Background Scripture: Numbers 12:1-11,13-15
Quotes of the Week:
"A man who called everyone a damn fool is like a man who damns the weather. He only shows that he is not adapted to his environment, not that the environment is wrong."
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
This lesson continues a string of lessons that impact many of us, as they have hit on some common issues that we all face. In the first lesson, we discussed poor choices and then we discussed broken relationships. Now, we talk about a critical spirit. A critical spirit can be very harmful to a relationship and life in general, and I believe that we all encounter problems when we are over critical of others.
There are different types of critics and in some cases, criticism may be part of the job. There are movie critics who watch many different movies and rank them. I have found it interesting to see that there are times in which the movie critic's review is nothing like the review of many of the people who see the movie. Perhaps the person who watches a movie for enjoyment would review it differently than one who is looking at more technical aspects. When Berkley and I have traveled places, we often will go to Tripadvisor.com and check out the reviews for a specific location. It can be helpful to find some of the off the beaten path restaurants, hotels or other activities in an area. Some of the reviews give more information about what you can find, or some hints as to what to look for. One thing that we have noticed is that there are some people who will only fill out a review if they've had an exceptionally bad experience, and sometimes you have to throw those out. I would imagine that there are others who fill out reviews, trying to advertise for their location. Obviously, the information can be skewed by one's perspective.
In sports, you've likely heard of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks. While the term implies football, there are many people who enjoy getting together to talk about a specific team or game, and what 'they would have done'. I work at Boeing as a software architect, and though there are some athletes in the area that I work, there is a reason why we work there and are not playing for the St Louis Cardinals, or the Blues, or any other professional teams. However, I hear conversations that rail on a manager or player's choices and how stupid it was to do this or that. It is interesting that people who could in no way make a team can be the self-proclaimed experts on how a sport should be played (correctly). I wonder how we at Boeing would respond if the members of the St Louis Cardinals started criticizing technical documents that we wrote, or sat in peer reviews and were critical of our designs that have flaws. We would be indignant that they don't know what they're talking about, yet….. you get the picture.
However, this lesson is not about movie critics, or sports critics, but rather about our own critical attitudes in general. I'm not talking about the occasional grumpiness that we might get when we are tired or not feeling well. I would dare say that we all tend to be a little more off when that happens. So much of life is about dealing with unfulfilled expectations. We tend to be more critical when things don't go the way we want. We all have by default, a very selfish perspective, which makes sense since we see the world through our own eyes, listen with our own ears and go everywhere we go in our own body. When anything doesn't meet with what may seem best for us, we can become very critical. I believe this is something we all deal with, on some level. You may obviously think of someone else that needs to hear this much more than yourself, while somebody else may be thinking of you! (That would make both of you critical of each other, wouldn't it?) I would ask that you take a step back, and as you read this lesson, ask the Holy Spirit to convict you if areas of your life are exposed or come to mind. You can't fix or control anyone else, anyway, so you may as well do all that you can do for yourself. (Again, we are selfish, right?)
To put this in perspective, the story in this lesson took place when the Israelites in the wilderness. God had brought them out of slavery to Egypt and they were on a journey to the Promised Land. This journey didn't end up going as well as it could have, due to massive disobedience to God in the wilderness. Even so, He had been with them in so many tangible ways that they couldn't simply believe everything was a fluke. God had chosen Moses to be the leader of the people and though he had some misgivings about himself at the start, Moses became the leader. Although the people were hesitant to follow Moses at first, several events happened and the Israelites certainly desired that Moses become their mediator with God. In Exodus 20:18-19, after the giving of the 10 Commandments, we read "When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."" It was pretty apparent that Moses was to considered the leader and they did not want to have to deal directly with God.
Moses' brother Aaron was the first High Priest, so he had a lot of responsibility too, but his primary purpose, as priest was to represent the people before God through the series of different types of sacrifices and other Tabernacle activities. However, God spoke through Moses. Moses' sister, Miriam, was the one who had seen Moses as a baby in a basket taken by the Egyptian princess, and was largely responsible for seeing to Moses' survival when he couldn't care for himself. In Exodus 15:20, Miriam was called the Prophetess and she was the leader of the Israelite women. It was obvious that the entire family (Moses, Aaron and Miriam) had large leadership roles. In many ways, you might think of them as the human braintrust of leadership, although God was really in charge.
In the previous chapter of Numbers, chapter 11, Moses was overtasked with all of the problems of the people (600,000 men and likely over 2 million total people), so he chose 70 elders from the people to help relieve this burden. While I cannot say this with certainty, I would have to imagine that both Aaron and Miriam became a little disgruntled with this decision. Their hold on the leadership reins seemed to be loosening, which may have been a precursor to their very critical spirit.
Their complaint seemed to be against his Cushite wife (some versions say Ethiopian). The thought is that she had a very dark complexion. We know that this is not Moses' first wife, Zipporah, who was a Midianite. We are not sure if she was back in Midian, dead, or what had happened to her for sure, but this is definitely another wife of Moses. For whatever reason, Miriam (and Aaron) didn't like her. There are several possibilities about why they were upset. It could be that Moses' wife was foreign and that was seen as a bad thing for Moses. Maybe she had begun to assert herself as a self proclaimed leader of the women, which would have riled Miriam. It could be that the appointment of 70 elders had them on edge. As the High Priest, Aaron had the Urim and Thummin (which may be thought of as sort of like God's Magic 8 Ball), which was used to get God's answer to decisions. Perhaps he felt threatened as well.
Whatever the problem was, I would imagine that it was not one single thing that made them complain. Isn't this much like us? It may have been that the one issue, Moses' relationship to his wife led to another issue, unsure leadership position. When we decide we don't like one thing about somebody, it is easier and easier to lead more and more things that we don't like. And when we start being critical like that, the reasons we say we are upset may seem more and more insane.
One thing is quite telling. We don't read that Moses heard any of this criticism against himself or his wife, but the Lord heard it. Perhaps it was best that Moses didn't hear this. If he had, what might Moses have done? He may have confronted the others and it may have led to further issues. When you find that you have to defend yourself and you take that task upon yourself, you can make things much worse. When you are able to let God defend you, it bothers you less. I do know that there is a fine line to be walked here. For example, in an abusive relationship, there comes a time where something has to be done. Certainly, the Lord sees all and hears all, but there are some situations in which something has to be done. Realize that each passage in Scripture gives us a principle that is true, but there are situations where an extreme case may require action to be taken.
The Bible is truly an amazing book. There is literally no way that it could have been put together without divine guidance. The fact that it was written by so many different people who didn't know each other and quite frankly, didn't even know others were writing, and then it still fits so cleanly together, without contradicting each other. There is no other work of man that can hold a candle to the Bible. It can change lives. It can draw men and women to God. Even though we are all prone to failure and even though we are far from perfect (as were all of the writers), we have the word of God that has stood the test of time.
So, I believe that we would have to agree that Moses was quite the humble guy. Humility can be seen in a person, and people can know of a person's humility. But, to have us know about the humility of Moses, I suppose he had to write it down. Being humble might have meant that he had no desire to 'lord' over everyone else as a leader, and the complaints against him were altogether unwarranted.
This occurred after the Tabernacle had been built, so they were all summoned to the Tabernacle. You would imagine that Aaron was very familiar with the Tabernacle, being the High Priest, so it probably didn't seem too out of line with normal circumstances.
Given the backstory, and the complaints against Moses, this reminds me more of a parent calling his or her children into their presence. Then, once there, an issue would be addressed. Often, when that happens, one or more of the kids would know exactly why they were summoned, while the other(s) may have no idea. We read that the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, which surely changed the mood of those who were there. He stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. While this may seem like a nit, notice that Aaron and Miriam were summoned, as opposed to Miriam and Aaron. Part of the problem occurred when Miriam and Aaron were critical of Moses. Certainly, at that time, Aaron should have been the one responsible, but he had allowed himself to be controlled by Miriam. Perhaps the Lord was making that point here.
Did Aaron and Miriam know what was coming? Often, when we feel convicted by God, we know exactly why we are convicted. Perhaps this was the case here, but we are not sure that they knew why they had been summoned. Too often, especially for those who are overly critical of others, it is way too easy to get lax with their words and say things critically of others and not even think about how it would be felt. If Miriam had facebook, surely she would have had a post that was critical of Moses. All of her facebook friends and followers might think Moses to be some power monger, who showed no desire to follow God. However, this was very far from the truth. Before we go any further, if you are on social media sites, such as facebook, Instagram or twitter, do you believe everything you read? Let us be very slow to believe things that are written, especially that are critical of other people. As Berkley and I heard in a sermon recently, many people will hide behind a computer screen and post things about others that they would never say to their face. However, note that God sees it all.
The Lord spoke and said that God had revealed Himself to prophets in visions and dreams. These dreams must be more meaningful than the dreams you and I have. If you're like me, you might wake up in the middle of night, immersed in what you've been dreaming and then once you fully wake up, you have no idea what you dreamed other than that you dreamed something. Once, when I was under some tremendous work stress, I had dreams about a specific problem over and over. I had a bright idea, to write down what I dreamed, when I woke up and then act on it. Perhaps there was some wisdom in that dream that God imparted to me, but once I could actually read what I wrote and tried to act on what I thought I read, I found that it was, sigh, only a dream. There are many times in Scripture when God spoke in dreams and usually when it happened, there had to be an interpreter. The dreams had meanings that were beyond just the content of the dream. However, the point was that God spoke to prophets in these types of ways.
However, when God spoke of Moses, He called Moses 'my servant', and said that he was faithful in all the Lord's house. As opposed to dreams and visions that were received by the prophets, God spoke to Moses face to face, or directly. He didn't speak in riddles. Moses never had to go back to the side and wonder what God said and guess at what He meant. I'm sure at times that Moses didn't understand what God was going to do or how He was going to do it, but there was no question as to what the Lord told Moses. The Lord continued to say that Moses sees the form of the Lord. I had heard someone once say that they had thought of this as being like when someone is speaking anonymously on TV. Their profile or a grayed out figure can be seen, as opposed to a clear view of the person.
After giving this information to Miriam and Aaron, He questioned them directly asking, "Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" God made it clear to them that when they were speaking about the Lord's servant, they were speaking against the Lord. Who among us would dare to speak against the Lord? Berkley and I have watched shows in which an actor directly speaks against God, and it more or less gives you the chills, and we look at each other, as if what was said was a really, really bad thing to say (and it was).
What does this say to us? If we speak against the Lord's servant, is this only applicable to being critical of pastors and ministers? How often are we critical about our pastors? It may not be Monday Morning Quarterbacking, but maybe it is Monday Morning Sermoning. Clearly, we should not have a critical spirit against our leaders, but I believe it is broader than that. Through a relationship with Christ, we all are children of God. When we are overly critical of any other believer, I believe we are somehow calling out the character of God Himself. Certainly, there are times that people need to be questioned, if what they are doing is clearly wrong or harmful. However, I believe that often we find ourselves going way beyond questioning a specific thing and becoming critical of people in general. This is something we should at least consider. Who comes to mind when you think of who you have been critical of?
We read in verse 9 that the anger of the Lord was aroused. He did not take what was said about His servant lightly. The Lord's anger was aroused and He left. It was probably a good thing that He left, as we know that the righteous anger of the Lord is not something to be toyed with. I like the word 'smote', I guess when I think of what God did to many who were against Him in the Old Testament. If the Lord had stuck around, in His anger, Miriam and Aaron would likely smote.
It was also quite telling that the Scripture said that her skin became as white as snow. Do you remember some of the prejudice that she had spoken against Moses' wife? One of the things that she apparently didn't like was the way that she looked, as she was so dark. It was as if God was making her as much unlike Moses' wife by making her skin snow white, which was stressing the extent of her own prejudice.
Seeing his sister's skin disease, Aaron turned to Moses and said, "Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed." Aaron realized the seriousness of their sin and was now begging Moses, not the Lord, to heal her. Moses saw the genuine concern and cried out to the Lord, "Please, God, heal her!" We can understand that Moses loved his siblings, but you would have to think that he was not very pleased that they had talked so badly about him that the Lord had to intervene. If you were Moses, what would you do? Would you ask God to heal her? Or, might you ask God to heal her 'tomorrow' or 'next week' or 'at some time in the future'? The human side of us tends to want people to pay, but Moses cared for his sister.
This situation didn't impact only Miriam. It also impacted the whole community. She was, indeed a leader, even if she wanted to be a bigger leader. They were unable to continue to do whatever they were doing until she was back. We read that they were not able to move on till she was brought back. Her critical spirit impacted the schedule.
Are you a Miriam? Are you a 'leader' of others that are critically speaking against another person (or people)? Are you looking for any reason to talk bad about them? While a person who is the leader of being critical can sometimes draw a crowd, eventually consistent criticism will begin to harm those who are following, as well as the leader. Miriam ended up being confronted by God, and was made to pay for the words that she so carelessly threw around, bringing damage on her brother. Are you waiting to be confronted by God? Do you really want that? If God is convicting you right now of things that you have been saying against another person, you have the opportunity to make amends and to change. Are you willing to do that?
Are you an Aaron? Have you found yourself following the crowd and being part of a group that is overly critical of others? Aaron showed that he wasn't exactly the leader that he might want to be, as he was controlled by the crowd too often. Perhaps you need to take this as a cue to step back from the group. Maybe Miriam would have behaved differently, if Aaron would have cautioned her from speaking out. Sometimes, we think our words won't have an impact on slowing down one who is consistently badmouthing others, but until we have tried to confront them, would we ever know? If Aaron knew that this would lead to Miriam's leprosy, don't you think he would tried to say something? Often, we see people so carelessly badmouthing others and we just sit idly by, assuming that they will stop or someone else will step in. Perhaps you might be that one?
Are you a Moses? I'm not saying you're the most humble person in the world - there can only be one of those, right? Perhaps you have been trying to do the right thing and others have been speaking against you, perhaps even more than you even know. We know that God will take care of others, but there may come a time when you need to take a stand and say enough is enough. Don't let yourself be pulled down to attacking your attackers, which only leads to more problems. If you need to address things, try and do so without being overly critical of others.
Personally, I have been one to not really be too confrontational about things said about me. And, I try to make sure that I watch what I say about others. Perhaps you can relate. Your hope is that you live your life in a way that tries to bring honor to God, even though we all are prone to sin and will make mistakes along the way. I had always thought that people would be able to see who I am and would understand that things that may be said were not true. However, I have found that when you allow things to be said over and over and for them to be repeated and so forth, there will be people that never even know you that may believe what they see. This problem is exasperated by social media and things can be said or shared that are beyond your control. We would all do well to keep any critical attitudes we have to ourselves and to not make a situation worse by airing them publicly. In some cases, I believe we need to watch out for one another and confront those who intentionally try and attack others publicly. Yes, God sees them, but neither I nor you would like to have people think about us in one way based on what someone else has posted online. Consider how you can help, without making the issue worse.
What would change if we were not so critical of others? I believe we are called to realize that God's children are God's children. When we criticize the child, we are criticizing the parent. Is that really what we want to be doing? Do we want to be critical of God? There are times when we cannot understand God, but we know from Scripture that it is not a good thing for the created to be critical of the Creator.
I believe that there is a principle here that says that all of our relationships would be better if we were less critical of one another. I know in the back of some people's minds, they know that it would be better if they were not so critical, but they continue to see thing after thing that is done wrong. Criticism begets criticism, and it only grows. What would happen if you were deliberate and mindful to not be critical of others for one day, one week or longer? What might change in your job, in your family, in your neighborhood, or wherever you are? Are you willing to give it a try?
God is able to redeem you from a critical spirit. But, you must be willing to confess that you have been critical and if you have been bad mouthing others, perhaps you need to ask for their forgiveness. Some seem as if they want to hang on their critical spirit, because they have learned to use it as a weapon. If we really want to draw closer to God, we must put down these weapons that harm and, even when warranted, to not cause more damage. If you have offended someone else, take the steps to ask for their forgiveness and if you have done so publicly, take the steps to clear their name.