by Larry Downing | 7 January 2019 |
“I accept this office with humility.” “I am humbled by the trust you have put in me.” “I ask that, in humility, you accept and follow the decisions of this body.”
The phrases above, or ones like them, were spoken by numerous individuals after they learned the delegates to the recent North American Division (NAD) Year End Meeting had elected them to an administrative position. The frequency of assurances from church leaders that the offices to which they have been elected/appointed made them feel humble prompted an examination of the words humble or humility. What did the writers of scripture intend the reader to understand when they applied this idea to an individual or action? Did they expect recipients to evidence specific attributes? Or was it a perception on someone’s part that a person was humble?
An additional catalyst to pursue an understanding of humility was associated with my decision to prepare a sermon that explored the life of Moses, the man identified in Numbers 12:3 as the most humble man on the earth. What set Moses apart from others on the humility scale? He was a murderer, a fugitive from justice who evidenced limited patience. The renegade from justice who had run for his life stood before the most powerful man in the world and made demands only a fool would dare. Hardly the behavior we associate with a humble man. Standing with his brother Aaron at his side, this most humble man cried out to the people he had been sent to lead, “‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ In his frustration, Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff…” (Numbers 20:10, 11). Where would you place Moses man on the humility scale? Something is missing in this scenario. Humility, as commonly understood and applied, does not fit into Moses’ life story. There must be more.
In my search for answers, I called Dr. Joseph Schamas to help me parse the Moses story. Dr. Schamas, an orthodox Jew, trained as a rabbi, son of a respected rabbi, and an ever-present help in untangling the nuances of Biblical Hebrew and obtuse Old Testament passages is, in addition to all of the above, a long-time and valued friend. Our conversation began by my expressing deep feelings of sadness that arose in response to the recent murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue. The massacre that took eleven lives had significant impact on Joe’s life, the lives of his family and all people of faith.
I turned next to the reason for my call. I explained to Joe that my sermon the next Sabbath drew from the life of Moses. In previous conversations with Joe, the mention of a biblical topic or text I was working on stirred my friend’s creative juices. His practice was to assure me the topic or passage was interesting and important. He then, from his rabbinic training and studies, shared a story or interpretation from the Mishnah, the Talmud, other rabbinic works, or his personal studies. Often his insights became part of my sermons.
On this occasion, when I told Joe my intention to preach on some aspect of Moses’ life, his first response was to state what I already knew: The Torah proclaims Moses the most humble man who ever lived. But, continued Joe, humble does not mean what most people think it means. The rabbis’ interpretation of humble is that a person is willing to take action; that a person does what needs to be done, even if it goes against his/her desires. For example, Moses witnessed an Egyptian attacking an Israelite. What did this most humble man do? He killed an Egyptian. Why did he take action? A person in a power position was unjustly taking advantage of an oppressed individual. Moses, an Israelite, raised in the Egyptian royal household, could have continued on his way. He chose otherwise. He interjected himself between the Egyptian and his brother-slave and killed the antagonist. This is what the humble do. When they witness injustice, they take action to bring justice to the oppressed.
Later, Moses came upon two Jews pummeling one another. This humble man once again interfered. He reprimanded the antagonists. The retort from the quarreling men, “Will you kill us too?” initiated Moses’ exodus from Egypt to Midian, where he found himself in the middle of people fighting over water rights. Moses, the immigrant, became involved in foreign affairs: he stood up for the most vulnerable. Joe, in a personal email to me, shared how the rabbis understand humility.
“Anivus (the Hebrew word for humility) means that a person is to act with certainty, confidence, and courage. Moses, the humblest person, takes a stand, always fighting for what is correct and just. Humility actually means that a person should act with certainty, confidence, and courage in knowing that his or her actions are correct, no matter what other people say. Humility means not caring about our egos and what others may say (good or bad), when one knows that his or her actions are correct.
“A humble person is actually an individual with action and purpose. He or she is the leader that others are attracted to, always knowing that the humble person does the right thing.
“Humility is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, not because it will bring glory or notoriety. On the other hand, arrogance is doing something – whether it is the right thing or not – because the ego says it is the right way to garner accolades or press.
“Abraham responded to God’s call by answering, ‘Hineni,’ (‘Here I am’), meaning ‘Here I am, ready to do the right thing, whatever God requests, with certainty, confidence, and courage.’ Abraham did not care that he was alone in his belief of monotheism, and that others would mock him. Humility is not caring what others may say, when you are certain and confident that you are correct. A humble person acts with certainty, confidence, and courage in knowing that his or her actions are correct, no matter what other people say.” By doing so, he or she sets an example for others to join along in acting the correct way.” 
This broader understanding of humble takes us into areas quite apart from Uriah Heep humility, nor is humility limited to taking the role of a servant or slave. We Adventists have associated the foot washing ritual with humility: the ordinance of humility. It may be time to examine further the label we have associated with Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. The Jewish understanding of what it means to practice humility stands in opposition to taking the position of a door mat or rolling over and saying, “Well, whatever.” Humility, from the Jewish perspective, is more akin to an active verb, in contrast to a passive attitude.
This interpretation is affirmed by The Pirkei Avos: Ethics of the Fathers: the Sages’ Treasury Guide to Living (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1996). The following is a quote from this work.
“The Mishnah sheds light on the true definition of humility. Moses certainly believed in the thirteen Âni Maarminˆ principles of faith, including the credo that Moses was the greatest of all the prophets—and yet the Torah teaches that he was the most humble of all men (Numbers 12:3). How is this possible?
“The Steipler Gaon explained: If a destitute woman were to borrow an elegant gown to attend a wedding, she certainly would not spend the evening bragging about “her” dress. She knows it is not hers and that tomorrow morning she must return it to its owner. Similarly a portfolio manager may handle millions of dollars, yet he knows he is merely playing with someone else’s fortune; at the end of the day he must return the money with every penny accounted for.
“God endows man with a living soul and invests him with many abilities and talents—but it is all on loan, to be wisely invested on God’s behalf and eventually returned to Him.
“Humility does not mean being oblivious to one’s unique capabilities; it is the recognition that one’s uniqueness is on loan, and that such a loan cannot be a source of personal pride. Moses had no doubt that he was the greatest of all prophets; but he knew also that his prophecy was a gift from God.” (p. 152)
With the above re-definition of the commonly understood interpretation of humility, the humble person will defend the vulnerable, neutralize those who take advantage of those who are unable to defend themselves, act to assure justice and fight injustice. Without regard to ego or threat to self, the humble will take action against bigotry, reject policies that discriminate, and denounce behaviors that harm or diminish God’s family.
We in the North American Division can be grateful that our humble leaders modeled these characteristics that define humility in their decision to support women’s ordination. This is what humility does: prompts people to take appropriate action! What will be the catalyst to move the General Conference administrative group to follow their colleague’s example? The question remains unanswered.
There are other areas where we, as a denomination, have been humility challenged. Members of the LGTBQ community tell us that church administrators, pastors and parish members often do not welcome them into our congregations. Is not this an opportunity for a humble person to take action and come to the defense of a vulnerable group? A risk? Yes! But so it was for Moses to kill an Egyptian. So it was for Abraham to set forth on a journey to a new land. So it was for Jesus to forsake the heavenly places and share life on a far-off planet. He humbled himself and became a servant. He took action. And the world has never been the same.
 From Dr. Joseph Schames, Being World Class: The Secret to Having a Meaningful Life, Private publication, pp. 107-109.
Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines.