explain to Pharaoh why they are not fulfilling his order, they talk about the Hebrew women as being unlike Egyptian women, saying they are ‘as animals’. There is no sense that either they or Pharaoh are doing anything other than seeing the Hebrew women as ‘other’ than, and less than them – the Egyptians.

And what about the information that God dealt well with the midwives and rewarded them [with households]? From everything else we know about Miriam and Yocheved, they were not rewarded materially, nor did they become the heads of households. The correlation simply does not ring true.

So why does the tradition speak of Shifra and Puah as being not only not Egyptian women who revered God, but also tries to identify them with the Hebrew women who protected Moses’ life?

From a modern perspective we need to ask  why the tradition chooses to narrow down how the text is read so that named and autonomous Egyptian women become Hebrew women whose introduction to us is only in relation to the men. And also we need to question the erasure of the real identity of Shifra and Puah as Egyptian women who revere God and who choose to serve God and rebel against the Pharaoh from their own belief systems and through their own agency.

The text of the Hebrew bible – at least the consonants of the Hebrew bible, was agreed upon by the second century CE. But the vowels of that text – which could dramatically alter meaning – were not agreed upon at that time. It took the work of the ba’alei ha’mesorah, groups of scholarly scribes working from about the 7th to the 10th century CE to finally standardise the grammar of the text – its vowels, the breaks (verses and paragraphs), the accenting/cantillation marks.

This is important because the identity of the women as either Hebrew or Egyptian relies on the vocalisation of the letters of the two words        למילדות.   העבריות    Depending on the vowels we can either read the words as “to the Hebrew midwives” or as “to the midwives of the Hebrew women” (grammatical point – whether there is a patach under the lamed and a dagesh in the mem or a chirik under the lamed and no dagesh)

There are other texts which operate on the vocalisation of the text as “midwives of the Hebrew women” – ie that understand Shifra and Puah to be Egyptian. The Septuagint, for example, the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek which was completed in the 3rd Century understands the text this way. Josephus in his “Antiquities” (1st Century) describes the women as Egyptian midwives who served the Hebrew women. Some other biblical commentators also understand the text to mean that the women were Egyptian (eg Abarbanel, Judah heHasid). Most interestingly there are fragments of texts which specifically name Shifra and Puah as Egyptian “righteous women who converted to Judaism” (Yalkut Shimoni does so (@13th Century), and there is a fragment from the Cairo genizah (@10th Century) which also lists Shifra and Puah as righteous gentile women who helped the Israelite people and who revered God.

Since the Masoretes vocalised the text to make the midwives Hebrew women, and Rashi follows the tradition from BT  Sotah we find ourselves corralled to seeing them not as brave Egyptian women who followed their consciences and put their faith in God, but as Hebrew women doing exactly what we would expect them to do, and indeed see them as the sister and mother of Moses whose function was entirely about protecting him as an infant.

Shifra and Puah, two brave women who stood up against the powers in their country, who saw human beings where the Pharaoh saw a population of migrants threatening his country, who revered God and acted both morally and with compassion, remind us that we are not alone as Jews. Through them and through others like them we see that God is not just ‘ours’, but is a universal God with whom we Jews have a particular relationship (as other have a particular, and different relationship). Shifra and Puah, whose names describe beauty, are also women who radiate morality and who call us to arms, to fight for what is right.

So why was the agency of two righteous gentile women erased in this way? Because they were foreign? Because they were women? Because they were necessary to Moses’ survival and pivotal in the narrative arc? Because they took risks and made their own decisions against the power of the Pharaoh?

Is the erasure of their identities and their active choices that changed our history forever  down to conspiracy or to accident?  I leave the reader to decide.

Beha’alotecha: the silencing of Miriam and the Cushite woman

And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.” (12:1)

 

 

She is the ultimate object, critical to the narrative but without voice or name. She exists only in passivity – the woman that Moses had taken.  Ha’Isha HaKushite, black and female, her presence in the text is enough to irritate Miriam and Aaron, but not enough to make any statement of her own.  Only her femaleness and her blackness are remarkable, and both are cause to keep her powerless. The unseen narrator sets her up against Miriam, the powerful sister of the man to whom she is married, a woman earlier described as a prophetess – yet Miriam too is demeaned and diminished in this interaction.

 

Framed between the story of the false prophesying of Eldad and Medad, and the divine statement that only Moses’ prophecy is entirely trusted, this is a story about real and illusory power and the two women are ciphers, literally seen in black and white, silenced .

 

Miriam is described as challenging Moses “on account of the Cushite woman he has taken as wife”, even while the speech reported to us is about the equal prophetic status of the triumvirate of siblings: “Has the Eternal indeed spoken only with Moses?  Has God not spoken also with us?’    And it is noticeable that Miriam alone is punished, even though Aaron had joined her in asserting their status in relation to Moses. Why does the narrator divert our attention towards race and gender when the issue is about the leadership of Moses and the relative status of his sibling co-leaders?

 

We never learn more about the Cushite woman, about when Moses married her, about her story and how she came to be with the Israelites and the mixed multitude leaving Egypt. We know that ancient civilisations were racially diverse and there is a buried history of black Egyptians which only now is being recognised by scholars, but our modern categories of race are not those of the ancient world. Her description as Cushite signifies only that this is not Zipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife.

 

It is sometimes said that the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman proves that God has a sense of humour, that Miriam who complained about this black interloper is given her comeuppance by God when her skin is turned white as snow with the impurity of tzara’at. And her anger at her relative loss of leadership status leads to her exclusion from the community, put outside of the camp until her skin heals once more. Comical reversals of fortune.

 

But there is a murkier thread to this tale. For now both women are silenced, both passive recipients of the narrators attention.  Aaron, who confesses their joint sin, is not only unpunished for his part in challenging Moses’ authority but joins together with him in prayer for her healing, leading the people who are anxiously awaiting her return to camp. Both women are now out of action, their skin colour and their gender apparently rendering them unsuitable for a role in the public space. The power of the men is enhanced.

 

A Jewish friend of mine, married to a black woman, once told me that their fights usually ended up with her telling him he could always take off his kippah and ‘pass’ in society, but she could never take off her skin, echoing Jeremiah who asks “Can an Ethiopian/Cushite person change their skin, or a leopard their spots?” (Jer13:23) Some things about us are the first thing that people see, and sometimes those people never get past that attribute. Never notice the person inhabiting that skin.  Sometimes they dismiss the person because of the characteristic, ignoring them or silencing them, putting them ‘outside the camp’, not hearing their voice or recognising their cause.

Whatever we might wish, society is neither colour nor gender blind. But noticing characteristics should not lead to disadvantaging their bearers.

 

The prophet Amos had God ask “Are you not like the Children of the Ethiopians to me, O Children of Israel?”  Bible reminds us that our common humanity is recognised by God who sees beyond the outer aspects. But it also reminds us that we often fail to see that shared humanity for ourselves, that we categorise and judge by gender and by race, and those who are so judged can find themselves trapped without voice or power to change the perception.

 

We never find out the fate of the unnamed woman from Ethiopia, but we do have one shaft of light at the end of this story. The people wait for Miriam to be healed and brought back to the camp before they move on. She may be chastened, but Miriam is back in the public space, and one day she may yet sing with her unnamed black sister, their voices raised up – and heard and responded to by all.

 

 

First published in Jerusalem Report The People and the Book 2015

image “Miriam The Leper” by Rose Rosenthal http://imajewnation.org/the-museum/past-events/freedom-imagined-freedom-lived/part-3/