Moses, Miriam and Drowning

Morning Prayer on Thursday is a bit of a problem for me, a very small bit to be sure, but it’s always there.  One of the Thursday canticles is “The Song of Moses,” also called “The Song of Miriam.”  I find it impossible to incorporate into my morning conversation with God.
The song in canticle form consists of selected verses from Exodus 15 including 1-6, 11-13 and 17-18.  Together they sing praises to God for delivering the people of Israel from the pursuing Egyptians at the Red Sea.  The song cheers the sight of Pharaoh’s army being hurled into the sea, drowned in the Red Sea, overwhelmed by the fathomless deep, sunk like stones, swallowed up, and all because of God’s love.  Most others seem to be able to read the canticle as a celebration of deliverance from evil, metaphorically represented by Pharaoh’s army, and it doesn’t trouble them.  
Perhaps so, but I am more taken by the rabbinic story told in some Passover Haggadahs.  An angels standing next to God urges him to celebrate the great victory of deliverance as the sea washes over the army.  God hushes him saying: “Be quiet, my children are dying.”  I think I’ll take my stand with the rabbi’s story of God on his one.  I just cannot “sing” this canticle with any sense other than profound sadness and disappointment in the folly of humankind.  Don’t get me wrong, I can understand Moses and Miriam cheering and singing.  They had just escaped by the slimmest of margins, and there would be no further threat from the Egyptians.  Had I been there, I would have joined in the singing.
But I am not there.  I am here, some 3,300 years later (give or take), and from that distance I can both be grateful for Israel’s deliverance and horrified at the fate of their oppressors.  Moreover, it symbolizes for me the unending centuries of class, clan and racial feuding that seem to have taken us nowhere, in spite of the Incarnation we now celebrate.  I’m reminded of a verse written by Edmund Sears in the mid 19th century.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; 

Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

And warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!

It’s the third verse of the popular Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear.”
And so on Thursday, I tend to skip by that canticle, but not without remembering why.  I started this brief walk through a week of Morning Prayer last Thursday.  This brings me full circle.  We shall see what happens next.

3 thoughts on “Moses, Miriam and Drowning”

  1. A few years ago, there was a stirring essay in Newsweek about Passover by Jon Meacham, who is now the general editor of Newsweek, but then was just a staff writer. Meacham had been, for a time, a student for the Episcopal ministry at the General Seminary in New York City. Meacham made a comparison between the edict of Pharoah early in the book of Exodus, that there were too many Hebrew offspring being born, so that all the male children should be killed! The male child Moses was saved by being placed in a basket by his mother and sister, Miriam,until rescued by Pharoah's daughter. Meacham compared Pharoah's edict to that of King Herod in Matthew's Gospel, to kill all the male children in Bethlehem,in order to remove the threat to his throne from the newborn King prophesied that he had heard about from the Magi. So far, so good. But Meacham went on to make a further comparison of that with the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians when the Angel of Death \”passed over\” the firstborn of the Hebrews! I wrote a brief letter to Newsweek that Meacham had been a little careless, that the death of the Egyptian firstborn was caused by God! Newsweek did not publish my letter! Dr B

  2. hey Steve, one day at General when I was the Thursday morning officiant, without deliberate thought, I started Canticle 9 instead of 8. Which of course was a mistake, but which is a canticle I much prefer! I didn't know why the other seminarians were fumbling around a bit until I realized what I had done! Gretchen

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