Miriam’s Deep Bittersweet Waters:
The Alchemy of Jealousy

Miriam’s Deep Bittersweet Waters: The Alchemy of Jealousy
Type: Oil
Dimensions: Width/Height (in inches) 36/24
Year: 2006

This painting fuses multiple pivotal stories of Miriam’s life with the ritualistic, priestly “trial by ordeal” inflicted on a jealously suspected, adulterous wife, a “Sotah”. We shall see below that this trial must have been derived from an amalgam of Miriam’s own “loshen harah” (jealous slander), her dual personality, and her ensuing divine punishment.

All of the major events in Miriam’s life are associated with water. In Numbers, she is first seen watching over her infant brother Moses after he is placed in the bulrushes by the banks of the river (Nile). She courageously suggests to the Egyptian princess that Moses’ mother suckle the child, thus being responsible for brokering and facilitating the safe transfer of Moses to the Egyptians thereby saving his life, and ultimately leading to the redemption of her people. After the Israelites’ successful crossing of the Red Sea (another body of water), she takes a tambourine in her hand and leads the women in a celebratory dance singing “Sing to God because he redeemed us, the horses and chariots he drowned in the sea”.

Miriam is portrayed in this painting as the blue watery figure in the right who is being imbibed by the suspected adulteress (much more about that later). She is blue and is the color of water which is the root meaning of her name “MRYM”. The suffix “YM” means “water” or “sea”. The prefix “MR” means “bitter” in Hebrew, thus with this translation MRYM means “bitter water”. If the prefix MR is translated in Aramaic it means “master”, thus MRYM would mean Master of the waters (sweet, or at the very least, not bitter).If we combine translations we have “bittersweet water”, or dual functioning waters, which is the water used in the Sotah trial (to be explained below).In this painting, a tambourine is slung over Miriam’s shoulder. The lyrics of her song are written in blue on the tambourine.

All of Miriam’s actions in her early and middle life mentioned above are good i.e. blessed, holy or sweet. If we now advance roughly forty years into the future, towards the end of the Israelites’ desert journey, Miriam behaves in a bad (bitter, unholy) way. She along with her brother Aaron, challenge Moses’ leadership. We know it is primarily her initiative to do so because her name is mentioned first, before Aaron, which is exceptional credit given to a biblical woman. Specifically, the Torah states (Numbers XII) “and Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman (wife) he took, for it is a Cushite woman that he took. And they said, is it only Moses that God speaks to? Doesn’t God speak to us also?” This last sentence is written in blue on Miriam’s yellow hand at the right bottom of the painting.

Clearly Miriam is jealous of Moses, her younger brother, and expresses this pent up jealousy by challenging his leadership. She can only confidently challenge him now because she believes that Moses has done something indisputably wrong, and can probably convince many other people of this theory. What is wrong with taking a Cushite wife? There is no ban against polygamy, hence it couldn’t be that. It’s not because she’s not an Israelite, neither is his Midianite wife. Only an Amalekite or perhaps a Moabite would be off limits based on religious ideology not ethnic or national identity. Some scholars say that the Cushite wife is actually Tziporah the Midianite, his original wife, and the term Cushite means beautiful, and does not refer to her national/geographic origin. This interpretation hardly makes sense because people in the Torah are typically referred to by their nationalities, and there is no way to confuse Cush and Midian. Furthermore the term “Cushite” does not appear elsewhere in the Torah as an adjective for beautiful. Also, if Miriam and Aaron objected to Tziporah at this stage of the narration, they’re about forty years, two kids, and who knows how many grandkids too late.

One could say that there was in fact nothing wrong with what Moses did; that this accusation is a mere pretense for a power struggle and an attempted coup. But the term “took a Cushite wife” is repeated twice in one sentence for emphasis. This clearly implies that Miriam would never have had the temerity to question Moses’ leadership unless she had something really good to pin on Moses. She may in fact had nothing on Moses other than circumstantial evidence which would indemnify Moses i.e. something believable but not necessarily provable, and yet scurrilous and scandalous. I suspect that the only thing that she may slanderously be alluding to is that he may have pulled a “King David” i.e. he may have taken a woman for a wife that wasn’t his, either via straight out adultery, or more likely after the presumed arranged death of her husband, quasi-adultery. As humble and righteous a man as Moses was, it would be believable but not necessarily true, that such a politically powerful man like the future King David could claim any woman for his own, and at least try to get away with it. This brings us to the crux of this painting, described in Numbers V regarding the spirit and teaching of (Torat) jealousy regarding a suspected adulteress, a Sotah, one who goes off the path. The root definition of Sotah is straying (from the proper path), very close linguistically to the root definition of Satan.

Portrayed in this painting is Moses’ second wife, the Cushite clearly with African features, undergoing the temple Ordeal of Jealousy. Written linearly on her forehead in red ancient Ethiopic script is the word “Cushite”. In this ritual, as described in the Torah, the High Priest takes a combination of Holy water; {this is written in yellow on Miriam’s feet in the top right of the painting), and mixes it with the Holy dust of the tabernacle floor. He then dissolves in this water a written oath which states “God make you a curse and an oath among your nation, when God makes your thigh to fall off and makes your uterus swell. And this cursing water will come in to your uterus to swell your uterus and to make your thigh fall off.” These words are written on Miriam’s body in red. The narrative continues “And the accused woman answers, amen, amen”. This is written in red on the clouds near the Sotah’s mouth.

The cursing water in Hebrew is described as “May hamarim hamarrerim”, “the bitter water that curses”. The word “the bitter”, “Hamarim”, is spelled identical to the word “the Miriam” (HMRYM). We thus read these words “may hamarim hamarrerim” as “may haMiriam hamarrerim”, or “waters of Miriam that curse”. These words are written in dark blue on Miriam’s breasts. Indeed Miriam spoke “lashon Hara” {slander) against not only Moses but against his Cushite wife. Her jealousy led her to speak of something questionable as certain hence she engaged in slander.

This painting portrays Miriam as the bitter cursing water. She is enlarging the Sotah’s uterus making her belly swell, and is shoving her thighs down leading to their separation from her body, as the curse explicitly states. Paradoxically the solvent water which is “mayim kedoshim” (Holy water), after the holy dust and the oath (the solutes) are dissolved in it, is transformed into “Mayim hamarim hamarrerim”, cursing bitter water {Miriam water); the water that the Cushite/Sotah and all future Sotahs are forced to drink for as along as the Tabernacle, and subsequently the two Temples stood. According to the Talmud, the Sanhedrin always tried to convince the Sotah to confess rather than to undergo this Ordeal. Later on during the time of the Temple, this practice fell into disuse presumably because of increased immorality.

If the accused Sotah is guilty and is indeed an adulteress, her belly {uterus} will swell, her thigh will fall off and she will be a pariah (as in this painting). If she is indeed innocent, those things won’t happen, she returns to her husband who is now cleansed of his jealousy, and they live happily ever after (ha, ha). Thus this Miriam water, which has a dual nature, wherein it is at once Holy and at once Accursed, has the magical capacity to discern the inner thoughts of the accused as it glides down the esophagus, proclaiming the innocent, innocent (holy) and the guilty, guilty (accursed). Thus the water is bitter/sweet, either sweet for the innocent or bitter for the guilty, like Miriam who is either sweet when saving her brother and leading the people in dance, or bitter when speaking jealous slander challenging Moses.

This magical alchemy utilizing Holy water as a solvent for other key solutes which when mixed together has the dual and yet opposite effects of proclaiming a person or object as holy or accursed, bears a very strong resemblance to another temple ritual based on the alchemy of the “Parah Aduma”, the “Red Heifer”. In this ritual the ashes of a red heifer are mixed with Holy water, a red string, cedar and hyssop. As opposed to the alchemy of the Sotah water (pun on soda water) above, it purifies the impure and impurifies the pure. This red heifer water likewise has dual functions which are different in that it reverses the holy or unholy nature of what it comes into contact with, and turns it into its polar opposite. This water too is given the magical capacity to discern or sense pure and impure.

In that biblical chapter I believe the basis of the “parah ademua” (which is considered an unexplainable Law) is quite readily explainable. Right after the description of this ritual, the Torah discusses the Edomites (the red nation) and how the Israelites had to ask their permission to go through their lands. They also promised not to drink their water (Eduma water). The “para aduma”, the “red heifer” is clearly symbolic of the “red Esau (Edom)”, who has somewhat divine status (Para/ Ox, See description for Moses: rock and rage) and is capable of purifying Jacob, transforming him into Israel when Jacob greets the spirit of Esau in the form of a struggling angel, or depurifying Jacob, transforming him into Esau, when Jacob dons Esau’s clothing to fool his father Isaac. The red string and the wooden cedar and hyssop dissolved in the red heifer solution may represent Esau’s accompanying bow (wood and string), and arrows (wood). Thus the red heifer water is symbolic of the intra and extra uterine eternal struggle between the two twin titans, Jacob and Esau, locked in fierce battle, Good cloaking himself with Evil, and Evil cloaking himself with Good until no one can distinguish which of the two is Jacob and which is Esau, which one is Good and which one is Evil. In other words the red heifer water defines humanity to a tee, and when sprinkled can turn Jacob {pure) into Esau (impure), or Esau (impure) into Jacob (pure). Alternatively, it can turn Jacob (impure) into Israel (pure), the Esau angel (pure/Pnee El) into Esau (impure/Gdee Ez).

Back to the main story, “Torat Kina”, the teachings of the laws of Jealousy: The jealous husband portrayed on the far right behind the Cushite/Sotah takes her to the priest. The husband is portrayed prying her mouth open and forcibly holding her down. The clouds right next to him are inscribed with the words “spirit of Jealousy” in blue. He can be construed as the jealous husband from whom Moses may or may not have taken his wife, leading to Miriam’s slander. The woman is in front of the elevated walkway leading to the alter with four horns that are soaked in blood as usual. The sacrifice, dry wheat without oil or incense representing the Sotah’s heart, is aflame beneath the high priest’s nose. On the red sacrificial serving plate is written “sacrifice of remembrance”, she is to remember whether or not she has sinned. Aaron, the High Priest is portrayed meanly grabbing her sacrifice with his right hand on hers, and is simultaneously pouring the Sotah water (Miriam water) from a simple earthen vessel into the Cushite’s mouth with his left hand. The watery Miriam is trickling down the Cushite’s gullet straight into her uterus (so the anatomy isn’t perfect). Portrayed inside the belly/ uterus is tabernacle dust.

Aaron is wearing his priest’s cap which is inscribed in ancient Hebrew with the words Holy to God. His hat and his face have concentric rings, squares, triangles, and semi-circles which complement the concentric rings around the sun which give a magical mesmerizing effect to the whole ritual.

After Miriam and Aaron make their accusations, God is extremely angry with them, and maintains that Moses is exceptionally humble, and that he speaks to Moses, mouth to mouth, and that their challenge to Moses’ authority is absurd. As a punishment God leaves, and Miriam is left a leper. The white splashes on Miriam in this painting can be seen as both part of the water and as leprous spots. When Aaron sees her in this state, he begs forgiveness and admits that they sinned (just like the Golden Calf) and says “please let her not be like a dead person when he comes out of the womb of his mother, half his flesh is eaten”. This is written in purple on Aaron’s right grabbing hand. This description is exactly the curse of the Sotah whose thighs fall off and her belly (womb) is swollen i.e. half of her flesh from the waist down is eaten up. Thus Miriam the accuser is now turned by God into Miriam the guilty accused. The Sotah is seen with her thighs falling off and blood and veins forming on her decaying legs.

Then Moses screams out to God and says “God please heal her” Moses is portrayed in a red beard behind Aaron with these words written in blue next to his mouth. He is crying for his Cushite wife, whose legs are falling off, failing the ordeal. He is also crying and praying for his sister who is leprous, who despite what she is doing now, has once saved his life, and deserves to be healed for all the good things she has done.

And what does God answer? “If her (Miriam’s) father had spat in her face should she not hide in shame for seven days? She should be sealed off outside of the camp for seven days and then she can come back.” And the camp did not travel until Miriam rejoined the camp. She apparently had a loyal following of her own which was an obvious political threat to Moses.

I submit that God’s description of the father’s spit in Miriam’s mouth is identical to the water the Sotah must drink. What is spit? 1) Water mixed with 2) enzymes (dust) emanating from a “tzelem elokim”, a “human being made in the image of God”, and it is usually accompanied by or implicates 3) cursing words. What does the Sotah water consist of? 1) Holy water, 2) Holy dust and 3) cursing words. Thus the same ordeal which Miriam wished upon the Cushite wife is now enacted by God to Miriam, who has now metaphorically spit in her face playing a surrogate father/husband role. Miriam thus becomes God’s (male accuser’s) Sotah.

In the Sotah ritual the husband takes the place of the father, and rather than spit in his wife’s face, he makes her drink divine spit, Sotah water. Written on the jealous husband behind the Sotah are the words “and her father spat in her face.” This man can double as Miriam’s father, and in fact the suffering Cushite/Sotah woman can also double as Miriam herself as she is made to taste the bitter waters of her own creation. Just like in the Sotah ordeal, if innocence is declared, the uterus during menstruation would take seven days to clear it. Likewise Miriam was put into isolation, and is cleansed of her leprosy and her sins in seven days.

Moses is portrayed leaning and praying on the tabernacle curtain of the tent of meeting. This curtain has pictures of the cherubim and is made of finely twined purple, blue and scarlet threads. The tent of meeting is covered by male-goat (Gedee Ez) wool which is dyed red. Portrayed on top of the tent of meeting is a red goat. The goat is looking on giving a sign of priestly benediction with one hand, and covering Moses’ head with another comforting hand.

This red dyed goat which covers the tent of meeting is symbolic of the goat that Rebecca used to cover her son’s, Jacob’s, arms and neck so that he could feel and smell like Esau when palpated by the blind Isaac. He is red because that is the color of Esau and symbolizes Edom/Esau. Thus whenever God looks down on top of the tabernacle he sees Jacob eternally cloaked in Esau’s red clothing, he sees a single unit, a single embryo prior to it being divided into twin embryos, he sees a coin with two faces, Esau on the outside and Jacob on the inside, he sees good and evil eternally alternating and fluctuating within the heart of Israel. Thus the primal, cosmic, and eternal Jacob/Esau struggle was hard-wired into the early collective memory of the Israelite nation, and is incorporated into the architecture of the tabernacle, into the ritual of the “Red Heifer”, and into the Yom Kippur- scapegoat ritual (See descriptions of Labor Day: Jacob and Esau, and Yom Kippur). Hence Edom’s land is inviolate, his water (which can alter you) should not be drunk without his permission, and Edom can be married into the third generation.