Numbers 12:1-16

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As we said last time, chapter 12 belongs with chapter 11 as a subsection of the part of the Numbers narrative relating Israel’s progress from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh where the catastrophe occurs. In chapter eleven we read of two incidents in which the Israelites complained and grumbled en route and now we have a third. Remember, of course, the chapter divisions of the Bible were added a thousand years after the completion of Holy Scripture and are not part of the original organization of the material in the biblical books. You remember George Santayana’s famous dictum: “those who won’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Well the graves of the grumblers were still fresh at Kibroth Hattaavah when Aaron and Miriam began to grumble against Moses. What the Lord had done to the grumblers had made little impression on them!

Text Comment

The verb “began to talk against” is in the feminine singular, suggesting that Miriam was the instigator of the criticism. This may explain why she is the one who is punished at the end of the day. [Milgrom, 93] On the other hand, Aaron was the older brother and it may well have rankled that his younger brother was over him in the leadership of Israel.

Aaron and Miriam, as so often in cases of envy, began with some criticism that sounded better, others might think it to have some substance and merit, but it was actually just a smokescreen behind which to hide their envy. The real issue was Moses’ authority being superior to their own. Remember, it is not as though Aaron was not a great man in Israel. He was the high priest, the holiest man of the entire nation, and perhaps we could say the supreme religious leader. [Wenham, 110] Miriam was a prophetess and, so we read in Exodus, a leader among the women of the nation (Ex. 15:20-21). This, of course, makes their challenge far more significant than a matter of petty intra-family jealousy. It is a direct attack on Moses’ authority as the mediator between God and Israel.

This Cushite wife could be Zipporah, whom Moses married years before but who only recently joined him at Sinai, but since Zipporah is usually described not as a Cushite but a Midianite – though there is some evidence of overlap between the two terms in ANE usage – many scholars have thought this a reference to a second wife that Moses took. Why she was objectionable to Aaron and Miriam is not said but appears to be simply because she wasn’t an Israelite. She isn’t one of us! Racial prejudice is at least as old as the Tower of Babel.

The NIV’s “Hasn’t the Lord also spoken through us” would be better “spoken with or to us.” The same phraseology used here in v. 2 is used again in v. 6 and v. 8 where the point is the immediacy and directness of the Lord’s speech to Moses as opposed to his more indirect speech to others.

Here is a good example of the editorial work that was done to finish the Pentateuch by someone else after the life of Moses. A very important description of humility is furnished by this verse in its context and if you want to examine yourself and find out how humble you really are put yourself to the test of this verse. Because the complaint was against him personally, Moses remained silent. He would leave his vindication, if such were deserved, to the Lord to provide. Often in the Psalms, where we find the same word “humble” used, we read that the Lord will deliver the humble or will adorn the humble with victory. [Wenham, 111-112] That was Moses’ confidence.

I remember how impressed I was to read of this in the masters of the spiritual life. Augustine includes this prayer in his Confessions: “Lord, deliver me from the lust of vindicating myself.” In his great work on the Christian ministry (On the Priesthood) Chrysostom says that a faithful minister will regularly have to deal with attacks on himself and, no matter how unjustified no matter from what quarter they come, he must “forgive irrational onslaughts, without making a fuss and losing his temper.” [Cited in Kelly, Golden Mouth, 84] Charles Simeon writes in a letter to a friend, “…my rule is – never to hear, or see, or know, what if heard, or seen, or known, would call for [some comment] from me. Hence it is that I dwell in peace in the midst of lions. [Simeon endured a tremendous amount of criticism.] My blessed Lord, ‘when he was reviled, reviled not [in turn]; when he suffered, he threatened not, but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.’ That seems the right thing for me to do; though some perhaps would think it better for me to stand up for my rights. But to all the accusations that were brought against him, our Lord made no reply, ‘insomuch that the governor marveled greatly.’ [The text being cited is speaking, of course, of Pontius Pilate.] I delight in that record: and God helping me, it is the labour of my life so to act that on my account also the governor, or spectator, may marvel greatly.’” And, even better than these testimonia, is this from Saint Teresa of Avila. “The not excusing of ourselves is a perfect quality, and of great merit. It is a mark of the deepest and truest humility to see ourselves condemned without cause, and to be silent under it. It is a very noble imitation of our Lord. What about being blamed by all men, if only we stand at the last blameless before Thee!” [In Whyte, The Apostle Paul, 82]

In any case, you will see from these remarks and I could multiply them that very godly men and women who have thought deeply about the human heart, about sin, and about what holiness is all think this particular form of humility is the most rare and important, and something approaching the pinnacle of true Christlikeness in a person’s life: to be silent under false accusation and to leave one’s vindication to God. Now, obviously there are situations when this would be inappropriate, but there are many, many more when it is. We all know very well how difficult we find it to be to keep from defending ourselves! Peter, in 1 Pet. 2:23, in a passage exhorting believers to a willingness to suffer for their faith, commends to us the example of Jesus who “when they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Peter’s whole point in that passage is that we are to do the same!

Aaron and Miriam come forward, that is, they separate themselves from Moses I think partly because the Lord is going to single them out for rebuke. Some early Jewish writers thought that part of the reason for this was that Moses would not hear all the praise the Lord was going lavish on him!

Talk about vindication! Yahweh himself spoke and in a poem of eleven lines said that Moses was without peer as God’s servant and prophet. [Wenham, 112] The poem is a chiasm, that is its structure is that of an inverted parallelism the first goes with the last, the second in goes with the last but one in and so forth. What is interesting about that is that the central line of the eleven line poem, the line that has no parallel, the line that is the climatic center of the thought is that “He [alone] is trusted in all my household.” [Milgrom, 95] Whereas an ordinary prophet received the Lord’s word in dreams and visions, Yahweh spoke with Moses face to face, literally “mouth to mouth” here in Hebrew. Like the chief servant in a great man’s house he has immediate access to the owner and the owner has complete confidence in him, as Potiphar had in Joseph or Abraham had in Eliezer. Many other men in the OT – Abraham, Joshua, David, and Elijah – are called God’s servants, but only of Moses is ever said to have been entrusted with all God’s house. In saying that Moses saw “the form” of the Lord, the Lord means that he got closer to God than anyone else. No one, of course, can see God, as Moses himself learned in Exodus 33-34. Words like “form” are used to suggest some measure of the appearance of the divine glory without the actual sight of God himself and Moses saw more of that than anyone else.

There is an irony here. The Lord says that he spoke directly only to Moses, but now he is going to speak directly and is speaking directly to Aaron and Miriam. The difference is that their privilege is overshadowed by the fact that what the Lord is speaking directly to them about is their sin and his rebuke. [Milgrom, 94]

We may have suspected, but we are not told until now that the Lord was angry with Miriam and Aaron for what they had said in demanding for themselves some share of Moses’ supreme authority.

This is not leprosy as we understand the disease today (Hansen’s disease). The term in its usage in the Pentateuch refers to a set of skin conditions that would render a person unclean but usually were temporary and not permanent which, of course, leprosy is not. The white skin invites the comparison to snow and the flaky, peeling skin to that of a newborn. Aaron may have been spared simply because his role was too vital to the religious life of the community. [Wenham, 113] But as the priest, his seeing Miriam confirms the diagnosis. You remember that in cases of skin conditions the priest had to make the judgment. [Milgrom, 97]

Again the irony. Aaron must appeal to the one he and Miriam had wronged. Yahweh is right: Moses is indeed special! [Ashley, 227]

Moses’ intercession for his sister Miriam is successful but does not bring immediate relief. She still must bear some punishment for her sin.

Here we have a statement that probably would be clarified by a greater knowledge of ANE custom, but so far no one has found any statement to which it might be compared. We do read in Deut. 25:9 that spitting in the face was a sign of contempt, a conclusion we would have come to anyway as spitting in someone’s face seems in the nature of the case an expression of contempt. [Milgrom, 98] The point is clearly that if the humiliation of a father’s spitting in his daughter’s faith would have produced seven days’ disgrace, then surely Yahweh’s rebuke requires at least the same punishment. In other words, Miriam was not held outside the camp for a specified length of time because she was unclean, but because she needed to bear the shame of her reproach by the Lord, she needed to feel the weight of it for a time, and other Israelites needed to heed the lesson. We are not actually told when her diseased skin was healed it; may have been as soon as Moses interceded for her.

Now there are two ways to take our text this evening. As you know a great deal is made in the New Testament of the similarity and the relationship between Moses and Jesus. As Moses was humble, so was Jesus and in the precisely similar way: when falsely accused he did not open his mouth and did not seek to defend himself, regarded in the NT as one of the most magnificent demonstrations of his perfect holiness. The NT expects us to realize that that is something extraordinary precisely because we have such a hard time ever doing it ourselves. We learn at the end of Acts 3 that Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” prophesied in Deuteronomy 18. We are told that as Moses interceded for Israel so the Lord Christ intercedes for his people. We are told that while Moses was a servant in God’s house, Jesus is the son who is over the house. And, finally, while Moses saw the form of God, Jesus himself was and is in the form of God. There are many lessons to be drawn here from what is said about Moses as the prophet of the Lord regarding the Prophet, Jesus Christ himself. The text is not about Jesus per se, but it contains much that can be applied to Jesus and much of the conceptual framework that helps us to understand his life and work when it is explained to us in the last twenty-seven books of the Bible.

However, the NT draws our attention to this text and the entire section of which it is a part as a lesson in sins to be avoided at all cost. We pointed out last week that Paul draws attention to Israel’s grumbling as evidence of her unbelief. Here we know that Aaron and Miriam were not unbelieving people. But even real believers can succumb to the temptation to envy others and, in the church, that envy is often of those whom the Lord has favored in some way. So it is to this aspect of the narrative, the aspect that is, after all, front and center in the text itself, that we turn this evening.

We said last time that the grumbling of the Israelites about their lack of a varied diet in the wilderness was evidence of their unbelief. They were in their grumbling rejecting the Lord and his rule and his wonderful and miraculous provision for them. They wanted something else. Well there is something of that here surely, but envy is not quite the same thing as grumbling over the lack of food. Here Miriam and Aaron are envious of the stature of their brother, a sin to which all believers tend all too often. They wanted what the Lord had given to Moses. They were very conscious of the Lord and of his provision, but were unhappy that it had been given to another in a measure it had not been given to them. Richard Nixon, defeated by John Kennedy in the razor thin 1960 presidential election, met Kennedy’s aide Ted Sorenson shortly after Kennedy’s inaugural address. Nixon remarked that there were things in the speech that he wished he could have said. “Do you mean the part about ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…?’ asked Sorenson. “No,” replied Nixon, “the part beginning ‘I do solemnly swear….’” We want what the other guy has. Jealously, envy is as simple as that.

As Alexander Whyte once put it:

“What an utterly and abominably evil passion is envy which is awakened not by bad things but by the best things.” [Bunyan Characters, I, 95-96]

The British actor, John Gielgud is quoted as having said, while once discussing the character of Othello in Shakespeare’s play, “I don’t really know what jealousy is.” After a moment of reflection, he went on, “Oh, yes I do! I remember! When Larry [he is speaking of the famed actor Laurence Olivier] had a success as Hamlet, I wept.” It is good things, fine things, and happy things in and for others that make our spirits sour. Like grumbling, envy is a deep-seated evil because it betrays something deeply wrong and ugly inside of us. The first sin, the sin from which all other sins derive, the devil’s sin seems to have been the sin of envy. He was not content with the extraordinary station he had been given and wanted more for himself; he wanted what belonged to God alone. As Milton has it:

The infernal serpent; he it was, whose guile,
Stirr’d up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind. [Paradise Lost, I, 34]

And so it has been ever since. The world is fueled by envy. I read recently that many Google searches are what are called “ego-surfing.” That is, a person googles his own name or his own company to see how many times and in what ways he or it is mentioned. Some of this is simply straight-forward pride and vanity, but it usually leads to comparison: how you fare on Google compared to others that you measure yourself by. Vanity and Envy are two sides of the same coin! The Bible draws our attention to what a mighty power envy is in the world and how much happens because of it.

The Gospel writers draw repeated attention to the fact that the religious leadership eventually executed Jesus in largest part because they envied him. They envied his power, his goodness, and his popularity. They wanted what he had and because they couldn’t have it, they didn’t want him to have it either. The envy was so obvious Pilate saw it at once. I doubt many of those scribes and Pharisees, however, saw the envy themselves or ever admitted their envy to themselves. Envy is an easy sin to denounce, but more difficult to detect, and still more difficult to put to death.

Thomas Shepard, the New England Puritan preacher and founder of Harvard, commented more than once in his dairies on the difficulty he had with envy. Robert McCheyne once said that envy is the besetting sin of ministers and Thomas Shepard would have agreed with him. One Sunday morning he was sick and another minister took his place. His wife came home from church and told her husband how great a sermon the substitute had preached; one of the best she’d ever heard and so on. Just the sort of thing a wife might say! “Oh my God,” Shepard confided to his diary, “pity me with this diabolical heart of mine. For all the time T. H. [the guest preacher] is my best friend.” [Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 1-5-106]

All his life Shepard struggled against envy in his heart. As an older man he was once found late at night lying asleep on the floor of his study, tears dried on his face and with a copy of the New England Gazette clutched tightly in his hand. In that edition of the paper there was a copy of his friend’s sermon – the same T.H. – and one of his own. Shepard knew that his friend’s sermons were much more popular than his own and Shepard himself could see perfectly well why that was. And for hours he had struggled to put down his envy of his fellow minister and his best friend until in exhaustion he had fallen asleep. That’s the work that has to be done in the heart where envy is concerned.

But I don’t have to multiply illustrations of the power and prevalence of envy or jealousy, though I easily could. You know envy’s power and prevalence all too well from your own inner life. In your own spiritual experience you have found yourself over and over again not only wanting what the Lord, in his wisdom, gave to someone else but feeling that you ought to have it. We find envy in ourselves with respect to virtually everything in life. There are married people who envy the freedom of those who are single and single people who envy the family life of those who are married. There are people who are in one job who envy the one who has what they think is a better job, though the one with the better job is, no doubt, often envying someone else with what he thinks is a still better job than his own. We envy the looks, the income, the house, the spouses, the children, the parents, the possessions, the intellect, the athletic ability, the charm, the sense of humor that others have and on and on. We don’t always envy the same things but we all envy. We are, of course, rarely very discerning in our envy. We are usually utterly unthinking of the fact that those we envy are themselves envying others or that they may have problems and difficulties of their own that we would never want even if we could exchange places.

It is a very interesting and important thought that it was finding envy and jealousy in himself that brought the Apostle Paul to the recognition of his sin and his need for a redeemer. He could, he did convince himself that he had not committed murder or adultery, that he had never lied on the witness stand. But when the tenth commandment required him not to desire what the Lord had given to others, he knew that he had been unmasked, exposed in a comprehensive way as someone who had violated God’s law persistently and profoundly.

No doubt Aaron and Miriam were not thinking of the frustration that Moses lived with every day leading a people as ungrateful and unreliable as the Israelites were in the wilderness. Reading chapter 11 it is easy to think that had Aaron and Miriam approached Moses and complained about his stature as leader of Israel Moses might well have said, “Well, be my guest. Rather than share the leadership of Israel three ways; you two take over and run the nation for a while. I’ll be more than delighted to let someone else take my place! I never wanted the job in the first place.”

We don’t have to be told that envy is sin. We know how ugly it is, how petty, how selfish the spirit of envy must always be, and how foolish it is. Kudos to Aaron for acknowledging that in v. 11. “We were idiots,” he said after he saw Miriam’s skin, and they had been idiots.. But if we don’t have to be taught to hate the envy we find in ourselves we do need to know how to deal with it when we find it in ourselves. And our text gives us some valuable information about that.

  1. The first antidote to envy is self-knowledge.

Aaron and Miriam had forgotten who they were. Miriam was a nobody apart from her being the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was a woman in a man’s world. But she had become the principal woman of Israel. Aaron was the high priest of Israel only because he happened to be Moses’ brother. But he was the high priest. He was the only man in the entire nation who could ever enter the Most Holy Place in the sanctuary of God. Both of them had been exalted to very high places that neither had earned or deserved. It was their relationship to Moses that accounted for the fact that Aaron and Miriam had had some significant role in Israelite prophecy and Israelite leadership, a fact confirmed elsewhere (Exod. 4:16; 15:20; Micah 6:4).

But all of this they had forgotten. And when Christians envy it is inevitably the case that they are forgetting a great deal about themselves and about what God has done for them and given to them and made of them. John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace identified himself with this inscription he prepared for his gravestone:

“John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”

That is a man who knows who he is and what he is. And remembering that is one of the very best and most effective antidote’s to the sin of envy. Think right now of what the Lord has done for you and made of you and promised to make of you one day. Think of the glorious stature you will one day have before God and men and angels, a perfect man or a perfect woman, such a person that if people could see you now as you will then be they would be tempted to fall at your feet and worship you. That is who you are if you are a Christian; that and nothing and no one less. And that is what you are to remind yourself of when you are tempted to envy what God has given to others.

  1. The second antidote to envy is the knowledge of God.

Nothing should have been more obvious to Aaron and Miriam than that Moses had the positionhe had for no other reason than that Yahweh had given it to him. Aaron certainly knew how little enthusiasm Moses had had for the job the Lord gave him from the very beginning. Aaron got his job as High Priest in some measure because Moses didn’t want his job and kept complaining to the Lord that someone else could do it better than he. But Yahweh had insisted. Both of them knew full well that Moses had been granted a special relationship with Yahweh. It was Moses who had spent the forty days amid the lightning and thunder atop Mt. Sinai. It was Moses who would come out of the Tent of Meeting with his face glowing with the glory of God. It was Moses whose staff had parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds. It was Moses who had conducted the negotiations with Pharaoh. It was Moses who had led the people of God these eighteen months or so. For Miriam and Aaron now to act like somehow or another they ought to be on the same level as Moses was preposterous. Yahweh had declared his will in this matter in the most decisive and incontrovertible way imaginable! Think of what Moses had done and what he had been given the power and authority to do over the last year and a half.

When the Lord expressed his anger about Miriam and Aaron’s attitude, he did so by drawing their attention to the obvious. He had treated Moses in a decidedly different way. He had honored him above the honors he had paid to other prophets. He had given Moses a stature and a station unique among men. He did that and for them to complain about Moses’ position was in fact to complain about God’s gifts and calling, about the divine will. It was, in effect, a slur on God’s wisdom and goodness. These pipsqueaks were in fact, whatever they might have said to one another in defending themselves, presuming to lecture the Almighty on how to run the world and his kingdom. Who did they think they were? That is the sense of v. 9 and the statement, “The anger of the Lord burned against them…”

What you need to say to yourself when you are tempted to envy, to be jealous of someone else, “the Lord in his perfect wisdom and sovereignty distributed to that person what he wanted that person to have and has given to me what the Lord in his goodness and wisdom felt best. To want what the Lord has given to another is to call his wisdom and goodness into question.”

Once again we have the sin of envy or jealousy and the Lord’s judgment of it memorialized. This seamy episode, of course, could have been left out. Moses, Aaron and Miriam committed lots of sins that are not narrated in the Bible. Why drag Aaron and Miriam’s reputation through the mud by relating what they so foolishly thought and said and Miriam’s punishment for her covetousness especially when, at the end, we learn they learned their lesson? Well, the reason is that we need to be able to detect the same foolish sin in ourselves, we need to fear it and hate it, and we need an anatomy of the sin so that we can stand against it and put it to death when it rises in our hearts as it does. And the reason we need to do that is because it amounts to blasphemy, an attribution of unwisdom and unfairness and injustice to God. You cannot build a life of faith on a foundation of doubting the goodness and wisdom of God! Christians should be very wary lest their wandering thoughts amount to open disrespect for God and his will, as was the case with Aaron and Miriam.

If I would envy every one of you if only I could somehow see how much Christ loves you and how active the Holy Spirit is in your heart and life; if I would be terribly jealous of you all if only I could see what you are so soon to become; and if this is true of each one of us regarding every other one of us, then surely we have something important to learn from Aaron; from Aaron who had the good sense to admit that in envying his brother he had been a complete idiot!