A Letter Home From Kadesh-Barnea

Numbers 1:1-4:20

By Naomi Myrvaagnes

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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Dear Sister,

For a while, it was what we’d imagined when we first heard Miriam’s call. Out of the city for song and worship! As I write I wonder, now that Pharaoh is dead, how you fare back home. I wonder if I left in vain. Perhaps you celebrate a time of hope and renewal.

The crossing was horrific. We sped safely, but after us came a monstrous wave filled with chariots, spears and the bodies of the drowned. When it was over, even as Miriam led the song of triumph, we rued the cost of our flight. Yes, the Hebrew God is a mighty warrior. He is mighty and also distant. I had not understood that their hymns must glorify His power.

We’ve been trekking and trekking. Miriam has been trying to keep our spirits up, and we remind ourselves how lucky we are to be with her. At first, she led our singing as we walked, but we understand that the mood of our journey has changed, that we must keep quiet. Many of us have been traveling together. The Hebrews don’t know what to make of us — girls without fathers, without brothers — and how can we explain? Explain we must, or beg protection, which we resist with all our will. We try to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. Miriam has been the one to speak for us, but I fear that we can’t count on her influence forever.

Once in the desert, I gave myself to sheer exultation. I was giddy with it. The night sky overhead! The sands, the narrow light on the hills at daybreak and again at nightfall! I was overjoyed to escape the officers and spies, the staleness of our lives, the hard work in the laundry. On the road, indescribable manna, and quails, too, that are roasted, though now they are becoming boring. Even the sands and hills get too familiar; it feels as though we’re not progressing, that we’re circling, repeating.

In the new developments, Miriam is forbidden to lead singing. Her heart doesn’t seem to be in it anymore, anyway. In fact, ever since that disastrous big party with the gold statue (I wish I could know if you got my earlier letters!), and then the tablets and the laws, life in camp has been very dispiriting. A little enjoyment now and then would go a long way. Joshua, the boy I wrote you about before, isn’t someone I like anymore. He sits in front of Moses’ tent with a fierce expression on his face: Don’t bother me; I’ve got important responsibilities.

That’s close to the heart of the problem. The men have been getting very stern and strict. The chiefs come around, inspecting: Sweep that tent! Get those pots cleaner! Pull back your hair! We have to sew these heavy, big dresses that look like sacks, and keep ourselves covered in them from head to toe. Even when we’re baking in the sun! How are we ever supposed to wash such things? There’s hardly enough water for drinking. And whenever somebody with a little imagination complains, or tries something a little different — like singing on his own — those awful Levites come and punish everybody and especially blame us Egyptians. You’d think they’d be glad to have some friends along, some people who aren’t exactly like them. We could teach drawing, or a new story or something. But no. I turned over those great earrings you gave me for building the calf, and look what I get for it.

The biggest news is the census. It’s not just counting. Moses and Aaron have picked one old chief from each tribe to organize us into units and keep order. That’s what we are now — units, troops. The bosses are making us put our tents in rows and columns like it’s a military camp. My Israelite best friends, M_______ and H_____ and their three sisters who are nice, too (I’m being really careful!), have been sent way over with their father, they’re Manassites. I’m still here on the East Side, and I don’t know a soul. They’ve deliberately scattered us foreigners, I think. Every day there’s roll call, trumpets, marching. We have to travel in formation. The chiefs get to go into the tabernacle when we camp, but no one else can. I’m alone with the sky at night, with my thoughts as we trudge in the heat by day.

There’s talk of preparing for war. Not running ahead of the chariots like at the beginning, but big battles to push the Canaanites out of their towns. If we lose, you can imagine what will happen to the likes of me! And if we win — what then? Grim. It’s not what I had in mind.

I miss you. Please tell Mom and Dad I’m sorry, I’m okay. Send my love to all, and pet the cats for me. Them I may name safely: Mereret, Iare. I’ll try to sneak this to a passing trader if we ever see one again. It’s too dangerous to write my name.

Naomi Myrvaagnes is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center.

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