When I was a pre-teen deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, I had a Sunday School teacher who was very committed to us *knowing* the Bible. Which, while not uncommon in the sense that most evangelical kids are expected memorize vast swathes of scripture, was a bit more pragmatic for him. And so, at the age of about 12, I found myself sitting with ten or so of my peers at folding tables under florescent lights while this old white man had us enact a Passover Seder. Now, given that I don’t think I met a Jew until I was in my twenties, I certainly didn’t know then how accurate it was, and I don’t remember enough now to say really how it was presented, but I do remember that it was the first time I really got that the Bible was about a people very foreign to myself.
The place where I grew up is known as Little Egypt, and as it is part of the Bible-thumping South, much is often made of the Exodus story. But it was all very abstract to most of us, I think- we lived with AC and four-wheelers, trailer parks and hush puppies, not heat and camels, tents and matzo. And so, sitting there with my paper plate of bitter herbs, and hearing the questions read, I finally got a glimpse of what it meant, that these people were different from me.
I suspect that one has to be raised Jewish to fully understand the significance of Passover, or at the very least, be a convert. I know that I don’t get it, not really. I can understand it, somewhat, intellectually, as a marker of identity- this is how we know that we are God’s People. But emotionally, spiritually, it’s not my background, and so I’m sure there’s mountains of meaning that simply pass me by.
And so the angel of the Lord slays all of the firstborn, and finally the Israelites, having taking wealth from their Egyptian neighbors and overlords, gather all their children and animals, and head out in a hurry. The commemoration of the Passover is instituted, and the bones of Joseph dug up and brought along, but God knows what humanity is like, so instead of going along by the sea cities, where they might get challenged and decide they had it better in Egypt, they go the more straight-forward route- straight through the Red/Reed Sea.
Then, again, the Lord shows a trickster’s cunning and a massive ego to boot, deciding to spur Pharaoh and his army to pursue the Israelites, even into the sea. Once there, he remorselessly drowns them in a bid to establish the greatness of his name. And thus we are given what is perhaps the oldest bit of the Bible: the song of Miriam.
The song of Miriam is a small couplet, closely following on the heels of the later-authored Song of the Sea or Song of Moses, the long form poem found in ch 15.
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
Miriam is an ancestress very dear to me; she is sister to Moses, saves him when he is pulled from the river. She follows him when he and their brother turn against Pharaoh, and is called a Prophetess. It is her song that is the oldest, and it is she, when she dies and is buried, that will be the site of a spring of water in the desert. She’s one of my name saints; my middle name is Marie, derived from the Hebrew Mrym, and though I was told all my life that it means “bitter”, it wasn’t till I was an adult that I learned it means “brine”, like salt, like tears, like the sea.
Miriam goes on to be an important figure, both in Exodus, and in modern feminist Judaism, but it’s here that we hear her first, in a song that echoes from more than 3000 years ago in a far distant land on the edge of a salty sea-
וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם: שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם