MESSAGE FOR APRIL 22, 2001 FROM NUMBER 12
(Message #5 from a brief series on the life of Moses)
This week we return to our study of the life and ministry of Moses. This morning we pick up the account of his life in Numbers 12. At this point, the Jews have crossed the Red Sea, have met with God at Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and many other laws. They are preparing to venture into the Promised Land. The spies have not yet been sent out to get the lay of the land—that happens two chapters later in Numbers 14. In this section, as in much of Moses’ ministry recorded in Numbers, the Jews are griping and complaining. But here in chapter 12, the complaints against Moses have an intensely personal edge. In the midst of this story recording this personal attack on Moses, God says some absolutely remarkable things that point out the truly unique place occupied by Moses in salvation history. This morning, the spotlight will be on Moses the man and his unique relationship with Yahweh.
Let’s begin by reading this account in Numbers 12. “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. 2"Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" And the Lord heard this. 3(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.) 4At once the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, "Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you." So the three of them came out. 5Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, 6he said, "Listen to my words: "When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. 7But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" 9The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them. 10When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam--leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; 11and he said to Moses, "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. 12Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away." 13So Moses cried out to the Lord, "O God, please heal her!" 14The Lord replied to Moses, "If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back." 15So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back. 16After that, the people left Hazeroth and encamped in the Desert of Paran.”
The story of Moses’ ministry is filled with accounts of people who opposed him in some way, but this event was doubtless especially painful to him because this attack was leveled at him by those who were closest to him, his siblings. To help us see just how painful this must have been, let’s set it in its context. Moses at this point had just weathered a blistering attack by his fellow Jews a bit earlier in chapter 11. The issue then was, they didn’t like God’s wilderness menu. They were tired of the manna and wanted meat to eat. They protested so viciously that Moses’ cries out to God in verse 11 and following, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? 13Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, 'Give us meat to eat!' 14I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now--if I have found favor in your eyes--and do not let me face my own ruin." At this point Moses has had it and in his exasperation, in his desire to escape his ruin brought on by the hostility constantly lifted up against him, he cries out for divine euthanasia. He favors execution over his present circumstances. God knows Moses is at the end of his rope and so He supplies not only quail, but also gives him 70 prophets whom he fills with his Spirit to help him lead this group of rebels.
On the heels of that horribly discouraging episode, here come two of the only people who have actively supported him, his brother and sister. But here in chapter 12, he finds that even these two had turned on him. Its one thing to have strangers rail against you, its quite another to have your family turn on you. This is a bitter betrayal of loyalty. They begin the attack by railing against Moses because of his “Cushite wife.” This is a difficult verse to fully grasp. It could be that Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro whom we have met earlier on the backside of Midian is from Cush—some scholars feel Midian could have been some way identified with Cush. Other scholars posit that Zipporah had evidently died and Moses took a new wife from Cush, which is traditionally thought to be part of what is now Ethiopia. The fact that verse one says, “for he had married a Cushite” seems to add weight to this view. Why would the author, Moses, make a point of mentioning that Moses had married this woman if it was Zipporah? We already know that he married Zipporah. Whatever the case, it really doesn’t matter because that issue is really just a smokescreen for Aaron and Miriam’s real concern. The real issue for them is voiced in verse two. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?...Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” It is THAT complaint that incites God’s response and which raises the topic of Moses’ unique standing before God which is at the heart of this chapter.
We see that, though Aaron is certainly present in this and probably shared Miriam’s sentiments, it is Miriam who actually voices the complaint. We know this because the verb in verse one translated “talk against” or “spoke against” is in the Hebrew a feminine singular verb and that tells us it was Miriam who was speaking against Moses. This is why later on it is Miriam who receives the punishment and not Aaron. This envy-riddled complaint by Miriam sets up a narrative that, from this point on is devoted to showing us that Moses was unique in the way that God related to him. Its as if the Holy Spirit uses this jealous, self-centered comment of Miriam as a platform to give us an entire chapter of Holy Scripture to set apart Moses and the unique way God relates to Him among the Jews.
Let’s take a look at seven ways in which this text brings out the unique way God related to Moses. We see much of this uniqueness in the powerful ways God responds to the wrong done to Moses by Miriam and Aaron. In verse two, Miriam makes this outlandish claim that God works through her and Aaron in much the same way he works through Moses. This is nothing more than sibling rivalry born out of jealousy, but Moses’ siblings painfully discover that God will quickly rebuke those who engage in sibling rivalry when the abused sibling is his servant Moses. When Miriam tries to place her and Aaron’s ministry on the same level as Moses’ ministry, God responds dramatically. Think about that. Why would it matter so much to God if Miriam entertains delusions of grandeur about her being in the same place with Him as Moses is? There may be several reasons, but the only one we get from this text is, God is burdened to let everyone know that he and Moses have something special, something unique. For God, it’s important for others to know that, especially Aaron and Miriam. Except for several texts in the gospels where the Father speaks of his uniquely pleasing Son, Jesus, there may be no other biblical text where God so explicitly communicates that an individual occupies such a special place in his heart as he does here in Numbers 12 in the case of Moses.
The first way we see Moses’ unique position with God through God’s response to Miriam and Aaron is in verse four. The NIV captures the spirit of urgency in God’s response when it says he responded “At once the LORD said to Moses...” Other translations say, “Suddenly.” The idea is that the moment God hears this foolishness, he immediately acts. Like a parent who sees his child doing physical injury to his younger sibling, God does not wait for Miriam to go on any further in her ludicrous comparisons with Moses--he stops her after the first sentence. This king of lightning quick response from a God who distinguishes himself by his patience, his long suffering when it comes to bringing judgment, is a powerful indicator of just how seriously he views this offense against Moses. He hears the attack against his servant and he immediately pounces on the perpetrators. There is a striking sense of urgency here conveyed in the immediacy of God’s retribution on behalf of Moses.
A second way we see God’s unique concern for Moses is in verse five. God calls Moses, Miriam and Aaron out together and that is instructive because it probably conveys that Miriam’s comments were made directly to Moses. He was there with them. So God directs them to the Tent of Meeting where he has his meetings with Moses and (verse 5), “Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam.” God not only acts toward these two immediately, he also acts personally against Miriam and Aaron. He doesn’t send an angel or a prophet to communicate his displeasure over this one wicked statement that has been uttered; he comes down from heaven HIMSELF. This is so different from almost every other time when God brings judgment upon people. He almost always makes pronouncements of his judgment through prophets who give repeated, far-in-the-future warnings of God’s impending judgment. Not so, here. He personally takes it upon himself to do this work. The only other occasions in the Bible when God personally comes down for judgment are in Genesis 11 at the tower of Babel and in Revelation 19 when Jesus comes down from heaven as the Anointed Conqueror to bring his holy wrath upon the whole earth. Unlike those cases, when God comes down to bring judgment on untold multitudes, here he comes down to speak to just two people. There is no trial—no evidence is presented—God wastes no time in even repeating Miriam’s scandalous remarks, He moves right to the sentencing phase and begins by telling her what utter nonsense it is to compare herself and Aaron with Moses. And it is clear by the manner God does this, he wants Miriam and Aaron to know this is an intensely personal matter to Him.
A third way we see God expressing the unique place of Moses is in verse eight where he so closely identifies with Moses in his vengeance on Miriam. After explaining the unique manner in which he speaks to Moses, he ends his charges against Miriam with the scathing question, “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” God wants them to know that, given Moses’ unique relationship with him that they knew about, they should have been afraid to speak against him. The underlying implication is clear. God is saying, given my relationship with Moses, if you touch Moses, you touch me. Their lack of fear of Moses betrays a lack of fear of God. God is identifying with Moses in a unique way compared to others among his chosen people. We see this again in chapter 14. When the people rebel in unbelief and refuse to enter the Promised Land, God in judgment tells Moses he intends to bring a plague down on them and destroy them as a nation. He then tells Moses, “I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” Do you hear that special level of identification God has with Moses? God will start over with HIM.
We see this strong identification again in Numbers 16 when Korah, Dathan and Abiram lead an uprising against him. They tell Moses the same thing in essence Miriam says (16:3), “…The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’S assembly.” Again, they are filled with envy of Moses and challenge his unique relationship with God. We know the next day; God dramatically shows that he IS uniquely with Moses by causing the ground to swallow up these rebels, their families and their possessions in the sight of the entire assembly. God identifies with Moses just as he does here in Numbers 12. We see this in 16:30 when God tells the assembly that by challenging Moses, “these men (Korah, Dathan and Abiram) have treated the Lord with contempt.”
By challenging Moses’ authority and position and his unique place with God, these men had treated THE LORD with contempt. Do you hear that strong identification? A challenge to Moses was seen by God as an expression of contempt for Yahweh. Now, we need to stop a minute here to help us appreciate the situation in Numbers 12. In Numbers 12, it is not rabble like Dathan and Korah, God is moving so powerfully against, it is primarily Miriam. Think about who Miriam is and how God had used her. She was the little girl who God used to get the daughter of Pharaoh to consent to allow Moses’ real mother to nurse him. The very first Psalm recorded in the Scriptures is the one Miriam sang after the parting of the Red Sea. God uses her to be the voice of the entire Jewish race of Jews as she, under divine inspiration, sings her wonderful song of praise to God for his deliverance from Pharaoh and Egypt. This person toward whom God acts so harshly, so abruptly, so personally is not some spiritual oaf of no standing, this is Miriam who had been active in the ministry of Yahweh. Yet, when even this one speaks against God’s servant Moses, judgment is imminent and that leads to the next point.
A fourth way the uniqueness of Moses is seen is seen in the expression of God’s chastening toward Miriam. As God leaves the camp, his burning anger toward Miriam is expressed in giving her an instant case of leprosy. Scholars argue about whether or not it was leprosy or some other skin ailment, but the fact is, she was smitten with a disease that disqualifies her from being part of the community of Israel. Leprosy meant go straight to oblivion, do not pass go, do not collect $200—you’re out! This affliction places the once respected Miriam in the role of an outcast, a pariah. Miriam has challenged Moses and is therefore afflicted with something that will exclude her from the community of the Jews. This was a serious punishment, perhaps just short of the death sentence.
Aaron’s response to this shows us a fifth expression of God’s unique relationship with Moses. Aaron is obviously terrified by this. And who is the only person he can turn to for help? Moses. He does not petition God directly—there are no other prophets around who can do anything to help his sister. He has only one place to go and so He humbles himself and calls upon Moses to pray for Miriam. Notice how he relates to his brother. He says, “Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.” In a matter of moments, Aaron is transformed from an arrogant, co-belligerent against Moses to begging him for mercy. Aaron is powerfully humbled and is forced to recognize the sheer folly of thinking he or Miriam is anywhere near Moses in stature before God. Moses’ is transformed from being a supposed peer in the presumptuous eyes of Aaron and Miriam to being an exalted priest whose prayers for God’s mercy and healing for his attacker is her only hope for restoration.
A sixth way this text communicates the unique place of Moses before God is the one given the most space. Beginning in verse six, God tells Aaron and Miriam in some detail how Moses is not only NOT like them, but also not like others he will use. He says, “Listen to my words: "When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams... 8With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" Here God details just how differently he relates to Moses, not only in comparison to other members of his chosen people, but how he occupies a unique place even among those who are called as prophets before God. The difference between Moses’ relationship with God and the others can be summed up in one word, intimacy. Other prophets encounter God indirectly through visions and dreams. Other prophets hear God indirectly in riddles. Moses does not relate to God like this. He speaks with God (literally) mouth to mouth or “face to face.” There is a directness, an intimacy there that is without parallel in the prophets. Moses had private, personal conferences with God. He wasn’t using a long distance connection, God was right there in the room with him. In the summary paragraph in the book of Deuteronomy at the end of Moses’ life in chapter 32, it says, “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” As the author sums up the ministry of Moses, the first defining quality of his life is the intimacy he enjoyed with God.
Now that we have spent some time discovering the unique place of Moses, what can we apply to our own lives from this? That question of application begs the question, why? Why did Moses enjoy such special favor with God? There are several answers to that question. We could go back to verse three which speaks of Moses being the most humble man on earth. The problem with resting too much on that verse is that very few people who really know the Hebrew text agree that this text is speaking of Moses’ humility. The Hebrew word could very well mean “miserable.” Moses is at this point the most miserable man on earth—that fits the context well. We could also make a good case for the fact that God is using good management principles. God gives Moses more responsibility than any other leader in the New Testament—more than David, more than Nehemiah…anyone. When God gives these two million people to Moses, not only does he need to be used to get them out from under the seemingly irremovable foot of Pharaoh, he has to be the governor, prophet and priest of these people.
No one else in the Old Testament fills all these roles. He gave Moses a nation to lead that had no infrastructure, no laws, not courts, no system of worship, no place of worship, no priests, no human king and no real estate. Moses had to establish all of that with God’s help. He starts a nation from scratch. And he asks Moses to lead these 2 million people for 40 years and begin all that in a desert that was uninhabitable. People don’t live in this desert—maybe an occasional nomadic Bedouin, but not an entire nation of people who need food, water and provision. Yet, that is context where Moses had to establish this nation of God’s people by God’s grace. Do you see the incredible weight of responsibility God allowed Moses to take on? Moses is THE great leader in the Bible, save Christ. So, it only makes sense that God would need to meet very closely with someone who had so much responsibility. It only makes sense that God would defend so powerfully someone who he was using so greatly. That’s just good management theory and it doubtless explains part of this unique intimacy.
But the main reason for this level of intimacy is the place Moses occupies in salvation history as the Old Testament’s most graphic type of Christ. Moses, more than any other man, powerfully prefigures Christ. As we read the Old Testament with New Testament lenses, we can see this. In Deuteronomy 18:18 God says to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him.” In Stephen’s powerful sermon in Acts seven, he tells the Jews that prophet was Jesus. Jesus, who relates to the Father face to face—who came down from heaven, who, as a member of the Trinity, enjoys unequalled intimacy with the Father. When Jesus comes down to earth we see an interesting New Testament parallel to Numbers 12 in Mathew 17 on the Mount of Transfiguration. God transfigures Jesus, revealing a bit of his divine glory and Peter, missing the enormous significance of this display of divine glory, wants to cater the event. He calls for the setting up of booths and is blathering on when God suddenly and personally chastises him. He says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” God announces to all those in attendance the special level of intimacy and love He shares with Jesus. He refers to him NOT as his servant Jesus, but as “my Son.” And it is interesting to note who else is in attendance here. Moses, who takes his rightful place paying tribute to the Son as God speaks to this assembly of his utterly unique level of intimacy with his Son, Jesus.
An equally striking dissimilarity exists when you contrast Numbers 12 and Moses with the gospels and Jesus. That is, when Moses is betrayed by those closest to him, the Father quickly responds in his defense. However, when Jesus is betrayed and abandoned and denied by those closest to him, he has no immediate defense. He feels the full weight of the pain caused by the abandonment and betrayal of his closest friends. And the reason is because, though Moses was a Priest of God, Christ is the Great High Priest and part of his priestly duty was to bear the ultimate alienation from God and man for the glory of God. When we see the greatness of Old Testament characters like Moses, we must remember that whatever they did, they did by the grace of God and they lived primarily in salvation history to prepare the way and point towards the Great High Priest, the Great Prophet and the Great King of Kings, King Jesus. May God enable us to exult in Jesus as we see him in Moses and his church.
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