Does God still love me, despite my past? Can I really experience a personal relationship with him? Why do my sinful desires keep tripping me up? Numbers 12 has some fascinating metaphors that will help us understand our relationship with the Lord.
God’s unconditional love for all people.
In this chapter, we hear a puzzling piece of news: Moses has married a Cushite woman. Why did he marry her? Is his current wife dead? Did he have more than one wife, like Jacob? Did he marry her out of greed? The Bible doesn’t tell us, so we have no way of knowing.
We also are left wondering why Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses because of this (Numbers 12:1). Verse one says that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because he married a Cushite woman. But in verse 2, what they really said was this: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (ESV)
Is this really what they wanted to say? Why didn’t they just come out and say it directly: “Why did Moses marry a Cushite woman”? Biblical scholars generally believe that the Cushites are black people, based on Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Cushite change his skin?” (CSB) Psalm 68:31 also says, “Nobles shall come from Egypt; Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God.” (ESV) Stepbible.org explains that Cush is in the area of modern-day Ethiopia, so the word “Cushite” means “black.”
When we are dissatisfied with people, we often fail to say the real reason for our dissatisfaction. Instead, we find some of their shortcomings or mistakes to blame. This seems to be human nature.
Why did Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses saying, “God did not speak only through Moses,” just because Moses married a Cushite woman? The essence here is the rebellion of Miriam and Aaron – to challenge Moses’ leadership. As a result, God punished Miriam with leprosy. What is the spiritual meaning of this story?
A lady who was leading our Bible Study asked these questions. I prayed for God’s help, and suddenly I got an inspiration in the Spirit. This inspiration came in the form of a question: “Think about where this black woman came from before coming to the wilderness.” Immediately, I was inspired. I felt that there was a close connection between this chapter and Numbers 11.
In Numbers 11:4 tells us, “Some foreigners among the Israelites had a strong craving for other kinds of food. Even the Israelites started crying again and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!’” (God’s Word Translation. GTW) The complaints of the Israelites and the strong craving of the foreigners brought the discipline of fthe Lord. His fire even burned some outlying parts of the camp. That place is called Taberah, and the word means “burn,” because the fire of the Lord had burned among them (Numbers 11:3). In the end, the Lord struck some people with plague. That place was called “Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving” (ESV, Numbers 11:34). (“Kibroth-hattaavah” means “graves of craving.”)
The Cushite woman is a black woman. She probably was not an Israelite, but a part of the foreign crowd mentioned in Numbers 11. After God disciplined the cravings of the foreigners and the complaints of the Israelites, some foreigners and others may have repented. The became sincerely willing to join the journey of the Israelites. But it was not easy to assimilate with the Israelites.
Why were Miriam and Aaron dissatisfied with Moses’ marrying a Cushite woman? The Bible does not tell us whether Moses’ wife Zipporah was still alive, so we have no way of knowing. But from the perspective of God’s defense of Moses and His punishment of Miriam, Moses may be innocent in His eyes.
Is it possible that the reason why Miriam and Aaron were dissatisfied with Moses’ marrying a Cush woman was because of racial discrimination? If so, it shows the narrow-mindedness of Miriam and Aaron and the humility of Moses. If the Cushite woman represents the repentant foreigners, and her act of marrying Moses represents their willingness to unite with God’s chosen people, then rejecting her would be an act of profound arrogance.
God loves the Israelites, and he also loves those who live in Israel as sojourners. An obvious theme of the Old Testament is that the Lord is willing to be the father of orphans and to take care of the poor, weak, humble, widows, the elderly and the sojourners. God hates social injustice. Since Moses loves God, he also loves all those who are willing to choose God. If the Cushite woman is willing to marry Moses, and Moses humbly and willingly accepts her, their marriage creates a picture of God’s love.
In the United States today, interracial marriage is common. But in the 1970s, interracial marriages faced more significant discrimination and pressure. Moses’ interracial marriage must have faced intense opposition; even his own sister and brother were against him. Despite this struggle and pressure, Moses willingly accepted the Cushite woman. He was not racist, and he exhibited great humility.
We can compare Moses to the Spirit of God, and the Cushite woman to our sinful past. As Jeremiah 13:23 says, “Can the Cushite change his skin, or a leopard his spots? If so, you might be able to do what is good, you who are instructed in evil.” (CSB) Just as Moses was willing to accept the Cushite woman who loved him, God’s Spirit is willing to accept repentant sinners. Even if you have committed a heinous sin, Heavenly Father will not despise you as you come to him in repentance. He will not think you are unclean because of the blackness of your sin.
Even though God will never reject his people, despite their sinful past or racial background, many religious people can and do reject their fellow humans. People often despise others for fear of defiling themselves. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan vividly depicts religious and racial discrimination. The Jewish religious elite, the priest and the Levite, both avoided the half-dead man who had been beaten by the robbers. This half-dead man represents the scarred people who are dominated by sins in the world.
Only the Good Samaritan crossed cultural and religious lines to care for the wounded man. The Samaritan did not despise him. He gave oil and wine to the half-dead man, helped him heal, took him to the inn, and promised to pay those who cared for him. The Good Samaritan is a portrayal of the Lord Jesus and the Father himself; he heals us, welcomes us, and carries us home to his body, the church.
My seminary teacher, Tom Jones, told a fascinating story. He and his team often go to Brazil with Randy Clark to preach the gospel. Once, their team was preaching to some prostitutes on the street. One of the prostitutes came to know Christ and attended a church activity the group had recommended. But when the prostitute walked into that particular church, she was refused entry because she was improperly dressed. When she came back, her face was wet with tears. She felt very ashamed of the fact that the church people thought she was dirty.
After this incident, Tom Jones and their team continued to preach the gospel to these prostitutes. The next time they saw them, they specially prepared some lovely, fragrant roses. They gave each prostitute a rose, hugged them, and told them, “Your Heavenly Father loves you. In His eyes, you are as beautiful as this rose.”
I have heard Tom Jones tell this story countless times, but I am still very moved each time I hear it. In the summer of 2019, he told the story again at a summer intensive class at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. The principal of the seminary was so touched that he asked the staff members to buy a lot of roses. He passed them out to each person in attendance, and asked the giver to say to the recipient, “Heavenly Father loves you. In His eyes, you are as beautiful as this rose.” There was a lot of crying that day, and everyone was deeply moved.
If my guess is correct, God was greatly offended after Miriam and Aaron opposed Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman. God is certainly the God of the Israelites, but he is also the God of the Gentiles. God is not racist. God loves all people in the world because they all were created in His image.
Submitting to the Spirit.
Miriam and Aaron masked their racism by asking a question about Moses’ authority. Their inner rebellion and ambition were exposed, so the Lord came out to endorse Moses.
Why did God stand up for Moses at this time? We know that strong leadership is essential to a powerful army. In order to keep up the morale and win the battle, a leader should get rid of dissatisfaction in the army. It is the same here. Before leading the Israelites to fight with the enemy, God first unified the team under the leadership of Moses.
The Israelites made 42 different stops in the wilderness, representing the trials that the Israelites went through. The trials at each station have spiritual significance. God dealt with the cravings and complaints of the foreigners at Tabera (“burn”) and Kibroth-hattaavah (“graves of craving”). Here, he cleansed the congregation.
From Kibroth-hattaavah, the people of Israel journeyed to Hazeroth and lived there. “Hazeroth” means “settlement”. Next, the people left Hazeroth and encamped in Paran, which means “place of caverns.” (Numbers 12:16). At Hazeroth, God dealt with the internal rebellion of the leaders of Israel. Aaron called Moses “my lord” (vs. 11), and Moses was established as the absolute leader before moving on to Paran. In the very next chapter, the twelve spies began to scout out the Promised Land. It was important to establish leadership before God led the Israelites into battle with the enemy.
Metaphorically, this chapter represents the Christian journey. After receiving salvation, we leave the bondage of sin (Egypt). We pass through many trials in the wilderness of life. First, we’re tempted by fleshly desires, represented by the cravings of the multitude in Chapter 11. Next, God cleanses the rebellion and the hidden sins in our souls, represented by Aaron and Miriam’s rebellion. God is humble and gentle, like Moses was in this passage. But our souls often disobey the leading of God’s Spirit in our hearts, like Miriam and Aaron rebelled against Moses. Our flesh and soul often bully and even resist the Spirit in us (Galatians 5:17).
Rather than obeying Moses and Aaron, Miriam took the lead in rebelling against Moses. Miriam’s name is mentioned first, indicating that she was the ringleader. Aaron seems to have repented in the end, calling Moses “my lord” (Numbers 12:11). Miriam represents the flesh and the hidden sins inside our hearts. Just as she influenced Aaron to rebel against Moses, our flesh influences our soul to rebel against God’s Spirit.
God specifically asked the three of them to come to the tent of meeting. He came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and spoke to Aaron and Miriam. Aaron, as High Priest, should have been able to meet with God in the Holy of Holies in the tent of meeting. But because of his rebellion, he could only meet with God at the entrance of the tent.
Similarly, God punished Miriam by sending her outside the camp for seven days. She could only come in after being cleansed. The presence of God inhabited the tabernacle, and especially in the Holy of Holies. Not only could Miriam not enter the Holy of Holies, but she was even excluded from the sanctuary, the outer court, and the entire camp of Israel.
This story points to the New Testament reality that sin breaks our fellowship with God. Even though we don’t lose eternal life when we sin, we forfeit our sense of peace and rest in him. We must repent and experience God’s cleansing before we can re-enter His presence and rest.
The story of Aaron and Miriam can teach us an important lesson about our flesh and our relationship with Christ. After coming to Christ in salvation, our old man is crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). The person living inside is no longer me, but Christ. Just like Miriam and Aaron prevented Moses from ruling, our old life prevents the new life in Christ to rule in our souls. God disciplines us, just like he disciplined Aaron and Miriam. He allows the old life in our soul to be crucified so the new life can live in us. In this way, we can win the battle against the enemy.
Experiencing the Presence of God.
As we repent of our sins and re-enter his presence, we can experience a personal relationship with God, like Moses did. God gives an astounding description of his relationship with Moses: “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (ESV, Numbers 12:6-8).
Did Moses see God with his own eyes? In Exodus, God said that Moses could not see God’s face, or he would die. God placed him in a cleft of the rock and covered him with His hands so that Moses could only see His back. In this verse, the Bible states that Moses spoke with God face to face and saw his image. Are these two verses contradictory?
The same dichotomy appears in the New Testament. The apostle John said, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (ESV, John 1:18). But the Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (ESV, Matthew 5:8).
Regardless of whether people can see God with the naked eye, I believe people can meet God in the Spirit. Hebrews 4:16 tells us that because of Jesus’ blood, we can come to God’s throne of grace without fear and meet with Him. Ephesians 2:18 also tells us that we have access in one Spirit to the Father through Him. As we conquer the flesh, yield to the Spirit of God, and know his unconditional love for us, we will enter personally into the warm, tender embrace of our Father.