Janet Lees works with people of all ages and abilities using creative ways of retelling the bible, bringing to the foreground characters and episodes that have previously been in the background of the text. Janet is a dangerous woman and has frequently been accused of ‘making the bible up’. Here is an example of one such episode in which she pairs two texts: the story of Miriam being sent outside the camp and the story of creation. Outside the camp Miriam’s encounters with nature help her recover her sense of self so that she returns to the camp stronger.
Miriam was outside the camp. Alone. She was afraid and cold. It was getting dark. Her skin was flaking off and she didn’t understand what was happening to her. She understood how she’d got here: men had dragged her outside the camp and her brothers had allowed it to happen. They’d been in the worship tent and it had been decided. She had to spend seven days outside the camp – for what? For her part in the criticism of her brother Moses and his wife. The finger had been pointed at her: she was to blame. Everyone else kept quite and kept their eyes down. The women said nothing as she was dragged away.
It was beginning to get dark. The pink sky was beginning to go velvety blue. She would be outside the camp in the dark. There would be no comforting firelight, no sheltering tent, no cosy covers. It would be cold. She would be alone.
As the velvety night began to deepen a star came out. A bright pin prick of light far away in the universe it lent Miriam a tiny bit of light. Once she noticed it, she focused on it; putting out her hand she pointed at the star, using her index finger to cover it up. She pointed and then the light was covered up. She took her finger away and it appeared again. Pointed and unpointed several times. Each time the star disappeared and reappeared again. ‘So this is light’ she thought. ‘It’s good’. She curled up in a ball under a small busy tree and tried to sleep.
When she woke up it was still dark. Even darker than the first dark. But also lighter. There were more stars. She crawled out from under the small busy tree and looked up. There were millions of stars stretching right across the sky; so many she could not cover them with her fingers, although she could put her hands in front of her face and hide from them. She uncovered her face and turned it upwards to the stars. They snaked across the sky like a shawl and others lay scattered either side. It was as if the sky was a huge dome and the stars were scattered all over the inside of it. She traced the path of the shawl of stars. ‘So this is sky’ she thought. ‘It’s good’. She walked over to a nearby rock and sat down with her back to it, looking at the stars she fell asleep again.
When she woke the third time she was cold. There was some dew on her hair and clothes. The deep velvety sky was receding and some pinkness was coming back into it. Away on the horizon to the east the pinkness was increasing as if a fire was raging over the horizon. She sat and waited, pulling her slightly dewy shawl around her. Gradually, gently, without much fuss but with thousands of birds heralding the moment, the sun rose. The giant ball of light and heat emerged from out of the earth at the place where the sky dome ended. As it did so the air began to glow and that glow warmed her. ‘So this is sunrise’ she thought. ‘It is good’.
How long it took for the sun to free itself from the line of the horizon she couldn’t say. It was probably about the same amount of time it took everyday, except that she didn’t always notice. Not when she was inside the camp, in the sheltering tent and the cosy covers. Now she was sorry she’d missed it so often. To be outside the camp meant bathing in the sunrise. It was beautiful.
She found herself thinking about bathing. Bathing in sunlight was fine but washing would be good. She knew that whilst she was outside she was expected to stay clear of the river and the wells the women from the camp used. So where was she to find water. She stood up and looked around her. Where would water be? Maybe if she got up on the rocks she would get a better view. Slowly and carefully she climbed through the rocks, picking her way from one boulder to the next. She tied up her skirt and let her bare legs and feet do the work they had been made for. It made her breathe heavily but it felt good. After some time she came to a place near the top of the rocks. She stopped on one rock as she heard the sound of running water. There was a stream, a tiny one, flowing down from the rocks, over the boulders and back into the earth. Reaching the stream she put out her hand and touched the stream of water with her finger, just like she’d pointed at the star on the previous night. The stream of water lopped over her finger and continued on, over the rocks with all the other water. She turned her hand round and cupped it, brought it up to her lips and lapped it. Then she licked her fingers. ‘So this is water’ she thought. ‘It’s good’.
Of course she’d had water before. Everyday she fetched water with all of the other women since she was a small child but that water was not like this water. That water was for the camp. She’d found this water herself. She took off her shawl and splashed the water onto her arms, her face and her head. It gave her a lovely tingling feeling. She looked around to remind herself where the water was. She’d need it again, after all. Then taking back her shawl she carried on up the small gully the water had made to the top of the rocks.
At the top there was a small tree bending over the stream. Its branches were heavy and weighed down with something. There were small birds in the tree and as she approached they flew up and flew away. The branches of the tree sprang back up when the birds had gone and she saw that each branch had many small black fruits growing on it. The birds had been eating them so maybe she could too. She took a small fruit between her thumb and finger and bit into it. It was sharp but not unpleasant. The dark juice stained her finger. She licked it off and took another fruit. ‘So this is fruit’ she thought. ‘It’s good’. And she ate some more.
After a while, she sat down under the tree. It was warm now and she was tired. As she sat there, still and alone, the small birds came back. They landed on the branches of the tree and began to chatter and sing as they ate the fruits. Each one called something to its neighbour and the others would join in. The sound was light and bubbly. She listened to it more carefully than she ever had before. ‘So these are birds’ she thought. ‘It’s good’.
As she sat there she became aware that a lizard had crawled out on to a nearby rock. The lizard was also interested in the heat of the sun and the warm rock was the ideal place to benefit from it and to catch flies. She watched the lizard sometimes basking, sometimes catching flies and she smiled at its simple life there on the rock. ‘So this is life’ she thought. ‘It’s good’.
After the day had passed its hottest point and the sun began to slip down again in the sky, she got up. She followed the small stream back up onto the plateau and as she followed it she saw plants growing alongside or in the water. She marked them in her mind, knowing she might need to come back for them. Eventually the stream ended in a small pool. It was in the shade of the rocks and seemed to bubble up out of the ground. Around the spring the clear water lapped on pebbles and sand. She sat down again and tasted the water. As she dipped her head down to catch to drops she caught sight of herself. Her reflection was perfectly formed there in the pool of water, as if she was in the water and reaching out from it to touch her own face. She marvelled at it, how clear it was, how lovely. ‘So this is me’ she thought. ‘It’s good’.
For the next six days Miriam stayed by the pool. There was shelter, water and food. Each day she found something new to enjoy or wonder at. As she wandered along the stream or sat under the trees she’d think about the camp and what had happened there. She thought about her life, her family and friends. But she also remembered the disputes, the rules, the jealousies. It was difficult to disentangle her part in it all, just as it was difficult to take a strand out of the water. Each time she put her hand in the water just flowed round and over it again. As she bathed in the pool and dried herself in the sun, the flakiness of her skin seemed to lessen. Her skin was returning to its familiar firmness and brightness. The reflection in the pool affirmed she was her true self.
She thought about her brothers and the men who had dragged her out of the camp. They had been cruel and hurt her both physically and more deeply. She didn’t trust them. They seemed to think they could make up the rules. She thought about the women, her neighbours and how they had said nothing and kept their eyes down. Yes, she understood, it could have been them. Better to say nothing and stay within the protection of the camp with its sheltering tents and cosy covers.
Only it wasn’t like that. If she’d stayed in the camp she wouldn’t have found all these good things, she whirled round and took them all in, and then again and again as the whole world started to swirl and whirl around her. She stopped suddenly, staggered and laughed. Her laugh was like the water bubbling up in the pool. ‘So this is happiness’ she thought. ‘It’s good’. She bent down and picked up a dried seed pod: it rattled when she shook it. She shook it gently at first and then faster and in more varied ways and as she shook she danced. And she danced and danced and danced.
On the morning of the seventh day, she made her way down the gully and back across the plain to the edge of the camp. She took some of the seed pods wrapped in her shawl, which she tied around her waist so that they rattled as she walked. When she got to the camp she saw her brothers waiting outside with some other men. The women were inside the camp. She could just see some of their faces in the tent doorways and around the cooking fires. She walked slowly and steadily. As she approached them she did not slow her pace or stop and turn to them. She walked right on into the camp, the rattling sound of the seed pods accompanying every step. Aaron, her older brother, tried to interrupt her with one of his pompous pronouncements. But Moses put out his arm and stopped him. They let her go into the camp. As she walked passed the women, she took seed pods from her shawl and gave them away. The last person she met to whom she gave a seed pod was her sister-in-law. And then she went into the tent.
You can read about Miriam’s punishment in Numbers chapter 12: it’s much shorter. It is one of the texts of the Hebrew Bible that confirms women as dangerous; so dangerous they have to be sent ‘outside the camp’.