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Bible Study III:

God's Anger toward the Israelites' Leadership

by Chung, Sook Ja

 

Numbers 12: 1-16

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, "Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?" And the LORD heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. Suddenly the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting." So the three of them came out. Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, "Hear my words:

When there are prophets among you,
I the LORD make myself known
     to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
With him I speak face to face--
     clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the
     LORD.

Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed.

When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. Then Aaron said to Moses, "Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother's womb." And Moses cried to the LORD, "O God, please heal her." 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 out of the camp for seven days, and after that she may be brought in again." So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days, and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again. After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

1. In the beginning

Recently, I visited Sri Lanka twice and experienced both God's blessing and God's anger at the same time in the land of Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, there are beautiful natural resources for the fullness of Sri Lankan people's lives: fishes in the sea, fruits on the trees, medicines in the mountains, fertilizers in the ground, trees with green leaves and waters over the field. --- These are God's blessings given to the people of Sri Lanka. Comparing to Korea they are really blessed because they can have natural food anytime to survive.

However, people in Sri Lanka are crying for their human rights and for their daily foods because the country was colonized by England for a long time. Even after the independence of the country those lands and those fruits are still being monopolized by a few powerful leaders. And women and children are still being used for labor power of the former English companies. Above all, there is also fighting between two Sri Lankan ethnic groups for grasping leadership. People who are living in the area of conflict are suffering by loosing their lands, they are deprived of their freedom of moving around in their own country. Then, the Phosphate mine in the middle part of Sri Lanka is sold to a U.S. company for the purpose of establishing a chemical fertilizer factory and that people living in the area are being threatened to be evacuated from their ancestors' lands which were not legitimized even though they had been living there for many years.

God is angry at these realities which exist not only in Sri Lanka but also in all over the South and South East Asia. However, unfortunately some Korean Christian churches strongly believe that the people in South and South East Asia have to be converted from their original religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism into Christianity and that they send missionaries to them. Is God angry at their religious lives because they belong to other religious faiths? No, it is not. God is angry at the structural powers that oppress people. What kind of message of God can be given to these crying people and also to the people who cause such agony by having the power politically, economically and religiously? Let's look at, from the Bible, what the real anger of God is. There are many stories in the Old Testament, such as the Books of Prophets, especially the Book of Amos that tell about God's anger. However, I selected Numbers 12: 1-16 as the text for this bible study.

2. Partnership Experienced in the Oppressed

It is very difficult for Christian women to understand the twelfth chapter of Numbers because this is the story of God's punishment that appeared physically only to a woman leader, Miriam. If we read this text without any suspicion[13] we have to accept the title of this chapter "Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses." However, feminist interpretation of this text can not follow this title and that it searches for a new interpretation. We need to start with the understanding of the context of this story.

Context

The Israelites were oppressed for a long time under the Egyptian authorities which had established a high patriarchal hierarchy. Because of such oppression they had been crying out to God for help, and God heard their groaning and saw their plight (Exod. 2: 24-25). God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam for their liberation from slavery (Micah 6: 4). God was with them and was abiding in them in the midst of their suffering (Exod. 6: 2-7). This 'God's partnership'[14] with those suffering people had started in the struggle under the oppression. God surely was on the side of the oppressed., Feminist theology finds a new partnership between God and human beings in the process of God's liberation. God cannot liberate human beings without people's decision to liberate themselves and human beings cannot be liberated from the oppression without believing in God. On the process of the Israelites liberation from Egypt there are many beautiful stories of practicing partnership in the society of the oppressed. In the story of Moses' birth, the mother and sister, midwives, and even the daughter of the oppressor came to side with the oppressed in the life of a baby (Exod. 1: 15-2: 10). The partnership between Moses and Aaron could finally make Pharaoh decide that the Israelites should go free (Exod. 6: 26-27; 7: 8, 19; 8: 25; 9: 8; 12: 1, etc.). The partnership between men and women of the Israelites helping each other to prepare the departure (Exod. 12: 1-20) could make them cross the Red sea and dance together as liberated ones (Exod. 15: 19-21). They were together to dream of freedom, of equal community, of new social structure, and of practicing partnership in leadership. The 'Partnership Leadership' was importantly practiced in the Exodus event.

However, this beautiful deliverance with partnership was not easy to be continued because they could not go into the promised land right a way because they had to stay in the wilderness for 40 years (Deut. 1: 3). They had to experience the lack of water and food; the threat of disease; the invasion of surrounding tribes; the conflict among people; the conflict in relationships between men and women, and so on. Moses had to go up to Sinai to pray and to get God's commandment to control these people in the name of God. Aaron and Miriam were busy in solving all the problems that occurred in the community. When Moses was absent, Aaron had to make a symbol of God - a golden calf - to make people follow. Miriam had to help the sick people (Numbers 5: 1-4; 11: 32-33). Their leaderships came to the end of controlling the Israelites and they had to select seventy elders to work together. Without an understanding of these contexts of 'partnership leadership,' one will be confused to understand this text of Number 12: 1-16.

3. The Story of Broken Partnership

The 'Creation Story' and the 'Exodus Story' were God's actions for partnership with human beings and with one another. However, the partnership of human beings, especially that of woman and man, was broken at the beginning of the creation and it changed into conflict and confrontation (Genesis chs.3-4). We are told that this was the result of human beings' disobedience to God. That is, disobedience from making a harmonious society, disobedience from creating an equal society, and disobedience from practicing partnership. And the whole world became the chaos of broken partnership. There are several examples of broken partnerships in the bible - the story of Cain and Abel tells that the result of human confrontation is death (Gen. 4: 1-16); the story of Noah's Ark expresses the end of the broken relationship between human beings and nature (Gen. 7: 17-24); the story of the tower of the Babel explains the breaking down of partnership between human beings, culture with language, (Gen. 11: 1-9). and the climax of this broken partnership is the Exodus event (Exod. ch. 1; 5: 10-21). Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament theologian, says that human beings become slaves through the process of first having their goods and money taken, then having their cattle and land taken, and at last having their own bodies taken.[15] The Israelites in Egypt were the great sacrifice of this slavery culture of broken partnership in human society.

Therefore, God delivered the slaves from Egypt for creating new community of practicing partnership. When they were undergoing suffering they earnestly practiced partnership with God and also within people. However, they faced at the crisis of this partnership again in themselves when the lives in the wilderness continued longer. They noticed the strong leadership of surrounding tribes having strong military power and they also wanted to be a strong community to settle down at one place. So people wanted to make Moses as a strong leader to protect them all the time. This was a dangerous sign for the new community to set a 'solo leader,' who could be their king or god. Anyway this danger had started in the wilderness. Moses organized his people to control as a hierarchical structure to survive in the wilderness (Num. 1: 4-16), and he gradually took a special leader's position among the Israelites (Num. 12: 6-8). All prayers were led by Moses (Num. 12: 11-14; cf. 12: 2) and the people's devotion was so strong that people became totally dependent on him to solve all problems and they complained when he did not (Num. 14: 1-10).

Therefore, Aaron and Miriam tried to avoid the hierarchical structure that set Moses as the top leader over them. However, there was no credit given to them rather they were punished because they protested against Moses. Because of this atmosphere there was another danger sneaking into the community. The threat was the division among the three leaders. The resulting crisis of this broken partnership among the three leaders caused God's anger. If their partnership had been broken here, the God's dream of a new community could not have been accomplished even in a short time. Therefore God was angry at them. We need to look at carefully that God was angry at all three of them.

4. The Real Meaning of God's Anger

The Writer of the Book of Numbers explains two reasons of Miriam and Aaron's criticism against Moses, about which God was angry. One reason is as the bible tells, "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman)." Here are mysteries of this marriage. There are no more explanations about why Moses needed to marry her, and why his partners protested him. So we have to understand of this marriage from other texts. According to Genesis 24: 3-4 and John 4: 9, we understand that the Israelites' marriage was very important to keep their bloodlines and they look down the people who are married to other races. From this understanding, Miriam and Aaron's criticism toward Moses had to be accepted. This means that Miriam and Aaron's criticism actually happened to look down Moses' leadership, but the bible writer or editor put the second reason together as "and they said, 'Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?' And the Lord heard it." This explanation leads the reader understand that these two leaders' protest was caused by jealousy on Moses' leadership. Anyway, this is interesting that the text testifies that their voices were heard by God. And this raising of voices produced God's anger because Moses was accepted by God as a very humble man (Num. 12: 3).

Let's think about why Moses was married to a Cushite woman. Was it because he loved her? Or because he had already lost his Israelite's spirit by becoming an adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter? The position and responsibility of Moses in the wilderness might not have allowed him to make a love affair, I suppose. And he had a strong identity of an Israelite as he manifested by killing an Egyptian man who was beating an Israelite (Exod. 2: 11-15). So, these reasons are not acceptable. Then, there is a reason to think about in relation to his leadership's monopolization. We already know that the oppressed people surrounding the Israelites were joined to this liberation community (Joshua 6: 22-25). From this perspective we can say there were a lot of Cushite people joined to this community. And Moses needed to control them too, so he used his marriage as a strategy to control all the Cushites. This means that Moses was already taking a strong 'solo leadership' that was not accepted by the other two leaders.

Then, this marriage event can easily be related to the next reason of their complaint, which is connected to the descending of God's spirits. Descending God's spirits explain equality and partnership between people and leaders of the Israelites. However, Numbers 11: 24-30 tells that the hierarchical structure and privileged classes had been started by establishing 70 Elders' class which was the sign of exclusion of women leaders. There was no mention that the elders were all male, but the bible already excluded women as the family members but included in possessions with men's cattle (Ex. 20: 17). However, Miriam was an important leader as she was called "the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister" in Exodus 15: 20. Therefore, this selection of elders brought a lot of problems in the new community and that Miriam and Aaron had to raise the issue to Moses.

Therefore, God was angry at Moses, Aaron and Miriam (12: 4). God was angry at the crisis moment of this broken partnership. God was angry at the attitudes of all three leaders viz., Moses' tendency of becoming a solo leader; Aaron's unclear mediating leadership and Miriam's strong protesting leadership from the bottom. This was a real crisis of destroying God's as well as people's dream to establish an equal community through partnership leadership. Then, how did Miriam become the target of punishment by God? From the feminist perspective, we can tell that Miriam was discriminated against by patriarchy. Phyllis Trible says, "the text would seem to set male against female, native against foreigner, white against black, power against powerless".[16] Anyway according to the text, she met God directly as Eve, even though both of them were punished by God (Num. 12: 4; Gen. 3: 13).

Then, what about the disease? I believe that the disease was already in Miriam's body through her service to the sick people who were dying in the worst conditions of the wilderness. A Korean woman doctor said that leprosy does not come suddenly, but would take time to break over one's body. When a person experiences some shock, the disease would develop quickly. As this doctor said, in the three of them Miriam was shocked than other two leaders when they heard God's voice, because she was the one who really followed God's will to start this new work with the oppressed. She was the one who danced with other women at the side of the Red sea because they were the ones who deeply thanked God for the Egyptian soldiers' death (Exod. 15: 18-21).

The important message of this story tells that the crisis in the partnership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam was overcome because of Miriam's sickness. Her disease helped to reconcile them to enable them finish their responsibilities and also showed how much important their partnership leadership was. They came back to partnership leadership and continued their journey to the promised land. One interpreter explains that Miriam received the greater punishment because Miriam manipulated the criticism.[17] If we accept this interpretation, we understand that Miriam was a strong active leader to practice partnership with those male leaders. We have to read how much Miriam was important for the people through the next explanation, "So Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days; and the people did not set out on the march until Miriam had been brought in again" (Num. 12: 15).

Miriam was a leader who was chosen to be followed by the people of Israelites. She lived with her people who suffered in Egypt and in the wilderness. Under the strong watch of the Egyptian soldiers, the Israelites had to make bread without yeast and to kill a sheep to be able to paint the blood around the door so as to escape the death of their first-born. Miriam would be the leader of this kind of unseen work for deliverance because Moses and Aaron were busy talking to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Miriam was a leader, prophet, and servant to make the people understand, teach and prepare. Miriam was the people who were sick and set out from the camp in the wilderness bringing them food and caring them with love. She was the one who helped other women with child birth. She had to make celebration of marriage for young couples. She, not only just helped them physically but also gave hope of life even though they were in the wilderness. They dreamed to go into the promised land of God. She was their spiritual leader as well. Therefore, they waited for her until she could come to the camp again. All of these three leaders never experienced the promised land, but they were remembered in the hearts of the Israelites as the practitioners of partnership leadership.

5. Conclusion

The beautiful partnership of three leaders made success of delivering Israel from Egypt, preparing for new community making in the wilderness. Their partnership leadership taught the people of Israelites to envision a new community of equality, of freedom, of justice, of love and of peace. This is the message to us too.

We, Asians, are in the spiritual and structural wilderness today. We need to create this partnership leadership in Asian politically, economically and multi-religiously divided situations under the structure of globalization. We have a lot of problems to overcome to reach to the promised land which is declared by Jesus as the Community of God. Jesus practiced partnership with all the people whom he met and strengthened their faiths. He avoided becoming a solo leader rather he became a sinner to be punished.

We are the followers of Jesus and also followers of Old Testament leaders who had lived as partnership examiners. We, today, will find this partnership leaderships in the small groups who are struggling with the oppressed, the discriminated against, and the isolated. These experiences will be shared with everybody for the fullness of life for all.

Notes:

13. Look at the hermeneutics of "suspicion". Elisabeth S Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1984)

14. Letty M Russell, Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective - a Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974); The Future of Partnership (Phil.: Westminster, 1979); Becoming Human (Phil.: Westminster, 1982)

15. Walter Brueggemann, Hope Within History, (Atlanta: John Knox press, 1987)

16. Phyllis trible, "Bringing Miriam out of the shadows," Bible Review, (February, 1989).

17. Carol L Meyers, "the Roots of Restrictions: Women in Early Israel," The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics, ed., Norman K. Gottwald, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983).

 

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