Good morning! Starting today (Numbers 11-12) and going for fifteen chapters, we’ll be traveling in the wilderness with the Hebrews until they are on the cusp of Canaan (the final ten chapters). This middle third of Numbers generally describes rebellions against Israelite leaders through the wilderness. A common theme is the anger and judgment of God against mistrusting Israelites, while in Numbers 12 we perceive how the writer(s) of Numbers want us to understand the relationships between Miriam, Aaron and Moses.
Numbers 11 opens to the complaint of Hebrews in the desert. As in Exodus, they long to be back in Egypt and have grown sick of manna, that divine blessing. The burden of being between complaining Israelites and God is too much for Moses—he has a crisis of leadership and complains to God about his lot. As we saw with judging less-difficult cases in Exodus 17, Moses learns to share leadership with seventy elders, who also have a portion of the spirit of the Lord. When the spirit of prophecy comes upon the seventy and includes Eldad and Medad who were not with the others by the tabernacle, Joshua protests. Moses’ reply emphasizes his unwillingness to have God’s spirit limited or constrained—“let them ALL be prophets”! God’s overwhelming blessing of meat as promised takes the form of quails from the sea, stacked almost hip deep on a grown adult—pure miracle. But God will not be crossed, and those who were craving for something other than God’s blessing perish in a plague (meat poisoning, anyone??).
The next chapter serves as counterpoint to the earlier story about the spirit on all the prophets, because this story emphasizes the specialness of Moses. It does so with a special cost to Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses. This is Miriam’s first and only active appearance in Numbers, but remember that in Exodus 20 she was a prophetess and leader of the women dancing when the people left Egypt. She and Aaron resent Moses’ special status, but God essentially says that Moses is more than a prophet. Only Moses knows God directly, and sees the very form of God without dying. The punishment for their insubordination falls on Miriam directly in the form of a leprous skin disease. Aaron turns to Moses to ask for her healing, referring to Moses with the same name the Israelites use for God, Adonai, or “my Lord.” Moses intercedes on Miriam’s behalf (which makes him look good), and Miriam is healed (though not until after spending a week in humiliation outside of camp). By the end of the chapter, both Aaron and Miriam have been subordinated to Moses by an author more concerned about hierarchical levels of societal control than about freedom of expression. We modern readers feel sympathy for Miriam and Aaron because their concerns are angrily denounced by God. The quest for order subverts a fair and just hearing. Our sensitivity to this may help us seeing the ways that falsely-imposed hierarchy creates injustice in contemporary times. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 13-14. Thanks for reading!