How Humble Could Moses Have Been?
In an attempt to discredit the idea that God inspired Moses to write the first five books of the Old Testament, many skeptics and liberal Bible scholars have taken it upon themselves to hyper-analyze any and all “questionable” statements in the Pentateuch. One of the statements frenquently used to bolster the idea that Moses could not have written these five books is found in Numbers 12:3, which reads: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.” After reading this statement, the question arises: “How could Moses be the meekest or most humble man in the world, and proceed to tell everyone that he is?” According to Tod Billings, the president (in 1999) of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, “if Moses really said this in reference to himself, he is vain and arrogant, not ‘very meek!’ ” (1999). Statements like those of Mr. Billings could be multiplied many times over from the pen of countless “freethinkers,” skeptics, and liberal Bible scholars. And, in all honesty, a cursory look at this statement might take even the most sincere Bible student somewhat by surprise.
Could Moses have been very meek, and still have written this statement about himself? Yes. First, if God was informing Moses what to write, then Moses had little choice in the wording of the description concerning himself. It is clear from the scope of the statement, which included “all the men that were upon the face of the earth,” that only God had the ability to know who was the meekest man living at the time of Moses (Coffman, 1987, p. 365). Does it not make sense that God would have chosen only the most humble man to bring His chosen people out of Egypt and through the wilderness?
Second, the phrase is added so that the reader can understand the narrative more fully. In the context, Moses’ brother Aaron, and sister Miriam, had spoken against Moses because he had married an Ethiopian woman. They said to Moses, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also” (Numbers 12:1-2)? These statements amounted to a direct attack upon the authority that God had given Moses. Had Moses’ siblings been permitted to continue with such sentiments, the entire authoritative structure established by God (i.e., establishing Moses as the primary leader of the Israelites) might have been jeopardized. However, because Moses was such a meek and humble man, He refused to take it upon himself to squelch this rebellious attitude. Therefore, God had to step in and speak directly to Moses’ siblings, informing Miriam and Aaron that God had a special relationship with Moses, and that his brother and sister should have been “afraid to speak against My [God’s—KB] servant Moses” (Numbers 12:8). Without the statement concerning Moses’ meekness, this narrative is somewhat incomplete. With the statement included, however, we see that Moses refused to exalt himself and set his siblings straight, so God stepped in and exalted Moses.
Third, many of the Bible writers were inspired to make comments about themselves that sound arrogant to some, yet in actuality, they are not arrogant statements, but simply documentation of a fact that God wanted those who read the Bible to know. For instance, on several occasions in the gospel of John, we read a description about a particular disciple “whom Jesus loved.” At the end of the book, the writer informs his readers that he is that disciple (John 21:20-25). Is it arrogant of John to single himself out more than the other apostles as one whom Jesus loved? Or is it the case that God wanted that information included for the benefit of the readers? Another example comes from the apostle Paul. When Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin to defend himself, he opened his speech with the statement, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1, c.f. Mark 13:11). Because Ananias, the high priest, considered this statement to be out of line, he commanded one of the soldiers who stood by Paul to strike him on the mouth. Paul’s statement, however, was a simple statement of fact that contained neither arrogance nor conceit.
During Moses’ life, God considered him to be the meekest man living. God wanted the readers of the Bible to know this fact, therefore He inspired Moses to record it. The fact helps the reader understand God’s action in Numbers 12, and it is congruent with similar statements recorded by other Bible writers. The statement cannot legitimately be used to argue against the inspiration or Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.
Billings, Tod (1999), “Moses Wrote the Torah?” [On-line], URL: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/archive/billings_torah.html.
Coffman, James Burton (1987), Commentary on Leviticus and Numbers (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).