While leading the burgeoning Israelite nation through the wilderness, Moses not only faces criticism from its concerned citizens but also from Miriam and Aaron, his siblings and co-leaders (Numbers 12:1-2). Though the Book of Numbers states that the complaints reach God there is no mention of Moses’ response or even the degree of his awareness (Numbers 12:2). Instead the text bestows a superlative: Moses is the most humble man on the planet (Numbers 12:3).
(Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.) (Numbers 12:3 NASB)This statement is generally perceived as a parenthetical aside. Though parentheses do not occur in the Hebrew text, translations are just as apt to supply them (KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT) as not (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NRSV, RSV).
Martin Noth (1902-1968) assesses:
Numbers 12:3 is a later addition which disrupts the close connection between Numbers 12:2b and Numbers 12:4. (Noth, Numbers: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 95)R. Dennis Cole (b. 1950) detects a narrative purpose:
A parenthetic statement by the narrator concerning the character and quality of Moses as a man and as a leader of Israel is interjected into the flow of the narrative, heightening the dramatic effect of the passage. (Cole, Numbers (New American Commentary), 202)In Hebrew, the first word in the text emphasizes Moses’ humanity as for the third and final time in the biblical record, Moses is characterized as “the man” (Exodus 32:1, 23; Numbers 12:3). This appellation is not conferred in the contemporary complimentary sense of the idiom.
Jonathan Kirsch (b. 1949) comments:
“There is nothing divine about Moses,” observes the eminent Bible scholar Gerhard Von Rad [1901-1971], and as if to remind us of this crucial fact, the Bible refers to him with a simple, sturdy, and straightforward phrase—“the man Moses.” (Exodus 32:1, 23; Numbers 12:3). (Kirsch, Moses: A Life, 1)Robert Alter (b. 1935) expounds:
Alone among biblical characters, he is assigned an oddly generic epithet, “the man Moses.” There may be some theological motive for this designation, in order to remind us of his plainly human status, to ward off any inclination to deify the founding leader of the Israelite people, but it also suggests more concretely that Moses as forger of the nation and prince of prophets is, after all, not an absolutely unique figure but a man like other men, bringing to the soul-trying tasks of leadership both the moral and temperamental resources and the all-too-human weaknesses that many men may possess. In regard to our experience of the character and the story, all this means that “the man Moses” remains somewhat distanced from us, that we never get the sense of intimate acquaintance with his inner life and his distinctive traits of personality that we are so memorably afforded in the stories of Jacob and Joseph. (Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 300-01)Moses is characterized as the most “humble” (HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) or “meek” (ASV, ESV, KJV, RSV) human of his era. This type of description is rare in the Old Testament. Aaron B. Wildavsky (1930-1993) acknowledges:
The few direct characterizations of Moses in the Bible are elusive...The closest approach to delineating the man himself—“(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth)” (Numbers 12:3)—is the most elusive of all. (Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader, 199)“Humble” is more prevalent than “meek” in newer translations. Clyde M. Woods (b. 1936) and Justin M. Rogers (b. 1982) deliberate:
A discussion rages over the definition of the term ענו (‘ānāw). Many are insistent upon the fact that the term ‘ānāw does not mean “meek,” but rather “humble”...or, as Baruch A. Levine [b. 1930] interprets, “humble before God” (Numbers, p. 329). Jacob Milgrom [1923-2010] goes so far as to state, “It never means ‘meek’” (Numbers, p. 94). Actually, the term ’ענ (‘ānî) often denotes a condition of oppression or weakness, either materially or emotionally (see The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1.856). Thus, the idea of a “bowing” [in dejection] may be altogether appropriate (see The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1.855). In this case, “humble” seems to be a better choice than “meek” (Woods and Rogers, Leviticus–Numbers (The College Press NIV Commentary), 249)Gordon J.Wenham (b. 1943) prefers:
‘Humble’ conveys the sense of the Hebrew ‘ānāw better than meek. It is a word that elsewhere is used only in poetry. It sometimes refers to those in real poverty (Amos 2:7; Isaiah11:4). Such people must look to God for aid, because they are unable to help themselves. But more frequently the word seems to denote an attitude of mind, more characteristic of the poor than of the rich, one of humility and dependence on God. The Psalms repeatedly assure the humble that God will deliver them, ‘The LORD lifts up the humble’; ‘he adorns the humble with victory’ (Psalms 147:6, 149;4; cf. Psalms 22:26, 25:9, 37:11, 76:9; cf. Matthew 5:5; I Peter 5:6). (Wenham, Numbers (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 111)John Sturdy (1933-1996) adds:
The word is ‘ānāw, a key term in the religious language of the psalms for the ideal religious man (e.g. Psalms 25:9 ‘He guides the humble man in doing right’), and from here inherited by Christianity (Matthew 5:5, translated ‘of gentle spirit’ in the N.E.B.). Absence of self-assertiveness in the presence of God gives the right relationship with him. Moses is here given the highest valuation that Israelite piety has. (Sturdy, Numbers (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the Old Testament), 90)George W. Coats (1936-2006) questions:
The key term ‘ānāw refers to a leading virtue of Moses who exemplifies the virtue better than any other person in the land. It is not, however, clear that the words, ‘meek’ or ‘humble’, do justice as tools for translating the term...What kind of virtue...belongs to Moses more than to all other persons who are on the face of the earth?...The basic thesis is that the word derives from a root ‘nw, connoting responsibility or integrity...If ‘ānāw derives from such a stem, ‘nw, with denotation of obedient response, the connotations of the word in Numbers 12 should follow in unforced sequence...The context highlights...obedience within the context of personal responsibility...The range of connotation in the word emerges even more clearly when one compares the virtue with ‘honor’...Numbers 12:3 might thus read: ‘The man Moses was the most honorable of all persons who are on the face of the earth.’ (Coats, The Moses Tradition, 92-94)Richard S. Briggs (b. 1966) responds:
The etymological argument is probably weak on its own. As noted in one review of his proposal, “If the point of the editorial comment is to emphasize Moses’ honour, then there are far more direct and unambiguous ways of doing it than by using ‘ānāw” (Stephen B. Dawes 1990:337). (Briggs, Virtuous Reader, The: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue, 52)Contextually, it is obvious that the comment is a compliment, even when translated “meek” which presently carries pejorative baggage. Walter Riggans (b. 1953) clarifies:
The description of Moses as “very meek” is important for understanding what God prizes in mankind. It does not mean a whimpering, spineless, uncommitted weakling. (Riggans, Numbers (Daily Study Bible Series), 102)J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988) reminds:
It is stated of Moses and our Lord Jesus that they were meek. Remember that meekness is not weakness. Meekness is being obedient to God and doing his will. (McGee, Numbers (Thru the Bible), 82)Regardless of how the term is translated the trait for which Moses is applauded is directly connected to his relationship with God. Raymond Brown (b. 1928) delineates:
The word humble is from a root meaning ‘bowed down’; in leadership he was genuinely ‘subordinating his personal interests to those of God and his cause’. His sensitive spirit must have been profoundly disturbed when members of his own family questioned his divinely appointed role and, particularly, his responsibility as the Lord’s mouthpiece. (Brown, The Message of Numbers (Bible Speaks Today), 107)Dennis T. Olson (b. 1954) interprets:
The word “humble” does not refer so much to a general personality trait of meekness as it underscores Moses’ devotion or humility before God (George Buchanan Gray [1865–1922], p. 123; cf. Zechariah 2:3). The narrator’s parenthetical comment instantly undercuts Miriam and Aaron’s complaint and seeks to persuade the reader to stand with Moses in his defense against his siblings. (Olson, Numbers (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 71)R. Dennis Cole (b. 1950) inspects:
The term ‘ānāw used is not the normal Hebrew word for humility, meekness or weakness but one that conveys an individual’s devout dependence upon the Lord. It may also describe a state one must experience before one is honored by God or man. In his first encounter with the Lord at Horeb in the burning bush, Moses realized his human limitations—“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). But with the assurance of the divine presence—“I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12)—he went forth by faith, even though initially reluctant, and was used by God in ways that far surpassed human comprehension. His humility in this manner far exceeded that of any other person on the earth. (Cole, Numbers (New American Commentary), 202)Humility entails an awareness of one’s identity in relationship to God. No other human of his time had a closer relationship to God than Moses and consequently, none would be more mindful of his own relative inadequacy.
This trait is on full display during the conflict with his siblings. Moses does not waste time attempting to subjugate his peers on the basis of his own importance. Instead he concentrates on his appointed objective, namely establishing a nation under God.
Iain M. Duguid (b. 1960) observes:
The grumbling of Moses and Aaron was not answered by Moses. His behavior in this chapter is a living affirmation of the narrator’s description of him as more humble than anyone else of the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3). Moses knew who he was before God; so he didn’t feel the need to fight to stand up for his own rights and status. A servant doesn’t feel the need to stand up for his own rights and status. It is only when we misconceive Christian leadership as being like the world’s model that we start to defend our turf. (Duguid, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Preaching the Word), 162)Glen S. Martin (b. 1953) remarks:
Moses never thought so highly of himself as to be offended by these remarks. They may have even made sense to Moses! The reason for this came from the character he embodied. He was a very humble man...Moses reflected the spirit of Christ, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6), but took on the form of a servant. Moses did not cling to his position and rank, but apparently stood silent. (Martin, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 299)Moses is not motivated by gaining personal advantage over others. Numbers 12:3 implies that Moses faces the criticism in dignified silence. Timothy R. Ashley (b. 1947) speculates:
The narrator wishes the reader to know that Moses himself would probably have let this challenge go unanswered. It was Yahweh who heard it and who took it upon himself to answer it. (Ashley, The Book of Numbers (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 224)
David L. Stubbs (b. 1964) compares:
In contrast to the jealousy and presumption of Miriam and Aaron, the humility of Moses is pointed out...Moses’s humility is exhibited here by his not responding directly or angrily to the murmurings of Miriam and Aaron. While Miriam and Aaron want to use their intimacy with God in order to increase their status among the people, Moses enjoys the greater good of such intimacy—friendship with God: “Moses...is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD” (Numbers 12:7-8). (Stubbs, Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 124)W.H. Bellinger, Jr. (b. 1949) infers:
The parenthetical comment in Numbers 12:3 indicating that Moses was more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth immediately displays a bias against the position of Miriam and Aaron. While modern readers may understand the adjective “humble” as “self-effacing,” here it probably indicates Moses’ discipline, integrity, trust, and dedication in relationship with God. This comment contrasts with the brutally honest dialogue between God and Moses in chapter 11 [Numbers 11:16-23]. Perhaps this passage should lead us to redefine humility similarly. The complaints of Miriam and Aaron are contrasted to Moses’ qualities. (Bellinger, Leviticus, Numbers (New International Biblical Commentary), 225)Even so, the plaudit’s existence is noteworthy. Stephen K. Sherwood (b. 1943) recognizes:
Such direct characterization is rare in biblical narrative, but it is necessary here for the development of the plot. Is Moses inventing a religion in which he gives himself exaggerated authority?...The fact that the narrator felt it necessary to address this question indicates that someone was asking it with sufficient credibility to require a response. (Sherwood, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 155-56)The parenthetical aside accentuates Moses’ innocense in the face of all charges levied against him (Numbers 12:1-2). In making this claim, the narrator vindicates Moses even before God does. Contrary to his siblings’ objections (Numbers 12:1-2), Moses is in fact unique (Numbers 12:6-8).
If God is offended by Aaron and Miriam’s criticism (Numbers 12:5-9), should Moses be also? Is Moses bothered? As the nation’s leader, should Moses have responded to his siblings’ complaints? Who do you know who has been vindicated without defending themself? What quality most characterizes Moses? Who is the most humble person on earth today? If you were given one superlative what would it be?
The assertion that Moses is the most humble man on earth has garnered unique criticism due to the book’s traditional authorship. Roy Gane (b. 1955) explains:
For those who believe the traditional view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, Numbers 12:3 raises a question: If Moses wrote that he was the humblest man on the face of the earth, wouldn’t this constitute a boast that would invalidate his humility? We understand the boxing champ Muhammad Ali [b.1942]...when he claims the epithet “The Greatest.” But “The Humblest” is a different matter. So it can be argued that...Numbers 12:3...was written by an editor of the Pentateuch, not by Moses himself (cf. Genesis 12:6; Deuteronomy 34:1-12). (Gane, Leviticus, Numbers (The NIV Application Commentary), 592)Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. (b. 1933) ranks:
Numbers 12:3 is the most difficult text in the whole book of Numbers. Critical scholars (and others) have correctly observed that it is rather unlikely that a truly humble person would write in such a manner about himself, even if he actually felt the statement was true. Many critical scholars are so convinced of the inappropriateness of recording such a note that they have used this as a strong mark against the Mosaic authorship of the whole book. (Kaiser, Peter H. Davids [b. 1947], F.F. Bruce [1910-1990] and Manfred T. Brauch [b. 1940], Hard Sayings of the Bible, 165)Eugene H. Merrill (b. 1934) defends:
This statement is often adduced as evidence that Moses could not have written the Book of Numbers for he would not have boasted of his own humility. On the contrary, the declaration concerning his humility is the strongest possible support for the traditional view that Moses wrote Holy Scripture as an inspired penman. Only one led by the Holy Spirit could make such a statement about himself, probably against his own natural inclination. (John F. Walvoord [1910-2002] and Roy B. Zuck [1932-2013], The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, 228)James E. Smith (b. 1939) supposes:
Modern critics have argued that these words are incongruous with Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Interpreted as braggadocio this verse would be difficult to square with Mosaic authorship. Perhaps Moses, however, intended the words to be understood as a confession of weakness in leadership. Because of his very low self-esteem he did not exercise boldness in dealing with the rebels (Numbers 12:3). (Smith, The Pentateuch, 430)Ardent defense of traditional authorship has generated other unique responses. Richard S. Briggs (b. 1966) illustrates:
Those who hold to the notion that the “Torah of Moses” requires an idea of Moses as “author”...tend to...suggest that ‘ānāw must mean something else. When this concern is driven simply by the desire to safeguard Mosaic authorship at all costs, it can have little to commend it. One example shall suffice. Cleon Rogers [b. 1955], taking it as a given that one must find a way around the “concern and consternation” caused by Moses’s apparently inappropriate statement, concludes, on the basis of an etymological root meaning “to be bowed down; afflicted” (e.g., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament 776), that the meaning of Numbers 12:3 must be ‘miserable.’ He concludes, “Moses was saying that in the light of the burden of the people and the complaint of his family he was the most ‘miserable’ person in the world” (Cleon Rogers 1986: 263). The sheer implausibility of this line of thought is highlighted by the one remaining sentence in the article: “Who has not made this statement about himself at some point in life?” whereby a text affirming a unique characteristic of Moses has come to be a truism of every person. (Briggs, Virtuous Reader, The: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue, 52)Most interpreters understand Numbers 12:3 simply as a redaction by a later editor which enhances the narrative.
Which would bother you more, that Moses professed to be the most humble man on earth or that a later redactor inserted the comment? Could the most humble person on earth make that claim of herself? Is humility still considered a virtue? How would you define humility?
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” - C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)