By James R. Strange, Ph.D.
Professor of biblical and religious studies, Samford University
AVOIDING A CRITICAL SPIRIT
Today’s lesson derives from a crucial moment in the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and wilderness wandering. Challenges come from an unexpected direction. Moses’ siblings contest God’s leadership of the people through him exclusively.
Apparently Moses is the youngest of the three (Ex. 2:1–4; 6:20; 7:7; 15:20; 1 Chron. 6:1–3), but the story makes no mention of rivalry from birth order. We do see, however, alienation borne of envy.
Comparing yourself to others can lead to a critical spirit. (1–3)
The issue with Moses’ Cushite wife is unclear. Cush is usually thought to be ancient Ethiopia, south of Egypt, but because Zipporah is from Midian (10:29), Cush might refer to a region in the northwestern Arabian peninsula named for one of six sons of Abraham and Keturah (Gen. 25:1–2).
Are Miriam and Aaron concerned about a non-Israelite yet ancient familial influence on Moses?
Aaron and Miriam say that the Lord has also spoken through them because both are prophets. Miriam uses song, dance and instruments to lead God’s people after the defeat of Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 15:20–21, the first mention of Miriam’s name). Aaron serves as Moses’ spokesperson when he confronts Pharaoh (Ex. 7:1; 4:10–17). He then becomes the first Israelite high priest (Ex. 28; Num. 17).
Moses is indeed “very humble” or “meek,” for he will not defend himself against the challenge.
Criticism of others can be a form of questioning God’s work. (4–9)
The “pillar of cloud” recalls God’s leading of Israel by day (Ex. 13), protection at the Red Sea (Ex. 14) and giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24).
Throughout the Bible, clouds indicate God’s presence, wisdom, guidance and power (Ps. 97:2; Job 37:15–16; Dan. 7:13; Mark 14:62). Here, the pillar of cloud reminds Aaron and Miriam (and readers) that to this point, God has led and protected Israel as promised. Therefore, by challenging Moses, the siblings question God’s provision.
God affirms that He does not talk with Moses the way He talks with other prophets who receive visions and dreams.
No, God’s dealing with Moses is unique in three ways: Moses alone is entrusted with all of God’s people (“house”), God doesn’t give him confusing visions but speaks “face to face,” and Moses alone sees “the form of the Lord” (see Ex. 33–34).
According to God, Miriam and Aaron should know this and know better than to challenge Moses.
Confess a critical spirit and return to God. (10–15)
We don’t know why Miriam alone endures an affliction of the skin. We do see that she is shut out of the camp for seven days, the normal period for dealing with ritual impurity due to skin disease (Lev. 13:4; 14:8).
Hence, Miriam’s envy results in her alienation from her family and also from all her people, and she requires restoration.
In a similar way, we see Aaron’s resentment of his brother turn to anguish for his sister. For his part, Moses, also distraught, petitions God on behalf of a sibling who had questioned his authority.
Note the people’s gracious response. They don’t leave without Miriam but wait for her to return.
In this case, envy leads to alienation, which, by God’s grace, yields to forgiveness and restoration.
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