Sunday, November 3, 2013

Numbers 12:1–16

The quotation of Numbers 12:7 in the epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (specifically, in Hebrews 3:5) is what inspired this Old Testament selection. There, in the epistle, Numbers is cited to affirm Moses' faithfulness as a servant in God's house, even as the Sonship of Jesus Christ is declared to be superior to Moses' nearly ideal servanthood.

Here in the original text we have other divine affirmations of Moses' character as well, particularly the affirmation of his unsurpassed humility (Numbers 12:3) and the fact that the LORD's communication with Moses is "face–to–face—clearly not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD" (12:8). While the sense in which Moses was able to see Yahweh's face is ambiguous (cf. Exodus 33:11 and 20), his ability to see God's form in some fashion is beyond doubt. Either way, the LORD's self-revelation to Moses goes beyond the dreams, visions, and riddles on which others prophets must rely (12:6, 8). Thus, the LORD angrily defends Moses, and his election of Moses, when his siblings Aaron and Miriam criticize their brother's choice of a wife.

We will not defend Aaron or Miriam's gossip and rebellious backbiting here, with its evidently racist overtones. But there is some ambiguity in this reference to Moses' "Cushite" (Ethiopian) wife that may indicate the criticism was not solely a racial matter; in other words, it may have been compounded by other factors as well.

Was Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro priest of Midian, the woman described here as a Cushite? Is the confusion or conflation of a Cushite with a Midianite an expression of Aaron's and Miriam's ignorance? Very possibly. Or does the reference to a Cushite wife mean another wife altogether is intended? In other words, did Moses take a second wife? Perhaps not. Perhaps the best reading is to attribute this ignorance to the siblings. But the possibility of a second wife, with all the tensions that such a union might introduce to the family system, would hardly be unprecedented in the biblical narrative and perhaps should not be completely discounted.

Unearthing a complete list of the motivations behind (or the excuses feeding) the criticisms will neither yield any verifiable psychological reconstruction or justify the critics' conduct. What is clear is that the main root of the criticism is fed by a spirit of jealousy (12:2), and in this respect, their complaint rings with a terrible foreboding when one looks ahead to the tragic and far more broad based rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16). There, we are told, Korah and his fellow conspirators, "assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?’" (16:3) In other words, what begins here in a spirit of jealousy among leaders within the same family will be subsequently expressed in almost the same words when Korah and his rebellious company give vent to a spirit of hyper-egalitarianism. When one considers the scale of that rebellion, one can easily discern why the LORD sees fit here to take Moses, Aaron, and Miriam off by themselves (12:4). Despite this precaution, however, the contagion of complaint still manages to spread.

The reason this is worth mentioning is that what we have termed this tendency toward hyper-egalitarianism is widely voiced in both the political world and the church today, and it often gains a toehold where leaders simply (and rightly) wish to identify and affirm the gifts of the laity. Such a focus on empowering the laity and affirm the whole people of God as a holy nation is a proper thing, with deep roots in both Old and New Testaments; but taken to the extreme point at which supposedly pure egalitarian structures (and, as Orwell has observed in the socio-political sphere, no order is ever purely egalitarian) overrule God's calling of particular leaders or setting people are apart for particular tasks, such a so-called "pure" democracy can lead to the chaos of mob rule, without due protection of the minority.

Thus, the episode of Miriam's temporary leprosy—she would not have been allowed back in the camp if her flesh had not been restored (12:14–15)—and Korah's rebellion (16:1–50) stand in a long line of texts that warn against criticism and disobedience of those whom God has appointed as leaders (cf. Romans 14:4; Hebrews 13:17; et al), the inference being that criticism of such leaders amounts to finding fault with God's decision to appoint them. There will arise, of course, a torrent of texts in the prophetic tradition and the Gospels that will testify to God's displeasure with corrupt leaders, including false prophets. At this point, however, it is Aaron and Miriam who invite and incur the LORD's displeasure, but Moses is a leader whom God is determined to defend.

If Miriam's punishment and Aaron's relative impunity seem unfair, we should realize and respect the fact that: (1) God's freedom to meet out fitting penalties—apart from our judgement!—is a substantial part of the point here, and (2) from the attitude of a critic, Aaron is immediately restored, at the sight of Miriam, to his role as priestly intercessor, whose entire ministry would likely have been scuttled if he himself had suffered even a temporary bout of leprosy. In one sense, Miriam seems to have incurred the heavier penalty. But as priest, part of Aaron's role was to distinguish clean from unclean conditions (Leviticus 13—14); he was set apart for this task, as well as for holy service in the tabernacle, a service that included bearing all the sins of all the people into the presence of the LORD on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16), which he would not have been able to perform if he himself had been stricken.

To summarize, Moses is defended by the LORD himself here, as is his own election of Moses as a humble and faithful servant in God's house; Moses enjoyed unparalleled intimate fellowship with God, superior to that of prophets, and such a vocation is not to be subject to capricious jealousy among leaders or trampled by hyper-egalitarianism (which in the case of Korah's rebellion amounts to ambitious arrogance masquerading as magnanimity, typical of what we see today among certain elite on the left). It is even possible that this mini-rebellion on the part of Aaron and Miriam (mini-, that is, compared to the rebellion of Korah) opens the door to the rebellious rabble that would mount a major and disastrous uprising only four chapters later. For our purposes, we should acknowledge the racist expression of the prejudice corrected here as well as its primary motivation in jealousy, and the corrective measure as an expression of God's love for people beyond the borders of Israel, a point that demands particular emphasis whenever those borders are too conservatively construed; but to such a moral reading we should also add the clear sense in which the LORD defends his freedom to choose, equip, and even favor certain leaders in a way that may indeed appear more hierarchical than we might wish from the God who, we read elsewhere, shows no partiality. When he does so, however, his election must also be placed in perspective and understood in terms of the responsibility and accountability to which such servants are called; for in the end, even they must bow, as the epistle (Hebrews 3) reminds us, to Jesus Christ the Son of God.

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