The prepared text for this morning’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church is below. You can listen to the sermon audio at this link. For the children’s message we mentioned the story of Joseph and his robe of many colors and how it led his brothers to envy Joseph who would one day rule over them. We connected this theme to leadership in the church and how each one of us has a role to play in the church. Then we concluded with the wedding dress of the bride of Christ. The idea here is simply to say that we may have different roles in the church but we are to look forward to the same goal of being the bride in a beautiful dress presented to Christ. In any case, I mention this here because the story of Joseph and his colorful robe foreshadows Miriam and Aaron’s grumbling against Moses that also grows out from the stem of envy. Next Sunday we will look at Numbers 13-14 and I encouraged the congregation this morning to read it ahead of time. I wanted to preach next Sunday using a smaller selection of text, but the unity of the passage makes it difficult to talk about one section without reference to another section. Thus I decided to preach on the whole story at once. My commentary that puts these passages into the larger context is available here at this link.
In the previous passage we saw grumbling that came straight from unbelief. In that case grumbling was whining about our misfortunes in the hearing of God. When such grumbling comes to full flower we remember the past as a golden age when things were good, we only recognize the bad in the present, and we have a failure of imagination concerning the future. It is the sort of grumbling that is the opposite of gratitude. We may think that things were so much better in our own personal past or in the past of the church. We may focus on the food of the present and think that it doesn’t look or taste as good as we might get from a gourmet church. But the biggest problem with that kind of grumbling is the lack of imagination concerning the future. We saw that grumbling is contagious, it might infect those on the edges of the church first, but it even spread to Moses. However, faith gives us an imagination to be able to dream about a glorious future. The root of that grumbling was unbelief and in a similar way the kind of grumbling we will hear about today comes from the stem of envy. The kind of grumbling in our passage today we might call gossip on steroids. Gossip is anytime a person speaks ill of another person to someone else who is not a part of the problem or the solution. It actually doesn’t matter whether the rumor is true or not—either way it is gossip. If it helps you to remember how bad it is, gossip sounds like hissing in the middle because it is the work of the accuser Satan—that slithering serpent. The Biblical approach to correction is quite different and Biblical forgiveness includes promising not to talk to others about the incident. We only bring other people in when someone refuses to repent. In the case of our passage, the gossip was true but it wasn’t even a sin. Nevertheless, it still bothered Miriam and because it bothered her she made sure it bothered Aaron. She definitely didn’t go to Moses to share her concerns. Miriam and Aaron weren’t happy with Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman. It won’t be the last time the religious leadership of Israel are unhappy with a redeemer’s bride—certainly the religious leaders in Jesus’ day weren’t happy that his bride was like a Samaritan woman who had a bunch of husbands and had been living in sin—that is, they weren’t happy that the church consists of Jews and Gentiles, tax collectors and former prostitutes, and all the rest. So we certainly shouldn’t be surprised that they were unhappy that Moses was married to a Gentile. Nor will it be the last time that a church grumbles about its pastor saying, ‘My pastor isn’t any different than me—I put on my pants the same way in the morning that my pastor does—they’re nothing special. Indeed, that is the real reason for the grumbling in this passage. Miriam envied the leadership of Moses so she began grumbling to Aaron and this kind of grumbling is contagious for then Aaron was grumbling due to envy of Moses too. The big question is whether Moses is going to intercede for them unlike his recent failure and whether this grumbling against Moses is going to spread. But the even bigger question is, ‘How do we keep from getting infected by the same disease today and if we catch it then what can we do about it?’ We’ll find the answers to those questions in the word of God.
As the mischief-maker, Miriam endured a judgment of death – she had a skin disease that put her outside the camp of Israel – and Aaron, to whom the contagion of grumbling spread, had to ask Moses to pray for their sister’s healing.
Miriam, like a new Eve, instigated her brother the priest to grumble and as the leader of this rebellion she received the harsher sentence. Now Miriam was upset that Moses had a wife who was a Cushite, which probably meant that she had darker skin than the Hebrew people. As a punishment fitting the crime, her own skin was made white as snow. Skin diseases, as we have discussed before, are a kind of living death. The text makes a comparison between the skin disease plaguing Miriam and a stillborn baby. If it hasn’t already been done, the next thing you know there will be a movie or television show where the characters have a skin disease making them like the walking dead. Furthermore, she experienced death as exile. The skin disease meant that Miriam was cast out of God’s presence and even cast out of the camp of God’s people. However, God did not punish Miriam for the sake of destroying her but for the sake of restoring her. Miriam learned by this experience that she was not Moses’ equal in terms of access to God. Indeed, she had no access to God for a week. She had to live with shame outside the camp for seven days. Of course, had she gotten what she deserved then she would be dead forevermore—cast out to dwell in hell. God showed her grace that He was under no obligation to show her. Think back to even the ironic way that the Lord revealed this sentence to Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. Miriam and Aaron were grumbling that they hear the Lord speak just like Moses. Thus the Lord summoned all three to the entrance of the tent of meeting and then singled out Miriam and Aaron to come forward to hear His word directly and it was a word not of the good news but of the bad news. Miriam and Aaron did indeed hear the Lord speak but it wasn’t the gospel that they heard and experienced, it was the judgment. Even tempered as they were by God’s grace, Miriam and Aaron heard words of death—not words of life. Miriam and Aaron learned the bad news that their old self needs to be put to death, which was meant to prepare them to hear the good news of forgiveness and restoration. Speaking of Aaron…)
Aaron the high priest of Israel was not immune to the disease of grumbling, he caught it from his sister, and as a result he would learn that he was powerless to do anything about the judgment for it. Miriam and Aaron thought that they should be equals to Moses, but the only thing Aaron can do now is appeal to Moses to pray for his sister. The priest can diagnose a skin disease and the priest can examine someone after they have been healed and find them clean, but a priest cannot heal a skin disease. Moses, however, has already personally learned the lesson about grumbling. This time Moses didn’t whine about his brother and sister in the hearing of God. Instead, this time Moses prayed for His sister—He pleaded with God to heal her. It appears that God answered Moses’ prayer and Miriam was healed, but because she had been unclean God still demanded that she be cast outside the camp for a complete seven days. If someone who had been spit on by her father had to wait outside the camp in shame for seven days then certainly someone whose skin had been white as snow with a skin disease had to wait outside the camp in shame for seven days. And just as the three days’ journey from Mount Sinai had been delayed for a month because of the men who couldn’t eat the Passover because they were unclean, now the people of Israel would have to wait for another week while Miriam bore her shame outside the camp. (The people of Israel were well aware of the shame Miriam brought upon herself, just as they had seen the two elders prophesy when some of the Spirit that was on Moses came upon them in the last episode.)
The episode with Miriam and Aaron served to highlight once again the unique role of Moses and to foreshadow a more ominous rebellion yet to come.
The judgment against Moses in the previous passage where some of the Spirit that was on Moses was put on the seventy elders also probably helped precipitate the grumblings of Miriam and Aaron. They didn’t learn from Moses’ mistake. Out of envy because these seventy elders received the Spirit in power instead of them, Miriam and Aaron then grumble against Moses—the real issue not being so much his choice of spouse but their envy of his authority. But no matter how you understand the relationship between these two episodes, this much is abundantly clear: the grumbling of Moses about the people of Israel and the Lord’s judgment of Moses served to prepare the way for the grumbling of Miriam and Aaron against Moses. Furthermore, both the episode with Moses and now the grumbling of Miriam and Aaron and the Lord’s judgment of them point forward to a serious rebellion we will read about later in the book. In that rebellion, Dathan and Abiram lead a revolt against Moses and Korah the Kohathite leads a revolt against Aaron the priest. Dathan and Abiram grumble about Moses and Korah grumbles about Aaron. This was a southside rebellion. We can call it that because Dathan and Abiram were leaders in the tribe of Reuben whose tents were on the south side of the tabernacle when they camped and the Kohathites were the Levites whose tents were on the south side of the tabernacle. In any case, we will see that their revolt was out of envy of Moses and Aaron. They said with their lips that Moses and Aaron weren’t anyone special because everyone in the congregation of Israel is holy. In truth, their grumbling wasn’t about equality. Their grumbling was that they were on the south side of the tabernacle when living on the east side looked better. That is, their grumbling wasn’t that they weren’t equals but that they weren’t in the position of Moses and Aaron. They were grumbling that they were equals to Moses and Aaron in the same way that Miriam and Aaron grumbled that they were equals to Moses in our passage today. The Kohathites envied Aaron and his sons the priests and thought that they should be priests. Dathan and Abiram were of the tribe of the firstborn of Israel and thought that they should be leading the people. Dathan and Abiram and Korah should have been afraid to speak against Moses and Aaron but instead of learning from the mistakes they have seen Moses and now Miriam make, these earlier episodes have emboldened them.
The Lord thought that Miriam and Aaron should have been afraid to speak against His servant Moses. He said as much in a rhetorical question to the pair of them (Num 12:8). But first He highlighted Moses’ unique role in the history of salvation. The Lord said that He would make Himself known to a prophet in a vision and speak with a prophet in a dream, but the Lord dealt directly with Moses—face to face or, as it were, mouth to mouth. The books of the Prophets—Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Twelve—are the revelation and word of God in visions and dreams. That is, they aren’t as clear as the Torah of Moses. The Writings with books like Psalms and Daniel certainly aren’t as clear as the Torah of Moses. Probably the least clear book of the entire Scriptures is the book called Ecclesiastes in English Bibles. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Ecclesiastes is the pinnacle of the Writings in Hebrew Bibles. But Moses is different. The Lord spoke with Moses mouth to mouth—not in riddles but with clarity. Thus Miriam and Aaron should have been afraid to speak against the Lord’s servant Moses just as later Dathan and Abiram should have been afraid to speak against Moses. Moses had a special—even unique—role in the history of salvation. In that role, he spoke of one who was to come. (And in that role He personally pointed forward to Jesus—a prophet greater than Moses. To borrow from the New Testament Book of Hebrews 3:5-6:)
Moses was faithful in all God’s house as His servant, but Jesus Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son and we are His house.
The Lord had spoken with Moses mouth to mouth, as it were, but now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son (Hebrews 1:1). His superiority over Moses is that of a Son over a servant. As such, it is little surprise that things are much clearer to us in the New Testament than they were to our Hebrew forefathers in the Old Testament. Things are even clearer to us in the Gospels than they are sometimes in the epistles of Paul or the Revelation written down by John. It isn’t that the epistles are any less the words of Jesus, but they are maybe less direct. After all, Revelation consists of four visions. But in any case, Christ is the eternally begotten Son of God—He is the Word of God who tabernacled among us (taking on human flesh). The Lord didn’t speak with Jesus mouth to mouth, Jesus is Lord. He spoke with authority. The thing that astonished people when they heard Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke, was that His word possessed authority (Luke 4:32). Or as the Gospel of Matthew put it, “The crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:28). The scribes were right not to teach as having authority—they were supposed to be servants of the word of God who studied the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. But Jesus is unique in the history of salvation. He didn’t speak on his own authority insofar as he was fully human, but He spoke on the authority of the Father who sent Him for He is also fully divine (cf. John 7:16-18). The Lord has spoken to us by His Son (Heb 1:1). (Unfortunately, the scribes and Pharisees didn’t learn from the mistakes of Miriam and Aaron nor even from the mistakes of Dathan and Abiram and Korah.)
The scribes and the Pharisees weren’t faithful over God’s house as His servants, but instead they envied Jesus Christ. The theme running through the New Testament Gospel passages about the scribes’ and the Pharisees’ confrontations with Jesus is their envy of Him. He offended them with the word of God (Matt 15:12). They couldn’t understand why He ate with tax collectors and sinners instead of eating with them for they thought they were righteous (cf. Mark 2:16-17 or Luke 5:30-31). Envy led them to watch Jesus looking for something to accuse Him of doing wrong. For example, they were watching one day to see if He would heal on the Sabbath so that they could accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath (i.e., Luke 6:7). But He knew what they were thinking and He healed a man with a withered hand and after speaking the word of God they were filled with fury and discussed what they might do to Jesus (Luke 6:8-11). They were grumbling out of envy. They even hid behind how special Moses is (as our passage teaches) to speak against Jesus. But you know the story so we don’t need to rehearse all of it—how the scribes and the Pharisees sought the arrest of Jesus, tried Him, handed Him over to Pontius Pilate to be crucified, and taunted Him on the cross. Indeed, Matthew 27:18 speaks of Pilate saying, “He knew that it was out of envy that they [the scribes and Pharisees] had delivered Him [Jesus] up” (cf. Mark 15:10). The Pharisees called themselves disciples of Moses (John 9:29) but they didn’t believe Moses for Jesus said that if they believed Moses then they would believe Him for Moses spoke of Him. (Now they should have been afraid to speak against Jesus just as Aaron and Miriam should have been afraid to speak against Moses because…)
Both Moses and Jesus have been faithful over God’s house—that is, the people of God. Perhaps one of the most striking things to me in studying this passage was the fact that the Lord said about His servant Moses, “He is faithful in all my house” (Num 12:7) so soon after the episode where Moses grumbled. But I think the best way to understand it is this: in that episode Moses’ grumbling came from unbelief but we saw last Sunday that by the time Joshua got upset about the two elders prophesying that Moses was again wishing with faith. What did He wish? That all of God’s people would have the Spirit. He wished for Pentecost. Moses was not perfect—He grumbled instead of interceding in prayer for the people of God and many died because of it. Nevertheless, the Lord called him faithful in all my house. He was faithful only by faith. In other words, Moses was not perfectly faithful in all God’s house in terms of the law but by faith in the prophet greater than Moses who was to come He was considered faithful in all God’s house. He was reckoned righteous by faith. Of course, the house of God in Numbers is the tabernacle. But when Moses’ wish for Pentecost was fulfilled, then the people of God who believe in Jesus together became the tabernacle of God. This is why we can learn contentment in whatever situation we face like the apostle Paul did (Philippians 4:11). Paul explains, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13). Or as the author of Hebrews says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6). Paul and the author of Hebrews are confronting grumbling out of envy by speaking of faith. What they say applies to more situations than just envy of those in a special position of authority. Of course it is appropriate to apply this to our relationship with Christ—we don’t want to grumble out of envy of Him like the scribes and Pharisees did. Indeed, know this: you are considered righteous-by-faith in Christ. It is not as if you are trying to keep God’s law regarding not coveting what others have (nor trying to keep God’s law regarding not envying our neighbors) in order to be right with God. Your old self may still engage in such behavior from time to time and need to be put to death using the word of God. But we are right with God by faith and that means we can learn the secret both of plenty and hunger or abundance and need—we can learn to be content in any and every circumstance for we are sitting with Jesus in the invisible holy of holies blessed in Christ with every Spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (cf. Eph 1:3). Or again, He will never leave us or forsake us so we can learn to keep our life free from the love of money and be content with what we have both in plenty and in poverty. Truly, we can go to those who are sitting in shame outside the camp, like Miriam experienced for a week, and we can endure the reproach of others and the suffering and shame we face outside the camp. But this time God is with us and He is seeking sinners to be His Son’s beautiful bride. Glory be to God. Amen.