Humble Moses

Moses by Michelangelo
Moses by Michelangelo

Moses did not let power or access go to his head.

I was reading in the Book of Numbers when I came upon this extraordinary sentence: Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

I call it extraordinary because it says something extraordinary about one of the world’s great leaders. It claims that Moses was humbler than anyone else on the face of the earth.

That’s not how I expect someone to praise a leader he or she admires. I expect the admirer to praise the leader’s charisma, his projection of power, his effectiveness in getting things done, his ability to inspire, his skill in defeating opponents, or his superior giftedness over others. But who expects to praise a leader for his humbleness?

I found myself stopping to ask: Why? Why this particular commendation of Moses? Because if anyone had reason to feel proud, Moses did.

He had defeated a powerful autocrat. Actually God had, if we read the story of Exodus carefully, but a lesser leader might have been tempted to think that he had done it by himself alone.

He had freed a vast multitude of slaves. Talk about revolution. Moses ought to be up there on the pedestal with the great liberators of the oppressed. In that respect, he changed his world.

He had been given privileged access unmatched by anyone else. He was given access to the very presence of God on Mount Sinai. There he had received revelation from God directly, not through any intermediary. According to Numbers 12:8, God himself says about Moses:

With him I speak face to face—

clearly, not in riddles;

and he beholds the form of the Lord.

This is the kind of divine access that humanity has long dreamed of.

And yet Moses does not let this divinely accorded power and access to go to his head. Says the Torah writer, “Now the man Moses was very humble….”

Exploring the extraordinary in context

Whenever I read something extraordinary in the Bible, I like to notice the context in which it is said. Often that context fleshes out the meaning. It does so, for example, in this very case.

Numbers Chapter 12 tells the story of a challenge to Moses’ leadership. It comes from his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. They manifest jealousy of Moses’ position with God. They complain, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

But rather than express their jealousy openly, they hide it by criticizing Moses’ wife. How many pastors could testify to similar experiences? Unhappy members in a congregation are just as likely to disguise their hostility towards the pastor by making cutting criticism of his or her spouse and children.

The Lord vindicates Moses by a direct endorsement of Moses’ position and by inflicting a serious skin disease on Miriam. (This raises questions about why Aaron escapes this punishment. Does the writer—or God—show a gender bias?)

What fascinates me is Moses’ response. Moses does not gloat in this divine endorsement. Instead he immediately pleads with God to heal his sister. He takes his place on the side of the wronged and wounded, even the sinful.

A recurring pattern in Moses’ leadership

That led me to remember the other times in the Exodus journey when God threatens to destroy the whole people of Israel and form a new people out of the descendants of Moses. (See Exodus 32, Numbers 14, and Deuteronomy 9.)

In each case some blatant expression of faithlessness on the part of the people of Israel provokes God to make this threat. God has come to their rescue time after time, and yet they continue to grumble and doubt God’s power or love. Once again many a pastor could share stories about how expressions of faithful care to a congregation is rewarded by a congregation’s complaints that the pastor is not doing enough for them.

If Moses had let the extraordinary power and access that God has conferred on him to go to his head, he would gladly respond to these promises by God. He would be flattered that his descendants would displace the descendants of Abraham as the people of God’s special favor. What a historical honor!

But Moses does no such thing. Instead time after time, Moses pleads with God to forgive the people of Israel, to remain faithful to his promises to Israel, not to abort the process that God started when he freed the people from slavery and led them out of Egypt.

The most extraordinary example comes in Exodus 32. There Moses has been detained on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The people of Israel despair over his long absence, and so persuade Aaron to create a golden calf that they can worship as a god.

God responds in rage. He threatens to wipe out Israel. He even denies that he brought them out of Egypt. He spits out to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” But he honors Moses’ faithfulness by promising to make a great nation of him.

Moses, however, responds with one of the great prayers of intercession to be found in the Bible. It is fascinating how Moses expresses his arguments with God (something to analyze in another blog posting). And he prevails. The text says that God changed his mind. Israel is saved from destruction.

In all these cases, Moses puts the welfare of the nation, the wellbeing of the rebellious, above his self-advantage. Moses remains committed to the enterprise of the Exodus when even God seems sometimes to waver.

Now that’s what I think the Torah writer had in mind when he commends Moses’ humility. When Moses has the temptation to advance his own cause at the expense of his people, he chooses the cause of his people every time. He stands to the side and lets the people take their place of priority with the Lord. And that, I think, is extraordinary humility.