Much of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) is devoted to Moses—who he was, his miraculous deeds, and stories which affirm his leadership in the Israelite community.
The Book of Numbers, in particular, highlights this last dimension of Moses’ leadership skills. Time and again, Moses is depicted as having a special relationship with the Hebrew god, one that reaches an intimacy not afforded to other Israelites or other worshipers.
I want to look at two examples where God curses those who dare to question Moses’ primacy: These events are recounted in Numbers 12 and 16, and detail what happens when Moses leadership is challenged.
The first example, that in Numbers 12, involves a woman named Miriam, who is also the sister of Moses. Miriam is none too pleased by Moses new wife, and begins to doubt his monopoly on prophecy. A conversation ensues between her and Aaron, in which the following is said “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2).
God replies very quickly. It should come as no surprise to learn that Miriam and Aaron were wrong. How does God show his displeasure for their insubordination? He says to them that he speaks clearly to Moses, and not in riddle like he speaks to other prophets.
And then he strikes Miriam with leprosy.
Obviously, one does not question Moses! To do so is to risk punishment by God, himself.
Of course, sometimes it takes a while for things to sink in, and a short while later, in Numbers 16, Moses’ leadership is questioned again, this time by 250 Israelites. A similar accusation as the one above is made against both Moses and Aaron. The crowd says that “all of the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly?” (Numbers 16:3).
As you can guess, it doesn’t end well. God gathers them together with some others who were also questioning Moses and the earth swallows them. Or most of them. God sets the remaining survivors on fire (Numbers 16:5-35). But it doesn’t end there—the Israelites are now angry about these events and confront Moses and Aaron! You can see where this is going: God smites them again, this time sending down a plague (Number 16:41-49).
The message is that Moses is God’s chosen one and that the Israelites should follow him without question. The punishment for doubting Moses is no less than the full wrath of God. These retributory actions, however, do not appear to be sought by Moses—the stories seem to imply that Moses felt some anguish over being questioned and that God stepped in of his own accord to provide a remedy. In the Book of Numbers, God looks out for Moses and takes vengeance on those that question his status as God’s chosen one. The curses wrought in Numbers serve as myth-making to authenticate Moses as the leader of God’s chosen people.