What do these couples have in common – Shirley MacLaine/Warren Beatty, Zeus/Hera, Richard/Karen Carpenter? They’re all famous (at least in some circles) brother-sister pairs. There are hundreds of famous sibling pairs, but most of those pairs consist of either two brothers or two sisters, especially in sports. Even in the Bible, most sibling pairs that readily come to mind are same-sex twosomes: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Mary and Martha, James and John, Peter and Andrew.
Despite the rare Biblical mention, the relationship between brothers and sisters is a special one. My brother and sister were very close, spending hours a day together in the summer playing with Barbies/GI Joes. My own kids show similar tendencies – when they’re not trying to forcefully submerge one another at the pool. When he was still an infant, my daughter taught my son to laugh. When they got older, he taught her how to use stomp rockets. She teaches him strategies for dealing with the bus ride home from school; he teaches her how to stay alive longer on the video game.
Maybe that’s why Hindus have a special holiday that honors brother-sister relationships. It’s called Raksha Bandhan, which literally means “knot of protection” in Sanskrit. The date, determined by the Hindu lunisolar calendar, falls on August 10th this year. According to tradition, the sister ties a rakhi, or sacred band, around the wrist of her brother. She says a prayer for her brother’s well-being and happiness, marks his forehead, and feeds him sweet treats. The brother, in turn, promises to protect and care for his sister.
Hindu/Indian legends offer various stories alluding to the protective power of the rakhi and the importance of brother-sister bonds. One account finds the deities engaged in a fierce battle with the demons. Lord Indra, god of rain and thunderstorms, and his fellow celestial compatriots, were facing certain defeat which worried Inra’s wife, Queen Sachi. Following a tȇte-à-tȇte with Vishnu, she tied a sacred strand onto her husband’s right wrist. Lord Indra avoided injury and reigned victorious. In another tale, King Porus, the ancient king of Paurava, bristled at the arrival of Alexander the Great around 325 BCE. Alexander’s wife, sure that King Porus would kill her husband, tied a rakhi around the King’s wrist. Later, as King Porus was set to deliver a mortal blow to Alexander the Great on the battlefield, he glanced down at his wrist and spared Alexander in honor of the rakhi and the relationship is signified.
As for the Bible, I can think of only a few brother-sister relationships discussed in any detail. There are a couple of brief references to Jesus’ sisters (Matthew 13:54-56 and Mark 6:2-3). Strictly speaking, these would be half-sisters since Jesus was the son of God, not Joseph. Then, there’s Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah and sister to Joseph and his eleven brothers. She was raped by the prince of Shechem. The brothers then convinced the rapist, and all the men of his land, to undergo circumcision in return for Dinah’s marriage to the prince. While all the males of the land recovered from their circumcisions, a couple of Jacob’s more treacherous sons killed them all and plundered their city. After all, they said, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34)
But the award for most famous brother-sister pair in the Bible probably goes to Moses and Miriam. When the mother of the infant Moses placed him in a basket and set it adrift along the banks of the river, it was Moses’ sister, presumably Miriam, who watched as the Pharaoh’s daughter rescued him. She also arranged for Moses’ mother to then serve as Moses’ wet-nurse (Exodus 2:1-10). After the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, both Moses and Miriam, burst into song (Exodus 15). Tambourine in hand, she and all the other women danced and sang this most ancient of couplets, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20-21)
But like all brothers and sisters, Moses and Miriam suffered at least one moment of jealousy. She complained about Moses’ Cushite wife and about the fact that Moses was somehow higher up on the prophet ladder than she. It’s hard to know exactly what all was going on between them. Maybe Miriam’s personality simply clashed with that of Moses’ wife. Maybe Miriam found her head banging on some ancient version of a glass ceiling. Or maybe everyone was sick and tired of eating all that manna. In any case, the Lord was having none of it. Moses, Miriam, and their brother Aaron, were called into the Lord’s office and read the riot act. Miriam ended up with a leprous-like skin condition, which effectively banned her from the community. Moses then interceded with the Lord on her behalf, God reduced her punishment to seven days, and from what we can tell, she re-entered the community and everyone moved on (Number 12).
The entire story, however, raises the question: What if Moses and Miriam had celebrated Raksha Bandhan? What if Miriam had tied sacred threads onto Moses’ wrist and fed him sweet treats? What if Moses had offered Miriam a small token of his love and respect? What if both had offered prayers of protection and praise? Could they have omitted this little spell of jealousy from their life story?
Many variations on the ancient Hindu ritual exist throughout the world. After all, such customs last only if they are capable of changing with the times. Nowadays, if there is no biological brother, then a cousin, same-aged nephew, or brother-like friend can be honored. Brothers also buy gifts for their sisters and feed them sweet treats, too. The rakhi, itself, also exists as variations on a theme. The fancy, traditional version might contain gold and silver threads or colorful jewels. Today, a wrist watch or other piece of jewelry might be shared. For siblings who are geographically separated or just plain busy, store-bought cards take the place of hand-written poetry. Details aside, it seems certain that Moses and Miriam could have come up with something – even out in the desert where they wandered for so long.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]