Redeemed From a Critical Spirit

| Numbers 12:1-15

The Point:  A critical spirit damages our lives.

Miriam and Aaron Oppose Moses:  Numbers 12:1-15.

[1]  Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. [2]  And they said, "Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?" And the LORD heard it. [3]  Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. [4]  And suddenly the LORD said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting." And the three of them came out. [5]  And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. [6]  And he said, "Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. [7]  Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. [8]  With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" [9]  And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. [10]  When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. [11]  And Aaron said to Moses, "Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. [12]  Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb." [13]  And Moses cried to the LORD, "O God, please heal her–please." [14]  But the LORD said to Moses, "If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again." [15]  So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again.  [ESV]

Disloyal colleagues.  The sad story of human defiance lingers on, casting up yet another example of distressing rebellion, one even more hurtful in that it came from the older members of Moses’ own family. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses [1]. It must have grieved Israel’s leader that two people bound to him by natural blood ties were seriously objecting to his leadership. The story provides important insights into the theme of handling disagreements. Christians are not always good at it. We sometimes find it difficult to live harmoniously with people who think differently from ourselves; peripheral differences lead to major disruptions. Paul urged the believers in Rome to learn how to deal with variant opinions in a compassionate, constructive, even creative manner [Rom. 14:1-23]. When handling disagreement, several things need to be done.

Identify its source.  When people are at loggerheads, differences may not always be confined to the immediate controversy; there are often multiple grounds for the complaint. Hidden resentments frequently underlie fierce objections. Three issues may lurk behind the subversive conversations of Moses’ sister and brother. First, they raised an ethnic objection to his leadership. He had married a Cushite woman [1]. Such issues are tragically evident in our own times. Huge numbers of people cannot live happily together because of their clashing racial backgrounds or discordant cultures. Cushite is a variant term for Midianite, the people with whom Moses had found shelter when he fled from Egypt forty years earlier. Now, two of the people closest to Moses were raising serious objections to the woman he had married, simply because she came from a different ethnic background. Secondly, they raised a vocational objection to his leadership. Why was Moses regarded among the people as someone special? Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also? [2]. Envy is showing its ugly face, and not for the last time in the desert journey [16:1-17:13]. The sin was no less ugly than that of the greedy multitudes; indeed, it was more reprehensible in that it arose among Moses’ closest relatives. Thirdly, behind this grievance, there may be a hint of domestic rivalry. Aaron was senior, and, within the Hebrew tradition, the firstborn son was given precedence within the family. Yet here was the younger brother telling his elders what God wanted them to do. Family rivalries are common, sometimes leading to bitter disputes and acrimonious relationships.

Acknowledge its danger.  Christians cannot be expected to think exactly alike on every issue in life. There is nothing wrong with holding different opinions; it is how we manage them that matters. Estranged brothers and sisters in the faith are undermining, if not denying, their God-given unity. The bitter complaint expressed by Aaron and Miriam was hurtful to Moses, offensive to God, damaging to the grumblers and a warning to the people. First, it was hurtful to Moses. The writer describes Moses as very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth [3]. The word meek or ‘humble’ is from a root meaning ‘bowed down’; in leadership he was genuinely subordinating his personal interest to those of God and His cause. His sensitive spirit must have been profoundly disturbed when members of his own family questioned his divinely appointed role and, particularly, his responsibility as the Lord’s mouthpiece [2]. His brother and sister, of all people, knew how diffidently he had undertaken the demanding tasks God had entrusted to him. God had provided Aaron as his supportive colleague, and the two brothers became devoted partners in confronting Pharaoh with God’s commands. Yet, little more than a year later, the cooperative partnership was fractured. A genuinely humble man who steadily pursued the will of God for the glory of God found the conflict specially distressing. Secondly, and more seriously, the disagreement was offensive to God. He had appointed Moses to this exacting task, and the community had indisputable proof that he was their divinely chosen leader. Aaron had been given other work to do. His responsibilities were priestly; he and his sons were to officiate at the sacrifices and act as pastoral counsellors within the community. When this damaging relationship problem arose, the Lord responded in a way that identified the sin and exposed, judged and pardoned the sinner. The Lord acted swiftly. Moses was not the only one who heard Aaron’s and Miriam’s bitter criticism: And the Lord heard it [2]. God knew that this family grievance must be dealt with immediately before the poison infiltrated the entire community: And suddenly the Lord said [4]. In acrimonious disagreements additional harm can be done by procrastinating. Nobody ought to rush in without careful thought and dependent prayer, but the longer the problem is left the more likely it is that more harmful things will be said and done. The worst feature of sin is its power to reproduce itself. Iniquity multiplies unless firm and loving action is taken to halt its destructive mission. The Lord appeared decisively. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam [5]. He required these two discontented leaders to step forward so that He could expose the seriousness of their rebellion for, there, the anger of the Lord was kindled against them [9]. The Lord spoke authoritatively. He required the three members of this divided family to come to the Tent of Meeting, identifying Moses as someone infinitely more important than merely a prophet of the Lord [6-8]. The Lord acted justly; His anger burned against them. The elder brother and sister had asserted that the Lord had spoken through them [2] as well as through Moses. They had talked insensitively about the Lord’s voice; now they heard that divine voice and were terrified. There they were, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, abandoned by God. The Lord departed [9] and left them in their sins, isolated in their guilt, silenced by their transgression and subdued by deep remorse. The pillar of cloud, a perpetual reminder of God’s presence and holiness, was lifted way above the Tent. God had spoken His word of condemnation and walked out on them, leaving them in their solitariness to feel the enormity of their sin. The disagreement, thirdly, was damaging to the grumblers. Embarrassed and afraid, these two unhappy people looked into each other’s faces, making a shattering discovery. Miriam had been stricken with a frightening skin disease. One wonders why, when both had offended, Miriam alone was afflicted and Aaron spared. Possibly, in this instance, she may have been the ringleader, initiating the complaint, leaving Aaron to be the spokesman. One thing is certain: with mental anguish, he felt equally guilty and did nothing to hide his deep remorse, calling out to Moses, Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned [11]. Aaron admitted that they had acted not only unkindly and irresponsibly, but also foolishly. Aaron pleaded with Moses and Moses pleaded with God: O God, please heal her [13]. The man who had objected to Moses’ role as leader now called him lord, and was glad to do so. Aaron knew they must repent if the offense was to be pardoned. Finally, this incident was a warning to the people. Responding to his intercession, God told Moses that, had his sister been disgraced publicly by an earthly father, she would have been required to live outside the camp to mourn for her sin seven days. Now that she had been publicly rebuked by her heavenly Father she must do the same. The desert community would bring their journey to a temporary halt, giving them a full week in camp to reflect on the seriousness of sin [1-2], the inevitability of judgment [10], the necessity of repentance [11-12], the urgency of prayer [13] and the miracle of forgiveness [14].

Attempt its healing.  In this narrative of bitterness, antagonism and disruption, we may trace some therapeutic dimensions of helpful pastoral care. First, we should value God’s servants. Earlier, Miriam and Aaron had been greatly used by God. The sister’s young voice had played a crucial role in the deliverance of her baby brother and, later, her prophetic gift had inspired Israel’s travelers as they acknowledged God’s power. Aaron’s strong arms had been used as he shared with Moses in the ministry of prayer. They had both been used in the past, and would be so in the future if they used their own gifts rather than coveting those of other people. The offenders were told two important things about Moses, so that they might value his ministry rather than criticize it. They were told that Moses was divinely equipped. He had been raised up as God’s servant [7-8] to perform a specific task for this desert community. Whereas God communicated His message to others by means of visions and dreams, Moses was ushered personally into the audience chamber of God. God was surprised that these two complainers, having witnessed Moses’ shining face [Ex. 34:29-30], had been envious of his special function rather than inspired by God’s visible endorsement of His servant. They were also told that Moses was utterly dependable: he is faithful in all my house [7]. Listening and speaking were solemn responsibilities, not coveted benefits. Twice identified in this passage as the Lord’s servant, he was humble, faithful, prayerful and merciful. When people become embroiled in bitter rivalry, only believers of the spiritual caliber of Moses are likely to exercise an effective ministry of healing. Secondly, we should enter God’s presence. The Lord told the disunited family to come to the Tent of Meeting, where He met with them in the overshadowing cloud. Serious divisions and bitter rivalries will never be rectified away from the mercy seat. It is only when we pray and expose ourselves to the searchlight of God’s presence that all parties see their need of Him. Unless we do that, the contestants will struggle to put the opposing party in the dock while they assume the role of the unbiased judge. God often reverses the roles when we spend time with Him, helping the aggrieved person to see that he or she may even have played some part, albeit unwittingly, in creating the rift, or at least in making it possible by an unloving spirit. Thirdly, we should hear God’s Word. Hear my words, the Lord said [6]. He had things to say about Himself (that He speaks and appoints), about Moses (as a faithful servant) and about the offenders: Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses [8]? In times of serious division, all parties need to gather dependently around an open Bible, not to sling texts at one another in self-righteous anger, but to listen attentively to what God may be saying to everyone concerned about the events that have led to such sad disruption. Finally, we should love God’s people. Aaron cried out to Moses because he was heartbroken about Miriam. Moses cried out to God because he was lovingly concerned for both the offenders. The grumblers’ lovelessness had been transformed by Moses’ compassion; their anger was met by his mercy.

Learn its lessons.  Everyone had something to learn from this episode about handling disagreement. Moses learnt the importance of silence. Aaron and Miriam complained, but Moses said nothing. When things go wrong in relationships, additional harm is inflicted by unhelpful speech and especially by attempts at self-justification. When people say cruel things about us or about others, why do we find it necessary to answer? It would be better by far to say nothing, letting the offending remark hang in the air, embarrassing the heedless or cruel speaker. Moses kept a still tongue and let the Lord do the talking. Aaron learnt the value of prayer. The high priest had unique access into the presence of God, but that day he too was glad of a compassionate intercessor. As he heard Moses pray he realized afresh how crucial it is to pray for others as well as for ourselves, and to do so intelligently, lovingly and dependently. Miriam learnt the generosity of grace. She had offended but was mercifully forgiven. During that week of enforced confinement she reflected on the infinite compassion of God. Once resentful of her younger brother’s role, now she treasured healthier priorities. Pardoned, cleansed and healed, there was nothing greater she desired. The people learnt the seriousness of sin. Eager to press on with their desert journey, they were compelled to wait until everybody had recognized that sin not only grieves God and destroys us; it damages others as well. Whenever we sin, others are always affected in one way or another. Even if we sin ‘secretly’, we have affected other people by our iniquity, although they may be ignorant of it. Offenders emerge from the sordid transgression as less than they might have been. Their holiness has been defiled, their testimony marred, their resistance weakened. Others are poorer because the offenders’ sin was not conquered. The offense of Aaron and Miriam had held them up in their desert travels, but it would be a week well spent if it taught them to honor God and to shun sin. Sadly, they were not good learners; the Lord’s patience was to be tried even more. On the immediate horizon was an act not of family rivalry but of community rebellion. In the desert of Paran, they did not merely denigrate Moses; they defied God, as we see in chapter 13.”  [Brown, pp. 106-112]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What things must we do when we are confronted by disagreements in life?

2.         Describe the disagreement between Moses, Miriam and Aaron. What three issues caused the disagreement. How was envy and pride at the heart of their disagreement?

3.         How did God handle this family disagreement that had serious consequences for the leadership of His people? What did God teach His people by means of this disagreement?

4.         What lessons can we learn from this episode about handling disagreements in our family, our church, our work, our friends, etc.?


The Message of Numbers, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

Numbers, R. Dennis Cole, NAC, B & H Publishers.

Numbers, Iain Duguid, Crossway.

Numbers, Walter Kaiser, Jr., EBC, Zondervan.