Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The source of Miriam's Well

One of the enduring legends of the Old Testement (1) is Miriam's Well. This miraculous source of water is believed to have first appeared at Refidim, to have followed the Israelites during their forty years in the desert, and to have run dry immediately after Miriam's death. Here are the verses that support (or, as the modern interpreters would say, created) this legend:

Numbers 20: 1-2
In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community...

This juxtaposition is what "told" the ancient interpreters that the water had been in Miriam's merit. (thus "Miriam's Well" ) Why else would it have disappeared upon her death? (2)

Exodus 17: 6-7
So Moses did this in the sight of the elders (3) of Israel And he called the place Massah and Meribah

Numbers 20:13
These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he showed himself holy among them.

The first verse is from the story in Exodus, when Moshe hits the rock. The second verse is from the story in Numbers when Moshe hits the rock again, despite being told to speak to it (4) The first story took place in Refidim, which was renamed Massah and Meribah; the second occurred forty years later at Kadesh. So how is it that waters from the second story are called the "Waters of Meribah?" And, come to think of it, what had the Israelites done for water for forty years? No complaints are recorded. They seem to have had plenty for themselves and for their flocks. According to the ancient interpreters, the verses spoke for themselves. The water-giving-rock from Refidim must have followed the people. This is why the waters of the second story are called "Waters of Meribah" That's where they were from.

Modern interpreters, on the other hand, are not kind to the old story or the old readings. They say the two accounts of Moshe hitting the rock are simply an example of a narrative doublets, one of dozens that appear in the Old Testament.(5) Moshe at Refidim belongs to one source, and Moshe at Kadesh belongs to another. Interestingly, the second story, on the basis of vocabulary, is assigned to P, and P is a source that in many other places seems to denigrate Moshe. Here, too, the moderns would say, P has recast a story in a way that reflects poorly on Moshe. In the E story, now part of Exodus, Moshe is a hero for hitting the rock and bringing forth water. In the P story told as part of Numbers, his heroism is diminished.

(1) I don't mean "legend" in a disparaging way, but in the dictionary sense of "an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical."
(2) I don't know why water couldn't continue to be given in her merit, even after her death. Nowadays, we ask for things in the merit of our ancestors, including the Patriarchs. The ancient interpreters seem to have had a different understanding of how this worked. Apparently, we can continue to expect things in the merit of Jacob 3000+ years after his demise, for instance, but the merit of Miriam ran out the moment she died. I don't get it.
(3) That is, Moshe hit the rock. The verses are from the end of that story
(4) This is one of maybe 10 explanations of what actually happened there. See this for more.
(5) A narrative doublet is when the same information is given twice. The two accounts of the Ten Commandments are a famous example, but there are many others. Moderns say this is evidence of different textual traditions.


1 comment:

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