Is it possible that Miriam’s death occurred prior to the skip, 38 years prior to what is commonly interpreted?

A MODERN-DAY farmer inspects the condition of his cherry tomatoes in Kadesh Barnea – where the Bible indicates the spies were sent from. (photo credit: GILI YAARI/FLASH90)
A MODERN-DAY farmer inspects the condition of his cherry tomatoes in Kadesh Barnea – where the Bible indicates the spies were sent from.

An Interpretive autopsy of Miriam could cast a different light on the 40 years in the desert

Those 40 years are reported in the Torah in two time installments: the first two years, and the last year (year 40). There is a skip that occurs during Parashat Chukat from the first part to the second. We know nothing about the 38 years in the middle.

But where exactly is the skip? What is in year two and what is in year 40? Biblical interpreters tells us that the event of year 40 begins with the story of Miriam’s death: “And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people abode in Kadesh, and Miriam died there and was buried there.

The “first month,” we are told, is referring to the first month of the 40th year. This, however, is seemingly in conflict with Moses’s account in the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, which suggests that the people arrived in Kadesh a mere 11 days after leaving Mount Sinai (Horeb). Interpreters such as Rashi and Nachmanides reconcile this by explaining that there are two places named Kadesh.

But is it possible that there is one Kadesh and that Miriam’s death occurred prior to the skip, 38 years prior to what is commonly interpreted? This would lead to a domino-effect of unconventional findings, including that the people stayed in Kadesh for 38 years, and that the nature of the journeys might be different than what is commonly believed (more on this in a future article).

The key to assessing this theory lays in the events of Miriam’s leprosy, recounted eight chapters prior to her reported death.The Bible uses terms that seemingly indicate different stages or aspects of death. In particular it makes a distinction between “died” and “gathered.”

In the same parasha in which we learn about Miriam’s death, we also learn about Aaron’s death. God tells Moses of what is to come after Moses completes the transition ritual: “And strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there.”

Aaron is “gathered” and then he also dies. Similar distinction occurs with the description of Moses’s death. There too God orders Moses to die and to be gathered.

Stunningly, so is the case with Miriam. We are told that she was “gathered” and separately that she died. But the word “gather” in her case is interpreted differently.Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses, which angers God: “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and He departed. And when the cloud was removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.”

We can learn about the grave condition of Miriam’s leprosy by the reaction of Aaron and then of Moses who pleads to God: “‘Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb.’ And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying: ‘Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.’”

God’s response to Moses’s plea leads to the conventional interpretation: Miriam was quarantined for seven days outside the camp, cured, rejoined the people, and lived for another 38 years until she died in Kadesh in the 40th year of the Exodus.

BUT COULD God’s response be read differently? God replies to Moses’s plea by first providing the reasoning for his decision and only then the verdict. From reading the reasoning, it seems that God is about to deny Moses’s plea to cure Miriam, as God compares her situation to being spit in her face by her father. He then communicates to Moses his two-part verdict: Miriam is to be locked up outside the camp for seven days, and then she will be “gathered.”

Just like in the case with Aaron’s death, right after God’s communication with Moses, we are told that the verdict was executed: “And Miriam was shut up without the camp seven days; and the people journeyed not till Miriam was gathered.”Did Miriam recover and was gathered to join the journey, as commonly interpreted? Or was she “gathered” as part of the process of death?

Immediately after the story of Miriam’s leprosy comes the story of the spies. The Bible indicates the spies were sent from Kadesh Barnea. Therefore, it seems logical that shortly after Miriam’s leprosy, the people arrived in Kadesh Barnea. That is also consistent with the “11-day journey” that Moses alludes to in Deuteronomy. And this would explain what we are told about Miriam’s death – that it occurred after arrival in Kadesh, per this interpretation, not in the 40th year in the desert, but in the second year.

The “first month” that is mentioned without a year as the arrival date in Zin (associated with Kadesh) may not necessarily be in reference to the years counted from leaving Egypt. We know there are new year-counts when crowning a new king and when gaining independence – such as the year count “to the Freedom of Zion” in the early stages of the revolt against the Romans.

Indeed, such a momentous event has just occurred shortly before arriving in Kadesh – the building of the Temple (in the form of the Tabernacle) – not only that the Hebrews entered a covenant with God crowing their eternal King, but they also set on a journey toward the Promised Land. The Bible describes a ceremonial exit from Sinai to start this journey, so it could indeed be logical to read “first month” as the first month of the journey from Sinai. This would synchronize well with the timeline described above.

Evidently, Miriam’s leprosy left a strong mark on the national ethos, as we learn from Moses’s words later on in Deuteronomy: “Remember what the Lord thy God did unto Miriam by the way as you came forth out of Egypt.” If she recovered, it is likely to be less traumatic than if she died from it.

But even if one does not accept the theory about Miriam’s death, one can still accept the theory that the arrival in Kadesh occurred in the first two years, not the 40th, and that Miriam died in an unspecified time during the 38 years in Kadesh. Either way, this would mean a different take on the nature of the journeys, such as having multiple stops per day (as much as 21 stops in four days), or a different approach to what those journeys were about, as in the implicit interpretation of Theodore Herzl about the purpose of the journeys: “Education through migration” (article to come).

Challenging the common interpretation of the events described above is certainly not meant to question the interpreters, but rather as a tool to delve deeper into the Torah. Jews pray to God to open our hearts to the Torah. In this era of Judaism, we are blessed to have been given both the tools and the freedom to do so!■

The writer is author of the upcoming book Judaism 3.0 ( More of his articles can be seen at


Related Jerusalem Post articles by Gol Kalev:

To Egypt or to Israel? – Both Herzl and Joshua & Caleb understood what establishment Israelite leadership of their respective time did not – the exodus from Egypt/Europe is the return to Judaism even before it is the return to the land of the Jews.

The age old question – is God still with Israel? – Relationship with Israel have been a function of the world’s nations assessment of this basis question

The inauguration of Judaism 1.0 – The Temple was the point-of-orientation for Judaism When the Romans destroyed the Temple, they destroyed Judaism’s anchor. Yet, Judaism did not evaporate. Instead it transformed, adopting a new anchor – Rabbinical Judaism, centered around Halacha (Jewish Law),  the canonization of the Oral Torah and the yearning to return.

Jewish transformation – Judaism 3.0 – For 2,000 years of exiles Judaism was bound by internal glue of religiosity and external one of insularity.  With the radical decline in religious observance and elimination of outer walls, once again, Judaism has lost its anchor.  But at the same time a new one emerged – Zionism, which is now turning into the organizing principle of Judaism.

For more of Gol Kalev’s Parasha commentary: Parasha & Herzl

Get updates on Gol Kalev's upcoming book: Judaism 3.0

For inquiries and comments, please email: