Last night, a few diehard Torah groupies met in the freezing library at the synagogue to discuss a parashah--Numbers 8-12, B'haalot'cha. I hadn't paid too much attention to which book we were supposed to read, and actually had gotten a few books ahead of the game.
In this book, the Israelites were griping about the lousy accommodations in the desert and Moses' faulty leadership. But management, in the form of Aaron and Miriam, Moses' siblings, got in on the act, criticizing Moses for marrying an outsider--a criticism that seemed to have racist overtones, since the word used to describe his wife might be one that describes a person of a dark-skinned nationality. The thing is, no one is exactly sure what this ancient Hebrew means in a given context, so it's anyone's guess.
It's kind of like that classic mistranslation of Cinderella's slipper. In the French, it was made out of "vair"--fur; but the translator read it as "verre"--glass. So we in English are stuck with images of a glass slipper in our heads that did not exist in the original. Of course, as one who believes that every reading necessarily transforms a text, even if it is nominally in one's own language to begin with, I don't mind that so much.
Moses, in turn, complains to God that he has had enough of all of this kvetching. And God, his alter-ego, who acts on mild-mannered Moses' impulses, concocts punishments to fit the crimes. For the Israelites, who were complaining that they were sick of eating Manna, Manna, Manna every day, and demanded meat, he swept in millions of quail, which they gobbled avidly. Seeing them greedily stuffing their faces, God struck them with a plague, which killed thousands of them.
Then God called out Aaron and Miriam, but as usual, Aaron was spared. We have all noted this, and have become fed up with his continual escape from punishment, though one might very well argue that seeing his sons' destruction was punishment enough, since God zapped them for not following instructions exactly during their first gig as priests in the Temple. Instead, Miriam gets struck with a kind of leprosy that covers her skin with white scales, rendering her impure. This causes her to be excluded from the community for 7 days. It probably would have been worse, but her brothers prayed for her healing, and the people, usually impatient at best, waited for her to be allowed back into the camp before packing up and leaving again.
I see where Dante got his idea for inventive and appropriate punishments. It's right there in the Bible.