Wednesday Evening

July 18, 2007

Numbers 12:1-16

“Murmuring In the House”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, let me ask you to turn with me to Numbers 12. You will remember, back in Numbers 11 — and you might want to let your eyes fall on the first fifteen verses and the last four or five verses of Numbers 11, because in Numbers 11, we had two incidents which perfectly illustrate the concerns that the Apostle Paul spoke to the Corinthians about in I Corinthians 10:1-13, when he spoke about the grumbling and the complaining and the rebelling and the murmuring of the people of God in the Old Testament. Two incidents that are “poster children” for that kind of concern that the Apostle Paul raised with the Corinthians are recorded for us in Numbers 11.

In a sense, the story that we’re going to read tonight is a continuation…it’s a third example of grumbling against the Lord by grumbling against the Lord’s anointed and appointed leader and mediator, Moses. It’s recorded here in Numbers 12. We see something of the consequences of the people’s complaint and God’s response to their complaint in Numbers 11:31-35, and tonight we come to a third example of this complaining recorded in Numbers 12:1-16.

Let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Your lovingkindness is better than life. Your Mediator is necessary for life. Your word is just as, and indeed more than, important as food. So we pray, heavenly Father, that You would show us something of Your lovingkindness in Your word, and especially point us to Your Mediator in our study of this passage of Your Holy Scripture. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is God’s word:

“Then 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 as well?’ And the Lord heard it. (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.) And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and Aaron and to Miriam, ‘You three come out to the tent of meeting.’ So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the doorway of the tent, and He called Aaron and Miriam. When they had both come forward, He said,

“Hear now My words;

If there is a prophet among you,

I the Lord shall make Myself known to him in a vision.

I shall speak with him in a dream.

Not so, with My servant Moses,

He is faithful in all My household;

With him I speak mouth to mouth,

Even openly, and not in dark sayings,

And he beholds the form of the Lord.

Why then were you not afraid

To speak against My servant, against Moses?”

“So the anger of the Lord burned against them and He departed. But when the cloud had withdrawn from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. As Aaron turned toward Miriam, behold, she was leprous. Then Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, I beg you, do not account this sin to us, in which we have acted foolishly and in which we have sinned. Oh do not let her be like one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes from his mother’s womb!’ And Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘Oh God, heal her, I pray!’ But the Lord said to Moses, ‘If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut up for seven days outside the camp, and afterward she may be received again.’ So Miriam was shut up outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on until Miriam was received again.

“Afterward, however, the people moved out from Hazroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Well, as you can see, this passage contains yet another picture of grumbling and rebellion not unlike the grumbling and rebellion that we saw pictured in chapter 11, but this unfortunately comes from the very highest ranks of Israel’s leadership. The chief priest and the prophetess who had been used to speak and sing revelation from the Lord upon the occasion of the exodus from the Red Sea…a priest and a prophetess speak against the mediator of the Lord. Matthew Henry comments that this passage reminds us that even in the best persons and families there are follies and there are crosses. How true that is. Moses, so faithful to the Lord, so devoted to the Lord, having to endure his own brother and sister seeking to undermine his ministry; Aaron and Miriam, so faithful to the Lord, having a sin…did it start with jealousy? Aaron was, after all, Moses’ older brother…Miriam, his older sister. Was it jealousy of watching the younger brother have the lead role in Israel? I don’t know, but there was certainly an undermining of that role, and yet they were chosen by God, appointed by God and used of God to great effect in Israel, and yet there was folly in them. There was sin in them.

Just a month or so ago, a young woman who is now a godly Christian wife and mother who had been in my youth group in St. Louis, and with whom I hadn’t had a conversation in twenty years or more, made contact with me to tell me that her husband had just read something that I had written and had been encouraged by it, and she just wanted me to know that. And not a week later, she contacted me again to say that her uncle had suddenly passed away at a very young age. Well, I knew her uncle. He was a godly, faithful servant of the Lord. In fact, at a very difficult time in her life, he had played a significant role after her parents split up…and he took a great role in encouraging her and in rearing her. I expressed to her my condolences. I told her how much I thought of her uncle, and I said “I know it must be a very hard thing for you to lose an uncle like that.” She responded by saying, “It is especially hard, because my uncle and I had not spoken for more than fifteen years.” I don’t know what the rupture had been, and I didn’t want to intrude any further than to express my deep sympathy with her, and my concern and love for her family in this very hard occasion. But there’s a wonderful family, a godly Christian wife and mother, and a godly man called home early…and somewhere there was a rupture in that family experience. And Matthew Henry is certainly right to tell us that this passage reminds us that even in the best persons and families there are follies and crosses.

But I think this passage even teaches us more than that. I think this passage reminds us that even among the most gifted and God-appointed leaders, sin can creep in and cause serious dissension. Little sins can create tremendous ruptures in the life of the people of God, and really we could explore that theme this whole evening together. In fact, this passage is very rich. There is a series of sermons in this passage, but as we look at it in one night, I want to above all remind you that this passage teaches us about the necessity of a mediator, and points us to a very, very important truth about Jesus Christ.

God appointed the mediator, Moses, to be challenged, and then determined to vindicate him in order that He might teach us the necessity of a mediator and point us to the truth about His only true and final Mediator, Jesus Christ, by way of both comparison and contrast. Let me flesh that out for you in four parts.

If you look at the passage, in verses 1-4, you see the rebellion of Miriam and Aaron against Moses. In verses 5-8, you see God intervening and defending Moses’ authority and person from this sinful attack on him by his brother and sister. In verses 9-12, you see God render His judgment. His judgment is really against both Miriam and Aaron, even though Miriam is the one who is given the disease. I’ll explain that, I trust, in just a few moments. And, fourth, in verses 13-16, we see Moses as mediator go to work as an intercessor for those who had sinned against him.

Now as we look at this, I think we learn something about Moses; I think we learn something about the importance of a mediator, and thus we see Moses’ strategic role as a mediator for God’s old covenant people. Ultimately, of course, the passage points to and pre-illustrates the work of Jesus Christ as our Mediator. Four things, then.


I. Rebellion against Moses in his own family.

First, in verses 1-4, let’s look at this challenge against the mediator. We see in verses 1-4 a rebellion against Moses’ authority from his own family. Now immediately in your mind there should be echoing phrases of the gospel in which we’re told that even Jesus’ own family thought He was crazy. They wondered about what He was doing. This is yet another affront to God, you see, ultimately, just like on that occasion when Moses went to the Lord and said, ‘Lord, they’ve rejected my leadership.’ Remember what the Lord said to Moses? ‘They haven’t rejected you, they’ve rejected Me.’ Just like when Samuel went to the Lord and said the same thing: ‘No, Samuel, they haven’t rejected you, they’ve rejected Me.’ Yes, the rebellion is against Moses, but ultimately it’s against God, because God appointed Moses. Moses didn’t appoint himself. Moses didn’t say ‘I’m going to be the leader. I’m going to be the mediator.’ God appointed Moses. And so when Miriam and Aaron question Moses’ authority as mediator, they’re questioning God. And so we’re seeing yet another affront to God, another example of grumbling and rebellion against the Lord, because it’s against the Lord’s mediator.

Now, it starts out with grumbling about Moses’ wife. She was, we’re told here, a Cushite. Now, this could be referring to Zipporah, because we know that Midianite and Cushite sometimes meant the same thing. Or Zipporah could have died and Moses could have married another wife who was a Cushite, maybe even from Ethiopia, because that area was sometimes called Cush. I have no idea. But you have some inkling here that there may be a both racial and religious prejudice against Moses’ wife. Whether this is Zipporah or a second wife, she’s not of Hebrew blood, and there’s some discrimination against her. But you quickly see in Moses’ sister and brother’s complaint that that’s not the real issue.

Whatever cause of family tension Moses’ wife was, the real tension you see in the second thing that they say (verse 2): “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” The heart of this rebellion is not about Moses’ wife, but about his unique position and authority.

Now, very quickly, God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, orders that in verse 3 it be said that Moses was the most humble man in the world. Now I don’t know whether God ordered Moses to write that about himself against his will, or whether he had Joshua insert that after Moses’ death at Nebo. But whatever way God went about recording that in His word, it is God’s inspired and inerrant interpretation of the character of Moses, and it explains first of all why Moses does not defend himself against this attack. It’s not simply that he is crushed and saddened by his brother and sister’s harmful assault upon his character and status–though I’m sure he was. It is that he was a humble man, and he was ready to accept this particular attack upon his character without defending himself.

But at any rate, the Lord becomes his advocate. Don’t you love the way it’s said in verse 2? “And the Lord heard it.” Oh, yes, indeed He did! “The Lord’s eyes are on all the earth, and they go to and fro throughout the land, searching the hearts of the people.” There’s nothing that is said in this world that the Lord does not hear, and in a dramatic fashion we’re reminded of that. The Lord heard this. Miriam and Aaron may have been plotting in secret and grumbling in secret, but the Lord heard it, and He comes down as Moses’ advocate, and he calls them.

Can you imagine receiving this summons? ‘Meet Me at the tent of meeting, the three of you.’ And then, in the next verses, the Lord arriving at the tent of meeting and calling only Miriam and Aaron forward to speak with Him. Here we see the challenge against the mediator, and we see God becoming the advocate for the mediator in summoning Moses and Aaron and Miriam to the tent of meeting. Again, you cannot help but think of passages like that one in I Peter 2:23, which reminds us that the Lord Jesus was silent before His accusers. He did not open His mouth to defend Himself, and in this we see Him as a picture of Moses, the mediator who did not defend himself against this assault from Miriam and Aaron.

II. Why a mediator is necessary to stand between God and men.

Well, in verses 5-8, we see a second thing: the necessity and the uniqueness of the mediator is emphasized here. God comes in defense of Moses and vindicates him in this passage. It’s a dramatic appearance and manifestation of God. He comes down in the pillar of cloud, and then in this very graphic descriptive explicit way, we’re told “He stood in the doorway of the tent of meeting.” It’s an awesome manifestation of God. It marked a very important occasion. He’s here to vindicate the mediator. He’s here to teach the uniqueness of the mediator. He’s here to teach the necessity of the mediator. The mediator is indispensable, because God has appointed the position. God affirms here Moses’ unique position as mediator, and He does it in this way, if you look at verse 6:

“If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream.”

In other words, ‘Those who are prophets in Israel receive the revelation from Me in dreams and visions, but that is not how I communicate,’ God says, ‘with Moses. To him I speak face to face. I don’t speak in dark sayings. I tell him what I would have him to tell you, and I relate to him in an entirely unique way.’

This is God’s way of showing the uniqueness and necessity of Moses’ position as mediator, and He rebukes Aaron and Miriam for speaking against Moses. Even in this passage, God is teaching the children of Israel and you and me that we need a mediator who speaks with Him face to face, and that any challenge against that mediator will ultimately result in our own destruction, because the mediator has been provided by God for our good, and without him we are undone.

III. God’s judgment against those who reject His mediator.

Thirdly, in verses 9-12, you see the judgment against Miriam and Aaron as those who have not respected the mediator. And the judgment against Miriam is physical here. The anger of the Lord, we’re told in verse 9, burns against them and He departs; but when He does depart and the cloud departs from the tent of meeting, she’s left leprous. She has a case of leprosy. And Aaron–and we’re given the hint of this by the very language that’s used here–is absolutely in a state of shock when he turns and sees his sister. You see the language:

“As Aaron turned toward Miriam, behold, she was leprous.”

And Aaron begins to beg Moses not to reckon the sin to her. Now again, here’s a whole sermon in that phrase right there: ‘Please don’t reckon the sin to me. Don’t count that sin, don’t apply to us the just punishment for that sin, even though we have sinned.’ My friends, that is a picture of the doctrine of the non-imputation of our sin to us through God’s imputation of our sin to His Mediator. And that doctrine underlies the great gospel doctrine of justification by faith alone, wherein God freely justifies us by grace, which we receive through faith; not because of our own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Christ imputed [or reckoned, or counted, or credited] to us, while our sins are credited to Him.

But here’s what I want to focus on for just a few moments in this passage. Why is Miriam alone punished physically in this passage?

Well, I want to say two things about that. First, I don’t know! And none of the commentators know, either. I read deliberately when I came to this passage. One of the first things I wanted to see was what the commentators had to say about the issue — why only Miriam? And I read about eighteen of them, and none of them had a good answer.

So, secondly, let me make a suggestion what’s going on here. What was Aaron’s job? He was the high priest, and that gave him a role in two special ways: one, praying for the people; and, two, administering atonement for the people in the various rituals. Now what had Aaron just participated in doing? Rebelling against the unique mediator. Now that Miriam and Aaron are under judgment, God is going to bring a judgment against Miriam that will demonstrate to Miriam and Aaron why they need Moses. It is interesting that Aaron doesn’t turn around and lift up a prayer to God and offer a sacrifice for Miriam, because he himself is a sinful accomplice in this sin. Aaron now very clearly needs a mediator! Though his job in a certain sense as the high priest is to mediate for Israel in the sacrificial ceremonies that are designed to illustrate the way that God freely forgives the sins of His people through the shedding of blood, now Aaron is the guilty party. And by Miriam being given the physical penalty of leprosy and Aaron being unable to intercede for her because he himself is the sinful accomplice in the thing which has brought her this physical judgment, we see illustrated why Moses is necessary as the mediator. Aaron turns to Moses and says, ‘I beg you, I beg you, intercede for us, Moses!’ It’s like God saying, ‘Yep, that’s right. That’s why I appointed him. You can’t do without this mediator. Aaron, you can’t get yourself out of this fix. You need a mediator other than yourself. That’s why I’ve appointed Moses as the mediator. This is why you shouldn’t be standing over there in your tent talking about hasn’t the Lord spoken to us, too. Because I gave him a unique role, and now I’m going to illustrate it. You can’t pray for your sister; you’re equally sinful. You need someone else to intercede for you.’

What God is doing is demonstrating the necessity of a mediator.

IV. The mediator as intercessor for sinners.

And then, finally, in verses 13-16, we see the prevailing prayer of the mediator, don’t we? Moses’ mediatorial work as intercessor is on display.

Moses cries out to the Lord, “Oh God, heal her, I pray!” If you hadn’t believed verse 3, by the end of verse 13 you’ve got to believe it. This man, whose person and character and status and authority had been called into question by his brother and his sister, is now before the Lord begging for their forgiveness for a sin that they have committed against him. And can you not in that hear the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘Father, forgive them! They have no idea what they’re doing.’ Jesus is the humble, true and final Mediator. Remember what He says in Matthew 11:29?

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you
rest….for I am humble and lowly of heart.”

Jesus is the one who does not defend Himself against His accuser, just like Moses. But Hebrews 3:1-6 tells us that as Moses was a servant in God’s house, Jesus was a Son. And both Hebrews and the Gospel of John remind us that though Moses saw God’s form and spoke with Him mouth to mouth and so heard God’s very words, Jesus is the word. What does the Gospel of John tell us in verses 14-18? That in Jesus we beheld God’s glory, for He was the exact form and representation of God.

No, Moses beheld God’s form and heard His words, but Jesus was His form and is His word, and is the Mediator that we need, because our prayers are the prayers of sinners to the living God. His prayer, His intercession is the intercession of the sinless Son of God, and we need that Mediator to be forgiven.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this passage in which You have Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, on full display in all His mediatorial splendor and glory. And when we realize our sin and the depth of it and the consequences of it on ourselves and on others, and when we realize that we have no plea to make before You, help us to remember that You have given us a Mediator who, by the power of a sinless and invincible life, ever lives to intercede for us, and by His blood has purchased forgiveness for men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And we give You the praise and the glory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let’s stand and sing The Doxology.

[Congregation sings.]

Grace to you.