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Numbers 12:1-3 Moses the humble man

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, August 12, 2021

Miriam and Aaron Oppose Moses

12 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman).

Miriam was the one who led this attack on her brother’s authority. Her name is first, and the verb “spoke against” in Hebrew (va-tadabber) is feminine. But although Miriam led, Aaron followed. They both had a prominent status in Israel. Aaron was the first high priest; his descendants, not those of Moses, would be high priests as long as the line lasted (1 Chronicles 23:13-14). Miriam, who had written and led a song of praise when the nation crossed the Red Sea, was called a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). But they were jealous of Moses’ position, and they found an excuse to bicker over Moses’ wife.

Moses’ first wife was a Midianite woman he met in his exile, the daughter of Jethro. Her name was Zipporah. It’s possible that she might have been referred to as a “Cushite” here, since “Cush” doesn’t always mean Ethiopia, but seems to stand for “foreigners” in general sometimes (Psalm 68:31, 87:4). It’s even possible that sometimes “Cush” means “unbeliever.” Luther thought that the Benjamite that David calls “Cush” in Psalm 7 was really King Saul (LW 10:349). But why would they bring up Zipporah at this point? I think it’s more likely that Zipporah had recently died (they were married more than forty years), and Moses had married a second wife, either from the Cushites who sometimes lived among the Midianites and other tribes of the Sinai, or that this second wife was from the group that came out of Egypt with Israel and included the “rabble” of Numbers 11:4. Whatever the attack Miriam made, racist or otherwise, Moses does not bother to record it. What he does mention is the attack on his authority.

2 They said, “Has the LORD really spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” The LORD heard this.

This jab at Moses is similar to the lie that the devil once hissed at Eve. Who had said that the Lord had “only” spoken through Moses? Hadn’t the Lord only just spoken through seventy other men, including Eldad and Medad? Was Miriam jealous that she wasn’t included among the seventy? The Lord had specifically commanded Moses to bring men, males, at that time: “Bring to me seventy men, elders of Israel” (Numbers 11:16, literal translation). As in the ancient church, the pastors of the Christian church are also to be called from the males of the congregations even today (1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 11:3-10, 14:34-35). While we do not want to deny to women the opportunities they have for service in God’s kingdom (of which there are many examples in Scripture, Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19; Philippians 4:2; Romans 16:1-3, 16:12; 1 Corinthians 11:5), we also do not want to disregard the roles God gave to men and women in creation and the position of men in headship in the family (Genesis 2:18) and in the church (1 Timothy 2:12).

3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)

While the word ‘anah (Greek praüs) can mean afflicted, despised, or humble, the meaning “humble” seems to fit the best here (see also Psalm 149:4; Proverbs 3:34). Here the word describes Moses’ attitude and his way of thinking about himself. He did not want to go before Pharaoh alone, but took Aaron along with God’s permission (Exodus 4:14, 7:1-2). He was happy when the seventy elders prophesied, and even when the two elders preached in the camp. His attitude is much like that of David. When David was fleeing from Jerusalem when his son Absalom was in open rebellion, a man named Shimei pelted him with stones and insults. But David wouldn’t let his companions do anything about the insults, saying, “If he is cursing me because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ then who can ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’” (2 Samuel 16:10). Or as President Lincoln said, “The hen is the wisest of all the animal creation, because she never cackles until the egg is laid.” That is to say, don’t boast before there is something to boast about.

Moses didn’t boast about his position, even when it was called into question. He ends verse 2 with the important words: “The LORD heard this.” Moses didn’t need to defend himself. The Lord would do it soon enough. And so it is if we are attacked about our doctrine. We can calmly point out the passages that present our doctrine, and also point out the difference between a descriptive verse and a prescriptive one. A descriptive verse shows what was once done without insisting that we must still do that today or hold it up as our belief. For example, property was once transferred from one owner to another by means of removing one’s sandal (Ruth 4:7-8; Psalm 60:8, 108:9), but we usually use a written document today. Or, baptism was often done by immersing in water, for John liked to baptize where there was “plenty of water” (John 3:23). But immersion is not required for baptism, and the only prescription or governing rule we have about baptism is that water should be applied and the name of God be spoken (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38).

When we find ourselves attacked, insulted, or despised for the sake of Christ, we pray that God will give us the strength to bear up under it without falling into name-calling or other sins against the Eighth Commandment. Jesus our Lord bore insults and more for our sakes; we pray that we can bear the same for his.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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