Sermon preached on Numbers 12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/15/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Miriam: “Please Heal Her, O God, I Pray!”
Well, we’ve made it out of Genesis! As we’ve been doing this sermon mini-series on the women of the Bible, you might have wondered if we’ve ever make it out of Genesis. But we have! And of course the reason we spent so long in Genesis was to see the beginnings of the promised savior. Starting with Eve we saw the promised seed of the woman who would be our savior. We traced that promised seed through the matriarchs and patriarchs of the nation of Israel. God had set apart that family line through whom the promised Christ would come. When we think about that history, people tend to talk about the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and then maybe Joseph or Judah. But we honed in on the wives of those patriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, and Tamar. Through these women, the promised line was continued. Well, today we jump ahead in the timeline a little. Remember, God had promised that through this family line of Sarah and Abraham, that a great numerous nation would be born, and that they would be given the Promised Land as their inheritance, and ultimately through their line, one would be born through whom blessings to all the families on the earth would be born. By the time we get to the story here in Numbers 12, a lot has happened. The line of promise was saved through Joseph to keep the 12 tribes of Israel alive in Egypt. When he did that, those twelve tribes were just the initial families from each of Jacob’s sons. But now by the time you get to Exodus and Numbers one part of God’s promise had come to pass. The Israelites had grown numerous! That results ultimately in a later Pharaoh enslaving them. It’s there we see the seed of the serpent still at work to try to thwart God’s plans and promises. Yes, the promised people had grown numerous. But through Egypt, they were enslaved. This meant they did not possess yet the Promised Land as promised. And then even the future of the line was threatened when finally Pharaoh saw how quickly the people were growing. He ordered the Hebrew mothers to expose all the baby boys born, that they would die. Again, a threat to the line of promise. Again, Satan look to strike against the promised seed of the woman. But God had a plan. He would redeem his people out of Israel and yet bring them into the Promised Land. The book of Exodus is about that redemption from Egypt. And in between the redemption, and the conquest of the Promised Land they had to first wander through the wilderness for forty years. That’s what the book of Numbers is largely about. God would free the people out of Egypt and lead them through the wilderness by Moses. And yet Moses was not alone. He had two siblings that helped out in this process: his brother Aaron, and his sister Miriam. Micah 6:8 actually mentions the leadership of all three in the Exodus. And so we have this crucial new time during God’s redemptive program in history. The Exodus and wilderness wandering was a crucial part of how God was working his plan of redemption. And if we were to pick a woman to consider that reflects this time, surely Miriam and her leadership would be a good choice.
Of course Miriam is a little different than the other women that we have been studying. She is not in the genealogy of Jesus Christ (though some Jewish folklore would put her in the line of King David but we have no solid evidence on that, actually there are conflicting details on that.) She was of the tribe of Levi, like Moses and Aaron. And yet she was still instrumental in the story. Let’s begin then with some background on Miriam before we get to spend some more time on her story from Numbers 12 today. We hear first of Miriam in Exodus 2. Go ahead and flip over there in your Bibles and follow along in the story there. Miriam’s not mentioned by name there, but described as Moses’ sister, and surely it is referring to Miriam. There, she makes an important contribution to seeing that the line of promise is continued. Though she is not in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, she is instrumental in the saving of Moses’ life. Recall that the Pharaoh had ordered the Hebrew wives to expose their baby boys. Moses’ mother didn’t obey that, but instead put him in a basket and set him on the Nile River. Well, in Exodus 2:4 we see that it’s his sister Miriam who follows alongside the river watching out for the baby Moses in the basket. And then when Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses in the basket, Miriam is the one to go to her and offer to find a Hebrew wet nurse to nurse the baby until he is weaned, verse 7. Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, and of course Miriam has their mom selected as the wet nurse. Moses mom then gets to raise Moses at least while he’s nursing, and she even gets paid for it from Pharaoh’s daughter! What an amazing thing God used Miriam to do here. But realize the significance. Would the seed of the serpent be successful in destroying Israel by having all the baby boys killed off? He might have been had God not redeemed the people from such slavery through Moses. But before Moses could be used to save God’s people, first he had to be saved himself from death! Miriam, his sister, was instrumental in that. That’s Exodus chapter 2, where we first learn of Miriam and see her shine.
The next time we hear of Miriam in the Bible is many years later. It’s in the Exodus 15 passage that we read — turn with me there now. At that point, the exodus from Egypt had just been completed. The people had passed safely through the Red Sea on dry land. When Pharaoh’s armies tried to follow them, God let the parted Red Sea return to normal, causing waves of water to come crashing down on Pharaoh’s army, destroying Pharaoh’s army that was after them. In review of how God saved them that day, this is what Exodus 14:31 says, “Thus Israel saw the great work which the LORD had done in Egypt; so the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD and His servant Moses.” Keep that in mind as we reflect later on Numbers 12. The people saw the work of God in the Exodus and the Red Sea, and they feared God and believed God and his servant Moses.
So then it’s in Exodus 15 where we see Miriam described. Just after Moses led the people in a song of triumph over the Egyptians, Exodus 15:20-21 describes Miriam in a similar way. She leads the people in a song that’s become known as the Song of Miriam. The song clearly is similar to the Song of Moses, though significantly much shorter — basically like a version of the first verse of the Song of Moses that he had just sung. And so Miriam’s song says, “Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!” And thus her song calls others to sing as well. It calls them to rejoice in God’s victory over the Egyptians. It calls them to glory in God’s triumph over Pharaoh’s army. It specifically sings about how God had washed away the army of Pharaoh in the Red Sea. She celebrates God’s victory over his enemies. This was a win of the godly line of promise over the seed of the serpent!
And notice what else we learn about Miriam here in Exodus 15. She is said to be a prophetess — the first woman in the Bible explicitly described as such. Interestingly, Jewish tradition maintains that one of her prophecies was that her parents would give birth to the man who would save their people from Egypt. But, again, that is not in the Bible so we don’t have any sure record of what she prophesied. We also see that she was a leader of the women. For it says here that she took a tambourine and went out singing this song, and all the women went out with her with tambourines and dancing. Some have speculated that maybe Moses led the men in the Song, and Miriam led in this variation of the song, and maybe they did some back and forth singing. Hard to say for sure. But the bottom line, is that we see here Miriam is a prophetess, a leader, and you could even say worship leader for the women. She helped save her brother Moses at his birth, so a redemption from Egypt could be possible. Now she’s a leader among the people after the exodus happened. This is a wonderful picture and background that we find about Miriam in the Bible.
Let’s turn now to our second point for today. To consider Miriam’s sin that we find in Numbers chapter 12. Please turn over there now with me in your Bibles. We see here in Numbers 12 that Miriam and her brother Aaron sin against Moses by speaking against him. The Hebrew really puts the emphasis at the start of this chapter on Miriam’s instigation. Her name is put first in verse 1, and the verb for speaking against is actually in the feminine singular, instead of what you might expect which would be the masculine plural. So the grammar highlights Miriam speaking first about this. And two issues are actually present here, about their concerns with regard to Moses. First, in verse 1, you see concern about Moses’ wife. Second, in verse 2, you see concern about how Moses held a higher leadership role than Miriam and her brother Aaron.
I’ll mention each briefly. On the concern about Moses’ wife, presumably this is referring to Zipporah. Though some have suggested this must refer to a new wife that he has taken, since why else is concern mentioned about it here. But that is an argument from silence. We have no biblical record of Moses ever taking any other wife, and Zipporah was a foreigner as verse 1 mentions. We are not told why Miriam might be opposed to this wife. It sure looks like simple racism, though, sadly. If that is the case, that would certainly be wrong. The Bible does not approve racism. Yes, in the Old Testament, it does forbid the people from marrying certain foreign wives; but the concern is not a racist concern, but that those foreigners entice you to follow after their foreign gods. Though, interestingly, the Torah specifically spells out the people groups for which that prohibition on mariage is made, and Zipporah’s people is not one of the listed groups. The groups mentioned in the Torah were the ones living in the Promised Land for whom God was driving out because of their wickedness. For that matter, Zipporah is never spoken of in Scripture as leading Moses away from the one true God. What little is said of Zipporah and religion, is a bit strange, but positive. That’s in Exodus 4:25, evidently Moses had failed to circumcise his son and God was prepared to strike Moses dead because of this. Somehow Zipporah recognizes this and saves Moses by quickly circumcising their son herself. If anything then, this seems to show Zipporah’s embracing the faith of Moses by executing the covenant sign herself on this son. In doing so, she saved Moses life. And so Miriam may not like this wife, but actually they both have in common taking part in saving Moses’ life!
Well, whether it was a racist thing why Miriam felt this way, or whether it was some concern of impropriety on Moses’ part, or frankly whether it was a smokescreen to the real concern about Moses’ unique leadership role, clearly this passage shows Miriam was incorrect to speak against Moses concerning his wife. Ironically, in the chastisement she gets in this passage, she turns white like snow in this leprosy. Likely that would have been the exact opposite color of this foreign wife of who coming from Africa was probably more darkly colored compared to the rest of the Israelites.
The other concern mentioned here is Moses’ higher leadership role than Miriam or Aaron. We see their words in verse 2, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” Remember, Miriam was a prophetess. Aaron also had received word from the Lord too in the past. They both then were in a special place. They were both leaders among God’s people. But evidently they were jealous of the unique position that Moses was afforded. And so they speak against him, against his special leadership. If Miriam turning white is ironic, then it’s also ironic that in their chastisement, Aaron ends up having to appeal to Moses for help. Moses in turn appeals to God for Aaron. God then replies to Moses regarding his intercession for Miriam. Verses 11-14. Ironically, despite their claim, it’s Moses whom they go to here for this healing, who then takes it to God for them!
Several core issues stand out here with regard to Miriam’s (and Aaron’s) sin. Surely there is a lack of humility here on their part. Interestingly, verse 3 talks of Moses’ humility and surely describes why it was God who took up his defense and not himself. But that is the same thing that Miriam was lacking here. We are not to self appoint ourselves to leadership positions in the church. God will appoint his leaders to whatever particular place he wants them to be in. Related to all this, Miriam (and Aaron) were also doing sinful judging here. It was not their place to put themselves as judge over Moses, and they judged incorrectly even so. Though arguably the root of all this was that they didn’t fear God sufficiently. This is the stated problem according to God in verse 8. You see, it says in verse 2 that God heard Miriam and Aaron speaking against Moses. And so he calls them all to come to the tabernacle. God meets with them there. They had said that God also speaks through them. Well, they would in fact hear from God right then and there, verse 6. God confronts them. He calls them forward. They had spoken against Moses. God now speaks of Moses. Yes, God speaks through other people, through other prophets. Surely people like Miriam, the prophetess. But the way God speaks through them is different than the way he speaks through Moses. He speaks in a more direct, more personal, way through Moses. There is something special and unique about how God was using Moses. He was a very special servant of God. A servant of God. A faithful one at that, God says. And Miriam and Aaron were speaking against then God’s servant. Romans 14:4 says, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.” It was not their place to judge Moses. He answered to God. In this case, it’s almost like saying that God doesn’t know how to manage his own servant and his own house. And so God says they should have recognized Moses’ special relationship with God and been afraid to speak against them. They should have feared doing what they did!
This is a lesson Miriam of all people should have known. Remember, she had led the people to sing that song back in Exodus 15. That was a song in light of what happened in the Exodus and especially the Red Sea parting. How God washed away all those Israelites. Remember, I read right before that Song of Miriam and Moses that the Red Sea incident taught Israel to fear God and to believe his servant Moses. That was a lesson that seems lost on Miriam now on Numbers 12. After so much wandering in the wilderness, she forgot the judgment of God on those who oppose him. She forgot how special God had set Moses as a servant over all his house. If she had remembered this, then surely she would not have spoken against Moses like this.
Well, this leads us then to our third point for today. To consider God’s grace to Miriam (and Aaron) through Moses. In light of Miriam and Aaron’s sin, God not only speaks out on behalf of Moses, he strikes Miriam with leprosy. It’s interesting that Aaron doesn’t get leprosy too, though it’s likely because Miriam was the primary person leading this speaking against of Moses, as we already noted. And yet God gives her grace. Aaron cries out to Moses on her behalf. He acknowledges their sin and seeks forgiveness. He asks for her healing. And Moses in turn pleads with God. He intercedes on her behalf to God. The words of Moses in Hebrew seems to especially plead with God. It seems you can tell this is Moses’ sister; his plea seems more strongly worded than normal in the Hebrew. Miriam had wronged Moses, spoken against her. But surely he loved his sister; she was his own kin! And so he interceded to God on her behalf.
And God heard that prayer of Moses. And he offered grace and forgiveness and ultimately restoration through Moses in this way. She would not die in this sin; Nor would she be permanently cut off from her people, living as an outcast. And yet interestingly, God does not immediately heal her. God uses the analogy of a father spitting in her face, and that she’d be shamed then for seven days. That would be like her. She’d bear this leprosy for seven days, sitting in a bit of shame outside the camp for seven days. This may have seemed harsh, but realize that this is God saying he’s forgiven her, but going to give some parental chastisement. She is not under God’s damnation. She is under his fatherly love that yes forgives, but also chastens. God chastens those he loves, Hebrews 12:6. God chastens his people as a father chastens his son, Deuteronomy 8:5. Such chastening may not seem easy at the time, but in retrospect we respect our earthly parents who chasten us. And we respect our heavenly father who does the same. How do we know this is loving chastening and not wrathful condemnation? Well, remember the contrast — Miriam herself had sung of God’s wrath against his enemies. They ended up drowned in the red sea, and that was it for them — that’s divine condemnation. But Miriam instead would have this chastisement, her punishment would only be for these 7 days. And God uses the analogy of a father to a daughter in order to show his heart. After that, God says, Miriam may be received again, verse 14. And so we can see the regard the people had for her in verse 15. They waited for her to be restored before they moved on in their wilderness journey.
And so what an amazing picture of God’s grace to Miriam. But realize, this is grace received through Moses. Through his mediation for her. This chapter presents such an amazing unique role for Moses. All three of these siblings are amazing leaders among Israel, but Moses stands above them all. Moses particularly was used to redeem the people out of Israel. Miriam was saved from Egypt through the work of God through Moses. And then again it’s through Moses today that she is forgiven and would find healing and restoration after her sin. Moses, this faithful servant in God’s house. Through Moses, Miriam was saved from Egyptian slavery. And she was saved from the effects of her sin, by his prayer on her behalf. Yes, the grace was from God. But God uses Moses in the process.
And yet as wonderful as Moses’ ministry among Israel was, his own record is scarred by the fact that he never gets to enter into the Promised Land. That’s another story of course. But in fact, all three of these siblings here, Miriam included, die before making it into the Promised Land. That tells us, that as faithful of a servant Moses was in all of God’s house, there was yet another who would be the ultimate savior of God’s people. That’s why Hebrews 3 can contrast Moses with Jesus. It says in Hebrews 3:5-6, that Moses was faithful as a servant in his house — clearly a reference back to Numbers 12 here. But, Jesus was faithful as a Son in the house of God. Moses had this unique role over his brother and sister. But Jesus had an even more unique role over Moses in God’s house. Moses was the head of the servants, so to speak. Jesus was the only begotten son, heir, and full of authority. It is his own house. If Moses leadership is exalted here, Jesus’ leadership is even far greater. And so what we have here in the Old Testament is another typology. Moses is a type of the Christ to come. Moses saved his people first with the redemption from Egyptian slavery. But then as we see here with Miriam he is used to save her from her ongoing sins even as a woman who had already been purchased out of slavery. Well, that’s how it works with Jesus, and even more so. Jesus saves us at the first in redeeming us from the bondage of sin and death. That happens at the very start of our Christian life when we put our faith in him. And then as we struggle with sins as a redeemed Christian, in Christ we continue to find forgiveness and grace. He continues to save us despite our ongoing sins. Yes, sometimes godly chastisement might yet come to us. But Christ still saves us. And Moses really had nothing in himself by which he could secure the redemption and forgiveness that he was able to bring to the people. God basically acknowledged that from the start at the burning bush — it was nothing in Moses that could save the people like this. But that is not so with Jesus. He earned our redemption, by his own shed blood and his own perfect righteousness. We can be redeemed because we’ve been bought with the shed blood of Christ.
And so Miriam’s story here that in part serves to remind us of Moses’ special role among them, should especially then remind us of Christ. If Moses can do what he did her for Miriam, how much more does Christ do this for us. If Moses can minister to Miriam, even after she had spoken against him, surely that reminds us of Jesus. Too often even as Christians we don’t treat Jesus our Lord as we ought, but as his adopted brothers, he still ministers to us. Praise be to God for his good love for us and his amazing grace!
And so in closing, brothers and sisters, I hope you can relate to this passage of Scripture. We too like Miriam can struggle with sins like this. Even after becoming a believer and follower of God. Even the leaders in the church can, as that is surely what Miriam was! That’s something the world has trouble understanding. They can point to failures in leadership in the Christian church and say that is proof of its futility as a religion. But the Bible does not ignore the reality that it’s leaders sometimes fail. Miriam and Aaron are both that here. The Bible never promises perfect leaders in the church — save the Lord Jesus Christ. But it does promise forgiveness and grace for those who truly repent of their sins and put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his work on the cross. Know this forgiveness, and believe it, even if God sends some loving chastisement along with the forgiveness. Know that his chastisement is a further sign of his love for you. It means he is not through with you yet. That he is still growing you and teaching you and training you for all his good plans for your life. Praise be to God!
Let me leave us with one final thought on this chastisement. In Deuteronomy 24:9, there is a reference there about leprosy followed by a reminder of what God had done to Miriam after they came out of Egypt. The obvious thing is that God’s chastisement of her with the leprosy is something that was not to be forgotten, but to be learned from. So the final application is then, that if you do find yourself being chastised by God from something — then don’t forget the lesson, but learn from it. Miriam’s story teaches that. Praise God that the Scriptures record it so we cannot forgot the lesson either, but remember it and benefit from it.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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