…and Miriam died there and was buried there and there was no water for the congregation… (Numbers 20:1c-2a, own translation)
Read: Numbers 19:1 – 22:1; John 4:4-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Hebrews 13:8-16
Parashah Chukat begins with the remarkable law of the red heifer. This heifer had to be burned outside the camp. The ashes were collected and mixed with living water and this it was used as cleansing water. It was a way of cleansing for the one who had come into contact with a dead person. There was also a whole ritual attached to this cleansing. The impure person was unclean for seven days and had to be cleansed with the cleansing water by a pure person on the third and seventh day. He then had to wash his clothes and himself with water. Then only was he clean in the evening.
The parashah continues the story with the death of Miriam and the murmuring of the people that there is no water. Due to the murmuring of the people, Moses runs out of patience, so he strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. Through this act, Moses ‘loses’ the privilege of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land.
We also find in this parashah the history of Aaron’s death and the brazen serpent. The parashah ends with a number of accounts of various journeys of the people of Israel through a number of areas before they reached the Promised Land.
Taunting any logic
The remarkable law of the red heifer was hard to understand for the rabbis. They found it strange, that a ritual, that cleansed the impure could at the same time defile the pure (who performed the ritual). Cleansing water (the ashes of the burned cow mixed with living water) seemed to both cleanse and defile at the same time.
The wise men (sages) knew that the law of the red heifer taunted any logic. The pagans in particular made fun of this law. There is a famous passage in rabbinic literature in which Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai was challenged by a gentile who claimed that the law of the red heifer was just that: a combination of sorcery and superstition.
The passage then continues:
He [Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai] said to him, “Has a restless spirit ever entered you?” He said to him, “No!” “Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?” He said to him, “Yes!” Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him, “And what did you do for him?” He said to him, “We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and pour water and it flees.” He said to him, “Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity, as it is written, (Zachariah 13:2) “Even the prophets and the spirit of impurity will I remove from the land.” They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and it [the spirit of impurity] flees.“Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8
The passage does not end here, but continues:
After he [the gentile] left, our rabbi’s students said, “You pushed him off with a reed. What will you say to us?” He said to them, “By your lives, a dead person doesn’t make things impure, and the water doesn’t make things pure. Rather, God said, ‘I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree (chukah) and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as it says “This is a chok (rule) of the Torah.“Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8
What do you mean?
Is Rabban Yohanan saying by this that the law is indeed irrelevant? And that all we have to do is just obey the law?
However, I suspect he meant something quite different. I mentioned earlier in parashah Shelach that a law/an object has no special power. For example, a dead person is not unclean of itself and there is no cleansing power in the cleansing water.1 Just as the command of the tzitzit is a means to an end, the same is true of this law.
The big contrast
With the law of the red heifer, the contrast between mortality and immortality, between mortality and immortality is emphasized. It is a law that relates to the tabernacle (and later the temple). With that the tabernacle was present in the midst of the Israelites, with it the glory, the Shechinah, of YHWH was among the people. YHWH who is essentially imperishable and is Life itself. Death, therefore, is a state that cannot be united with YHWH. In Numbers 19:13 it states:
13 Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him. (ESV)
Hence, the person who came into contact with a dead body had to be sprinkled with cleansing water. The mortality of man is again emphasized when immediately after this regulation is told we hear that Miriam died in Kadesh.2
The letter Waw (ו)
However, there is something else remarkable about the death of Miriam. Indeed, verse 1 of Numbers 20 appears to be in close connection with the second verse. The connection is in the Hebrew initial letter of verse 2, the letter waw (ו). This letter resembles a hook and thus symbolically indicates that it “connects” to the previous verse. Let’s add these two verses.
1 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and was buried there. 2Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. (Numbers 20:1-2; ESV)
Within the Jewish explanation, the death of Miriam is linked to that there was no water (anymore). This sounds a bit strange to us. But Jewish interpreters come up with the following explanation, which makes this connection understandable. For example, Rabbeinu Bahya gives the following explanation on Numbers 20:2:
“The congregation had no water.” As soon as Miriam died, the well which had travelled with the Israelites all these years ceased providing water. The water which the people had enjoyed all these years was due to the merit of Miriam who had stood by watching what would happen to her infant brother when he was in a basket in the reeds at the edge of the river (Exodus 2:4). G’d had rewarded her for that act of kindness by making her the provider of water for Moses’ people. The people had not appreciated this until the well ceased with Miriam’s death.Rabbeinu Bahya commentary on Numbers 20:2
The Talmud also speaks of the well being given to the people of Israel in merit of Miriam. In Taanit 9:9a of the Talmud we read:
The Gemara raises an objection from a baraita: Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Yehuda, says: Three good sustainers rose up for the Jewish people during the exodus from Egypt, and they are: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. And three good gifts were given from Heaven through their agency, and these are they: The well of water, the pillar of cloud, and the manna. He elaborates: The well was given to the Jewish people in the merit of Miriam; the pillar of cloud was in the merit of Aaron; and the manna in the merit of Moses. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is stated: “And Miriam died there” (Numbers 20:1), and it says thereafter in the next verse: “And there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2). But the well returned in the merit of both Moses and Aaron.Taanit 9:9a (The William Davidson Talmud)
The letter Resh (ר)
Another connection that can be made that Miriam is closely associated with spring water comes from the root language Hebrew. The Hebrew word for Miriam is מִרְיָם and for water מַ֫יִם. They differ from each other in all but one letter and that is the Hebrew letter Resh (ר). The Resh (ר) stands for the Hebrew word ruach (רוּחַ) which means spirit/wind/breath. With that Miriam died, she breathed her last (ruach) and with that the water also stopped flowing.
Is it all over?
Miriam’s death and that there was no water (anymore) symbolizes the first generation of Israelites, who as punishment for their unbelief, had to travel in the desert for 40 years and would die in the desert (except for Caleb and Joshua). Moses and Aaron will also lose their lives in the desert as we read later in the parasha. The question, then, is how to proceed? Is there still hope, is there still a future (for the people of Israel)? Does the covenant with and the providence of YHWH end with the death of the first generation of Israelites? For we read in Numbers 20:2 that there was no water for the assembly (the second generation).
We find the answer already in the halach (law) of the red cow before the haggadah (story) of Miriam’s death.
JHWH the well of living water
Like the red heifer that is burned and turns to ashes/dust. So will man as a material (mortal) being return to dust.3 However, the ashes of the heifer must be collected and mixed in a vessel with living water. The living water that symbolizes YHWH Himself, as we can read in Jeremiah 17:13.
13 O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water. (ESV)
Yes, it is true that the generation of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, had not trusted YHWH. They had forsaken Him as the source of living water. But through the sacrifice of the red heifer, mixing its ashes in a vessel with living water, it dissolved into the living water. In other words, death is swallowed up by life. An Israelite who had touched a dead person could become clean/living again by having the cleansing water sprinkled on himself.
The second generation of the people of Israel, was not separate from the first generation. In fact, it sprang from it. And thus the second generation was in close contact with death. And since YHWH is Life itself, and death cannot exist for Him, there would be no hope for the next generation either. YHWH showed, however, that there was a way out, through the cleansing water. The first generation may have died in the wilderness, but YHWH will go with the second generation into the promised land.
A new time has arrived
The second confirmation we find in the history of Miriam’s death and that there is no more water. Once again the people of Israel are standing before the rock. The Jewish scriptures assume that this is the same rock spoken of in Exodus 17:1-7. Now, however, Moses was not to strike it, but to speak against it. The reason Moses was not allowed to strike it (but did anyway) was because a new time, new generation, had arrived, with which YHWH would continue to move along.
This was the good news for the people of Israel of the time, told through a law (halacha) and the history (haggadah) of Miriam’s death. But it is also the gospel of today. For this law (halacha) has not come to an end.4 However, this law has been fulfilled! Through the history, the life (haggada) of Jesus, the Messiah.
Jesus the Red heifer and Rock
Hebrews 13:11-12 states:
11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (ESV)
And Jesus is also the well of living water, who, in ‘the desert’ of this life, travels with us. When the Jews in Paul’s time were familiar with the explanation of the ‘well of Miriam’, then 1 Corinthians 10:4 did not sound strange to them at all. And were they familiar with this parable. However, the source/rock that ‘traveled’ with the people of Israel at that time was not the source of Miriam, but Christ Himself!
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1–4; ESV)
- Of course, a body in a state of decay is a health threat. Just as running water does have a cleansing effect. But we are not talking about a dead body in a decaying state, and sprinkling the cleansing water with hyssop we are not talking about running water.
- Numbers 10:1
- Genesis 3:19b
- The reason I believe that this law has not been abolished is because it says in Numbers 19:10 that it is an eternal ordinance for both the Israelite and the stranger who dwells in the midst of the people of Israel. I believe that when the Torah speaks of the stranger in the midst of Israel, it is referring to the Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus, the Messiah, and are included within the people of Israel, who are the people of YHWH.