Numbers 12:1-9 – Against Racism

American artist Alan Jones depiction of Moses’ wife Zipporah

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. (Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.)

So immediately the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and said, “Go out to the Tabernacle, all three of you!” So, the three of them went to the Tabernacle. Then the Lord descended in the pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle. “Aaron and Miriam!” he called, and they stepped forward. And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say:

“If there were prophets among you,
    I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions.
    I would speak to them in dreams.
But not with my servant Moses.
    Of all my house, he is the one I trust.
I speak to him face to face,
    clearly, and not in riddles!
    He sees the Lord as he is.
So why were you not afraid
    to criticize my servant Moses?”

The Lord was very angry with them, and he departed. (NLT)

There are three observations about today’s Old Testament lesson I want to point-out and lift-up, and they are crucial observations for us in our present world.

First, the older siblings of Moses, Miriam the eldest and Aaron the other brother, had a problem with their sister-in-law (whose name was Zipporah). She was a Cushite. Cush was an ancient country which encompassed present day northern Sudan and much of Ethiopia in Africa. In other words, Zipporah was black, and Miriam and Aaron were critical of their little brother for marrying her.

Second, although having a black sister-in-law was the real issue, Miriam and Aaron confronted Moses not about this, but went after him concerning his role as a prophet. In other words, the siblings engaged in the age-old practice of ostensibly presenting a concern which was not really the matter on their hearts.

Third, the omniscient God knew what was happening. God was fully cognizant of Miriam and Aaron’s cloak-and-dagger attack at Zipporah through her husband Moses. In other words, God was incensed with this coup attempt because it was unjust, unfair, ungodly, and frankly, racist. And so, the text states that God, with divine anger aroused, “immediately” addressed the situation.

Racism is insidious. It tends to get expressed most often through the methods used by Miriam and Aaron on the level of criticizing another somewhat related issue. So, I offer the following questions with as much humility from Moses I can muster:

Are we aware of our own inheritance of centuries and even millennia of dominance language which keeps other human beings docile and subservient to another’s authority?

Have we chosen to challenge points of order and procedure in the attempt to marginalize certain persons?

Are we detached from our own needs and, so, unable to listen well?

Is there secret fear in our hearts, believing that we must maintain our hegemony, or else, there will be chaos?

Is the end game using whatever tools available for others to become like us, as if we were the Borg who talk about how resisting us is futile?

Are we willing to do the hard work of pulling out our own roots of racial segregation and injustice?

Do we want cheap diversity or true solidarity?

Will we work toward creating a new liberated humanity, championing equity in all things for all people, instead of attempting to sanitize existing systems?

For far too long, too many have relied upon individualism and anti-structuralism and it has not served us well in addressing our contemporary problems. Individualism sees only individual racist words and actions and is blind to systemic issues. It views social problems as merely a reflection of broken relationships, and, so, again, makes it impossible to see the systemic and nature of our racialized society.

Anti-structuralism, that is, not addressing racism as an organizing structure, is the assumption that racism is only individual racial prejudice and hatred. Thus, the approach in dealing with racism is to always be on the lookout for “bad racists.” This avenue, however, diverts attention from upholding biblical justice, forming policies of liberation, and establishing equitable care and opportunity for the common good of all persons.

As an historian, I tend to view things through historical lenses and, so, I resonate deeply with the late twentieth-century essayist James Baldwin when he said, “White people are still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

I want my history to be with Moses and freedom. I want God to show up and put racism to an end. I want to be part of the solution, and not the problem. I want justice and fairness to flow like a river that never runs dry.

Lord, Jesus Christ, you reached across ethnic boundaries between Samaritan, Roman and Jew. In your earthly ministry you offered fresh sight to the blind and freedom to captives. Gracious Savior, help us to break down walls and barriers in our community; enable us to see the reality of racism and bigotry; and free us to challenge and uproot it from ourselves, our faith communities, our society, and our world. Amen.

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