"Angling For the Best Seat" - Andrew Scott, Pastor
(For a printable version, click here.)
Years ago, when I was a reporter, I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about youth and government at Waynesburg College. A boy – a high school senior – asked what I planned to do to get young people to vote.
Mind you, I was 23 at the time, so I fell in that category, but it had been a long day, and I was tired of canned answers, so I told him what I really thought: that I wasn’t going to do anything to get him to vote, because I didn’t care if he voted. The fewer oblivious 19-year-olds that vote, the more my vote counts. I told him that if he couldn’t be bothered to register and find out who was running for office himself, and what the issues were, I didn’t want him to vote; and furthermore, that when I considered the abyss of ignorance among ordinary voters, I wept for the Republic.
Afterwards, I was told that my answer was unhelpful, and I would not be invited again.
As the years go by, the more I stand behind that answer. For some reason, in 21st century America, we have this strange notion that everyone’s opinion should be equal, that every voice should be heard and treated with the same respect and deference. Which, of course, is a ridiculous idea. Respect – leadership – isn’t a birthright. It’s not something handed out willy-nilly. It’s either earned, or given. Sometimes the price isn’t very high – I mean, bother to register and find out who the candidates are, and you get to vote. Sometimes, though, it takes a lot more.
The situation here in the wilderness, in this Scripture reading from Numbers 12, was pretty simple: Miriam and Aaron – the brother and sister of Moses, and most likely the older brother and sister of Moses – decided that they should have at least as much say as their brother in the leadership of Israel. “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses,” they asked. “Has he not spoken through us also?”
Which, of course, he had – Aaron was quite literally the mouthpiece of Moses, the one who spoke for him in public. Miriam occupies a profoundly important spot in Scripture, as the girl who watched her infant brother float down the Nile in a basket and then stepped forward – and probably risked her own life – to ask Pharaoh’s daughter if she might find a nurse for the baby. And, of course, that nurse just happened to be Moses’ own mother. It was Miriam who prophesied, who sang the victory song of the Lord, when Israel passed through the Red Sea. So they had as good a pedigree as anyone. Why shouldn’t they get at least as much say in the leadership of Israel as Moses?
Of course, that wasn’t what they said out loud. Not at first, anyway. Their complaint centered on Moses’ wife: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married…” (v.1) Now, as far as who this Cushite woman was, exactly, it’ hard to tell. Moses’ first wife, the only one mentioned elsewhere, was Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, who he married when he ran away from Egypt. She’s usually called a Midianite – from the nation of Midian – but there was a place in Midian called Cushan, and it’s possible that she was from there, and consequently, that she could be called a Cushite. (cf. Habbakuk 3:7)
It’s also possible that this woman, the Cushite, was somebody Moses married later, possibly after Zipporah died. Usually in the Bible, “Cush” refers to the land up the Nile from Egypt – to ancient Numidia, and modern Ethiopia. So it may be that Miriam and Aaron were grumbling because they didn’t like Moses’ new, Ethiopian wife. That’s led people to speculate that they didn’t like her because of the color of her skin. In short, she was black, they were Jews, or more properly, Hebrews, and they didn’t approve of an interracial marriage. Hence the punishment – turning Miriam’s skin leperously white – is ironic: she wanted white skin, and she got it.
It’s true: God is not a racist. In fact, racism has no place in the church because race is not an operative category in Scripture. The Bible divides humanity into exactly two groups: those who have trusted in God for their salvation, through the blood of Jesus Christ… and those who haven’t. The color of their skin has nothing – let me repeat, nothing – to do with it. Galatians 3:28-9 puts it this way: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are one, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” But the simple fact is that racism as we know it is a function of the modern world. It just didn’t exist in Moses’ day. People were divided by nation, by language, by tribe, and by their gods, but not by the color of their skin. So as much as it might make for a good sermon against racism, the whole “Moses married a black girl and his brother and sister got mad” interpretation doesn’t quite work.
So what was this about? I don’t know, exactly. Moses had a wife, who if she wasn’t quite a different race, was certainly from a different people. And his brother and sister latched onto that fact, and used it as justification to ask why they weren’t at least equally important. What’s so special about Moses, anyway?
The answer that they got was not the one they wanted. “And suddenly,” it says in verse four, “the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.’” Scripture goes on to tell us that the Lord called Aaron and Miriam before him at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Think of it as the mother of all calls to the principals’ office. There they were asked, in point-blank fashion, who they thought they were. “If there is a prophet among you,” he said in verse six, “I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
Promptly the sentence was carried out: Miriam’s skin was made leperous. Moses interceded for her – he begged God to heal her – and was told that she should be put outside the camp for seven days, and then she would be healed and brought home.
Why? It boils down to this: you remember, a couple of weeks ago, we read about the arrangement of Israel’s camp? It was a kind of giant cube, with the Levites forming a circle around the center, which was the Tabernacle, and at its center, the tent of meeting. Aaron and Miriam were already on the inner circle of the camp. They were already bigwigs. But they couldn’t bear the thought of Moses being somehow more important. So they complained, loudly. The Lord heard, and as a result he banished Miriam, for a week, to the outer portions of the camp. In other words, she and Aaron set themselves up to be first… and they wound up last.
If that reminds you of anything, it should. Look at the contrast here: Miriam and Aaron are complaining and jockeying for position. Moses, on the other hand, is described in verse two – yes, I held it back until now, on purpose – as “very meek, more than all the people who were on the face of the earth.” The contrast is intentional. Moses knew his weakness. He begged God not to send him, and then he begged God not to make him talk. More than once in the wilderness he asked God to kill him now, rather than send him out to face the people without any answers. Meanwhile, Miriam and Aaron were debating who should get the best seat at the Prophets’ Ball. You can see which God approves, right?
This is the simple math, the leadership principle of the Kingdom of God, one that can’t be overstated for disciples of Jesus Christ: Blessed are the meek. (Matthew 5:5) Blessed are the merciful. Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation… Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:24, 26) The world prizes power. The world prizes skill – we pay for it, in our athletes, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. The world prizes beauty and fame and riches and all sorts of things. But what’s counted great in the Kingdom of God? Meekness. Forgiveness. Love. Mercy. Self-Control.
Miriam and Aaron only wanted what the rest of us want: a slice of the pie, our fair share. But along the way they missed what was really important, what God himself prizes in a servant: not power, or prestige, or anything prized by the world, but humility. And it’s a humility modeled by Jesus himself: who came not to be served, but to serve, “who… did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”
If you want to run your own life, let alone the lives of others, have at it… but know that that power is a foretaste of hell. If, on the other hand, you would serve God, you’re going to have to give up your own pretentions, and be a servant to all in imitation of Jesus Christ. Amen.