I’m notorious for reading the Old Testament with a desperate thirst to discover the application for today. It probably comes from a place of fear—the enemy consistently lies to me about the Old Testament's worthiness and legitimacy. I also tend to read for baby names, because let’s be honest, its chock full of some good ones. When I started reading Numbers 12, I immediately secretly hoped Miriam had a story of hope and honesty. Grit and beauty. Something along those lines. Instead, I found a story of incredible sin and redemption.
Though I’ve been a Christian since I was 11 and grew up in the church, I found my biblical knowledge waning as I got older. Sure, I can tell you who Moses is—the basket baby!—and I can give you a rough idea of the Bible's narrative. But, passed that, I really have a limited understanding of the Scriptures. This really started bugging me a few years ago, and so I began reading the Bible from the beginning. I briefly considered reading it chronologically or following a study, but as I worked with international students who often began reading the Bible with Genesis, I wanted to do the same. I spent a year and a half on Genesis and Exodus and they remain two of my favorite books in the Bible. Then, I hit Leviticus and I was terribly concerned I’d hate it. This would be where it’d fall apart for me, I was sure. But, I was floored. Leviticus also became one of my favorites. It remains one of my answers when the question is asked: “How do we know God loves us?” or “How do we know God is faithful?”
And so, now, I am on Numbers. Numbers 12, in fact. The first few chapters were tough for me—any time we get into genealogy, I tend to be overwhelmed with the amount of research I want to do and I start looking up anthropology programs and plane tickets to Ethiopia and Jerusalem. Soon, though, I started getting to the crux of the story of Moses leading his people to the land promised to Abraham. I saw parallels in Numbers and Genesis (God loves showing up as literal pillars of protection for his people) and was reminded of His steadfast and unchanging character.
But, the Old Testament often reminds me of one harrowing fact: There will always be a consequence for sin. Miriam is an example. Numbers 12 opens with a simple fact: Moses has married a Cushite woman. Cush is located south of Ethiopia, so it is clear Moses has married a black woman with a culture different from his. Another topic for another day is the blatant disregard for race God has here. Miriam and Aaron question this choice and subsequently begin to question God’s movement in and through Moses, asking “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” The pride here is overwhelming; Miriam not only questions Moses’ leadership, but elevates herself by asking that the Lord has also spoken to them. We know Moses’ story and the way in which God continually met with him (think burning bush and Mount Sinai). Now, God truly does come to meet with Miriam and Aaron. No big deal. It’s like being called to the principal’s office, but worse because this is the God of the Universe and you've just messed up.
The Lord’s anger was kindled against them as He questioned Aaron and Miriam: “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.” And, here’s the kicker: “Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” Could you imagine physically hearing that from the Lord? I think I’d die of embarrassment and shame where I stood. We’re not given Miriam’s reaction, but we are given her punishment: she is leprous. Not just a little leprosy, really leprous. She is leprous “like snow.” (John Piper wrote here that it's like God saying "you want white skin, Miriam? I'll give you white skin.)
In short, Miriam sinned. She put herself above her God-given leader. She questioned God’s faithfulness. She was steeped in pride. She was racist. And there was a consequence for her sin. This is true for us today. Maybe we won’t burst into snowy leprosy after the Lord physically appears at our camps, but I can assure you sin always carries consequence. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. We see a physical representation of this in Miriam.
But, the narrative doesn’t stop there. Our God is not a God of punishment and captivity. He is a God of redemption. Just as Romans 6:23 ends with the understanding of the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, Miriam’s story hardly ends with an eternal life of leprosy. Instead, Moses pleads with God on her behalf and the punishment is lifted after seven days’ exile. After those seven days, she is welcomed back in the camp, and the Israelites continue on their journey to the land promised them.
Culture tells us—even dangerous contemporary Christian culture—the Old Testament is irrelevant and harsh. How could God do -insert terrible thing here- to the people He loved? I’m so sad when I hear these criticisms because the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the New Testament. The same God who sent Christ Jesus to give us a free gift of eternal life is the same God who saved Miriam from her leprosy and sin through Moses' leadership and plea. He is the same yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever.