Miriam had been there through it all.
The sister of Moses and Aaron, she bore witness to her people’s slavery. She saw the terrible injustice of the infanticide at the hands of Pharaoh. But she was also discontent to watch her little brother fall prey to the hands of a tyrant, and she was courageous enough to take action. There was the basket, the river, the approach of the daughter of Pharaoh, then Miriam’s offer to fetch her own mother – the true mother of this baby – to nurse him.
She saw Moses grow up as a prince of Egypt and then watched him leave Egypt in disgrace. She was there when he came back; she saw the miraculous plagues and the divine deliverance at the Red Sea. She was a prophetess who sang songs about the greatness of God. Strange, then, that we see her as the critic of this same brother that she had saved, followed, and loved in Numbers 12:
“Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because of the Cushite woman he married (for he had married a Cushite woman). They said, ‘Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does He not also speak through us?’ And the Lord heard it…” (Num. 12:1-2).
In looking at verse 1, there are a couple of things important to notice. The text uses the feminine form of the verb, implying that Miriam is the instigator. Sure, Aaron goes along with her, but she is the leader. The main critic. And her supposed criticism was about Moses’ wife; he had married a Cushite woman. Perhaps this was Zipporah, the wife we know about it. Maybe it’s a second wife and Moses had remarried; we don’t know. But in either case, it seems a bit strange doesn’t it? After all she’s seen? All they’ve been through together? All their shared experiences, both good and bad?
Criticism is often that way. It bubbles to the surface, and sometimes it might even be valid:
– Those people might really be spending their money in a careless way.
– She might not actually be mothering her children well.
– He might truly be an arrogant jerk who thinks he knows it all.
– That church might not truly be challenging the people enough.
The question isn’t so much about whether the criticism is valid; it’s about what’s behind the criticism. When we are critical of others, there is often something deeper going on below the surface in our own hearts. That deeper issue comes bubbling to the surface in our expressed opinions of others, and the more sanitized the criticism is the easier it is to hide behind it and not deal with what’s really happening internally. In other words, criticism is many times just a smoke screen; we are discontent or insecure or jealous about our own position or abilities, so we deal with that insecurity by finding a sanitized way to criticize others. That was, I think, the case with Miriam here. Her real issue was not Moses’ wife; it was her disapproval of her own status in the community.
But God heard her:
“As the cloud moved away from the tent, Miriam’s skin suddenly became diseased, as white as snow. When Aaron turned toward her, he saw that she was diseased and said to Moses, ‘My lord, please don’t hold against us this sin we have so foolishly committed. Please don’t let her be like a dead baby whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’
“Then Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘God, please heal her!’
“The Lord answered Moses, ‘If her father had merely spit in her face, wouldn’t she remain in disgrace for seven days? Let her be confined outside the camp for seven days; after that she may be brought back in.’ So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on until Miriam was brought back in. After that, the people set out from Mazeroth and camped in the Wilderness of Paran” (Num. 12:10-16).
The discipline is fitting – Miriam is placed on the outside looking in, ostracized from the people she so desperately thought she should be leading. In addition, if they strictly followed the law recorded in Leviticus 14, her reinstatement might include animal sacrifice, ritual sprinkling, and even shaving of the head. So in response to her true issue, God put her in a situation that exposed her greatest insecurity; He stripped her of her greatest pride. You could, I suppose, look at this and conclude that God is no doubt cruel. Or you could look at this as God moving swiftly and quickly to deal with the issue Miriam tried to mask with her criticism. He went straight to her heart, forcing to the surface that which had only been symptomatic before. Like a good surgeon who knows that sometimes you have to cut deep, God goes to the core.
I wonder, today, when I have the chance to criticize others, what that might be symptomatic of in my own heart? What insecurity or discontentment is behind it? What am I trying to hide with my sanitized criticism of others? Whatever it is, the gospel has something to say to it those areas in which we feel insecure, dissatisfied, or entitled. And that something is that we only find true security in Jesus.
Back to the subject of Miriam, we see a truly remarkable response from Moses. Rather than pointing, rather than feeling smug, rather than enjoying the misfortune of others, Moses cries out for her good. Here is the foil for Miriam – one who is secure in his relationship with God and where God has placed him, and therefore has no need to prop himself up on the ladder built of other people’s backs. This is what happens when we dwell deeply on our full and complete acceptance in Jesus.
Rather than hiding our insecurities behind sanitized criticism, we are free to actually seek the good and prosperity of others.