Remember Miriam: An Example To Follow And A Warning To Heed (Part 2)
By Nancy Leigh DeMoss
Edited from a message given to women at the Heart-Cry for Revival conference April 2008 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.A. Used by permission.
In Part 1 of this message (printed in the December 2008 issue of Herald of His Coming) Miriam is commendable as a courageous young girl who helped save her baby brother Moses from the death sentence passed on Israelite baby boys by Pharaoh (Ex. 2:1-9). She is next pictured in Scripture as a ninety-year-old leader of the Israelite women, joyfully leading them in praise for God’s miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea (Ex. 15:20-21). About a year later, Miriam is seen in an angry outburst objecting to Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman and to his position as God’s chosen leader of the Israelites (Num. 12:1-2). Miriam had been gifted of God as a prophetess but was apparently discontented with her God-given role. She drew Aaron in also in resentment of Moses’ position of prestige and prominence. Her earlier spirit of humility and submission has given way to contention and rebellion: "And they [Miriam and Aaron] said, ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?’" (Num. 12:2).
In Numbers 12:3 we see how Moses responds to the attack of Miriam and Aaron against his marriage and leadership: "Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth." What a contrast to Miriam! When Miriam is speaking against Moses, she is anything but meek. But Moses is meek, and the evidence of Moses’ humility in this passage is that you never see him defending himself against the attack. He doesn’t retaliate. There is no evidence in this passage of Moses responding verbally at all except later in the passage to pray for Miriam. He lets God defend him, and God does defend him.
We see God’s response in verse two: "And the Lord heard it." God took this seriously. He calls Miriam and Aaron to give account because ultimately their issue was not with Moses, but their issue was with God. We read in verses four through nine: "And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, ‘Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.’ And the three of them came out. And 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: 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?’" So God defends Moses; he does not have to defend himself.
There were some pretty serious consequences that followed beginning in verse nine: "And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them [Aaron and Miriam], and He departed." Think about this: the sin of one woman, the mouth, the disloyalty, the pride, the envy and jealousy, the competitive, contentious spirit, the gossip of one woman can cause the presence of God to leave!
"When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous" (v. 10). God is chastening with a horrible skin disease. He is disciplining her life. The leprosy was a physical picture of the spiritual impact of her words. It reminds one of the passage in James 3:6 that says, "The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body." The leprosy showed what had happened to her. Miriam’s whole body was defiled because of the misuse of that little member, the tongue, the "world of iniquity."
"And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’ And Moses cried to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her – please’" (Num. 12:11-13). The first words that come out of Moses’ mouth are intercession. "But the Lord said to Moses, ‘If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.’ So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days" (vv. 14-15). The ceremonial law required that a person who was diseased with a disease like leprosy would remain outside the camp for a minimum of seven days (see Num. 5:2-3; Lev. 13:3-4).
You see here a picture of what sin does, the isolation that it causes. "He shall live alone" (Lev. 13:46), isolated from the rest of the community, outside the camp, separated from the community and more importantly, separated from the presence of God. God said she shall be shamed seven days. Miriam had publicly insulted and dishonored God’s servant Moses, and God said as a consequence, that she will be publicly humiliated and shamed. That public sin required public rebuke. The New Testament tells us that leaders, elders who sin and refuse to repent, are to be rebuked publicly so that all may fear God (see 1 Tim. 5:19-20).
God could have immediately restored Miriam, but He chose not to. I think of those seven days outside the camp as being a "timeout" for Miriam, to think about what she had done. It was a time to think about the seriousness of her sin and to repent, time to let the conviction sink in, and to turn her heart. That’s the goal of God’s chastening in our lives, and the goal of church discipline, to restore the sinner and to warn others. Don’t you think both of those took place in this instance?
But you notice that in the meantime progress of the whole community was disrupted. They had to wait for Miriam. "…and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again. After that the people set out from Hazeroth…" (Num. 12:15-16). During the delay of seven days it gave the people, too, time to think about the seriousness of sin. What great influence our lives as leaders has on others and the influence when we sin! The consequences of our sins do not affect only us, but they affect others as well.
This has been a sobering passage for me as I am thinking about becoming an older woman. If I go down, I take others down with me. I find myself being more serious in praying, "O God, guard my heart! Keep me from sin. Deliver me from the evil one and from myself. Let me not dishonor You. Do not let my life become something that causes the community of faith to stumble and to be held up in their spiritual progress."
God’s Mercy Displayed
You see the great mercy of God in this passage. First of all, Miriam did not die. The people who sinned in the previous chapter (Num. 11) died for their sin. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). It is the mercy of God that lets Miriam live, and it is the mercy of God that lets us live after we despise His grace in our lives. Moses interceded for Miriam, and God in response to that prayer chose to heal her.
In Leviticus fourteen God gave to His people some laws that had to be followed in the case of a person having leprosy being restored or cleansed from leprosy. God wrote them for all of us to see the process needed as a result of our sin, and to see that cleansing and restoration involve a process that involves a blood sacrifice. "The priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water. He shall take the live bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. And he shall sprinkle it [the blood] seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field" (Lev. 14:4-7).
We have here a picture of the cross, the Gospel in the Old Testament. The blood sacrifice is the picture of Christ, as that one bird that was killed. Then the live bird was dipped in the blood of the bird that had been killed and was set free to fly. This was necessary for the cleansing of the leper. Christ was killed for our sin so that we could be cleansed of sin and go free. It is a powerful object lesson on holiness. Sin separates and contaminates us. God takes sin seriously; it is not to be treated lightly. It requires a blood sacrifice and thorough washing to be restored to fellowship with God and with His people. Our forgiveness required the death of God’s Son Jesus, an innocent substitute to take our place.
We see God’s mercy when it says, "Then he [the priest] shall pronounce him clean." Forgiveness was possible for Miriam through the intercession of a believer. Christ is our intercessor. Through the shed blood of that bird, picturing the shed blood of Jesus Christ our Savior, Miriam was able to be cleansed, forgiven to go free. That is the mercy of God. Not only was she forgiven but she was brought back to the camp, restored to fellowship. God is a redeeming, restoring God! We see His mercy here as she is able to be returned to the covenant community.
Miriam is never mentioned again in the Scripture except for one verse in Numbers twenty, one sentence that tells us that she died. It was nearly forty years later she died, one year to the day before the Israelites crossed over the Jordan into Canaan. So the last words that we ever hear from Miriam’s mouth were words of pride, contention, envy, jealousy. What if the words you spoke most recently to your husband, to your children, to your parents, were the last words that you would ever speak? I want to live in such a way that my last recorded words can be words that bring glory to God. If that is going to be true, I need to make sure that every word I speak is a word that will bring glory to God.
What happened to Miriam since she lived almost forty years longer after the leprosy? Her sin was serious and it is possible that after this account she was sidelined by God for the last years of her life and that God didn’t use her again. That can happen. The Apostle Paul was concerned that at some point he would be rendered disqualified from the race (see 1 Cor. 9:24-27). It was not that he would lose his salvation, but that God would put him on a shelf and not use him again. That’s a possible consequence not to be taken lightly.
I think it is likely that the chastening in Miriam’s life had the desired effect. I’m confident that she would not have been healed if she would not have had a repentant heart. I would like to think that what happened was that Miriam served the Lord and Moses and the people of Israel with a humble, quiet spirit for the rest of her life, taking God’s place for her, with a spirit of meekness, a spirit of submission, content to fulfill God’s role for her life and to serve without the limelight.
Remembering What God Did to Miriam
I suggest two ways to make this passage personal. Number one, "Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way as you came out of Egypt" (Deut. 24:9). Does that remind you of a woman that Jesus talked about that we are supposed to remember? "Remember Lot’s wife" (Luke 17:32). Both these women experienced consequences of unbelief and rebellion.
What are we supposed to remember about what God did to Miriam? First of all, we can go from a spiritual high – Exodus 15, worshiping and praising the Lord – to a spiritual low – Numbers 12 – in a very short period of time. There is approximately one year between these two accounts. If we are not dealing with "the little foxes" (Song 2:15), the little things, they will grow and become big things, and ultimately we may find ourselves leading the rebellion as Miriam did. No one is immune from possible failure, regardless of how old you are, how long you’ve been serving the Lord, or what your position is. In fact, those things can make us more vulnerable because we begin to think too highly of ourselves. We think we can be the exception and this puts us in a position where it is easy to fall. Even great spiritual leaders can fall.
This story is a warning to those of us who are in positions of spiritual responsibility, discipling women, leading women’s ministries, being looked up to and respected as a pastor’s wife. Remember what God did to Miriam. Being a spiritual leader or having tenure and position in ministry do not make us an exception to God’s rules. Miriam couldn’t get away with it; neither can you or I. We easily deceive ourselves and justify our sin, but we can’t get away with it. It is also a warning to those of us who look up to leaders. Remember they have feet of clay. Do not put your trust in men. Put your trust in God!
We are reminded as we remember Miriam, of the evil, the great sin it is to speak out against a servant of God, to oppose, to tear down the person that God has put into a place of leadership. I’m much concerned about this as we’re challenging Christian women across the nation to take God’s place for their lives. I hear women expressing their concerns about ways the men are not living up to what they should be, and we could make a long list of failures. But God didn’t call us to do that. Those men are accountable to God. Now as a woman, there are respectful and godly ways to appeal to those who are in authority. There are appropriate and godly ways to bring to the light sin that needs to be addressed. But most of the things we are criticizing are not things that are necessarily sin. It is that we do not approve or agree, or it is not our way. It is pride that causes us to come up against those in leadership positions. We need to be the encouragers, those who affirm godly male leadership.
Responding to Attack
A second thing to remember is how to respond when you’re the one being attacked. Some of us may be in the position that Moses was in when he was attacked. The attacks are unprovoked and undeserved as was true in Moses’ case. And the attacks can come from unexpected sources. Miriam is a prophetess; Aaron is the high priest. They are Moses’ closest family members. If you think there was anyone who was going to stick with you, you would think it would be these.
Some of your husbands have experienced this as pastors. There may be a staff member that they hired and trusted, somebody that they looked up to, somebody that they respected, somebody who had helped them for years, and all of a sudden that person turns on them and does secret harm to them behind their back. It is not only hard for your husband to take it; it may be even harder for his wife to take it as she watches this happen to her husband. How do you respond when you or someone you love is attacked unfairly?
Do what Moses did. Respond in a spirit of meekness and humility. Let God fight your battles, and give God time to act. Let Him handle it in the way that He thinks is best. Keep your mouth from sinning. "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him" (Prov. 26:4). Matthew Henry said, "The more silent we are in our own cause the more is God engaged to plead it." Let God come to your defense. Remember what matters in this situation is not your reputation; it is not what happens to you. What matters is the glory of God. God is able to defend His own glory.
Then do what Moses did and pray for those who attacked you. Plead for God’s mercy, not His judgment. Mercy shall triumph over judgment. James 2:13 says, "Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy." Let God deal with them. Pray for mercy as Moses prayed for mercy for Miriam.
In your willingness to endure wrong doing, you may actually become an instrument of healing and restoration in the life of the wrong doer. Isn’t that what we read about in 1 Peter 2:23, that Jesus endured without retaliating, without reviling in return? He continued entrusting Himself to Him that judges righteously. As a result we who were straying like sheep have now been returned to the Shepherd and the Guardian of our souls. By our willingness to endure wrong doing we may become an instrument of the restoration and the healing of the one who has sinned.
What is God saying to you? Are there some seeds of Miriam’s rebellion in your own heart? Have you seen yourself living out some of Miriam’s actions? Maybe you have not to the extent of being as shrill or shrieking as she, but who would have thought Miriam could have become that way? When you see her in Exodus fifteen, can you imagine her as this person she becomes in Numbers twelve? We wouldn’t think that we could do that, but if we don’t pluck up by the root those seeds of pride and envy and rebellion, ultimately that’s where we may head. Or maybe God is speaking to you not only about remembering Miriam but about following in the steps of Moses and the steps of Christ as He endured suffering with the spirit of meekness and humility so others could be healed.