Moses Most Humble
Aaron and Miriam’s
complaint is understandable. Even if the stuff
about Moses’ marrying outside the tribe is mere pretext—and maybe it wasn’t;
intermarriage is often seen as a very grave threat to a chosen people—even
if the real issue was their own status, they had a right to be upset. After all, tongue-tied Moses could not have freed the
Israelites without articulate Aaron and his sturdy staff, and Miriam is explicitly
called a prophet in Exodus 15 when she leads the liberation celebration. And in the sixth chapter of Micah, God says, “I brought
you up from the
But our text says next, “And the Lord heard this.” And God was not amused, and summons all three of them to clarify for them a few things about prophets. However, before we hear God’s message, we get this very peculiar verse about Moses being a very humble man--indeed, the most humble person in the whole wide world. Remember, this is from the Pentateuch, which by tradition was written by Moses. So here’s an interesting question: could Moses have said this about himself? In fact, since it is in the Bible, let’s stipulate that it is true—Moses is most humble. He does not after all, proudly and angrily defend his reputation against his siblings; he humbly leaves the rebuttal up to God, who is the only one recorded as getting angry. So maybe he is most humble. Even if he is most humble, however, could Moses say it? I suppose we can imagine the most humble person in the world, in a fit of honesty, thinking to himself, “I guess I’m a fairly humble guy.” In a stretch, we can even imagine his saying that--but quietly, and only to a loved one. And, in a somewhat longer stretch, we can perhaps imagine his wondering whether he might be the most humble person in the world, though here we would start wondering about his wonder. But, even if he correctly decided he was most humble, I can’t imagine his announcing it; that’s way over the top; it would be what philosophers call “self-referentially inconsistent”; to say it out loud is to falsify it. It would be analogous to my saying that my inferiority complex is worse than yours is. (It is, of course, but not if I say it.)
At this point I should mention that, as do many modern translations, the one I read puts parentheses around this text, indicating the editors’ opinion that it is a later addition to whatever contribution Moses made to the text. And I think, in fairness to Moses’ intelligence, if not to his humility, we should accept that interpretation. But it does lead to another interesting question: why put it here, when there seems to be more appropriate places for it? For example, Exodus 3 has Moses saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And in the next chapter he says, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue…please send someone else.” These seem to be obvious places to put in a comment about Moses’ humility, rather than a passage in which he is ranked above all the other prophets.
The clue, I think, is that the comment about Moses’ humility sets up God’s speech about two kinds of prophets—Moses and everyone else. To all other prophets God speaks in visions, dreams, and riddles, but to Moses, clearly, and face to face. I think two kinds of religious experience are referred to here. One is indirect, requiring inferences about God and God’s will, inferences from dreams and visions. The other is a direct, wide-awake, immediate experience of being in the pressence of God. God doesn’t have a face, but the metaphor used is that God speaks with Moses “face to face.” Not that Moses could even metaphorically see God’s face: Exodus 33, in which Moses asks if he can see not just God’s ways, but also God’s glory, has God telling Moses that no one can see God’s face and live, which is why God puts Moses in a cleft of a rock and covers him with God’s hand so that, as God’s goodness or glory passes by, Moses can see only God’s back. These are all metaphors, of course. What I make of them is that not even Moses can see God’s true essence or understand the mystery of God’s Being. But Moses can hear God as if God is speaking right next to him, and, our text says, Moses can thereby see the form of God (in Exodus, the back of God), which I think implies a uniquely intimate relationship with God.
And here, I suggest, is the link to Moses’ being uniquely humble. Think of your self as something you can think about and care about. Philosophers and psychologists have notoriously disputed how this is possible, since your self that is doing the thinking about yourself can not be entirely captured in the self that you are thinking about. (Analogously, even in a good mirror you can not see all of yourself at once.) Lots of ink has been spilt on this problem. Both western thinkers such as David Hume and eastern ones such as the Buddha have claimed that trying to reflect on yourself shows that you do not have an enduring self—only a changing bundle of fleeting experiences. Others, such as Immanuel Kant, spawn distinctions such as that between the empirical ego and—are you ready?—“the transcendental unity of apperception.” But, in spite of the philosophical difficulties in looking at our selves, we do it all the time. And doing it all the time can create a problem, quite apart from our becoming a host of dancing, narcissistic, daffodils (The childerens’ sermon told the story of Narcissus.) Think of your ego as something that metaphorically takes up space in your psychological and spiritual field of vision. What if it takes up so much space that you have trouble getting an accurate read on what’s going on? One of my colleagues (Patti White Sayre) once gave a talk about Moses, and made the point that his ego must have shrunk to a vanishing point, and that is why his uncluttered field of vision enabled him to experience dimensions of spiritual reality that lesser prophets—especially those with the sort of self-concept that demands attention—could not experience because their egos got in the way of their vision.
I find real insight in what she said, though I’m not sure that the ego blockage problem is as much a matter of size as of location and perspective. Consider the quotation from Virginia Woolf that is in the Bulletin. I will also read some of the context. In her book, A Room of Her Own, Woolf discusses the difference between men’s writing and women’s writing, a difference she attributes in part to a traditional difference in resources, such as having a room of one’s own. Here’s the larger quotation:
It was delightful to read [this] writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward [compared to the other writing]. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in [oneself]. One had a sense of physical well-being in the presence of this well-nourished, well-educated, free mind, which had never been thwarted or opposed, but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked. All this was admirable. But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter “I.” One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether that was indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter “I.” One began to be tired of “I.” Not but that this “I” was a most respectable “I”; honest and logical; as hard as a nut, and polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeding. I respect and admire that “I” from the bottom of my heart. But—here I turned a page or two, looking for something or other—the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter “I’ all [else] is shapeless as mist.
Now, I forget whether it was men or women’s writing that she is talking about in this passage, so of course I’ll just use the generic masculine. The writer’s ego, of course, is getting in the way of his readers, but that’s because it is taking the sort of position in his field of vision that prevents even him from getting an accurate read of what’s out there. I mean, if his description is so skewed that a woman walking is not clearly distinguishable from a tree, one wonders what else he is missing or mixing up. One wonders if he would even notice the form of a burning bush, much less some of the subtleties of spiritual realities in the mist.
But notice that the problem can be one of the location of his ego in his field of vision, rather than simply its size. If it’s front and center, even a wimpy ego can block the view. And if it’s off to the side and back a ways, even a solid, well-nourished ego is compatible with perceptive vision of delicate truths. I make a point of this because I think one needs a healthy self-concept and worthy self-respect in order to maintain the sort of integrity we associate with Moses. You need a definite self if you are going to be true to yourself, and Moses definitely had one. You may have seen Michaelangelo’s statute of Moses, or at least a copy of it. (At my undergraduate college it was and still is a mascot that the students display at public events and proudly fight to keep or gain its possession, so I confess I got to know it a bit.) Here’s a photo of it; I know you can’t see it very well, and not because your ego is in the way, but trust me; this is not an image of a person with the obsequiousness of Dicken’s Uriah Heep in David Copperfield; he is definitely not a doormat. (This is true even apart from the horns, which Michaelangelo based on a Latin Vulgate mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “light.”) Recall that in the Pentateuch Moses is portrayed as smashing tablets, whacking rocks instead of talking to them, and always arguing, especially with God. In fact, in the previous chapter, just before this rave review of his humility, listen to what he says to God. The context is that some of the Israelites are getting sick of the café menu, whining for meat and melons instead of manna, and we are told “Then the Lord became very angry.” And then we are told that Moses was displeased—at God—and he says to God, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once…” Well, this is no shrinking violet, even in front of the Master of the Universe.
The point is that we must never conflate humility into timidity; in fact, humility requires confidence—the confidence to be teachable, to be willing to put your own strong ego far enough in the background that you can look, listen, and learn form others, including God, if you are confidently humble enough. Some of us remember Marcus Borg’s visits here. In his lectures and in his book The God We Never Knew he talks about religious experience and wonders why more of us don’t have more of it, especially direct experience of the sacred. Well, he says, we live east of Eden, not in Paradise, and we have “hard hearts,” which is a metaphor for being so full of ourselves and of our everyday worries and concerns that we don’t take the time or make the effort to open our hearts (“hatch them” them like eggs before they turn rotten, as Borg sometimes puts it), which we can try to do through meditation or some of the other dozen or so spiritual practices he describes. Moses could be hard as a nut, to use Woolf’s phrase, but he had a soft heart and an open heart. In some translations the Hebrew is translated as “reverent” rather than “humble.” This also connotes the capacity to respect something that is bigger or better than you are. This capacity is not a self-deprecating meekness; it requires the confidence to be willing to keep oneself in perspective, and even to lose oneself in a reality or project that transcends our everyday concerns about ourselves. In his new book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, philosopher Paul Woodruff gives the example of four amateur musicians transcending their egos and losing their individualities while playing a Mozart quartet. This willingness to lose oneself he links to the capacity for awe and reverence. It need not be amateurs; we have all seen professional conductors—the epitome of “look at me” types—letting their egos recede well into the background as they show reverence to a Beethoven symphony. And the willingness to show reverence to something bigger than yourself takes the same sort of self-confidence that we see in the humility to be teachable.
Of course, what do you expect a teacher to say and to praise—if not teachability? Well, I could say something about what I like to see in students (and by extension, when I’m confident enough to humble, in myself). You may know that Lois and I led St. Olaf’s Term in Asia in the late eighties, and the Term in the Middle East in the middle nineties, and we are scheduled to lead Global Semester a few weeks from now. The first time we selected students, I confess that I looked first at grade point average and other intellectual qualities. Now, as we all know, a brilliant mind can be a beautiful thing. But, when it is combined with a sense of entitlement, it can lead to the sort of articulate whining that we too often find on college campuses. (Not in Northfield, of course, where the colleges, like the cows, are contented.) Since on a term abroad things inevitably go wrong, being raised to think that the world owes you a tight schedule and a hot shower can elicit, shall we say, tiresome group dynamics. So now I look first for a sense of humor. Of course, that is harder to measure than GPA, especially when we have only a ten-minute interview during which the interviewees also ask questions of us. (They probably want to know if we have a sense of humor.) In a short and nervous interview a sense of humor rarely stares you in the face, so I look for other characteristics that might predict one. And, wouldn’t you know, I find that humility and the other virtues listed by St. Paul in Colosians do that quite well. This is one of several texts where Paul lists the fruits of the spirit, and it is worth noticing how big a role is given to humility and to gratitude: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…above all these put love…and be thankful…as you sing…with gratitude in your hearts to God.” Notice how all of these require that we not be too full of ourselves, and that we keep our egos and our self-concern in proper perspective. Notice that being thankful and being grateful are underscored. My experience is that a disposition toward gratitude keeps one’s sense of entitlement in perspective, helps one not to take oneself too seriously, and nurtures humor rather than complaining when things go wrong. Now, I agree that a proper sense of entitlement is morally and religiously important; I remember reading a sign at a civil rights rally that said, “God made me and God doesn’t make junk.” We probably know people who lack self-esteem and thereby lack a proper sense of being entitled to be treated with the respect due to imagers of God. But that doesn’t entitle us, as Woolf puts it, to “full liberty from birth to stretch oneself in whatever way one likes’ or to never be “thwarted or opposed.” And if we have a sense of gratitude for our lives and our opportunities, we know that.
And our knowing that can
be noticed. So far I have referred to how our egos
can block our view—and thereby our description--of what’s happening out
there. But, of course, others out there can sometimes
notice the blockage, like a beam in our eye. And
not a light beam. Notice that Matthew does not say
“let your light shine before others so they may see you and
give glory to God.” He says, “so they may see your
good works and give glory.” I don’t
mean to draw a sharp line between us and our works, because I agree that
there is an element of truth in both sides of the debate whether we are
what we do or we do what we are. But as the example
from the Reverence book suggests, sometimes we play our best
music and shed our best light when we humbly rise to a reverential experience
and lose ourselves in what we are doing. It’s funny
how that works.
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Date Last Modified: 8/10/03