My intuition proved correct. My irritation continued boiling through the night, and by the time Aharon emerged from his chamber I had girded my heart with righteous determination. The elders would hear of Moshe’s marriage, and we would let them decide the matter. If they would not disallow this union, perhaps Aharon could take it before Yhwh in the Tent of Meeting.
I had no sooner nodded good morning to Aharon than I heard a commanding sound unlike anything I had ever heard—and knew it was the voice of Yhwh. This voice did not ripple with power like the overpowering voices I had heard at Sinai, but sliced through Aharon’s dwelling like a spear, sharp and pointed.
“Come out! Moshe, Aharon, and Miryam, come now to the Tent of Appointment!”
I looked at Aharon, and knew from the fixed look on his face that he had heard the voice, too. A glance at Elisheba convinced me that she had heard something, for she had gone as pale as death and stood trembling in the center of the tent. “What is that?” Her hand rose to her lips.
“Aharon? Did you hear it?”
I squeezed her shoulder. “God calls Aharon and me by name, Elisheba. Wait here while we meet with Yhwh about Moshe.”
Convinced that God had heard and heeded our concerns, Aharon and I walked to the Dwelling. Once we stood before the entrance, we turned and saw Moshe step out of his tent, a question on his face. The new bridegroom nodded in our direction, then began to walk toward us, his eyes wide with curiosity and alarm.
I chewed on the inside of my lip, hoping the Cushite and Midianite would come out as well. I wanted them to see this.
Before we could hail him, Yhwh descended in a column of cloud and filled the empty space at the entrance to the Dwelling, blocking our entry. Though I remained motionless, something inside me began to tremble, and again I wondered how Moshe could stand in the presence of God without wanting to scream, flee, laugh or weep hysterically.
I had yearned to speak with God as he did, and today, finally, Yhwh had called me to meet with him. If I could only make it through the encounter with my sensibilities intact . . .
“Aharon and Miryam, come forward!” The voice drew me like a rod of iron; compelling a prompt response. I had been thinking it would be best if Yhwh held this discourse with us inside the Dwelling, for though it would be appropriate for the entire camp to witness Yhwh’s address to Aharon and me, it might be better to handle the matter of Moshe’s unsuitable marriage within the privacy of the Tabernacle’s curtained walls.
The concerns that had been lapping at my subconscious crested and crashed as Yhwh’s words rolled over us like a wall of pure energy: “Hear me! If there should be among you a prophet of Yhwh, I make myself known to him in a vision, in a dream I will speak with him. Not so my servant Moshe—in all my house, he is trusted. Mouth to mouth I speak with him, in plain words and not in riddles, and the form of Yhwh is what he beholds. So why were you not too awestruck to speak against Moshe?”
The powers of speech and thought fled away from me. The self-assurance that had supported me only moments before vanished like the dew beneath the scalding sun, leaving me gasping in a pool of terror, shame, and regret.
The pillar of cloud whirled, and my eyes burned as I felt the singeing fury of Yhwh within it. Though my garments flapped against my flesh and bones, in that instant I felt naked and exposed. For a dizzying moment the color ran out of the world and the rushing sound of the cloud faded, but just as I thought I would pitch forward in a faint, the Shekinah rose and returned to the Holy Place.
After the roar of the voice and the whirlwind, the resulting silence seemed as heavy as the waves that had covered Pharaoh and his army at the bottom of the sea. I turned in the thickened quiet and through blurred eyes saw Aharon, who had buried his face in his hands, and a curious crowd staring at us in openmouthed astonishment.
I lowered my head, absently noting the patterns of the swirled sand in front of me, then the stillness shivered into bits as a woman screamed.
I looked up; the woman was pointing at me. Behind her, people were whispering, their voices like the rustle of leaves in the wind.
“Tzaraat!” I heard someone say. “She has tzaraat!”
She? I looked around, but saw no woman with the dread disease. Then I looked at my hands and felt ghost spiders crawl up the staircase of my spine—my hands, my arms, even my toes were white with the leprous skin condition that meant immediate exile for anyone unfortunate enough to encounter it.
Beside me, Aharon was frantically begging Moshe to spare me. “Please, my lord, do not punish us for mere foolishness! Do not let her be like a stillborn child who comes out of its mother’s womb already half-decayed!”
I could not look at Moshe. I had not spoken to him about his marriage, so he had no idea why I had approached Aharon, or why the Lord had acted against us. He would be hurt or angry if he knew the entire story, and he might find it difficult to forgive.
Without pausing to ask what we had done to merit such punishment, Moshe lifted his hands toward the cloud over the Tabernacle: “Oh God, heal her, please!”
In a voice filled with quiet emphasis, Yhwh answered: “If her father spat in her face, would she not be put to shame for at least seven days? Let her be shut up for seven days outside the camp . . . afterward she may be gathered back to her people.”
No one had to tell me what must happen next, for I had learned the sanitation codes with everyone else in the camp of Israel. Since my hands, my feet, and my face bore evidence of Yhwh’s judgment, I could not stop for a kiss, an embrace, or provisions to take with me in my exile. I was unclean, and must depart the camp immediately.
As Aharon fell to his knees and continued to beg Yhwh for mercy, Moshe looked at me, and in his eyes I saw the glimmer of tears. “Seven days.” His voice broke with huskiness. “Then we will welcome you back.”
Without speaking or turning to seek pity of anyone, I walked through a crowd that parted like the Red Sea at my approach. I paused at the boundaries of the camp, wondering if I might ask for a goatskin or jar in which to carry water, then remembered that an unclean person was not to touch anything.
“Wait!” I recognized Tzippora’s voice, followed by the soft popping sounds of her sandals as she hurried toward me. I threw up my hands and took a step back, but she did not stop until she stood an arm’s distance away.
She pulled an object from the girdle at her waist, then held out a sliver of red granite as wide as my hand and as long as my finger. Two sides of it were perfectly smooth, the others rough and striated. A Sabbath stillness reigned over the crowd as she offered it to me.
“I don’t know if this will help you, but it might.”
I stared at her. “What do you think you are doing?”
“It is a piece of the Ten Words—the tablets Moses broke when he came down from the mountain. It is holy, is it not?”
The pagan thought I would have some use for a protective talisman. I wanted to ignore her and walk away, but how could I spurn the offer of a rock engraved by Yhwh’s hand when the eyes of Israel were upon me?
I held out my cupped palm, allowed her to drop the stone into it, then tucked the rock into the folds of my girdle. Apparently satisfied, Tzippora stepped back, leaving me to my fate.
From outside the camp, forlorn as the cry of a restless spirit, came the sorrowful call of a jackal.
Lifting my chin, I stared straight ahead and passed through the gate, alone.