Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Moses was humble

Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth (Num 12:3, NIV).

That's a prooftext for critics who deny the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Surely it's oxymoronic for a humble man to brag about his humility! 

1. To begin with, to be "humble" is ambiguous. That can denote two different things:

i) A humble attitude

ii) A humble condition

The first definition refers to a psychological state whereas the second definition refers to an objective state. For instance, we sometimes talk about people who rose from humble origins. That doesn't ascribe humility to them in the sense of a modest, self-effacing attitude. Rather, that makes a statement about their background. Their lowly circumstances. 

In the traditional Book of Common prayer, supplicants frequently refer to themselves as "humble servants". That's not, in the first instance, a claim about their state of mind. Rather, that's an acknowledgement of their dependent, subordinate status in relation to God. 

So the word has different connotations

2. More to the point is the implied contrast:

i) The immediate context is the difference between Moses and his siblings (Num 1:1-2). Unlike Miriam and Aaron, Moses is not ambitious. Not power-hungry. Doesn't seek prestige. 

ii) Lying in the background is the history of Moses as a reluctant prophet (Exod 4). Moses makes every excuse he can think of to evade the leadership position that God has thrust him into. So Num 12:3 is just a way of saying Moses lacks ambition, in contrast to his self-seeking brother and sister. He never wanted the job. He's the leader in spite of his decided preference to take a backseat. 

"More humble than anyone else on the face of the earth" is simply hyperbole. 


  1. ~ I find something of this sort also bandied about in the Church. People will say something like "the moment you have admitted to being humble, you've lost your humility."

    I don't see why. I mean suppose someone were to walk up to Jesus and ask Him "Are you humble?" How would Jesus respond?

    If Jesus replied with a "No" then He would be a liar. If He replied with a "Yes" then presumably according to above reasoning, Jesus is actually not humble, but prideful.

    In Him,
    ~ Raj

    1. I totally agree. There's nothing inherently prideful in admitting the truth that one is humble. It can be said pridefully, but it can also be said truthfully and humbly. Humility is having a right and accurate self-perception. Paul said we aren't to think of ourselves MORE highly than we ought (Rom. 12:3). He didn't say don't think of yourself highly. I think there is a sense in which we should think of ourselves highly. Just not MORE highly than the position we actually are relative to God and other believers, and non-believers in the various sphere we live in. For example, there is a sense in which a destitute Christian is higher than a unbelieving king (spiritually speaking). Yet, in another sense the king is higher than that same Christian governmentally. Just as there's a sense in which a layman and a minister are equals, and another sense in which they are not equals.

      I'm reminded of Edward's Griffin's sermon Heaven

      ...Child of God, bow before thine own majesty.- Debase not thyself by sordid actions. Forget not the glories of thy nature, nor sell thine infinite birthright for such a contemptible mess of pottage as earth can yield. Child of God, cheer up under the trials of life. Let nothing cast you down who are standing on the verge of immortal glory. It is the only opportunity you will ever have to suffer for Christ. Eternity will be long enough for enjoyment. Your toils and selfdenials will all be recompensed a thousand fold by that "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."

      Or his sermon When I was a Child I Thought as a Child

      Often contemplate the amazing destinies before you. Why those sighs and tears and low contracted griefs? Is it for the children of a king to be sad? You have reason to rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory. I wonder you are not constantly transported. Consider what you will be a century hence. Consider what you will be a million ages hence. I am rapt as I follow you through the ascending glories of eternity. And are you born to this? to dignity so august? to glories so unbounded? O debase not yourselves by sordid actions. Stoop not to grovelling pursuits. Remember what you are and respect yourselves. Do nothing that you will disapprove when you review your life from the high abodes of salvation.

      Or C.S. Lewis' sermon The Weight of Glory

      It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on
      my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.

  2. Good points. One other possibility: We know that Joshua had a hand in writing and editing the Pentateuch, certainly under the auspices of Moses' leadership. This phrase may have been a personal observation of Moses' character by Joshua.