Last week we saw how the Israelites began to grumble and complain. They complained about the general conditions and the everyday hardships they faced as they made their way to through the wilderness. But they complained in particular about the food, because they were sick and tired of the manna, and they remembered what they used to eat in Egypt, and they wanted meat to eat. And when Moses heard them, he also began to complain to the Lord that leading the people on his own was too much of a burden for him. ‘What have I done to displease you?’ he asked, ‘that you put the burden of all these people on me?’ The pressure on him was so great that he even wished he were dead.
The Lord dealt with their complaints, because he appointed elders to help Moses to lead the people; and he sent quail into the camp for the people to eat. But the meat he sent them became a curse and not a blessing, because many of them died when they ate the meat; and in that way, the Lord chastised them for their rebellion.
So, last week the people rebelled and began to complain. In today’s chapter, we read about another rebellion. But this time, it’s not the people who are rebelling, but it’s Miriam and Aaron. They began to criticise Moses. But in criticising Moses, the superiority of Moses was revealed; and the superiority of Moses speaks to us of the superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is, of course, even greater than Moses.
Verses 1 to 8
We read in verses 1 and 2 that Miriam — who was Moses’s sister and a prophetess — and Aaron — who was Moses’s brother and the High Priest — began to speak against Moses. Two complaints are cited here. The first is that Moses had married a Cushite woman. Now, it’s not entirely clear to whom they are referring. We know Moses was married to Zipporah, but she was a Midianite. So, it seems he must have married another woman; and now Miriam and Aaron are complaining that his second wife was not an Israelite. Why did Moses — the leader of God’s holy people — marry a foreigner? That’s their first complaint.
The second concerns Moses’s position as leader. ‘Is Moses the only prophet among God’s people?’, they ask. ‘Hasn’t God spoken through others?’ ‘Hasn’t the Lord spoken through us?’ Miriam and Aaron ask. And that perhaps shows us what lay behind their complaint. They believed they were equal to Moses; anything Moses could do, they could do as well. There was nothing unique or special about Moses, because hadn’t they also received revelations from the Lord? And so, they began to speak against Moses and to criticise him.
We’re told in verse 3 that Moses was a very humble man, more humble, in fact, than anyone else on the face of the earth. And the reason we’re told that is to help us to understand why Moses didn’t respond to their criticism. A proud man might have jumped to his own defence; a proud man would have criticised them in return; a proud man would have boasted about himself.
But since Moses was not a proud man, but a humble man, he did nothing and he said nothing either to defend himself or to criticise them. In that way he was doing what the Apostle Paul tells us all to do in Romans 12 where he teaches us not to repay anyone evil for evil; as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone, says Paul; and do not take revenge, but leave room for what? For God’s wrath. And sure enough, on this occasion, in Numbers 12, Moses did not repay them evil for evil, but he left it to the Lord.
And the Lord came to his defence. And so, we read in verse 4 how at once the Lord summoned Moses and Miriam and Aaron to appear before him at the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle. And the Lord came down to them in a pillar of cloud and spoke to them. And he made clear that Moses was indeed unique among all the other prophets in Israel, because whereas the Lord spoke to the prophets through dreams and visions, he spoke to Moses face to face. In other words, he spoke to Moses in a very direct and personal way, like two friends sitting at a table, chatting over a meal. And he describes Moses as the one ‘who was faithful in all my house.’ Well, when he refers to ‘my house’, he’s not referring to the Tabernacle, but to the people of Israel. Just as a landowner might have entrusted his household to a steward, so the Lord entrusted his household to Moses to look after it on his behalf. And according to the Lord, Moses had been a faithful steward.
Miriam and Aaron were criticising Moses; but the Lord came to his defence and vindicated Moses in their sight by testifying to his faithfulness and by making clear that his position was unique.
And the Lord continued to defend Moses. With Moses, he said, I speak face to face and not in riddles. Isn’t that interesting? We’ve been studying the book of Daniel. And sure enough, the Lord revealed his word to Daniel in visions. And the visions are like riddles, aren’t they? They’re hard to understand and we have to work hard to figure them out. And often it’s not clear what the Lord is saying. Read any of the prophets in the Old Testament and it’s the same: often the things the Lord revealed to them in dreams and visions are very puzzling. But when the Lord spoke to Moses, his words were clear and not in riddles. Moses even ‘sees the form of God’, says the Lord. Now, the Lord doesn’t have a body for Moses to see; but the Lord used to reveal himself to Moses in a visible form.
And so, the Lord makes clear that Moses was faithful and unique. He was a faithful steward, overseeing God’s household. And whereas the Lord spoke to the prophets in dreams and visions which were hard to understand, he appeared to Moses and he spoke to Moses in an altogether different way.
Why then, the Lord asks in verse 8, were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses.
Verses 9 to 16
In verses 9 to 16 we have the outcome. The anger of the Lord burned against them and Miriam became leprous. The little footnote in the NIV reminds us that the Hebrew word refers to any kind of skin disease and not necessarily to leprosy. Nothing happened to Aaron; perhaps it was because he was the High Priest; or perhaps Miriam was the one who instigated this rebellion and therefore she was the only one who was punished. But when Aaron saw what happened to his sister, he pleaded with Moses on her behalf. And Moses — the most humble man on the face of the earth — was not proud or angry or bitter, but he immediately cried out to the Lord on behalf of his sister, asking the Lord to heal her.
And the Lord heard him and agreed to heal her, though he insisted that she should remain outside the camp for seven days. This, in fact, matches the regulations in Leviticus 14 which the people were to follow whenever someone was healed of an infectious disease. If the priest determined that the infection had gone, the person still had to stay outside the camp for another seven days. And so, it seems that the Lord healed Miriam immediately, but still she had to wait outside the camp. And the rest of the nation had to wait as well, which means that as a result of her rebellion against the servant of the Lord, their journey to the Promised Land was delayed.
At the end of the book of Deuteronomy we read that no prophet arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was indeed unique and special, because he was a faithful steward over God’s household; and the Lord spoke to him directly and clearly. But the Lord also promised in Deuteronomy 18 that he would one day raise up a prophet like Moses. And the Lord’s promises in Deuteronomy 18 was fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ, who came into the world as our Great Prophet to make known God’s will for our salvation.
Just as Moses was humble, so the Lord Jesus was gentle and humble in heart. Just as Moses was criticised by those who ought to have known better, so the Lord Jesus was criticised by those who ought to have known better, because though the Scriptures testified about him, the Jews — who had the Scriptures — did not believe in him. Furthermore, when the Lord was brought before his accusers, he remained silent, just as Moses remained silent before his accusers; and the Lord did not defend himself before the Sanhedrin or before Pilate.
But, of course, the Lord Jesus is so much greater than even Moses. Whereas Moses spoke to the Lord face to face, the Lord Jesus is God and from all eternity he’s been at his Father’s side. Whereas Moses saw the glory of God, the Lord Jesus is the glory of God and the exact representation of his being so that whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. So, while Moses knew the Lord intimately and personally, the Lord Jesus is much greater, because he the Eternal Son of God. In fact, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 3, while Moses was faithful as a servant over God’s household, the Lord Jesus was faithful as a son over God’s household. He wasn’t a servant; he was God’s Son; and therefore uniquely qualified to speak on the Father’s behalf and to reveal God’s will to us.
Furthermore, whereas Moses appeared before the Lord in an earthly Tabernacle, the Lord Jesus appears before his Father in the heavenly Tabernacle, where he now intercedes for all his people. And unlike Moses, who eventually died and his ministry ended, the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead and lives forever to intercede for us.
And finally, what did the Lord reveal to Moses? Well, in John 1 we’re told that God revealed the law to Moses. And the law only condemns, doesn’t it? It condemns us because it makes clear to us that we have all fallen short of doing God’s will; and all of us have broken his commandments. It condemns us, because none of us has done what the law commands; and it reveals to us our sin and guilt and shame. The law — which God revealed to Moses — condemns. But John went on to say in John 1:
the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
God revealed something of his grace and truth to Moses and the Israelites. Hadn’t he graciously chosen them and delivered them from their captivity? Wasn’t he graciously bringing them to the Promised Land? Didn’t he instruct them about the sacrifices they could offer to receive his forgiveness? The Lord revealed something of his grace and truth to Moses and the Israelites. But when God the Son came into the world as a man — to give up his life on the cross as the ransom to set us free from condemnation — then God revealed so much more of his grace and kindness and mercy and truth and faithfulness.
And so, while Moses was unique among the Israelites as the only one among them who was faithful over God’s household and who spoke to the Lord face to face, the Lord Jesus is so much greater, because he is the Son of God who revealed the grace of God in all its fullness. He revealed that God had sent him as the one and only sacrifice for sins to take the blame for us so that all who believe in him may be saved from condemnation. God revealed the law to Moses; but in Christ’s life and death and resurrection he reveals his grace; and he gives us the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life in his presence.
And so, just as Miriam and Aaron should never have spoken against Moses, so no one should ever speak against the Lord Jesus, but we should give thanks to God for him. And instead of doubting him and the truth and power of his word, we should take care to receive his word each Lord’s Day with faith and humility and with a desire to obey all that he has commanded us.