Week of Proper 13: Tuesday, Year 1   14 comments

Above:  Contrition

Image in the Public Domain

Human Sins and Divine Judgment and Mercy

AUGUST 8, 2023


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Numbers 12:1-15 (Richard Elliott Friedman, 2001):

And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses about the Cushite wife whom he had taken–because he had taken a Cushite wife.  And they said,

Has YHWH only just spoken through Moses?  Hasn’t he also spoken through us?

And YHWH heard.

And the man Moses was very humble, more than every human who was on the face of the earth.

And YHWH said suddenly to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam,

Go out, the three of you, to the Tent of Meeting.

And the three of them went out.  And YHWH came down in a column of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent.  And He called,

Aaron and Miriam.

And the two of them went out.  And He said,

Hear my words:

If there will be a prophet among you,

I, YHWH, will be known to him in a vision;

in a dream I shall speak through him.

Not so is my servant Moses;

in all my house he is faithful.

Mouth to mouth I shall speak through him

and vision and not in enigmas,

and he will see the form of YHWH.

And why did you not fear to speak against my servant,

against Moses?”

And YHWH’s anger flared against them, and He went.  And the cloud turned from over the tent; and, here, Miriam was leprous, like snow.  And Aaron turned to Miriam, and, here, she was leprous.  And Aaron said to Moses,

In me, my lord.  Don’t set a sin on us, which we did foolishly and which we sinned.  Let her not be like the dead who, when he comes out of his mother’s womb, half of his flesh is eaten up!

And Moses cried out to YHWH, saying,

Oh, God, heal her!

And YHWH said to Moses,

And if her father had spit in her face, wouldn’t she be humiliated seven days?  Let her be closed up seven days outside the camp, and after that let her be gathered back.

And Miriam was closed up outside the camp seven days.  And people did not travel until Miriam were gathered back, and after that the people traveled from Hazeroth.  And they camped in the Paran wilderness.

Psalm 51:1-12 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;

in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness

and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

4 Against you only have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight.

5 And so you are justified when you speak

and upright in your judgment.

6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth,

a sinner from my mother’s womb.

7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me,

and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure;

wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

9 Make me hear of joy and gladness,

that the body you have broken may rejoice.

10 Hide your face from my sins

and blot out all my iniquities.

11 Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

12 Cast me not away from your presence

and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Matthew 15:1-2, 10-14 (J. B. Phillips, 1972):

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem came and asked Jesus,

Why do your disciples break our ancient tradition and eat their food without washing their hands properly first?

Then he called the crowd to him and said,

Listen, and understand this thoroughly!  It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him common or unclean.  It is what comes out of a man’s mouth that makes him unclean.

Later his disciples came to him and said,

Do you know that the Pharisees are deeply offended by what you said?

Jesus returned,

Every plant which my Heavenly Father did not plant will be pulled up by the roots.  Let them alone.  They are blind guides, and when one blind man leads another blind man they will both fall into the ditch!


The Collect:

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


There is much confusion about the details of Numbers 16.  I assume the veracity of the Documentary Hypothesis, so scholarly interpretations of whether or not the Cushite (perhaps Ethiopian) wife of Moses is Zipporah or a second wife.  As interesting as that intellectual Gordian knot is, it does not serve any devotional purpose.  No, the simplest possible interpretation does that.  So, for the next few paragraphs, I proceed from that assumption that the unnamed Cushite wife is not Zipporah.

So Aaron and Miriam, the brother and sister of Moses, challenge their brother’s prophetic authority over this Cushite wife.  Let us be clear:  Cushites, according to the Torah, were descended from Noah via Ham.  So they were cousins, if you will.  They were also dark-skinned, not that Moses was pale.  Many of us carry European art- and Hollywood-Bible-epic-influenced images of biblical figures looked.  Ancient Semites did not look like Charlton Heston or Max von Sydow.

Anyhow, in our story God metes out punishment to Miriam, rendering her white, the opposite of Nubian.  How is that for poetic justice.  Moses intercedes for her, but God insists that she face punishment for seven days, which is what she would have faced if her father had insulted her by spitting in her face.  This last detail, plus the fact that Aaron did not face any penalty, seems alien to those of us influenced by modern feminism.  And we might be correct.  All I can say is that I did not write these stories, which come from a different culture with many assumptions we find abhorrent.  The Ten Commandments condemn adultery as a violation of the aggrieved husband’s property rights, the wife being the property, for example.  There is nothing wrong with arguing with these texts.

Anyhow, as I have written before, divine judgment and mercy coexist in the Bible.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus faces a question from some religious critics.  It seems that his disciples did not wash their hands ceremonially, and thereby ran afoul of ritual purity codes.  This bothered some scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus, in 15:3-9, criticizes his critics for condoning the practice of Korban, by which people left property to the religious establishment and deprived their relatives of necessary means of support. Korban was a detrimental tradition and a corruption of laws.  So, Jesus says, the real impurity is internal, not superficial.

The traditional English-language translation for this part of Matthew’s Gospel uses the word “defile” and variations thereof.  Yet I prefer the J. B. Phillips version because of its non-traditional choice:  “common or unclean.”  It gets to the point.  Ritual purity codes were about being uncommon, removed from the great unwashed masses.  They became occasions of the sin of pride, an offense of which our Lord’s adversaries in this account might not have been consciously aware.

These men needed to repent–to change their minds and turn around.  Jesus pointed out their sins to them.  Did they repent?  The narrative does not indicate any outcome, although it implies that they did not.  And Aaron, at least, seemed penitent, but what about Miriam?  She is silent at the end of Numbers 12.

You and I have enough free will to influence our narratives.  May the content of Psalm 51 be part of that spiritual journey.  And may we look deeply, not superficially, for impurity.  This is a great challenge, but grace is available to help us undertake then complete it–if we dare.  May we do so.



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