Moses Describing His Own Humility Is Unbelievable
Revised: 2018 Jan 26
The book of Numbers says this: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (ch. 12:3, NRSV throughout). Did Moses write this? The Bible Knowledge Commentary contends he did:
“This statement is often adduced as evidence that Moses could not have written the Book of Numbers for he would not have boasted of his own humility. On the contrary, the declaration concerning his humility is the strongest possible support for the traditional view that Moses wrote Holy Scripture as an inspired penman. Only one led by the Holy Spirit could make such a statement about himself, probably against his own natural inclination.”
So, since Moses was a divinely inspired prophet, he simply wrote whatever God inspired him to without question. This might satisfy those determined to uphold the doctrine of divine inspiration, but many will not feel comfortable with it, and it is certainly not the majority view throughout the commentaries.
The New American Commentary says a “narrator” wrote verse 3:
“A parenthetic statement by the narrator concerning the character and quality of Moses as a man and as a leader of Israel is interjected into the flow of the narrative, heightening the dramatic effect of the passage.”
This commentator can be commended for refusing to believe that Moses wrote about his own humility. However, his suggestion is no better. He creates a mysterious narrator and dismisses the practice of adding to divine revelation by suggesting the insertion is merely a “parenthetic statement.” Unfortunately, ancient writers did not delineate their parenthetical remarks with brackets as we do today, so we are left to wonder where their updates begin and end. How many Bible readers know that anonymous editors have made additions to the text for the purpose of “heightening the dramatic effect?” Who decided God’s revelation was too dull?
The Teacher’s Bible Commentary agrees Moses probably did not write verse 3, but claims it doesn’t present a problem:
“Did Moses write the words in 12:3? In all probability he did not. Whatever our views concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch we certainly must have a concept of inspiration flexible enough to allow some man to insert this passage about Moses. Moses certainly did not write it about himself. Nothing is lost with reference to the authority of the Scripture if we admit that a scribe, either in the days of Moses, or as late as the time of the Exile, added this descriptive statement concerning Israel’s great leader.”
Nothing is lost? What about the huge loss of confidence we are reading the unadulterated “Word of God?” Not everyone will be comfortable with a “flexible” concept of inspiration that allows for scribes to be inserting comments wherever they feel like it.
Other commentaries descend into varying depths of dishonesty:
“…it is not improbable that, as this verse appears to be a parenthesis, it may have been inserted as a gloss by Ezra or some later prophet. Others, instead of ‘very meek,’ suggest ‘very afflicted,’ as the proper rendering.”
It is common to suggest “Ezra or some later prophet” edited scripture. Invoking Ezra is popular because of his inherent legitimacy. Ezra, after all, was “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6) who wrote at least part of one book of the Bible. (See Ezra 7:27–9:15.) So, it is reasoned, since Ezra must have been inspired to write his contribution, he was qualified to make inspired changes to outdated inspired scripture. However, we should be asking why inspired scripture should need any editing in the first place. And, where is there any real support for Ezra over anyone else? Perhaps, the strongest support would be found in Neh. 8:8:
“So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
Ezra presided over this “interpretation” and “gave the sense” (see vv. 5-6). So, it might be suggested he had the authority to “clarify” certain passages. However, there is no indication he edited the original text handed down from Moses assuming that is what he had before him. Ultimately, the Ezra-as-editor notion is nothing more than desperate speculation. Moreover, it is definitely not an appealing solution because if someone post-exilic such as Ezra edited the Torah, the accuracy of the entire Tanakh is impugned. The Tanakh is thought to have been compiled by The Great Assembly (c. 450 BCE). However, if compiling means editing, then all confidence we are reading the work of the original authors vaporizes.
Next, the commentator tries another tactic — he suggests “meek” (Heb. עָנָו [anaw]) is a poor translation. It might have been better translated “afflicted.” With this “minor” adjustment, authorship could be attributed to Moses. Granted, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon says in some cases, “anaw” can mean “afflicted.” However, of more than thirty English translations consulted in the preparation of the current article, not one renders the Hebrew thus. Only two words are ever used — “meek” or “humble,” and the reason should be obvious — in Num. 12:3, the humility of Moses is being contrasted with the pride of Miriam and Aaron. “Afflicted” completely destroys this powerful contrast.
Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary offers another unlikely interpretation:
“Another possibility is that the Hebrew word ˓anaw, translated as humble, may mean ‘miserable’ in this context.”
This close cousin of “afflicted” has been promoted by Cleon Rogers. It is no better than the previous nonstarter. Notwithstanding Rogers’ informed argumentation, evidently, he too, has missed the contrast in Num. 12:3. Ultimately, we should remember that his opinion is inconsistent with the consensus of the eminently qualified Hebrew translators of all Bibles in common use.
The Pulpit Commentary offers the more reasonable approach:
“The verse bears a difficulty on its very face, because it speaks of Moses in terms which could hardly have been used by Moses of himself. Nor is this difficulty in the least degree diminished by the explanations which are offered by those who are determined to maintain at any cost the Mosaic authorship of every word in the Pentateuch…Granted that it was necessary to the narrative to point out that he was very meek; it was not necessary to assert that he was absolutely the meekest man living. And if it was unnecessary, it was also unnatural. No good man would go out of his way to compare himself to his own advantage with all men upon the face of the earth. The whole form of the sentence, indeed, as well as its position, proclaim it so clearly to be an addition by some later hand.”
 John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Nu 12:1–3 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985).
 R. Dennis Cole, vol. 3B, Numbers, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, 202 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001).
 Franklin H. Paschall and Herschel H. Hobbs, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, 101 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1972).
 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, A. R. Fausset et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Nu 12:3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Nu 12:3 (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999).
 Cleon Rogers, “Moses: Meek or Miserable” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 29th edition, Sep. 1986, 257-263.
 The Pulpit Commentary: Numbers, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, 130-31 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004).