It’s altogether too difficult to dispute the uniqueness of Moses. As the human source of three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Moses and his greatness may be freely asserted. His humility, however, turns out to be more of a problem.
Numbers 12:3 may well be the Bible’s most unforgettable parenthesis, and for no positive reason. Many find it impossible to accept that the height of humility would be for Moses, considered the book’s author, to describe himself as he does, “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” And besides the oddity of such an action, there is adequate room to wonder about Moses as meek.
Beyond his domination of early Israelite history he is seen as a major figure in the New Testament: the healed leper must carry out Moses’ instructions for ritual cleansing (Matt. 8:4); Jesus and His opponents all claim Moses’ support in their argument about marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:7, 8). In Jesus’ hypothetical, well-known story about the rich man and Lazarus, one thing is clear: it’s about Moses (Luke 16:19-31). Mentioned 80 times in the New Testament, Moses is an undying hero. Except that he does die in the Old Testament (Deut. 34:5-7), only to rise again before the New Testament gets too far along, so he can show up to encourage Jesus before His passion—which Luke actually calls Jesus’ exodus (Luke 9:28-36).
Moses’ support is not in vain: Jesus conquers devil and hell, bursts out of the mountain, and soars to glory with a promise to return for His friends. Once the news gets out to “every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23), priests and Pharisees, Jews and Gentiles, plebes and patricians all want to follow the Nazarene’s way.
The Christian church holds its first deliberative council, seeking for process and practice that will be fair to all. James, presiding, reminds delegates of the pivotal presence and word of Moses for making things go right (Acts 15:13-21). All of which confronts us with a new question: are we even reading right in Numbers when we hear it say that this giant of a statesman, author, legislator, and nation builder was humanity’s humblest ever?
The questions aren’t done yet. For it may yet be that Scripture’s most remarkable lines about Moses relate to Jesus rather than to humility, to a prophecy in Deuteronomy rather than to a parenthesis in Numbers. Invoking that prophecy, Peter in Acts 3 and Stephen in Acts 7 both argue that Jesus is Jesus because He properly fulfills Moses’ prediction of a coming prophet who would be like him: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (Deut. 18:15). Both Peter in Acts 3 and Stephen in Acts 7 state that this prediction is about Jesus: Jesus is like Moses.
We now have three points to ponder: (1) How can humility declare itself most humble? (2) Can we be sure, given his accomplishments and stature, that Moses was all that meek? (3) Why should heaven and the prophets say that Jesus is like Moses? That’s the opposite of the directions of our Sabbath School songs: “I would be like Jesus. Be like Jesus, this my song, in the home and in the throng.”2
One major way to begin addressing the multiplied queries would be vis-à-vis the superlative claim of Numbers 12:3. Answers to our multiple questions may have their best starting point in the unforgettable parenthesis: “Moses was the humblest.”
We claim to value humility now only because Jesus does, and we want to sound Christian.
The term ‘anaw (“humble”) that Moses applies to himself in Numbers 12 was no coveted epithet among the “haves” of Old Testament times. Its possession did not contribute to superior status or constitute a position of power. Answering our first question, a pronouncement on humility in Numbers is not designed as a statement of greatness. That ‘anaw is sometimes confused with the closely related ‘ani (“poor,” “afflicted”) only underlines the fact that to declare oneself such is hardly to be heard as a braggart. To be ‘ani was to be the natural object of exploitation (see Ex. 22:22-24), so helpless in one’s affliction that the Lord Himself must personally intervene to help and deliver (Ex. 3:7, 8).
And because ‘anaw itself never represents high social standing or popular esteem, considering the famous parenthesis a note of conceit happens only by detaching it from its contextual moorings. Taken in its original context, the text seeks to communicate Moses’ indisposition about preserving his reputation. Or it pronounces upon his sheer inability to protect himself from slanderous verbal assault or rebellion against his divinely appointed authority. His personal dignity, his choice of spouse, his manner of leadership—all were subject to open attack and ridicule by his siblings and/or by hundreds of subalterns responding to strong urges to prove themselves superior to whatever he thought of them.
Moses’ story, as recounted in the relevant chapters of Numbers, presents a report consistent with the lot and experience of the biblical ‘anaw, a group whose divine support and blessing never relate to their community status or their role in the society. Indeed, it is their need that evokes God’s succor. Left to themselves they will be swept away by any onslaught of evil as they encounter people whose goal and practice is to “trample the needy and do away with the poor [‘anaw] of the land” (Amos 8:4).
In Numbers 12, Moses’ creative, assertive, extroverted sister—in the lead, with older brother Aaron trailing—unleashes a shameful insult against the man and his wife, stuffing her sad sentiments into an enveloped labeled “God’s Service”: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num. 12:2). If God had not told us explicitly, we would not know that Miriam’s holy jealousy is just a cover for her racism: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite” (verse 1). Cush as location means Ethiopia. God Himself intervenes to severely discipline the gifted, prejudiced prophetess (verses 4-15; see also Ex. 15:20).
Moses is soon confronted with a new trial, this time the unnecessary and “evil report” (Num. 13:32, KJV) the spies bring back. Their “spy idea” was unnecessary and insulting to God because He had spied out the territory already (Eze. 20:6). He had long ago guaranteed the land of Canaan to Israel’s great ancestor Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21), even explaining the schedule for taking possession (verses 13-16).
Yet the people cringe at Moses’ wonderful announcement: “You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it” (Deut. 1:19-21).
Comparing Deuteronomy and Numbers shows that though Moses and His gracious Lord accept responsibility for the commissioning of spies (Num. 13:1-16), they both knew it was wrong (disastrously so, it turned out). The faithlessness that inspired the idea of sending spies equally inspired their report. That same faithlessness riled up the congregation receiving the report, and inspired their desire to murder the ones who preferred to trust in God (Num. 14:10). Moses’ humility only encouraged their bold faithlessness: he was either so nice or so naive that they knew he would eventually surrender before their clamor; they could threaten to stone him and all God’s faithful, and he would back down; they could complain all night and his resolve would melt.
The rebellions keep piling on: the Numbers 16 attack is by the cream of the crop: “250 Israelite m
en, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council” (verse 2). These are men who know their standing in society, and know they have huge followings on Twitter and Facebook, if not on Instagram and TikTok. They echo Miriam, though now Moses and Aaron are lumped together: they take too much on themselves; they lack proper respect for the capacity of others to do what they do; they think themselves superior to everybody else, “above the Lord’s assembly” (verse 3). When God miraculously destroys these champions of fairness for all, their followers scream at Moses and Aaron, “You have killed the Lord’s people” (verse 41).
Through these episodes of racist insult, bold faithlessness, and class warfare, Moses’ attitude gives us a consistent answer to our second query: can we be sure of his humility? In each of these three cases—(1) his brother and sister, (2) the spies, (3) the famous community leaders—it is God, even silencing Moses’ compassionate pleas, who takes hold of the situation and metes out appropriate discipline.
In the first case, Miriam, God, and Aaron—the other parties present—all speak before Moses does. When we do hear his voice, it is in a cry to God, brief and intense, for mercy on the sister he loves, whom God has struck with a defiling skin disease: “Please, God, heal her!” (Num. 12:13). The Lord shuts him up: He will not have the incident quietly disappear. The congregation will know of the shameful thinking and behavior; of God’s indignation; of Moses’ meek silence; of his plea swept aside by the God who owns justice (Deut. 32:35) and will sometimes administer stern discipline even when those oppressed plead for mercy on their abusers.
The story of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their 250 famous colleagues offers just as powerful a witness to Moses’ deferential character, though he is much more involved in the action this time, even passionately so (Num. 16:15). God shows again, by an unprecedented miracle of punishment, the level of His rage against rebels who confidently assault His order through abusing His servant Moses. When Korah and the gang of greats charge him with conceit, the best Moses can do is fall, facedown, to the ground (verse 4). At the story’s decisive moment, we hear Moses’ voice, crying out to God again, for mercy on scoundrels. God knows how deeply the poison of insurrection has already penetrated the entire congregation, and commands Moses and Aaron, “Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once” (Num. 16:21). Moses begs God not to kill everybody. God agrees, but gives a new command: “Move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram” (verse 24).
Then Moses speaks up: “If the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows [these men], . . . then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt” (verse 30). God has said that rebellion is like witchcraft, and “arrogance like the evil of idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:23). Spiritual discernment lets Moses see witchcraft and idolatry here: the geniuses have elevated their self-importance above any possible worship of the true God.
In Moses’ words we hear Jesus’ voice denouncing scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites ensconced “in Moses’ seat,” living church like a reality show, including respectful greetings (see Matt. 23:2, 5-7).
Jesus is not proud for delivering curses on those who have earned them: no, He is defining true humility: it is the opposite of what these religious authorities stand for, and Jesus is it. He invites: “Come to me,” “for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:28, 29).
Jesus answers all our questions about Moses.
Now, with Moses’ help, we know what to do when Jesus says, “Come,” “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28, 29).
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of Adventist Review.