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 (Manna 27)
Moses on Trial
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From Kbroth-hattaavah, the people journeyed to Hazerotfi; and they remained at Hazeroth. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushfte woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushfte woman … (Num 11:35—12:15)

Once, the Israelites journeyed to a place called Hazeroth. They were to remain there for more than a week. On their Canaan-bound journey through the wilderness, the Israelites had stopped by many places. Each time, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire from God determined how long they had to encamp at that place. For most of them, having encamped at many stops, for how long and for what reason they had to stay put at a particular place had perhaps become something of the banal and not worthy of note. However, this place, Hazeroth, was different. At this place, a dramatic event occurred which was to leave an indelible mark in their memory — Miriam, one of the three of their great leaders, was suddenly struck with leprosy. For that, she was shut out of the camp for seven days and the whole Israelite congregation could not journey until she was brought in again.

Miriam, together with her brother Aaron, had spoken against their younger brother, Moses. Was that merely a domestic dispute? The Bible does not tell us. But we know for certain that Miriam’s leprosy as a result of that dispute could not have been kept from the nation’. A closer analysis of that event reveals one fact. Miriam and Aaron accused Moses on the premise that his leadership was questionable, not on private, familial grounds as they daimed. It was not a case of who this younger brother ought to have married or who he ought not have married. It was rather an indictment against the spiritual authority Moses wielded as the chief leader amongst them. So, it was probably not a private trial that Moses was put on. The matter involved the whole nation, how they were to be led and who to lead them. It was a matter serious enough for God to even intervene personally and act harshly against Miriam, who was herself a leader.

The trial of Moses is an important event in the history of the Israelite nation. Seen in the modern-day context, it offers teachings about the spiritual nurture of servants of God and the relationship between workers. It is hence an event worth a close examination.

The Plaintiffs

Miriam and Aaron were great assistants to Moses as he led the people out of Egypt. “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Mic 6:4). In the sight of God, these three siblings were important leaders to His chosen nation. They each had their own roles in the redemption of the Israelite nation from Egypt.

As a child, Miriam was already a part of God’s strategic plan to save the Israelites from their oppressors. When Baby Moses was left among the reeds at the river’s brink, Miriam stood at a distance to watch. It might be that she was entrusted with the task of finding out what was to happen to her baby brother. She must have been a reliable and resourceful girl. When the Pharaoh’s daughter discovered Moses, she was quick to recommend her mother to be the child’s nurse (Ex 2:9). Consequently, Baby Moses was able to be nurtured by his own mother, something crucial in the moulding of his identity. Spending his formative childhood years in a Hebrew home, Moses grew up knowing very well who he was and where his loyalty should belong. So, “when he was grown up, (he) refused to be called the son of the Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb 11:24, 25).

When the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, leaving the Egyptian army behind them completely drowned, Moses led the people in singing to God a song of praise. Then, Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and continued the song. She showed herself to be a natural leader; all the women went out after her with timbrels and started dancing. The Bible also describes her as “the prophetess” (Ex 15:20). In the eyes of the Israelites, especially among the womenfolk, Miriam was an outstanding woman, a spiritual leader.

As for Aaron, God those him as Moses’ spokesman right at the beginning (Ex 4:14-16). When he went with Moses to negotiate with the Pharaoh, God performed a miracle using his rod, turning it into a snake (Ex 7:8-10). God chose him for an even greater task — that of a High Priest(Ex 28:1). He was a central figure in the life of worship of the whole nation. On top of that, only those of his lineage could become priests. They were an elite group chosen from among the Levites, who were chosen from all the tribes to serve in the tabernacle. Like his sister, Aaron was also given a special leadership position.

The Charge

Both Miriam and Aaron were important vessels of God. Unfortunately, this time round, they allowed their weaknesses to get the better of them.

Miriam and Aaron’s allegation was that Moses should not have taken a Cushite woman as his wife. Was it because of his position as the leader of the nation? Were Miriam and Aaron concerned that Moses’ marriage to a foreign woman would make him a target of gossip and disapproval among his people? The Bible does not explicitly provide the answer. The Bible, though, does tell us the true motivation behind their disapproval and accusation. They said, “Has the Lord indeed only spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2). Underlying the charge they hurled against Moses was a strong resentment that Moses was the greater leader amongst them. Are we not his equals? Is this younger brother of ours really greater than we? Why is he getting all the limelight while we appear to be merely his “tag-a-longs”? Are we not as capable; are we not prophets too? They began to question the spiritual endorsement behind Moses’ leadership position. Their psychology had become frighteningly unstable. They failed to realise what they were actually doing and the implications involved

Pride, the Devil’s age-old weapon, was at work in their hearts. Right at the beginning, Eve was motivated by pride when she ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, hoping that she would be like God (Gen 3:5). Pride has caused countless downfalls amongst God’s people over the millennia. It continues to be Satan’s lethal weapon.

Pride has ominous potential for destruction. It gives rise to jealousy, Hence, Miriam and Aaron could not accept the fact that Moses was a greater leader than they were. They were not humble enough to recognise that they were but particles in the vast creation of God and that He had the sole prerogative to assign whatever task there is to whoever He so pleased. Their pride had caused them to question God’s sovereignty. Their lack of humility had also blinded them to the grace that God had bestowed upon them in allowing them to have a significant part in the nation’s leadership.

Then, they went on to a more grievous wrong. Their open statement of crime against Moses was that his marriage was objectionable However, there was no religious grounds to their objection to Moses’ marriage to a foreign woman. The Bible tells us that Moses took a wife when he was in the wilderness of Midian. It is very likely that his wife, Zipporah, was a proselyte, for she was the one who circumcised their son (Ex 4:25) and she followed Moses back to Egypt to lead the people. In the Bible, there is no mention of Moses taking a second wife. During the exodus, he was kept busy and we can presume that he could not have taken another wife. Even if there were a second wife, Moses would surely have taken a wife who was a worshipper of his God, someone who would support him in his ministry. Hence, the charge of Miriam and Aaron could not be substantiated.

In actuality, the true source of displeasure hidden in the hearts of Miriam and Aaron was that Moses’ leadership position was superior to theirs. Instead of openly admitting their jealousy, they gave their cause a twist and made the whole matter seem like a case of Moses committing wrong in the matter of marriage. They created a false charge against Moses, veiling everyone, including themselves, from the real underlying reason; that of pride. They probably did not realise what they were doing; that as a result of their resentment, they were fabricating a narrative to suit their cause.

The worst part of it all is that this challenge of Moses’ authority became an act of sowing discord. Firstly, unrest was created at the leadership level. It can be expected that the ordinary Israelite would have got to know it. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron had even moved among the people and publicly threw their doubts and interrogations at Moses. For, after all, their motive was to undermine Moses’ credibility as the great leader and to strip him of the respect he commanded.

At this juncture, God had to step in. He could not allow anyone in His congregation to sow discord, forgetting that He as the sovereign Lord was watching over them all. Even if Moses had really done wrong, Miriam and Aaron were still not persons in the position to “execute justice” using their own methods. That was to be left in the hands of God, and in His hands alone, for vengeance is the Lord’s. They had overstepped their boundary. They had forgotten who was in charge. They had even sinned in the way they handled the matter, hiding their jealousy behind twisted facts and generating disharmony. For that, God had to act.

The Defense

“Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!” God’s voice resounded in the air (Num 12:4). How did Miriam and Aaron feel then? Did God’s voice hovering over their tent wake them up from the delusion and narrative they had fashioned for themselves? Were they awakened to the fact that it was the sore in their hearts, the resentment against Moses, that was compelling them to do all that they had done? Did they realise they were at fault?

“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. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth, clearly and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the LORD”(Num 12:6-8). God spoke and gave them the answer to the fundamental question that brought forth all the dissension. Yes, Moses was the leader, the greatest amongst the three of them. The questions Miriam and Aaron had asked earlier were all given a reply. Indeed, God had chosen them too. But Moses was different. With them, God spoke through visions, dreams and dark speech. With Moses, God spoke face to face. Miriam and Aaron had probably forgotten that whenever the presence of God descended upon the Tent of Meeting, all in the congregation would rise and watch Moses go into the tent to meet with Him. God spoke to Moses like one would to a friend (Ex 33:9-1 1). Maybe they had also forgotten that it was Moses who went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments(Ex 19, 20). Hence, God had to remind them. That reminder was not a sweet experience. It was no gentle reminder. God’s tone was severe, “Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?” (Num 12:8). Miriam and Aaron probably had not expected this. By their words alone, God’s wrath was incurred. For that, they had to pay a high price.

The Verdict

“And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he de­parted; and when the cloud had withdrawn from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous” (Num 12:9, 10). Miriam had wanted to weaken the influence of Moses. She got a taste of her own medicine instead. She was suddenly made leprous. The whole congregation would surely get to hear of it. Their great female leader was punished with the most unclean disease. The prophetess who led the womenfolk in singing to the Lord was completely humbled, before herself, before her people and before God. All the admiration and veneration she had received were gone almost all at once. In trying to assert her own leadership position, she had brought upon herself the very reverse plight. She was terribly shaken. What was more frightening was that God had departed. God had turned His face away from her (Num 12:9). What was she to do?

It was at this point that Aaron pleaded for Miriam’s cure and manifested his repentance. To reverse the tragedy, he had to admit that what they had done was wrong. The message behind God’s punishment was clear. They had to acknowledge that Moses was indeed the leader among them. “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned” (Num 12:11). Aaron finally reckoned Moses as his “lord”. He begged Moses to heal Miriam. This was an open acknowledgment that Moses was the one whom God had chosen to lead them, the one with the spiritual, heavenly authority. They had learnt their lesson that to speak against God’s chosen servant is a serious matter before God. To sow dissension amongst co-workers is even more unbecoming of God’s servants. This change of heart in them was a necessary step before Miriam could be healed.

At this, point, Moses’ voice was finally heard. He pleaded with God to heal Miriam (Num 12:13). Prior to this, throughout the whole trial, Moses did not utter a word. When the contentions, as to whether he was the sanctioned leader amongst them, were rife, he held his peace. What was going through his mind then? We are not offered any insight. But he certainly knew he had to leave the matter entirely to God; God was the best one to judge the matter. He knew that if he was approved before God, God would vindicate him. He did not need to go round the camp soliciting support. There was no need to explain himself. In the first place, he did not volunteer to be the leader. It was God who had personally called him from the burning bush when he was tending sheep in the wilderness (Ex 3:1-10). Since his position was given by God, only God could take this authority away from him. If he had been found lacking, then let God deal with him accord­ingly. Nothing that anyone were to say would sway God’s decision in any way.

It is significant that the only biblical record of Moses’ response to the raving accusations and disap­proval hurled at him was “now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num 12: 3). In the narration of a situation of unrest created, a seemingly irrelevant and most incongruous comment about the accuser’s meekness is juxtaposed in the middle. This serves to highlight a stark contrast between Moses’ response and the ways of Miriam and Aaron. Towards his accusers and in handling the whole issue, Moses had only one response —maintain his meekness by staying calm, gentle and humble.

It is also worth pondering why the only verse which records Moses’ opening his mouth is that which shows him interceding for Miriam. Moses cried out to the LORD, “Heal her, 0 God, I beseech thee” (Num 12:13). This is the only record of Moses’ voice from the beginning to the end of this whole event. Moses, the great intercessor, who pleaded with God for his people when they turned against God to worship the golden calf (Ex 32:31, 32), was the same figure of compassion when faced with opposition and personal attacks.

Through the trial, Moses’ behaviour proved that he was indisputably the unchallenged leader of the whole nation. It explains why God was on his side. There was no need for him to say anything more. God the Lord sovereign chooses his own workers. These workers must also prove their spiritual integrity. “If anyone purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work” (2 Tim 2:21). Moses did just that. His heart was one that was pristine, not harboring any grudges. He stayed composed and silent amidst the noise and squabble for power. When the plea came for him to intercede for Miriam, he further manifested his great magnanimity by his unquestioning readiness to forgive and humbly do what he could for her, just as he had always done for his people. With that, he silenced all his contenders and the whole congregation and won God’s added approval. With that, he also left for posterity a precious lesson about what a worker approved by God should be like.

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