Strength for the Journey: “With Friends Like These” – Numbers 12

screenplayBefore it was a movie in 1998, the screen play written by Frank Messina called “With Friends Like These” was already a pop hit among a group of actors in Hollywood. The movie was no great success as I recall, but in smaller venues, like the Munich film awards, it was seen as a lovable and warm look into the actor’s craft. The idea of the screenplay was to pose four actors vying for a part in a Hollywood movie about gangsters. It was a film about making a film, with actors playing actors. I did not see the movie, and cannot say if it delivered on its entertainment value. I am not endorsing its language or its content – I don’t know about how it came out. Why am I mentioning it, then? Because the idea of the screenplay intrigued me, so I read about it. The comedy was formed on the premise that each actor had to perform a stereotypical part of the underworld mob – to project they could comfortably live with the Corleone family and deal with “horse heads in their beds”. If the references mean nothing to you, don’t worry about it – it means you have kept yourself from living in the world of the “Godfather”, and are, in no way, related to Al Pachino or Marlin Brando. Here’s the idea I that caught my attention: If I am surrounded by people that I cannot trust to care for me, life would take on an isolating coldness that I don’t know if I could endure.

You see, I admit that I have lived, in at least emotional ways, a sheltered life. I have parents that love me – or at least they have made me believe they did! I have spent hours with them, laughing, and enjoying them as adult friends. In my youth, they encouraged me to try things, to teach and to explore. From my home, I ventured into the Near East and became the wandering traveler that is still in my blood thirty years later. I came under the tutelage of some of the best teachers the world had to offer in the fields of my chosen studies. Along the way I married a young woman that has been so very faithful and kind to me – as I dragged her around the world. A small town girl, she took on the streets of foreign cities and has become the more aggressive driver of the two of us – and in many ways the more engaged traveler. In short, I have come home for fifty plus years of life, to a home of people who love me, and are encouraging to me. The hard reality of Pastoral ministry is that I have come to know that is NOT NORMAL for many people these days. Some of you come home to something very different than my experiences. Some of you cannot relate to my upbringing. As a result, when people come for counsel, I find myself thinking about the people in their lives: “With friends like you have, who needs enemies?

If your life isn’t much like mine, you may find that our story today is closer to YOU than to me. Our story is about Moses, and the knives that were stuck in his back by his own brother and sister. There is nothing like the pain of betrayal in the midst of a battle – and make no mistake – leading Israel through the wilderness WAS a battle for Moses. In fact, in the last lessons we have been studying complaints that swept the camp of Israel from its edge to its very core. They appear to have started with the superstitious and pagan among the rabble on the edge of the camp stumbling across what may have been stellae – or markers of the edge of Egyptian territory. What should have been a moment of homage to pagan gods was bypassed by the Hebrews, and the complaints started –that led to God sending lightning to burn the edges of the camp and warn the rabble of non-Israelites to get back in line. Eventually, the complaining spread – because it always does. Complaining is like yawning, it is contagious. Moses got in on it as well, and wisely took his grievance toward God. It wasn’t long until the fire was lit on the tongues of Moses’ brother and sister – and this is today’s lesson.

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever had a dear friend or even a family member criticize you behind your back?

Perhaps they disagreed with an important decision you made in your life, and they just couldn’t seem to let it go! Moses had it happen to him – when he chose a WIFE that wasn’t on his sister’s list of candidates. They were apparently hurt by Moses’ independence in his decision – offended that he didn’t listen to them. Add to that, they appeared to be jealous that people didn’t understand how critical a role they played in the whole “get out of Egypt” scenario. Their words were harsh and God dealt with them to preserve His leader over the people, but also to make a point.

Key Principle: God takes our words seriously, and we cannot forget that! We need to be so very careful about how we use our mouths.

James warned of the damage a tongue can do – like a match to a parched forest. Jesus warned, in the midst of a message about the unpardonable sin of disbelief that: Matthew 12:36 ““But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” The tongue inside our head may be the most dangerous weapon we possess in emotional terms.

Look back into the heart of the Israelite camp, some fifteen hundred years before Jesus came, and we will see the illustration of how the poisoned tongue can do its damage:

Numbers 12:1 Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); 2 and they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” And the LORD heard it. 3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.)

The Setting (Numbers 12:1-3)

If you look carefully at the situation, you will see how the attack of the tongue hit Moses from behind…

Notice the TIMING: The stab in the back came while the camp was under attack (12:1). “Then…”

We must remember that the people of God have been under a SPIRITUAL ATTACK. The timing of the attack against the leader is NOT coincidence – it is a planned shot at a weakened time. That is how the enemy works. He knows when to pick out your weakness and weariness and use it against you.

Notice the AGENTS: The stab in the back came from those closest to Moses (12:1). “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses.”

The enemy of our souls is not unwise about WHO he uses to stab at us. When he wants to get into our hearts, embitter our walk and insert the venom of complaint within us, he uses the people we care about. This is a favored tactic.

Notice the ISSUE: The stab hurt because it concerned the most personal of choices (12:1b). “…because of the Cushite woman whom he had married.”

We don’t if Moses chose to marry again, or if Zipporah had died – but Cushites were Africans not Israelites. Here is what we DO know. Moses wasn’t out dating women. He didn’t “bump into” a woman at Starbucks and begin a conversation in line. I recognize that the subject of our time together is NOT POLYGAMY, but let me just offer this… We cannot tell if Zipporah had died by this time – we simply don’t know. Let me pose my own understanding of the situation that may be a surprise to some of you — I don’t personally believe that Moses had multiple wives at all – I think the Midianite woman named Zipporah is the one referenced by Miriam and Aaron’s displeasure in this passage.

Let me be quick, but offer my case:

• Moses got married to a Midianite girl, a daughter of Jethro (also called Reuel), while he was on the run from his murder charge (for which he was guilty, we should add –cp. Exodus 3 and 4).

• Exodus 18 says that Moses had two sons – both by Zipporah – (18:3-4) … the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land: 4 And the name of the other was Eliezer; for the Mighty One of my father, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

• In Exodus 4, Moses’ wife derided him for not circumcising their child (Ex. 4:24ff), and Moses left the camp under God’s orders with ONLY Aaron his brother to go to Pharaoh. There is NO indication that Zipporah was WITH MOSES during the plagues that fell on Egypt. IF Zipporah was NOT IN EGYPT, Miriam didn’t get to know her until after they arrived back in the Midianite territory. They may not have met before.

• Clearly the story of Exodus 18, when Jethro visits Moses is intended to tell the story that her return to her husband was NOT UNTIL they were in the wilderness. It wasn’t until that time that Miriam met Zipporah – and two women with vastly different life experiences and perspectives – were both close to the leader of the people. That is a recipe for tension.

Let me anticipate a question. Why is the woman in Numbers 12 called a “Cushite” – the word that some would call “Ethiopian”? I think it is because of her physical features – not necessarily her nationality. This is a comment about genetic appearance – not national identity.

The issue is illustrated in the Caribbean – where some “brown skinned” Hispanics look more like Africans than Hispanics – because of the history of the slave trade that passed through the region. Some Cubans, for instance, look “black” and others more “brown”. It isn’t hard to see how someone could pick out a “black” person who actually would categorize themselves as a “brown” person – is it? In short, I think she looked like a black African more than an Israelite – and the Midianites as a traveling band had mixed with other tribes for allegiance purposes.

If the issue WAS Zipporah, why not simply NAME HER? I think the text is trying to bear out the bad feeling. “That Cushite” was probably the way they were expressing their displeasurenot using her name. While we are on this point – let’s take a moment to be clear about how prejudice works – it is formed by an abstraction of someone not named. It is easy to hate when you don’t know someone and they are different from you. It is when you learn their name and engage their life that the abstract becomes the real.

The bottom line is that it appears to me the problem isn’t polygamy, but personality and perhaps personal prejudices. Miriam and Aaron weren’t attendees at Moses wedding, and the woman they met on the journey was not one they would have picked – no matter the reason.

My point is the same: it was a personal choice of Moses, and they didn’t like his choice.

Notice the MOTIVATION: The stab was a complaint that covered a deeper problem – the feeling of being slighted. Verse 2 says: “…and they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?”

Is it possible that Zipporah made some comment that reminded them of the importance of her husband? Maybe that is why the text links MOSES’ WIFE to the underlying complaint about recognition. What is clear is they weren’t just mocking wedding photos- they were hurt by something. When the complaining started in the camp – Moses got hit. So did his family. Even after he and God resolved the issue between them, Moses needed to attend to those around him. The enemy disrupted the camp, and he wasn’t leaving until the disruption left permanent scars on the people near to Moses. Dead Israelites from the “quail incident” were barely cold and the enemy was already working overtime to kill any relief on the part of the leader.

Did you notice the problem Miriam and Aaron seemed to express? They were JEALOUS of Moses’ recognition, and felt their vital contribution was passed over. The issue wasn’t the history of God’s prophetic voice – but the RECOGNITION of it. We who are in ministry must fight the battle of self-worth constantly. Though the world considers a Christian leader MORE IMPORTANT based on the SIZE of ministry – we need to be careful to keep our eyes fixed on the real measure, not the popular sentiment. It is possible that a leader can become more popular with people, and less faithful to God. In fact, it is a constant temptation to please people at the expense of being honest with hard texts of truth, found in God’s Word. Conversely, God may mark a leader’s ministry with numerical growth if it pleases Him to do so.

Every leader must be careful not to fall into the trap of reading “success” by attendance statistics or affirming comments. Our recognition and affirmation must come from above – not from those who surround us. We dare not “feed” off of the good will of others – for God sees our heart. He knows if He is happy with our work – and that is what truly counts. God is interested in a man or woman that will follow Him whether or not they get recognition this side of Heaven. Because that is true, Heaven’s choirs will laud some whose names were not well known on earth, and may skip some personalities who have become household names in each generation. We must commit to an audience of ONE – and please Him above all others.

Now, Notice the PROBLEM: The stab against Moses was heard by GOD! Verse two closes with a simple statement that becomes the foundation for every other action in the text: “…And the LORD heard it.

Here is the warning in our lesson. God is LISTENING.

Our mouths are being monitored. Our complaints are overheard. Our blasphemies are recorded. Our lies are being scrutinized. Our exaggerations are being dissected. Our boasts are being examined… and all this by the ONE who’s very name is TRUTH.

Right in the middle of the story there is an insertion by some other writer, because God wanted something clear. Moses didn’t write verse three – he couldn’t have – or verse three would not have been true! The “drop in” to the text is this: Numbers 12:3 “(Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.)” Why put this into the writing? Because God wanted something very clear. It wasn’t MOSES that was seeking retribution against his siblings – it was God’s ear on the camp. Moses wasn’t a SNITCH. He may not have even been aware at the time. There is no indication in the text that Moses knew WHY the three of the “Amram clan” were being called to stand at attention to God’s Voice in the desert that day.

God’s Response (12:4-13)

God answered the sin of Miriam and Aaron with word and symbol. He wanted to make a point that would stick with both of them – and then He wanted us to read about it. He made an example out of one sister to speak to all the sisters and brothers that would come in the generations of His work.

First, there was the verbal encounter with God at the Tabernacle – God made His position clear. He said:

Numbers 12:4 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. 5 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, 6 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. 7 “Not so, with My servant Moses, He is faithful in all My household; 8 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?

The issue wasn’t accountability here – it was recognition. Leaders, like all believers, MUST be accountable to others – it is a part of God’s Word and it is a requirement.

• Proverbs 27:17 “As Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

• Matthew 18:15-17 (ESV): “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

• Galatians 6:1-2 (ESV): “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

• James 5:16 (ESV): “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

The issue was RECOGNITION and PERCEIVED IMPORTANCE in the ministry, as well as the personality and personal prejudices of people. Maybe Miriam didn’t like the fabric and color choices Zipporah put in Moses’ tent. Maybe she didn’t like the way Zipporah played the tambourine at the Tabernacle sing-along. Maybe she didn’t like her looks, her perfume, or her favorite joke – Who knows? The truth is that all that was a SURFACE PROBLEM. The real issue was AFFIRMATION – and Miriam and Aaron wanted MORE. They wanted the recognition they were IMPORTANT TO THE TEAM. That hunger made them critical of God’s man – when he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He didn’t choose his wife to BOTHER THEM. He didn’t get alone with God and wrestle on behalf of the people because of THEM.

Here is a very important issue: Moses was wrestling with issues before God that even his brother and sister didn’t know or fully understand. He was dealing with God on a level they had never been at – and they had little criteria to criticize him. Let’s not forget that when dealing with others – we may not know the truth of what they are going through. Leaders are called to hold their cards close.

Take for instance a time when a leader is in a devastatingly difficult meeting that really hits their heart with a tough problem. Right after that meeting they go to yet another unrelated meeting – and he or she must shake off the problems of the first meeting at the second. One of the skills of leadership that must be learned is the skill of “segmenting”. This is the ability to set aside a problem and focus on other issues, because there is more than one problem that needs complete focus and attention.

Not to become the center of attention, but merely to illustrate this truth, let me share a personal story from not long ago. One morning I had three meetings. In the first, I found out about a friend’s infidelity to their spouse and was asked for some critical counsel by wounded people, who sobbed their way through the meeting. Since they asked that I keep it absolutely secret, I counseled and prayed with them – not mentioning it to anyone else. As they left, the next appointment showed up. I was offering a Biblical explanation, as best I was able, to a woman who was being abused and needed to know what the basis of separation from their spouse could be. She wasn’t looking for a “quick fix” and the details of the situation were complex. I walked through some Biblical passages with her, and I prayed for her situation. She left, and I stopped to talk to the Lord about something I had said to my wife the night before that was bothering me. I was irritated with someone and she stumbled into the subject on a walk the night before, and I wasn’t kind in my response. I felt I hurt her, and I wanted to talk with the Lord about it. As I did, my next appointment came in – a couple looking forward to getting married. At that moment, I wasn’t particularly UP emotionally. At the same time, that wasn’t the young happy couple’s problem. “You look tired, Pastor.” They said. I tried to be funny: “No, I just didn’t use eye makeup today!” They grinned and we got busy wedding planning. The issues of earlier meetings needed to be set aside so that I could focus on their issue. Other people’s sin was NOT their problem. It is terribly important that leaders learn when to shut their mouths off, and segment the last meeting from the next one.

Moses had just come from dealing with God on the issues of complaint. We cannot know how long between that event, and this one, other than the word “then” at the beginning of the passage. The point is that when we encounter someone, we have to remember that we may not see the real place they are at inside. We need to keep that in mind before we pounce on them.

• I am speaking to the husband who comes home critical about housekeeping to a wife that has dealt with a stubborn child all day and wants adult conversation. She wants to be recognized for her hard fought battle at lunch with the flying Gerber products. She wants to be told she is beautiful when she couldn’t get time to fix her hair without their child removing all the eggs from the fridge.

• I am passing this reminder to you BEFORE you go into the line at the “customer service” counter of the local store to complain. My aunt worked the Sears complaint counter while on chemotherapy for the cancer that claimed her life. People were rude, and sometimes crude about problems that by anyone’s count would pale in comparison to the ones she was facing.

You don’t know another person’s “inner demons” (poetically, I mean) or distresses, so dial back the tongue a bit. Speaking of “bits” – some of us need to get one to bridle our complaining voice.

Second, there was the powerful symbol given to Miriam – because she apparently was the more vocal participant in the criticism of Moses.

Numbers 12:9 So the anger of the LORD burned against them and He departed. 10 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. 11 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. 12 “Oh, do not let her be like one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes from his mother’s womb!”

Miriam needed a seven day lesson – so God provided one. Aaron needed a graphic reminder that God had a unique call for his brother, and Aaron wasn’t supposed to feed or field complaints for him. As soon as God struck Miriam, Aaron didn’t go to God – but to Moses. Under the complaint was the recognition that Moses really WAS on a different plane in his walk with God. Aaron sought Moses’ help, so Moses dropped to his knees before God.

The Results of their Sin (Numbers 12:13-16)

There is a price to be paid for sin – and sinners brings the price on more than just themselves. YOUR choice isn’t just about YOU – it is about those around you as well. Miriam’s need for affirmation had consequences that weren’t JUST about her skin – though that was no picnic either!

First, it grieved God’s leader – Moses fell down broken before the Lord (12:13). The situation caused Moses to misunderstand God’s hand. People who aren’t self-focused aren’t so easily rocked by critical voices – and Moses was a humble man. He hurt for his sister, and his brother.

Numbers 12:13 Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “O God, heal her, I pray!” 14 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.”

You have to be a little bit impressed with the selfless nature of the man here, don’t you? Few of us take criticism so well – but Moses developed thick skin under the Sinai sun. He wasn’t given to reaction BEFORE MEN – he left that to his relationship with God. He didn’t float above the earth and he wasn’t always patient – but he more often reacted rashly BEFORE GOD than in the presence of the other Israelites. God wasn’t more distant because of Moses’ tough words with the Holy One – quite the opposite. The most severe punishments to Moses came as a result of his bad behavior in front of others – not his private arguments with God.

God would rather hear your honest complaints before Him than watch you offer them to others around you. He wants you to PRAY when you are hurt, not seek to ease your pain through drawing others into it. That may become necessary, but it is not the primary response God is looking for.

Grieving the godly is one of the prices of sin in the body. When we don’t walk with God, we make trouble for others – whether we thought about that or not.

Second, it stopped the move of God’s people – nobody moved for a week. They were frozen from progress in their journey because of one person’s mouth, and another person’s ear.

Numbers 12: 15 So Miriam was shut up outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on until Miriam was received again. 16 Afterward, however, the people moved out from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

Our sin can stop the forward momentum of many. Complaints and gossip can stall out a work for God. People who need to be rescued from darkness may be eternally hurt because we distracted the work from outreach to explanation. We can so easily get distracted on “style of worship” or some minutia of theological difference that we become ineffective as a body to move forward.

God takes our words seriously, and we cannot forget that! We need to be so very careful about how we use our mouths.

Our words set a tone in the hearts of others. Let me close with this illustration: A young girl who was writing a paper for school came to her father and asked, “Dad, what is the difference between anger and annoyance?” The father replied, “It is mostly a matter of degree. Let me show you what I mean.” With that the father went to the telephone and dialed a number at random. To the man who answered the phone, he said, “Hello, is Melvin there?” The man answered, “There is no one living here named Melvin. Why don’t you learn to look up numbers before you dial?” “See,” said the father to his daughter. “That man was not a bit happy with our call. He was probably very busy with something and we annoyed him. Now watch….” The father dialed the number again. “Hello, is Melvin there?” asked the father. “Now look here!” came the heated reply. “You just called this number and I told you that there is no Melvin here! You’ve got lot of guts calling again!” The receiver slammed down hard. The father turned to his daughter and said, “You see, that was anger. Now I’ll show you what annoyance means.” He dialed the same number, and when a violent voice roared, “Hello!” The father calmly said, “Hello, this is Melvin. Have there been any calls for me?” (sermon central illustrations –submitted by Pastor Jimmy Haile).