Nancy: As we continue in our study of the life of Miriam, she really is our sister in so many respects. Am I right? Not only the ways that God used her and that she honored the Lord, which we want to be a pattern for our lives, but also in the ways that she failed.
This is sober stuff, tough for us to listen to, tough for us to apply to our lives but so important because I believe, as I’ve been studying this passage, what I see in Miriam’s heart is such a reflection of what so often are issues in my own heart.
We’re in Numbers chapter 12. Let me just reset by reading the first couple of verses here.
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (verses 1-2).
In the last session we looked at some of the heart issues that were evident in Miriam’s revolt. We saw:
- selfish ambition
- discontentment with the role God had given her
- rebellion against staying in that role
But ultimately whatever is in our hearts comes out. It doesn’t stay in our hearts. It expresses itself. And whatever comes out, invariably reveals what’s in our hearts.
So there’s this inseparable link or connection between our hearts and our words, ourhearts and our attitudes, our hearts and our behavior.
When you’re parenting, you don’t want to just look at the behavior or the words that are coming out. They’re important, but what you want to always be doing is saying, “What does this reflect about the heart? What’s going on in the heart?” Then as we see our hearts, we need to realize how that is connected to what’s coming out.
So Miriam has this personal gripe with her younger brother Moses. Remember that Miriam is now somewhere in the realm of 90 years of age, an important reminder that it’s not over until it’s over.
For those of us who are becoming older women (we’re all becoming older women),there’s never a point where you can just coast spiritually and be immune to the dangers of pride and rebellion in the heart.
But Miriam’s personal gripe has now turned to a public attack. She just can’t let it go.
You know how our thoughts snowball? From the time we go to bed at night to the time we get up in the morning, something that started out as just a little seed thought can have become a mountain in our minds and in our hearts.
And then what happens? Phew! It starts to come out in the way that we talk to others.
Keep in mind in the context here that the people had just experienced a plague (Numbers 11 tells that story), a plague that God had sent because of their whining. But apparently Miriam and Aaron, who was her sidekick along for the ride with her in this insurrection, apparently they thought they could be an exception to God’s rule.
They saw people lose their lives, but apparently they thought that they were above God’s discipline and His chastising hand. Apparently they thought that they could murmur and get away with it, even though the “normal” people couldn’t.
They may have felt justified in their attack. They may have thought their concern was legitimate. God’s response, as we’re going to look at it, indicates that they were wrong at least in the way they handled their concern.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter so much whether the person we’re opposing is right or wrong. It’s that we’re wrong in how we are responding to them.
We looked at the heart issues—the envy, the jealousy, the resentment, the selfish ambition, the discontentment. At the root of it all was that insidious P-R-I-D-E, pride.
But now we want to see how did that pride, how did those heart issues, come out in Miriam? What was the fruit of what was in her heart?
Several things are apparent to me from this passage.
- There was a lack of respect for God’s designated, ordained authority.
- With her tongue she criticized.
- She spoke against Moses who was a servant of the Lord.
She spoke against Moses to others—first her brother and then the other Israelites—and then she spoke about him to Moses himself, to his face. She launches this verbal attack on Moses.
With that verbal attack she is trying to diminish his leadership, his influence. “God speaks through us too,” she says to Moses.
Again we see this process, this tendency we have when we want to pull others down. What do we do? We lift ourselves up. In order to lift ourselves up we pull others down.
That phrase “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses,” I mentioned this in the last session but let me take it a little further in terms of the grammatical construction of that sentence.
First of all we saw that the verb tells us that it was primarily Miriam who was doing the speaking against Moses. But the grammar there tells us more than that. It tells us that this was a habitual or customary action, that her speaking against Moses was not something she did just once but that it was ongoing. It was habitual. She was nagging. She wouldn’t let this go. She kept talking about it.
Then also the way the verb is formed here is an intensive type of action—spewing out verbal attacks. This wasn’t just something—it may have started as just something she said quietly. But by the time this came to a head she was a mad woman, deranged, crazed, crying out, yelling out, spewing out ugly horrible things.
Most of us don’t start out that way. But when you don’t check the sinful impulses of your heart and your tongue, that’s what it can end up being. I want to tell you, every one of us has that in us.
Who of us hasn’t ended up in a shouting match somewhere with a child, with a parent, with a mate, with a friend, saying ugly horrible things, intensive attacks railing against them, continual? It starts with these heart issues, and then it becomes this critical verbal assault against God’s leader.
We see here disloyalty in Miriam as she has apparently gathered support for her position. She and Aaron had obviously talked to each other and then they talked to others.
Having worked in ministry now for 30 years or so, I can tell you one of the most deadly, insidious things that can take place in a ministry is these seeds of disloyalty when we start to gather support for our position. You can do it in a family; you can do it in a workplace. It can take place in a ministry.
Disloyalty results in the sin of gossip, which was certainly a sin that came into play here as she spoke against Moses to others.
As I’ve been meditating on this passage, it has struck me that Moses, who is the leader of these two to three million Jews, was already under considerable attack from the people. If you’re going to be the leader, you have to get used to it. It happens.
But if there was ever a time when Moses needed the encouragement and the support of those who were closest to him, it was now—his sister, his brother, the ones he had been in ministry with for years.
But instead of lifting up Moses’ hands like they should have done and could have done, instead of trying to figure out what they could have done to lift his burden, they added to Moses’ burden by attacking him, opposing him.
I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of days and trying to put myself in this situation. I realized how insensitive this was of Miriam and Aaron, how unloving, how selfish on their part to spew all this stuff when Moses so desperately needed their encouragement and support.
But it’s not just Miriam.
- How easy is it for us as women to be critical of how men run or don’t run things that affect us in the home and in the church?
- How quick are we to take the freedom to speak out, to criticize?
I was talking with a woman recently who’s been involved in the women’s ministry of her local church. She’s been actively involved. She’s poured her life into this. But we hadn’t been talking a matter of minutes before she was saying to me—and I know she didn’t intend to have a Miriam-like spirit but it was real close. She started saying how the pastors of this church just don’t support the women’s ministry the way they should.
I could see the seeds of disloyalty there. Now, I know she meant well. I know she cares about the women of her church. But that will be poison in that church if she shares that with other people in that church.
It’s one thing for her to go to the pastor, to go to the men in leadership, to make a kind, gentle, humble appeal. “There are things happening in the women’s ministry, and it would be so encouraging to us if you could be aware of what those things are. We need your leadership. We need your prayers.”
That’s a whole different spirit than saying, “The men in this church, the pastors, they don’t support us the way they should.”
I’m speaking to some women who have said things just like that. You may be wondering if I read your mail or if you’re the person I was talking to. Listen, I could be talking to a lot of us. We do it in our homes. We do it in our churches. We do it in our ministries.
It’s an insidious, sinful, wicked, evil heart that causes us to speak out against God-ordained leadership when we ought to be lifting up their hands.
If you’ve listened to Revive Our Hearts for any length of time, you know that I make no claim that men are perfect or that leaders are perfect because no men or women are perfect. But one thing I do say over and over again is, as women, we have the responsibility to lift up the hands of husbands, of pastors, of spiritual leaders even when they’re wrong, to pray for them, to encourage them, to support them.
That doesn’t mean we never bring the wrong into the light. That’s a whole different issue. But it means when we do have to bring those things into the light, we do it in a humble, gracious, gentle, loving and kind way rather than in any sense ever trying to tear down or destroy or criticize.
I guess this is really on my heart because even as I’ve been working on this series, I’ve seen some illustrations in a family, in a church, of this very issue at play, not just with women but with men also, tearing down God’s leaders.
Ladies, it’s wrong. Don’t do it. If you have done it, get on your knees and repent and ask God’s forgiveness. Beg God’s forgiveness. We’ll see that the consequences were very serious for Miriam.
But first I want us to see how Moses responded to this challenge. Verse 3 tells us, “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all the people who were on the face of the earth.”
That’s set right in contrast to the description of what Miriam did in verses 1 and 2 where she spoke against Moses about his wife and about his right to speak for God. Set in contrast to that is this statement about Moses.
The statement here that Moses was very meek suggests that Miriam was not meek in her response. The evidence of Moses’ humility is that he did not defend himself against this barrage, against this verbal attack. He let God defend him. He did not retaliate.There’s no evidence anywhere in this whole chapter that Moses responded verbally at all.
I can guarantee you he was tempted to. He had to be. This had to be hard. But he held his peace.
Matthew Henry in his commentary on this passage says, “The more silent we are in our own cause, the more is God engaged to plead it.” Let God take up your cause.
Before we come to the end of this series, we’ll come back to this response of Moses and talk about how to respond to people who attack us unfairly.
But first of all I want us to look at God’s response. We saw that Moses was humble; he was meek in his response. But how did God respond?
Verse 2 tells us, “And the LORD heard it.” The Lord heard it. God took this rebellion, this envy, this jealousy, this selfish ambition, this gossip, this disloyalty, this sowing seeds of dissension, God took it very seriously.
In verses four and five He calls Miriam and Aaron to give account. Numbers 12:4:
And suddenly the LORD said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.
Ultimately their issue was not with Moses, it was with God. God said, “You come and you’re going to have to deal with Me on this, and I’m going to deal with you.”
Then in verse 6 God says to these three assembled together, “Hear my words. You’ve listened to Miriam, now it’s time to listen to Me.”
If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with 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 then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? (verses 6-8).
So God defends Moses, and He confronts and rebukes Miriam and Aaron. God acknowledges Miriam’s role as a prophet or a prophetess. We’re told that she was. And God has communicated with her in certain ways.
But God said, “Moses is different. I communicate with him directly. And as a result, you should have been terrified to speak against My servant Moses.”
What are the consequences? Verse 9 tells us, “The anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed.”
I don’t know any faster way to get the presence, the manifest presence and glory of God to depart from your life or mine than to become involved in the sins that Miriam was involved in—the speaking out against God’s servants and the heart that that represents.
God departed. I’m not staying around here for that. Now that doesn’t mean you lose your salvation. But you can sure lose your fellowship with God. You could sure lose the evidence of God’s presence in your life and in your family and in your church and in your workplace, wherever you are expressing these kinds of sins.
And then verse 10:
When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.
Leprosy, as you know, was a horrible skin disease. In this case it was clearly the result of God’s discipline, God’s chastening. The leprosy as it began to consume her body was a physical picture of the impact of her sinful words.
It makes me think about that verse in James 3:6 that says, “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. It defiles the whole body” (NIV).
Isn’t that what happened? Miriam’s heart was connected to her tongue, and as a result she got this issue of leprosy that destroyed, defiled her body—a picture of what had happened to her heart, what happened inside of her.
Verses 11-12: “Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” This is just a description of the deforming nature of leprosy.
So first Aaron intercedes to Moses on behalf of Miriam.
And then verse 13, Moses intercedes with the Lord on behalf of Miriam. “Moses cried to the LORD, “O God, please heal her—Please.”
But the LORD said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days” (verses 14-15).
The ceremonial law for the Israelites required that a diseased person remain outside the camp for a minimum of seven days. You read about this, for example, in Leviticus chapter 13.
At the end of that time the priest would examine the person to see if they had been cleansed. In Numbers 5:1-3 we read,
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous . . . You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.”
This whole thing of leprosy and how to deal with it was an object lesson on holiness, an object lesson about what sin does to contaminate us and to separate us from the presence of God.
Leviticus 13 verse 46: “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
All these things that describe how you handle leprosy and these skin diseases are apicture of what sin does to us and our relationship with God and with others. For example, it isolates us.
It says this person who has leprosy shall live alone. They have to be isolated from the rest of the community. It separates us. They had to be separated to live outside the camp, separated from the community of God’s people, separated from the presence of God. That’s what sin does vertically and horizontally. It separates us; it isolates us.
There was public humiliation involved. We read that she was to be shamed for seven days outside the camp. She had insulted and dishonored Moses and God, and as a result she was to be publicly insulted and dishonored. The public sin, the sin that she had, made itself public, required a public rebuke.
We don’t have much of that theology today. Now I’m not saying we should do it in all the same ways in the new covenant.
But even in the New Testament you find passages, for example like the one in 1 Timothy chapter 5, that says when an elder, a spiritual leader, persists in sin (they will not repent of sin that has become publically known) what are you to do? You are to rebuke them in the presence of all so that the rest may stand in fear.
You take your sin public and God will make sure that the chastening is public. We want to try to protect people from that. But there’s a fear of the Lord that comes and that is needed in the Body of Christ when public sin is dealt with in public ways.
I’ll tell you how you can avoid that, and that’s to repent publicly. As publicly as you criticized, you need to publicly repent and seek forgiveness so that you don’t put God and the church in a position of needing to exercise public discipline.
There was an extended time involved here, seven days. It’s interesting that the restoration was not immediate. You need to sit here and think about the seriousness of what you have done.
You know, if we have instantaneous restoration, a lot of times we won’t take our sins seriously. But there was this time out here, time to let the conviction sink in, time for repentance.
That’s the goal, by the way, of church discipline—to restore the sinner and to be a warning to others. As a result of Miriam’s sin, the progress of the whole community was hindered.
Verses 15-16 tell us, “The people did not set out on the march until Miriam was brought in again. After that the people set out from Hazeroth.” They were delayed for seven days on their journey toward the Promised Land.
This speaks to me about the responsibility of those of us who have influence and leadership, who are respected and looked up to by others. Miriam, as we saw in Exodus 15, was a leader among the women. People respected her and they looked up to her.
Some of you are in positions in your family with your children, in your church maybe as a Bible study leader. In this ministry I sense this, the huge obligation it is when people look up to us and respect us, when people follow us. We are held more accountable.
That’s why James 3:1 says, “Don’t many of you aspire to be teachers. For those who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (paraphrased).
As I’ve been reading this passage and thinking about it in recent weeks, God has really impressed on my heart the huge responsibility it is to me in this ministry to be a leader of women and the fact that, when I sin, I don’t just sin to myself. I take others down with me. That’s a huge responsibility, not only for me to be right with God so I can be right with God, but for me to be right with God so that I don’t adversely affect your walk with God.
I’ve found myself praying, “Lord, keep me from sin. Keep me from ever leading others astray. Keep me from ever dishonoring You.” Is that your heart’s desire?
Used with Permission. Revive Our Hearts.