The Challenge to Moses’ Authority (Numbers 12)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

In Numbers 12, Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, try to launch a revolt against his authority. They appear to have a reasonable complaint. Moses teaches that Israelites are not to marry foreigners (Deut. 7:3), yet he himself has a foreign wife (Num. 12:1). If this complaint had been their true concern, they could have brought it to Moses or to the council of elders he had recently formed (Num. 11:16-17) for resolution. Instead, they agitate to put themselves in Moses’ place as leaders of the nation. In reality, their complaint was merely a pretext to launch a general rebellion with the aim of elevating themselves to positions of ultimate power.

God punishes them severely on Moses’ behalf. He reminds them he has chosen Moses as his representative to Israel, speaking “face to face” with Moses, and entrusts him with “all my house” (Num. 12:7-8). “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” he demands (Num. 12:8). When he hears no answer, Numbers tells us that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against them” (Num. 12:9). His punishment falls first on Miriam who becomes leprous to the point of death, and Aaron begs Moses to forgive them (Num. 12:10-12). The authority of God’s chosen leader must be respected, for to rebel against such a leader is to rebel against God himself.

When We Have Grievances Against Those in Authority

God was uniquely present in Moses’ leadership. “Never since then has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). Today’s leaders do not manifest God’s authority face to face as Moses did. Yet God commands us to respect the authority of all leaders, “for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1-3). This does not mean that leaders must never be questioned, held accountable, or even replaced. It does mean that whenever we have a grievance against those in legitimate authority—as Moses was—our duty is to discern the ways in which their leadership is a manifestation of God’s authority. We are to respect them for whatever portion of God’s authority they truly bear, even as we seek to correct, limit, or even remove them from power.

A telling detail in the story is that Aaron and Miriam’s purpose was to thrust themselves into positions of power. A thirst for power can never be a legitimate motivation for rebelling against authority. If we have a grievance against our boss, our first hope should be to resolve the grievance with him or her. If the boss’s abuse of power or incompetence prevents this, our next aim would be to have him or her replaced by someone of integrity and ability. But if our purpose is to magnify our own power, then our aim is untrue, and we have even lost the standing to perceive whether the boss is acting legitimately or not. Our own cravings have made us incapable of discerning God’s authority in the situation.

When others oppose our authority

Although Moses was both powerful and in the right, he responds to the leadership challenge with gentleness and humility. "The man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). He remains with Aaron and Miriam throughout the episode, even when they begin to receive their deserved punishment. He intervenes with God to restore Miriam’s health, and succeeds in reducing her punishment from death to seven days banishment from camp (Num. 12:13-15). He retains them in the senior leadership of the nation.

If we are in positions of authority, we are likely to face opposition as Moses did. Assuming that we, like Moses, have come to authority legitimately, we may be offended by opposition and even recognize it as an offense against God’s purpose for us. We may well be in the right if we attempt to defend our position and defeat those who are attacking it. Yet, like Moses, we must care first for the people over whom God has placed us in authority, including those who are opposing us. They may have legitimate grievances against us, or they may be aspiring to tyranny. We may succeed in resisting them, or we may lose. We may or may or not continue in the organization, and they also may or may not continue. We may find common ground, or we may find it impossible to restore good working relationships with our opponents. Nonetheless, in every situation we have a duty of humility, meaning that we act for the good of those God has entrusted to us, even at the expense of our comfort, power, prestige, and self-image. We will know we are fulfilling this duty when we find ourselves advocating for those who oppose us, as Moses did with Miriam.