Extraordinary Claims: The Skepticism of Miriam and Aaron (Num. 12 & 16)

When I was in college, there was a fundamentalist Christian sect that stopped by campus every year to inform all passersby that they were doomed to Hell. They were certain in their certainty. They had the skinny on what God really says. I remember feeling confident in my faith (ahem–this was years ago) and that I knew what it was like to “talk with God” (i.e. prayer and mysterious ways). My opinion then, as it is now, was that these people were terribly misguided. Needless to say, I wasn’t persuaded.

More recently, the president of Family Radio, Harold Camping, and his followers went on a world-wide mission warning the masses of the impending Rapture (May 21, 2011–later revised to October 21, 2011). This was soothsaying on a large scale: Family Radio spent over $100 million on an informational campaign and many credulous devotees spent their life savings trying to get the word out. Camping and his followers were openly (and rightly) mocked for their outrageous claims.

It’s not surprising that when fundamentalists come to campus or old men make eschatological predictions that most people don’t give up everything to join their cause. As the saying goes: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This skepticism isn’t unique to the modern era. Even in Numbers there are some notable instances where Moses faces off against Israelites who question the authenticity of God’s prophet. These clashes, as I’ll explain, raise doubts about the credibility of Moses.

In Numbers 12, Miriam (Moses’ wife) and Aaron (the High Priest) question whether God was only speaking through Moses. They felt that God was also speaking through them. This doesn’t fly with God, who takes the time to personally explain to Miriam and Aaron that he speaks directly to Moses:

6 he said, “Listen to my words:

   “When there is a prophet among you,
I, the LORD, reveal myself to them in visions,
I speak to them in dreams.
7 But this is not true of my servant Moses;
he is faithful in all my house.
8 With him I speak face to face,
clearly and not in riddles;
he sees the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid
to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num. 12:6-8)

Of course, we already knew this having read “And the LORD said to Moses” a thousand times in the previous three books. Why would the two people who are, presumably, the closest to Moses not understand this? Unless Moses wasn’t clear that he’s communicating directly with God, I find it hard to believe that Miriam, and especially Aaron, could confuse their experience as equal to Moses’.

Several chapters later in Numbers 16 , Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (along with 250 others) confront Moses for setting himself “above the Lord’s assembly” claiming, as Miriam and Aaron did, that “the Lord is with them” (Num. 16:1-3). Not surprisingly, this isn’t well received, and Moses ends up the victor while Korah and everyone else ends up dead). After the plagues, the exodus, and mana, you would think that it would be obvious to anyone who had been following Moses around the desert that the relationship he enjoys with God is something quite special. How could so many people overlook this?

In both of these examples, what is plainly obvious to the reader is anything but that to these Israelites. Consider the traditional stance that Moses authored Numbers. What purpose do these stories serve? I can think of a couple scenarios:

  1. Miriam and Aaron, as well as Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and the 250 are incredibly and unwarrantedly arrogant to think they, and not God’s chosen Moses, should speak for God. This is a lesson on the authority of Moses as a Biblical source.
  2. Miriam and the crew are justifiably skeptical because Moses has embellished what God has actually done for the Israelites. However, Moses wrote Numbers and therefore controls the narrative (i.e. the victor writes history — also check out Num. 12:3).

In light of the clear evidence of God’s existence and his preference for Moses presented to the Israelites since the exodus, I can’t believe that the first option is very likely.

Today, when we encounter zealots and so-called prophets it’s normal and expected to apply a great deal of skepticism and doubt to their claims. Though we continue to expand our understanding of the universe and know now more than we ever have before, the burden of proof for the incredible has remained unchanged. Miriam and Aaron, as well as Korah, Dathan, Abiram and the 250 doubted Moses, and if we are to believe that Moses (or at least someone who wants Moses to be right) authored the Pentateuch, there’s room to believe that they were justified in their skepticism. Why should we treat these claims any differently 3500 years later?

The answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t. Although it’s tempting to prefer the second scenario, I don’t think it’s any more plausible than the first. The literary Miriam may have been right in her skepticism of Moses given the story so far, but another argument seems by far the most likely. The exodus and subsequent conquering of the holy land (i.e. an extraordinary claim) lack sufficient–or any–archeological proof (i.e. extrordinary evidence). It’s much more likely that these stories are just that: stories.

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