Moses’ meekness?

Question: I heard recently at Mass, “Now Moses was by far the meekest man on the face of the earth” (Nm 12:3). Not to sound impious, but it made me laugh. Moses in the Scriptures was often stern, temperamental and spoke so rashly once that God said, “No Promised Land for you.” What can this text possibly mean?

Name withheld, via email

Answer: Part of the answer may lie in reading in a very literalist, straight-forward way what is meant more as hyperbole. The mention of Moses’ meekness is set in contrast to the bold denigration of his authority by his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam. In their anger at him for marrying a Cushite woman, they declare with boldness: “Is it through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Nm 12:2). This remark provokes God’s anger, and they are punished.

It is in contrast to this boldness of theirs that Moses is called the meekest (some translations say humblest) man on the face of the earth. Given the context, it is possible to assign to a text like this a genre of comparative hyperbole. Thus, the text essentially means, “Compared to them, Moses was the meekest man you’d ever want to meet.”

So the text is indicating that Moses wasn’t the sort to take offense at personal disrespect. He wasn’t stuffy and didn’t expect to be shown all sorts of deference, nor did he try to lay hold of certain offices and charism all for himself. In fact Moses had said elsewhere: “If only all the people of the Lord were prophets! If only the Lord would bestow his spirit on them!” (Nm 11:29).

Thus, the words of the text in Numbers are not an indication that Moses was perfect, nor that there was literally no one else on the whole face of the earth who was more meek and humble and controlling of anger than Moses. Rather, the text sets the stage for Moses’ intercession to God on behalf of his brother and sister, even though they had rebuked his authority and tried to undermine it. And God heard Moses’ prayers and healed them.

As for Moses’ foibles, he surely had them. But here, too, is a picture of the need for grace. For if even the likes of Moses, who had so many graces under the old Law could not make it in, all the more then do we see how necessary the grace of God is for us to enter heaven. Jesus would later say of another great hero of the Old Covenant: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mt 11:11).

Deacons’ garb

Question: I was at the cathedral recently for an ordination and saw a deacon in the long procession wearing a stole over the top of his dalmatic. Is this allowed? As one who is studying for the deaconate, I was told this is wrong.

Name withheld, Nebraska

Answer: There is no provision in the norms for a stole to be worn over the top of a dalmatic by a deacon, or for a priest to wear the stole over the top of a chasuble. However, to be fair, it is possible that the deacon in question was a member of one of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches who do often wear their stoles over the dalmatic. The context of an ordination at the cathedral makes this a strong possibility.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.