THE MEANINGS OF MOSES' MEEKNESS

 

by Doug Ward



Numbers 12:3 (KJV) tells us that ``... Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.'' The source of this statement has been the subject of much speculation, since it would seem oxymoronic for Moses, the traditional author of the book of Numbers, to have written it about himself. Perhaps this parenthetical statement was added to the text by Moses' disciple Joshua, who worked closely with Moses for forty years before succeeding his mentor as the human leader of Israel.

Whoever wrote Num. 12:3, it is of even greater interest to ask what the author meant by his statement. What aspect or aspects of Moses' character led the unknown writer to say that he was unusually ``meek''? What can we learn from these qualities of Moses? In this article I will explore the meanings and implications of Moses' meekness.

 

The Humility of Moses



The Hebrew word for ``meek'' in Num. 12:3 is anav. Scholar Cleon Rogers [3] reports that anav probably comes from a root meaning ``to be bowed down.'' One way to be ``bowed down'' is to be bowed down in submission-i.e., to be humble. A number of modern English translations (NKJV, NASB, NRSV, NIV, NEB, e.g.) render anav as ``humble'' in Num. 12:3. Other passages in which anav is often translated ``humble'' include Ps. 25:9, 147:6, 149:4 and Zeph. 2:3.

This translation of anav is consistent with the Pentateuch's portrayal of Israel's leader. Moses, who was eighty years old at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, acquired humility through a unique set of life experiences. Though raised in Pharaoh's court, Moses was forced to flee Egypt at age forty after killing an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew slave (Exod. 2:11-15). He then spent the next forty years in obscurity, watching the flocks of his Midianite father-in-law Jethro (Exod. 2:15-3:1). When God interrupted his quiet life by sending him back to Egypt to petition a new Pharaoh for Israel's release, Moses asked, ``Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'' (Exod. 3:11, NIV) As a lowly shepherd, he did not feel prepared to negotiate with the ruler of a powerful country. He had been humbled by his years in Midian.

Despite his feelings of inadequacy, Moses accepted the mission for which God had selected him. As he faced the great challenges involved in leading the Israelites to freedom, a special relationship developed between Moses and God. This relationship was another source of Moses' humility.

Prof. R. Dennis Cole of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, author of a commentary on the book of Numbers, has observed that anav is a word that ``conveys an individual's devout dependence upon the Lord'' [2, p. 202]. He cites Ps. 22:26 and Zeph. 2:3 as passages that connect anav with an earnest seeking after God. Moses was a person who continually sought to know God (see for example Exod. 33:12-18). His deepening knowledge of God gave him a more realistic view of himself, contributing to his humility. As a result, he did not let his leadership role go to his head.

Several examples illustrate the humility displayed by Moses during the months following the Exodus:

 

When Jethro visited the Israelites near Mt. Sinai, he suggested to Moses that his administrative burden could be reduced through the appointment of ``officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens'' (Exod. 18:21). Moses followed Jethro's suggestion (vv. 24-26), showing that he was humble enough to accept wise advice.



Later God provided further help for Moses by granting the Holy Spirit to seventy of Israel's elders (Num. 11:24-25). When two of the elders ``prophesied in the camp'', Joshua urged Moses to stop them (vv. 26-28). Moses, however, was unconcerned. Having no desire to be God's sole prophet, he expressed the wish that God would indwell all of the Israelites (v. 29). He did not view the prophesying of Eldad and Medad as any threat to his authority.



When Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses (Num. 12:1-2), desiring greater leadership roles for themselves, there is no record of Moses having reprimanded his siblings. Moses might have ignored the situation had not God intervened to stop it. Moses also prayed that Miriam's punishment be ended (v. 13).



On at least two occasions, God offered to destroy the rebellious Israelites and start a new nation through Moses (Exod. 32:9-10; Num. 14:11-12). But Moses, more concerned for God's reputation and the welfare of the people than for his own status or convenience, always responded by interceding on Israel's behalf (Exod. 32:11-13; Num. 14:13-19). He did so even for the sake of people who had falsely accused him (e.g. Num. 16:41-45).


These examples indicate that Moses was unusually humble, so that Numbers 12:3 could well have been a reference to his humility. But there is also a second possibility for the meaning of anav in that verse.

 

The Burden of Moses



Another way in which a person can be ``bowed down'' is to be ``bowed down with care or trouble.'' The word anav is often used in this sense in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the writings of the prophets, anav refers to people who are ``socially oppressed and miserable'' [3, p. 260]. The NIV translates it as ``oppressed'' in Amos 2:7, as ``needy'' in Isa. 11:4, and as ``poor'' in Isa. 61:1. The word anav appears a number of times in the Psalms, where it is sometimes used for afflicted people who cry out to God in their suffering and find help (Ps. 9:12; 10:12, 17; 34:2; 76:9). Here we can see the relationship between the different senses of anav: Those who are afflicted often humble themselves before God.

This second kind of anav applies equally well to Moses. On Israel's journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, Moses faced the burden of the people's continual complaints (Exod. 15:22-24; 16:2-3; 17:1-4) and legal disputes (Exod. 18:13-16). After Israel had received a year of training at Mt. Sinai, he undoubtedly had high hopes that the remainder of the trip to the Promised Land would go smoothly. (One can sense his enthusiasm in Num. 10:29-36.)

Unfortunately, the complaints soon resumed (Num. 11:1-3). When demands for a more varied menu spread through the Israelite camp (Num. 11:4-6), Moses felt overwhelmed by the weight of his responsibilities. He asked God, ``Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?'' (Num. 11:11)

Adding to this already heavy load, Moses' own sister and brother then began to criticize him (Num. 12:1-2). By this point, Moses may have felt that he faced the greatest trials of anyone in the world. One can easily imagine Moses having written Num. 12:3 about himself with anav meaning ``bowed down by care or trouble.''

 

A Type of the Messiah



Which meaning of anav is intended in Num. 12:3? The answer may depend upon who penned this verse. If Moses wrote Num. 12:3, then he would have been referring to the great burdens he bore. If someone else wrote Num. 12:3, then either or both of the meanings of anav could have been in view. As we have seen, both meanings apply to Moses and make sense in the context of Num. 12.

Messianic teacher Ariel Berkowitz [1, pp. 522-524] has observed that both senses of anav also characterize Jesus of Nazareth, the ``prophet like unto Moses'' who was to come later (Deut. 18:15). In fact, Jesus' humility and burden far surpassed even those of Moses. As we read in Phil. 2:6-8, Jesus

 

``being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!''

 

In addition to showing the utmost humility on the cross, our Savior bore the heaviest burden of all-the sins of mankind. The prophet Isaiah was inspired to write that God's Servant, the Messiah,

 

``took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted'' (Isa. 53:4).

 

In summary, Moses' ``meekness'' involved a profound humility with which he bore a daunting responsibility. Even more importantly, the meekness of this servant of God (Num. 12:7) points forward to the meekness of Jesus, God's greatest Servant of all. We are grateful for their examples as we strive to follow in their footsteps.

 

REFERENCES

 

1.Ariel Berkowitz, Torah Club Volume Two: Yeshua in the Torah, First Fruits of Zion, Littleton, Colorado, 1999.



2. R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, New American Commentary, Volume 3B, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, 2000.



3. Cleon Rogers, ``Moses: Meek or Miserable?'', Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1986, pp. 257-263.

 

ISSUE 17

 

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