The Second Exodus

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A painting of Adam and Eve.

The role of women and matriarchs as leaders is evidenced throughout the Bible (and Torah). Credit: Creative Commons / Tilemahos Efthimiadis


The story of salvation from Egypt is the founding story of Israel’s faith and religion. Every year, the Jewish people convenes and celebrates the Passover Seder – a ritual feast involving a retelling of the biblical story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
Rachel Adler argues in her book “Engendering Judaism” that the biblical story gives the deity a body, and indeed, the hegemonic text emphasizes the story that gave divinity and the leader of salvation a male body. But beyond the hegemonic display, serving a patriarchal culture, a different presentation of events dwells in the text of salvation, one that gives divinity a female body, and characterizes the forces of salvation as female corporeal-spiritual ones.
The beginning of the story is in fact a testosterone-filled competition between two belligerent fathers – the God of Israel and Pharaoh; the two men are playing a game just “to spite”. In the book of Exodus chapter 1, the king is depicted as calling to his sons, the Egyptian people: “Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous” (Exodus 1:10). Pharaoh fears the fighting capabilities of the Israeli males, and therefore tortures the people of Israel. The other father, God, as depicted by the male hegemonic text, declares that he causes Pharaoh to be cruel to the people of Israel, so that he can punish him severely later on. God extends the suffering, so that he can strike a blow and show his might – he will prove to Pharaoh who is greater… God and Moses strike ‘with a strong hand and an outstretched arm’ – and the hint of a male erection is quite obvious…
But, in contrast with the male arm wrestling game, another structure of powers is revealed – a maternal-female one by nature. This is a time in which the male element is weakened and enslaved – the sons are thrown to the Nile, the male chain of continuity is ceased and the men are deprived of their sources of power and sink into passive despair (one such proof is Amram, Moses’ father, who is not heard in the text, nor involved in saving Moses). This is the chance for women to show their power. When the center stage is free of a silencing and disciplining male presence, women can express themselves and be heard. And indeed, it is possible to see how expressions of female activism are multiplying in the text. The midwives are operating out of a profound spiritual belief (“But the midwives feared God” – Exodus 1:17). They choose to disobey a royal decree and revive the male babies. They basically offer an alternative to the killing spree waged by the fathers, and offer a commitment to life and to the nurturing of life. The word “life” is repeated again and again (“saved the men children alive” appears twice [verses 17, 18], and the word “lively” is mentioned when referring to the Hebrew women [verse 19]).
In addition, Miriam and Yocheved act together to offer the horizon of hope and revival as they save the baby Moses. They come up with a rescue plan and continue the act of rescue initiated by the midwives. The female action and cooperation continue, as Pharaoh’s daughter understands that Moses is a Hebrew boy, (i.e. an enemy that she is supposed to kill based on the male principle), and chooses the female-maternal principle. She takes pity on the baby and wants to revive him, while disobeying her father’s vicious decree. Both she and her female servants form a female reviving partnership with the daughters of Israel.
Although the hegemonic voice of the text creates a sense that the women are motivated by instinctive maternal emotions anchored in the private sphere, the feminist perspective may illuminate the actions of the women as a public revolutionary political act, launching the revolution of freedom. It is a female opposition that preserves life, as opposed to the destroying male principle. The female insistence on the option of life and revival, despite the long life of servitude that enslaves the mind, reflects a national and spiritual vision of birth. This alternative holds the power and courage to imagine a different future without slavery and tyranny.
In this female version, the leader of the struggle for freedom is Miriam. A thorough examination of her character reveals a female spiritual leadership alternative. First of all, her name is “Miriam the prophetess”, a name that according to the prophet Micha1, positions her as Moses’ equal in the proximity to God. Secondly, the image of Miriam was preserved in the Jewish tradition as a female and spiritual source that nourishes and quenches thirst. She is perceived as the vitality well of the people – a magic well that accompanies the people of Israel. Miriam’s watery mobile well is the female equivalent of the pillars of fire and cloud that, according to the hegemonic biblical tradition, accompanied the congregation of Israel, to guide and protect them.2 Opposite the pillar, a clear phallic symbol, water is a life-giving element, of movement and flow typical of the rhythms of the female body.
The water element appears again in the miracle of the sea. Buber argues that the miracle originates from the natural phenomenon of the tides, and that the synchronization and timing between this phenomenon and the crossing of the sea, is in fact, the miraculous element in this event. If the timing of the rhythm of the tides underlies the miracle of the sea crossing, then the origin of this timing, based on the mythical perception of the Ancient World, is found in the bodily rhythms of the women of the congregation crossing the sea. The phenomenon of the tides is one of the most vivid symbols of the female cyclical phenomenon.3 Female menstruation is perceived as the tides of the fluids in the female body, synchronized with the changing of the moon and the cosmic movement of the oceans.
The women, their bodily-spiritual powers and the spiritual power of their Leader, Miriam, must have been perceived, at least in feminine traditions, as playing a central and essential role in the miracle and victory. Femaleness is the force and inspiration of the synchronization and timing of the crossing of the sea with the times of the tides.
A collage of feminist excerpts.

Credit: Creative Commons / Louise Woodcock


It is now possible to better understand the context in which Miriam and the women start singing, drumming and dancing in the face of the miracle of the sea. The singing, drumming and dancing appear, seemingly, as a female folkloristic expression of joy, but dancing and drumming are powerful rituals with deep spiritual meanings in the ancient world and in ancient Israel. The archetypical meaning of the tambourine and the female dance and song reinforce the notion that Miriam’s song and dances have a fierce spiritual and leadership significance. The tambourine combined with song and dance creates a chant of creation that is perceived as breaking through barriers, generating changes in the physical and the consciousness and strengthening spiritual power.4 Dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine is designed in the ancient world to shake the “red vase in the female belly 5“, i.e. to activate transformative energy of life of the female uterus, which are related to the cosmic movement of the oceans.
In addition to the shaking of the ‘uterine vase’ and the movement of the seas, the image of the female leader drumming, singing and dancing has another mythical meaning as the archetype of the ‘skeleton woman’, recurrent in the mythic and ritual tradition in many cultures.
The ‘skeleton woman’ is a figure of the woman, whose spiritual power emerges following death and great destruction. According to the archetypal story, during a time of disaster, when only skeletons and bones remain, scattered and broken, and there is no longer hope, she holds the ember of hope, collecting and gathering the buried bones and the dismantled skeletons buried under the sand. And thenshe sings to them.6 While singing, the song of the female profound soul restores the broken pieces, and the bones grow flesh, skin and tendons. They join together, the fractures are mended and life slowly comes into being reborn again.
The skeleton woman appears in her male version, in Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. The clear presence of this vision in the biblical story proves the conscious presence of the archetypal ‘Skeleton Woman’ in the cultural past of ancient Israel. The Skeleton Woman is looking for an everlasting life force and activates it with her body movements and singing. Therefore, her singing, dancing and drumming are not merely a ceremony for giving thanks, but a transformative spiritual ceremony, heralding change, rehabilitation and rebirth, as well as creating them. They are the prophecy and the ‘setting off’ and activation of the fulfillment of this prophecy. This is what Miriam actually does with her singing. she presents and realizes a very similar vision to the Ezekiel’s vision of the Dry Bones – she gathers the fractured bones of the people of Israel, after the agonizing life of slavery, heals the pain and desperation with her song-prayer and delivers the message of revival, in which the people of Israel are reborn into their faith and to a new consciousness as a sovereign people.
 

1 The Prophet Micah says: “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). According to Micah, God considers Miriam as a messenger equivalent to Moses and Aaron in the process of the Exodus. in addition, the Book of the Chronicles also reflects Miriam’s importance as a leader equal to Moses by including her in the same spiritual level as Moses: “The children of Amram: Aaron, Moses, and Miriam” (1 Chronicles 5:29).
2 Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz ameuchad, 1996) p. 122.
3 Erich Neumann, The Great Mother; Ruth Fishman, Female Symbolism; Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, The Wise Wound: The Myths, Realities and Meanings of Menstruation (New York: Grove Press, 1978).
4 Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Woman Who Run with Wolves (Tel-Aviv: Modan, 1997), p. 148.
5 Ibid., p. 149.
6 Ibid., p. 39.
Dr. Dvora Lederman-Daniely is a lecturer and researcher in the field of Jewish feminism. She focuses on uncovering the female versions of biblical stories.She can be reached atdvoradl@gmail.com.