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… (Numbers 12:1-2).
Let’s get on the table from the outset what we know about Miriam and what has brought us to this moment in the history of God’s people. Miriam was the sister of Moses and Aaron. She was the one who, even at a young age, defied the decree of Pharaoh and put her baby brother Moses in the basket, saving his life from the horrific order to kill the firstborn boys of Israel. Along with that, Miriam was a prophetess (Ex. 15:20).
The children of Israel, meanwhile, have been delivered miraculously from Egypt through the Red Sea. They have been divided into tribes and had leaders appointed over each tribe. The law and instructions for the tabernacle have been given, and they are currently following Moses around in the desert. The attitude of the people, Miriam included, was at best tenuous. They had developed a penchant for complaining, and now here, the complaining turns to personal criticism directed at Moses.
Now on the surface, the complaint is about Moses marriage. He had married a Cushite woman. But is that the real reason? I wonder.
I wonder if perhaps there was a reason behind this criticism, and the reason I wonder is because I know my own heart. And rarely, if ever, is criticism born out of sincerity. Oh, I’m sure it might happen that way at some point – I might criticize a leader, a friend, a family member, a whatever because I have a completely pure desire to see some wrong brought into the light. But that hasn’t happened yet. At least not many times.
No, for me, there is always a reason behind the criticism. Most of the time that reason is because of personal jealousy and insecurity. Of course, I can’t say it like that. Just like Miriam couldn’t say it like that. Instead, she hid behind a sanitized version of her true complaint. For her true complaint was that Moses had more attention. More prominence. More stage time. He had more, and she wanted an equal share.
“And the Lord heard it…”
The Lord heard the true reason behind the criticism even if no one else did. The Lord hears the insecure and prideful cry of our hearts and not the insincere sanitized version of that comes from our mouths. And because He did with Miriam, He doled out a very ironic form of discipline. As you continue reading the text in Numbers 12, you see that Miriam was stricken with leprosy. According to the law of God, she would be put outside the camp for 7 days. In addition, if they followed Leviticus 14 closely, her reinstatement might include animal sacrifice, ritual sprinkling, and even shaving of the head.
God, then, exposed her greatest insecurity. He stripped her greatest pride. He put her out from the middle of the people she so desperately thought she should be leading. The discipline is, as it always is with the Lord, appropriate to the offense.
Sometimes, because our hearts are so deceptive, the only way we can hear the true cry of our hearts is when the Lord exposes it. And when that happens, we are left like Miriam. Broken, and exposed. But this discipline is not punitive; instead, the discipline brought to light what previously was only known to the ears of the Lord. It’s through discipline that we become aware of the reason behind the criticism, the heart behind the sin, and once brought to light, we can at last begin to heal as we return to the Lord. Except this time, we repent not merely of the action itself; we repent of the state of our hearts that led to that particular action.
This is why we can say, along with the writer of Hebrews, that “no discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
Because our hearts are liars, sometimes something that seems as simple as criticism to us has a different ring in the ear of the Lord. And that’s why we can endure through discipline, because we trust that God knows us better than we know ourselves.