Bible Commentaries
Numbers 12

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-16

Claiming Equality

Numbers 12:0

The question which Miriam and Aaron put to one another is quite a proper one. They said, "Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?" The inquiry, standing within its own four corners, is one which might be legitimately and reverently propounded. But what question stands thus? Perhaps hardly any that can be put by human curiosity. The interrogation must be determined by the atmosphere surrounding it. The question would take its whole quality at the particular time from the tone of voice in which it was put. Everything depends upon tone. Herein is the weakness of all writing and of all representation of thought by visible symbols. We cannot put into letters our own spirit and purpose; the tone determines the quality, and the tone can never be reported. We are, therefore, driven, if we would form sound judgments upon events, to look at issues and results; and having looked at these, we are by so much qualified to return to the question and judge it as to its real intent. Many persons inquire, with a simplicity too simple to be genuine, whether there was any harm in the question which was put. In the written inquiry, certainly not; but in the spoken interrogation the tone was full of virulence and evil suggestion and unholy design. It will not do to write the question with pen and ink and to submit it to a stranger for judgment. The stranger knows nothing about it, and when it is submitted to him for judgment it is submitted with so finely-simulated an innocence that the man is already prepared to accord a generous judgment to the terms. God is judge. We read that "the Lord heard it." To hear it was everything. It was not reported to the Lord. We cannot report anything to him in the sense of extending his information. The terribleness of his being judge and the graciousness of his being judge, is to be found in the fact that he heard it balanced the tones, adjusted the emphasis, marked the vocal colouring, and interpreted the words by the speaker's tone and temper and attitude. The final judgment is with him who "heard" the cause during its process and during its consummation.

If the Lord did speak by Miriam and Aaron, what then? The Lord himself acknowledges that he speaks in different ways to different men. To some perhaps to most he comes in vision and in dream; things are heard as if they were spoken beyond the great mountain; they are echoes, hollow soundings, wanting in shape and directness, yet capable of interpretations that touch the very centres and springs of life, that make men wonder, that draw men up from flippancy and frivolity and littleness, and write upon vacant faces tokens of reverence and proofs that the inner vision is at the moment entranced by some unnameable and immeasurable revelation. To other men God speaks "apparently" that is, in broad and visible figure. He is quite near; it is as if friend were accosting friend, and if mouth were speaking to mouth, as if two interlocutors were mutually visible and speaking within hand-range of one another. There is nothing superstitious about this; it is the fact of to-day. This is written in the book that was published last week, and will be written in the book that is to be issued to-morrow. This is not a ghost story; this is not some little cloud brought from Oriental skies, never seen otherwhere, and never beheld since it was first looked upon thousands of years ago; this is solemn history, contemporaneous history history of which we ourselves form vital constituents. Take a book of science what do you find in that rational and philosophical bible? You find certain names put uppermost. The writer says it is given to but few men to be a Darwin or a Helmholtz they seem to sweep the whole horizon of knowledge. The Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone has said that it seemed to him as if Aristotle comprehended the entire register of the human mind. Why should not every boy that has caught his first fly, or cut in two his first worm, say, Hath not the Lord spoken unto me as well as unto Darwin, or Cuvier, or Buffon? who are they? But it does so happen that outside the Bible we have the Moses of science the chief man of letters, the prince of song. Take the history of music, and we find names set by themselves like insulated stars great planetary names. What would be thought of a person who has just learned the notes of music, saying, Hath not the Lord spoken unto me as well as unto Beethoven? He has; but he has not told you so much. There is a difference in kind; there is a difference in quality. We are all the Lord's children, but he hath spoken unto us in different ways and tones and measures; and to found upon this difference some charge or reproach, or to hurl against the chiefs of the world some envious questioning, is to go far to throw suspicion upon the assumption that the Lord has spoken to us at all. We must learn that all these differences are as certainly parts of the divine order as are the settings and movements of the stars. "One star differeth from another star in glory," yet no asteroid has ever been known to blame the planets because of their infinite largeness and their infinite lustre. Men must accept divine appointment. Every man must stand in the call wherewith he is called, and encourage a religious pride and sacred satisfaction with the position which he has been called to occupy. Light is thrown upon these ancient stories by reading them in the atmosphere of modern events. We have this twelfth chapter of Numbers, as to its broadest significance, enacted amongst us every day we live. There are great men in all lines and vocations, and there are men who might be great in modesty, if they would accept their position, and might turn their very modesty into genius, if they would acknowledge that their allotment is a determination of the hand of God.

"And... Miriam became leprous, white as snow." That is the fate of the sneerer in all times and in all lands. The sneerer is not a healthy man; though he be sleek in flesh and quite bright with a foxy brightness of eye, there is no real health in the man: for health is a question of the soul; it is the soul that lives. The sneerer is always shut out For a moment his sneer provokes a little titter, but the sneer has marked the man, and he will not be invited again. Society cannot do with so much bitterness. There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding; and the result is that the bitter cynic, who always tries to tear the clothes of the great man, knowing he cannot tear his character, is shut out of the camp, for no man wants him. What is wanted? Gentleness, tenderness, sympathy, appreciation, encouragement, these will always be welcome; these shall have the chief seat at the table; these shall return to the feast whenever they show any inclination to come; the father and the mother and the children down to the least, and the servants of the household yea, all, bid them loving welcome. But the critic is not wanted the sneerer is in the way; he closes the lips of eloquence, he turns away from him the purest cheek of child life; he is a blight like an east wind; and he never is permitted to repeat his visits in any family that respects its order, or cares for its most religious and heavenly progress. A heavy penalty was leprosy for sneering. It is impossible for any penalty to be too great for sneering. Sneering is of the devil; sneering is a trick of the Evil One. No man can sneer and pray; no man can sneer and bless: the benediction will not sit on lips that have been ploughed up by the iron of sneering. Blessed be God for such judgments. God thus keeps society tolerably pure. There are men standing outside to-day whom nobody wants to see, whom no child would run to meet, for whom no flower of the spring is plucked, simply because they are always challenging the supremacy of Moses, and thus obtruding their own insignificance, and bringing into derision faculties that might otherwise have attracted to themselves some trifling measure of respect.

We find this same law operating in all directions. There are books that say, Are not we inspired as well as the Bible? The answer is, Certainly you are. The Lord had spoken to Miriam and to Aaron as certainly as he had spoken to Moses, but with a difference; and it is never for Moses to argue with Miriam. Moses takes no part in this petty controversy. He would have disproved his superior inspiration if he had stooped to this fray of words. So some books seem to say, Are not we also inspired? The frank and true answer is Yes. Is not many a sentence in the greatest of dramatists an inspired sentence? The frank Christian, just answer is Yes. Is not many a discovery in the natural world quite an instance of inspiration? Why hesitate to say Yes; but always with a difference? The Bible takes no part in the controversy about its own inspiration. The Bible nowhere claims to be inspired. The Bible lives comes into the house when it is wanted, goes upstairs to the sick-chamber, follows the lonely sufferer into solitude, and communes with him about the mystery of disappointment, discipline, pain of heart; goes to the graveside, and speaks about the old soldier just laid to rest, the little child just exhaled like a dewdrop by the morning sun. The Bible works thus not argumentatively, not seeking an opportunity of speaking in some controversy that rages around the question of its inspiration. It lives because no hand can slay it; it stands back, or comes forward, according to the necessity of the case, because of a dignity that can wait, because of an energy that is ready to advance.

Some books claim to be as inspired as the Bible. Then they become leprous, and all history has shown that they are put out of the camp. Many books have arisen to put down the Bible; they have had their day: they have ceased to be. We must judge by facts and realities. The glory of the great Book is that it will bear to be translated into every language, and that all the changes of grammar are but changes of a mould, which do not affect the elasticity of water: the water of life flows into every mould and fills up all the channels, varying the courses and figure of the channels as you may. The Book is not an iron book, whose obstinacy cannot be accommodated to human requirements or progress: this is the water of life a figure that indicates all qualities that lay hold of progress, development, change. The Bible is a thousand books yea, a thousand thousand books, to a number no man can number, making every heart a confidential friend, whispering to every eager and attentive life some tender message meant for its own ear alone. When a man who has no claim to the dignity asserts that he is upon an equality with the great musician, the great musician takes no part in the fray; when the competitor has played his little trick, one touch of the fingers regulated by the hand divine will settle the controversy. By this token we stand or fall with our Christianity, with our great Gospel. If any man has a larger truth to speak, let him speak it; if any man ran touch the wounded human heart with a finer delicacy, a more healing sympathy, let him perform his miracle. To be spoken against is no sign of demerit. We are too fearful about this matter. Put your finger upon any name in human history that indicates energy of a supreme kind, influence of the most beneficent quality, that has not been spoken against. The mischief is, as ever, that timid people imagine the charge to bring with it its own proof. The Church is wrecked by timidity. The fearful man is doing more injury to-day than can be done by any number of assailants. The man who treats his Christianity as a private possession, and who is afraid lest any man should challenge him to combat, is a man who is a dead weight upon the Church, and if we could get rid of that man it would be the happiest event in our Church history.

How did Moses prove his superiority? By prayer. In effect, he said, Lord, let her alone; be gentle to her, poor fool; she is moved by unworthy impulses a little feminine jealousy because of a marriage she cannot understand; pity her; wipe off the white blotch, and allow her to come out again; perhaps she will never do it any more: "Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee." There he proves that his inspiration was of a quality most noble. We are strongest when we are weakest; we are sublimest when we whisper our prayer under the load that would have oppressed and destroyed us. Judge your inspiration by your devoutness. Never be content with any inspiration that can merely ask questions, create suspicions, perform the unworthy performance of sheering; but know that you are a great soul and a valiant and most royal man and crowned prince, when you take the large, bright view, which you are bound to do by noble charity.

All this would be of social consequence, and by no means to be undervalued in the education of the world; but it acquires its most appalling solemnity in view of the fact that questioning and sneering of this kind about prophets, preachers, books, churches, means to go forward and to challenge the supremacy of Christ Sneering cannot stop short at Moses. We cannot draw a line, saying, Having overthrown the servant, we shall be content. There is an impulse in these things, hurrying and driving men on to issues which perhaps at first they never contemplated Beware of beginnings and resist them. To curtail our best reading is to begin a process that will end in mental darkness. To give up the Church once a day means, being interpreted, that the time will come when the heart will relinquish the Church altogether. A sad and terrible thing it is when men suppose that they can do with less Bible, less Church, less public testimony. They plead weariness, distance, difficulties of a family kind; they are fertile in excuses when the heart is reluctant to go. Let us face broad meanings, final issues. The meaning is that men who challenge Moses will endeavour to dispossess Christ, saying, "We will not have this man to reign over us." Was not Socrates as pure a man? Have we not found some morality in old Indian books quite as pure as the morality of the New Testament? Did not Marcus Aurelius approach very nearly to the sublimity of Christian ethics? Have there not been many men in all history who have been entitled to sit with Christ in the temple of purity and wisdom? These are not the questions. Christianity does not bring into disrepute any beautiful sentence found anywhere in heaven or in earth. Christ never said, This is a beautiful thing spoken by a fervid fancy, but you must take no heed of it. He said, "I am the light of the world," wherever there is a sparkle of brilliance, it is a jet of my own glory; wherever there is a wise word, it is God's word; wherever a beautiful song is sung, it is a snatch of heaven's music. Whoever speaks a holy, pure, comforting word must be permitted to go on with his ministry. If you call down fire from heaven against such an one, ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 12". Parker's The People's Bible. 1885-95.