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Have you heard the latest about Moses’ private life?

August 4, 2015

Numbers 12: 1-13                                         Tuesday 4th August 2015

I’m going to continue today looking at the Book of Numbers. Yesterday they were complaining about food; today it’s complaints about authority: who has authority to speak on God’s behalf and make decisions? Moses is being accused of being arrogant and being proud – yet it actually says in the reading that he was one of the humblest of men, the humblest man on earth.

And who are the people are saying these things, whispering about and speaking out against Moses? My goodness, it is his sister Miriam and Aaron his brother! The very people who are closest to him. Why would they do that?

Miriam is the person who is the focus here. Very significantly, her name comes before Aaron in the text: it was ‘Miriam and Aaron’. What’s got into Miriam that she is complaining about her younger brother Moses?

This is clearly adolescent behaviour as I was saying yesterday. People just behave in a childish way sometimes when they’re under stress – usually that’s what happens. And Aaron and Miriam are making a very serious mistake.

Now let’s just have a look at what it is about. It’s the suggestion, the insinuations, that Moses had married a Cushite woman. What’s that about? Well a Cushite was from the part of Africa called today Ethiopia or Sudan. It seems that somewhere along the way there is a woman in Moses’ life who is a Cushite. Did he marry her before he returned to the faith? We don’t know; he may have done. But who was this woman? The scriptures only refer to Moses marrying one woman – that’s in Exodus Chapter 2 – and he married her in the Land of Midian. Do you remember? That’s where he escaped to from Egypt, after being accused of murder. Midian is today what we call Jordan and Saudi Arabia, well south of the Land of the Cushites. And we know that Moses married Zapporah, a Midian woman. She was the daughter of the guy who owned all the sheep Moses was looking after.

There have been a lot of elaborate tales and stories and sort of parallel scriptures written as commentary by Jewish people and others to try and explain what this Cushite woman is all about. The suggestions that perhaps Moses didn’t go straight off to Midian but went via Ethiopia. There are legends of Moses becoming the King of Ethiopia and marrying a Cushite woman. These are all trying to explain something, which cannot really be explained. Does it matter? Well, it mattered to Miriam and Aaron –  they were mentioning this woman!

Now, we all have experiences in our lives of things we’ve done in the past, not necessarily mistakes, but we may have had previous relationships, we may have changed our lifestyles, changed the way we do things, but when they come up it can be embarrassing. And people for some perverse reason sometimes like to raise those issues to try to cause embarrassment. I think this is what’s going on here with Moses.

[Incidentally, what if Moses had married another woman before he became a devout Jew? Do you know what the teaching in the Catholic Catechism is, what you should do if you are not a Christian and you have several wives, and then you become a Christian? You find the woman who is your Christian wife, you treat her as your wife, and you make sure the other wives are looked after. This is a real issue in some parts of the world. This is possibly what Moses is doing – maybe he did have a previous wife who is not a Jewish wife, and he is looking after her. He’s a good man.

And he is a humble man: he hasn’t said anything at all in this portion of the scripture to defend himself; he is not arguing. He is a very humble person. In fact, the only person who speaks up for Moses is God.

But why would Miriam do this? She was a remarkable woman in her own right; she is a role model for women in the Old Testament. She wasn’t an ordinary woman. She was said to be unmarried, which was unusual. She was her own woman. She was the girl, that young girl, with to whit to save Moses’ life and then pretended to be a passer-by, making sure Moses was brought up by his own mother. She’s not a fool. She went on to be a prophetess (that is why there are references in this reading to ‘has God only spoken to you? No, He has spoken to us too.’ Aaron too, like Miriam, made prophecies.) Miriam was a remarkable woman. She was the one who led the rejoicing at the parting of the Red Sea – that marvellous psalm that we say after the reading about division of the Red Sea – that was led by Miriam.

As I said, we all have our past, we all have our faults:

There’s Moses, well he’s a murderer, he is a fugitive from justice, if you like;

Aaron his brother, his older brother, a priest, but he is the one who allowed pagan worship of the Golden Calf

Miriam…. we find out who weak point today. It seems to be jealousy. Something has really made her annoyed. She has found out about the Cushite woman, and she is making insinuations, speaking out against her brother. Perhaps she resents the fact that she had remained faithful all her life, in hostile Egypt, to the God of Abraham. Here’s Moses, her younger brother, the person whose life she had saved, brought up in the Pharaoh’s palace, and who had lapsed for most of his life from the Faith. And now here he is, the leader! How can that be right?

This is human thinking! Human thinking, because God has chosen Moses, chosen a man to lead the people who is, so to speak, ‘damaged goods’. And he’s being challenged in his leadership by his brother and sister. She says to Moses, ‘Has not God spoken to us too?’ As I said, she also is a prophetess.

The three of them find themselves at the Tent of Meeting and God speaks to them. And it would not have been a comfortable time. Moses remains silent. And God basically says, ‘Look, I do have prophets and prophetesses, I do speak through people, and they receive messages (usually through dreams or by hearing a word, this sort of thing); but Moses is special. I speak to Moses directly; he sees me!’

Mmm! That is very unusual. But do you remember Moses’ face glowing after he had been in the presence of God? Moses is special and sees God face to face.

We have to remember this in terms of our own leaders within The Church. God throws up some very funny expected leaders. We know about Pope Francis! And today, Saint John Vianney, a very unexpected person to become the Patron Saint of Parish Priests. (The story I like about John Vianney is that when he was appointed parish priest, A petition was circulated throughout his diocese saying that he was not fit to be a parish priest. And it was sent round from parish to parish, and the priests signed it! And by mistake it was sent to John Vianney’s parish at Ars. He signed it, and forwarded it to his bishop! Marvellous! Human thinking! And history goes on to show the results of that.)

And there are consequences that arise if we rebel against what God ordains? We must learn the experience of Miriam and Aaron, because we too have people appointed over us, but we might think we’re better, people in authority in The Church who are ordained by God. [Bishop William gave a very interesting talk to us deacons last year about this. He said, ‘Look, I’m a bishop, and I’m also a religious. There are people out there who would be better at it than me. There are people out there who say their prayers better than me, who are more devout. What’s the difference? And he was talking to us deacons to say ‘why are you deacons?, what difference does it make?’ The difference is this it’s a public ministry, people making a public statement of their intent to serve God publicly, and with God’s help. Chosen by God – not a foregone conclusion, not the obvious candidates.]

But there are always people out there who are better, and always some people who would speak against their leaders: that’s just human nature. We obviously must challenge things when they are not going right, no problem, that’s what we must do. But we must acknowledge and respect the people selected through the Holy Spirit as our Church leaders.

What happened after Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses? When the cloud lifts, poor Miriam has got leprosy.

It was Aaron (the priest) who spotted it…. do you remember what Jesus said after He had cured the lepers? ‘Go to the priest’.[1] Someone with a skin blemish would be checked by the priest to see if they had leprosy. Aaron immediately knows: she’s got leprosy! What a horror. She’s got to be kept outside the camp, to be separated. It’s for the priest to decide what happens, and they would put people into quarantine to find out what it is for sure. Miriam is put into quarantine for one week.

And then order is restored: Aaron turns to Moses and begs HIM, ‘Speak to God and ask for our sister to be cured.’ Aaron has learnt his lesson. Moses begs God to cure his sister, and she’s isolated outside camp for seven days. Then she’s checked by the priest again and found to be clean – she comes back healed. She’s had a close shave, she’s had a warning.

Order is restored but it’s has been very unpleasant, and it was the result of gossiping, nitpicking and backbiting. Not good

This message in the scriptures is the same as yesterday: our actions (whether they are positive actions or just gossiping and talking about people) have consequences.

And sometimes the consequences of our sinful behaviour can be very bad.

[1] Luke 5: 14

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