Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NUMBERS: Chapter 12

Chapter 12
Summary:Moses' sister Miriam* and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married. They said aloud to themselves questioning whether God has spoken only through Moses, and not also through themselves as well - and God heard this.

(The chapter - in verse 3 - briefly notes that Moses, was supposedly very meek, and in fact the meekest man on earth, but there are many examples of Moses' behavior that do not line up with any definition of "meek" - murdering an Egyptian in cold blood and hiding his body in the sand, being one of them.)

God spoke suddenly to all three siblings - Moses, Aaron, and Miriam - and told them all to come out to the tabernacle, which they did. God descended from the form of the cloud above the tabernacle and stood at the doorway, and called Aaron and Miriam forward.

God said to them both that even when speaking to prophets, God makes himself known in visions and dreams, yet he does not do this with Moses, whom he speaks to face to face and allows himself to be seen by him. God then asks them both why they were not afraid to criticize Moses.

God gets fierce with anger and departs from them, and as the cloud departed Miriam became stricken with leprosy, white as snow. Aaron looked upon Miriam and could clearly see that she was indeed stricken with leprosy.

Aaron said to Moses that Miriam and himself should not be punished for this sin, as they had been foolish, and begged that Miriam not be "as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb".

Moses cried out to God, begging him to heal Miriam. God responded to Moses telling him that "if her father had but spit in her face" that she would be "unclean" for seven days. He tells Moses that Miriam is to be exiled from the camp for seven days, and that afterward she could come back again.

Miriam was ejected from the camp for seven days, and the people of Israel waited until she had returned before continuing to travel again. Once Miriam returned, the people left Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.
Notes:1.) Miriam is Moses' sister who we last encountered in Exodus 15 singing a "victory song".
Thoughts:This rather short chapter packs a wallop of hypocrisy and sexism into a brief story about Moses and his siblings Aaron and Miriam.

God overhears Miriam and Aaron complaining about Moses being married to an Ethiopian woman and began questioning what exactly is so special about Moses, when God has also spoken through Aaron and Miriam (both being implied through "prophecy").

The chapter then notes how Moses is allegedly the meekest man on earth, despite many examples that Moses defies any definition of "meek" we're accustomed to. Even more curious is that the "Torah" (the first five books of the bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is accredited to having been written by Moses himself, which would mean that Moses himself wrote this line proclaiming himself to be the "meekest man on earth":
12:3 (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)
Would a supposedly "meek" man speak so highly of himself, or was this inserted by another author? If this was in fact inserted by another author, then we have to question as to what else perhaps has been "added in" to the bible. How can we tell apart what was the "divine" word of God as written by Moses and what was merely tacked on afterward?

Author and skeptic Marshall Brain discusses this point at length in article about slavery in the bible, comparing the "addition" of non-divinely inspired passages to the Tylenol scare of the 1980s. This is an argument that is hard to refute - that if any one part of the bible is in question to have been written or inspired by man, how can we tell which parts were "added" by mere men, and which are the true inspired words of God?

If Moses wrote "Numbers 12:3", then this would negate his own humility. A humble and "meek" man could not possibly give himself such self-praise for being the "meekest man on earth". If Moses did not write this, then who did? And what else in the Torah might this person(s) have added, embellished, or changed? When even one small simple verse, such as this one, comes into question, we now have to question the entire thing. In this way, Marshall Brain's Tylenol analogy is very compelling - if we can't tell the poisoned Tylenol capsules from the safe ones, then we must pull all bottles of Tylenol from store shelves. We have the same problem here, if someone else aside from Moses wrote "Numbers 12:3", how can we know whether he, or anyone else aside from Moses, added anything else to the Torah? The whole authenticity of authorship of the Torah comes into question when we're faced with this problem.

Back to our story, God summons Moses, Aaron, and Miriam out to the tabernacle for a little chat. He pulls Aaron and Miriam aside and tells them how dare they criticize Moses about his status with God. God points out that prophets receive God's messages through visions and dreams, whereas God has chosen to speak to Moses face to face.

God becomes angry and storms off, but not before inflicting Miriam with leprosy. Once again, Aaron gets off the hook - much like he did when he forged an idol in the image of a "golden calf" for the people of Israel to worship and thereby "sin" against God.

There are many possible explanations for why Miriam was singled out, some believing that she was the instigator (which is an assertion not made clear as written here) thus her "sin" was worse than Aaron's, secondly that Aaron's priesthood somehow cuts him some slack (much like our judicial system tends to be more lenient on police officers committing crimes versus the average citizen), and lastly, being a woman, she should have realized her place that she is not anywhere near as equal to a man "serving God" - thus her "pride" in thinking of herself as "equal" in stature to Moses and Aaron was her "sin", as well as her "jealousy" of God bending the rules on Moses' behalf.

As for the bible itself, women are often depicted in a worse light than men which promotes the stereotype that men are the superior sex, as sexism was common place in bronze age societies when the bible was originally written. Women were generally not considered much more than property as "baby-making machines", and their depictions in the bible are usually sparse and mostly used to reinforce the stereotypes of women being arrogant, foolish, mischievous, and otherwise lesser than their male counterparts.

Back to our story, Aaron now pleads to Moses that neither him or Miriam should be punished for their "sins" (despite that no punishment is mentioned for Aaron, and only Miriam was struck with leprosy) and admits that they both acted foolishly and have "sinned".

Moses then pleads to God for Miriam's leprosy to be healed, but God points out an analogy that if she had become "unclean" from having her father spit in her face, that she would bear that shame for seven days. Thus God proclaims that Miriam will have to suffer in exile for seven days in her leprous condition.

Miriam gets shut out of the camp for the following week and the people of Israel didn't continue their journey to the "promised land" until Miriam was allowed back into the camp. The people then packed up from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

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