Numbers 12, Charlottesville, and our Civil War heritage: some reflections


I make it a point in my survey class on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) to treat Numbers 12, as my own Old Testament seminary professor did for us. Why? Because it is an episode seldom preached on and is not found in most lectionaries, yet it is an indictment by God that addresses our national sin in the United States, which is perhaps why some pastors are nervous to preach on it.


Numbers 12 opens with Aaron and Miriam, the siblings of the great liberator Moses, speaking against him because he married a Cushite woman. They doubt his leadership abilities and hope to undermine him because of this marriage. God is upset by this criticism and calls the siblings together. He reprimands Aaron and Miriam, and after God leaves, Miriam’s skin becomes leprous “as white as snow.” Aaron asks for forgiveness for being “foolish” and Miriam is restored to health after seven days of solitude.


The key to understanding the significance of this story, and particularly Miriam’s consequence, is to know that Sephora was Cushite. A Cushite at times is translated as Nubian, Ethiopian, Daggar or Sudanese. However translated the significance is found in the fact that Moses married an African woman, and Aaron and Miriam react strongly against him. They wish to diminish and undermine Moses leadership based on racial hierarchy. God in turn reacts strongly; essentially stating to Miriam “You prefer light skin do you? Try this then;” hence the skin “as white as snow.” The passage briefly tackles our human tendency to create racial hierarchies and God’s specific and clear condemnation of such tendencies.


“Moses and his Nubian wife” by Jacob Jordaens 1593-1678


Thousands of generations later and thousands of miles apart, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville is representative of our own unresolved approach to white supremacy and all its machinations through “peculiar” institutions such as slavery, Jim Crow, Native American genocide, xenophobia and unfair housing practices. The chants the neo-Nazi and White Supremacists refer to as an honoring of a “heritage” in that park and statue is extremely symbolic.


My grandfather loved to study the Civil War. His Great-grandfather had left Michigan to join the Union artillery. Many summer vacations were spent in Chattanooga and Gettysburg wandering battlefields. As a military man himself he could admire General Lee’s maneuvers and strategy, but several times I remember him saying, “He choose to defend wrong, and because of it so many men lost their lives that didn’t need to.”


It is often documented that Lee was personally uncomfortable with the institution of slavery, but the reality was he choose to defend it and the White Supremacy structure of the Confederacy. A Union defender and fellow-Virginian, General Winfield Scott warned Lee that, “You have made the greatest mistake of your life” when Lee resigned from the US Army to join the Confederacy.

Union Gen. Winfield Scott, a Virginian

Lee himself though expressed forebodingly that this defense of slavery and “State’s rights,” had a negative theological aspect to it. The results were more horrific than a temporary skin disease as in Numbers 12. Early into the war Lee remarked, “I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation perhaps for our national sins.”[1] At least 620,000 men and women would lose their lives for these sins beyond the countless enslaved African people who had already died enslaved in the centuries before. It is easy to think all of this is the past, yet events at Charlottesville, and the delay from our president to condemn it, make it plain that we are in an ongoing fight for complete abolition and continue to struggle with our national sin. Now we add the name of Heather Heyer to the names of people who have lost their lives due to our inability to face our sins as a nation.


Those of us from the North must be wary of what James Baldwin referred to as a Yankee “moral superiority complex,” simply because we won the war 150 years ago.[2] This ignores the reality of race riots and lynching during the war in New York City and Chicago, and Northern unease over the Great Migration of liberated people from the South. We too easily watch silently as things unfold in the “South”, while we sit comfortably in our separate neighborhoods and segregated churches. We can hum and ha about freedom of speech and White identity while ignoring the sinister and nefarious nature of permitting such expressions of hate and death.


This presidency and election have brought to the forefront these underlying ideas of identity, specifically White identity in America. Masked as patriots and defenders of liberty, White supremacists usurp the language of liberty and heritage to in fact promote a slavery to hatred and fragmentation we have yet to break free from. Confederate leaders used similar tactics to attempt to convince foreign allies (Britain and France) that they too were freedom fighters and underdogs preserving the true order of society and citizens’ rights.


The words of Abraham Lincoln in a speech point out the lie of defending such “liberty.” He said, “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man [sic] to do as he pleases with himself [sic], and the product of his labor; while with others the same may mean for some men [sic] to do as they please with other men [sic], and the product of other men’s [sic] labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name – liberty.” He proceeds to use an analogy of how a wolf, sheep, and shepherd all have a different view of liberty as the shepherd knocks the sheep out of the wolf’s mouth. “The wolf denounces him [the shepherd] for the same act [of liberation] as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep is a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty.”[3]


Our diversity is our strength. We have a complicated, complex, and violent heritage that we must face. Near the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Civil War, James McPherson mentions a hopeful interaction between Lee and a Union officer, Ely Parker, who was Seneca Indian. As an original host of the US land Parker’s words carry particular weight. “As he [Lee] shook hands with Grant’s military secretary Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, Lee stared a moment at Parker’s dark features and said, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’ Parker responded, ‘We are all Americans.’”[4]


We must honestly examine our private and public lives, abolishing the ways in which we like Aaron and Miriam create hierarchies, deny or diminish people due to their ethnicity and racial identity. And we must heed Baldwin’s warning of moral superiority, ignoring the ways such hierarchies pervade our society and remain silent about it. I do not think it should be lost on us that it is a Jewish Mayor and scholar, Mike Signer, defending the removal of the Lee statue and denouncing the “Unite the right” rally, holding true to the lessons of Numbers 12. May we seek forgiveness and pardon from God for our “foolish” and ignorant sin, in pursuit of a reconciled community.


[1] James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); 281.

[2] James Baldwin, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Vintage Books, 1961) ; 69-71.

[3] Collected Works of Lincoln, Vol. VII, (Sprinfield, IL: The Abraham Lincoln Society, 1953); 301-2.

[4] McPherson, 849.

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  1. Amy Johnson

    This is so beautiful and gives me hope.

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