walk in the word
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it (Numbers 12:1–2, esv).
How does God feel about our critical attitudes? When we harshly judge others, does He notice? Does He care? How does He respond? Numbers 12 gives us some answers.
The story begins with three siblings: Moses, the leader of Israel, and his sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron, the people closest to Moses, the ones he trusted most, the ones he needed to help him shoulder the load of leadership. Then the conflict starts. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married” (12:1). How tough for Moses to take unexpected, unfair criticism from those closest to him.
The Hebrew verb rendered “spoke against” is in the feminine, which means that the primary critic was Miriam. Perhaps Aaron got dragged into it. Sometimes one person’s bitterness can poison many people, which is what happened in this case.
But before we get too hard on Miriam, let’s remember that she was no slouch; in fact, she was a very godly woman. Big sister Miriam placed baby Moses’ basket in the reeds and even arranged for him to be nursed by his own mother after Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him (Exodus 2:1–10). Miriam loved Moses. And during the Exodus, after the nation miraculously crossed the Red Sea, Miriam the prophetess wrote a song of worship and led the women in celebration and dancing (Exodus 15:20–21).
She was a godly, righteous woman—which tells us, among other things, we don’t want to think that we’re so spiritually mature we can’t be guilty of a critical attitude. We’re just as vulnerable as Miriam. None of us can pretend to be exempt: “Well, that’s behind me,” or “Criticism is just not an issue for me.” False! Everyone can struggle in this area.
The siblings’ criticism targeted Moses’ wife, “the Cushite woman whom he had married” (12:1). That’s strange, because Exodus 2:21 tells us Moses’ wife was a Midianite woman named Zipporah. The text doesn’t clarify here, but the phrase “for he had married” (12:1) suggests that perhaps Zipporah had died and Moses had married another woman. And guess what? His big sister didn’t like the new choice.
Do you think that’s the real issue? It’s the surface issue, but reading a little further we find the root of the problem. “And they said, ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also’” (12:2)? Moses’ wife was the surface issue, but the real issue was his prominence. They resented Moses’ getting all the attention and accolades.
Was this a confrontation? No, it was a God-frontation.
They faced consequences for this unjust attack. God summoned the siblings to the tent of meeting and confronted Miriam and Aaron as Moses stood right there. To paraphrase the Lord’s retort, “Do you have any idea who you are talking about? I don’t have another servant like Moses in all the world. I speak to him directly. Who do you think you are to criticize him? You should have been afraid to speak against My servant, Moses” (see 12:6–8). In hot anger, God departed.
Miriam and Aaron must have been scared to death. There was no time to defend themselves for pointing out Moses’ flaws. God didn’t wait for explanations, and they didn’t wait long for the consequences. “When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow” (12:10). Just like that, she was suddenly as good as dead.
Wonder how God feels about our harsh criticism? Check out Miriam’s skin. This story about God’s judgment on one critical person gives us insight into how He feels about critical attitudes. Criticism is a sin. We might try to soften it, spinning criticism as a weakness or a bad habit. While it is those things, from God’s perspective, criticism is also a sin. God is totally not into it when we dwell on the perceived faults of others with no view to their good. When we criticize, God hears and judges it as sin.
The primary consequence of a critical attitude is that sin hinders our fellowship with God. While it doesn’t destroy our relationship, criticism changes our capacity to sense His love and presence. We see this principle at work in human relationships. Having a critical attitude toward your wife doesn’t mean she stops being your wife, but it adversely affects your fellowship with her. Miriam and Aaron started out criticizing their brother but ended up feeling the consequences most in their relationship with God.
If you have a critical attitude, it is hindering your fellowship with God. If your spiritual life is like a wilderness—dry, dead, cheerless, and joyless—maybe it’s because you’ve harbored a critical attitude toward someone in your life. It’s a choice that not only injures your relationship with that person but also with God. Criticism affects us deeply, personally, and negatively. It takes a costly toll on us as spiritual beings.
However, Miriam’s story didn’t end there. She instantly repented, begged for Moses’ forgiveness and help, and was restored to right relationship with God and with her brother. Like Miriam, we can continue to criticize, or we can choose to repent and be restored. One choice leads to decay, the other to life and health.
Lord God, sometimes I’m so hard on others in my life. I’m critical, harsh, and mean—in thought, word, and action. Please bring to mind specific examples of people I’ve criticized. I agree with You and call my criticism what it is: sin. Please forgive me and restore my fellowship with You and my relationships with others. Just as You restored Miriam to full health, so please restore my soul to full health. Teach me to be generous, merciful, compassionate, and loving, just like Jesus, in whose name I pray, amen.
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