Numbers 12 – The Dissension of Miriam and Aaron
A. Miriam and Aaron bring an accusation against Moses.
1. (1) Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses’ wife and marriage.
Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
a. Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses: Miriam and Aaron were the sister and brother of Moses. Their disapproval of Moses and his Ethiopian wife was an example of a principle later stated by Jesus: that it is not unusual for a prophet to find no honor among his own people (Matthew 13:57).
i. According to Allen, Miriam took the lead in this criticism. “The feminine singular verb that initiates the chapter (lit., ‘and she spoke,’ Numbers 12:1) and the placement of her name before that of Aaron indicate that Miriam is the principal in the attack against Moses.”
ii. “Her discontent might arise from this, that, being a prophetess, she was not one of those seventy that were chosen to be helps in government.” (Trapp)
b. Because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: This was the reason for their criticism. Some regard this as a problem passage because Exodus 2:16-22 says that the wife of Moses (named Zipporah) was the daughter of a man from Midian (not Ethiopia).
i. Some think that Zipporah died, and this was a second wife Moses took after Zipporah’s death. Remember that Moses had a remarkably long life and was more than 81 at this time. It is certainly possible he survived more than one wife.
ii. Others think that Moses took a second wife in addition to Zipporah; this is possible but doesn’t seem likely.
iii. Still others suggest that Jethro, Zipporah’s father, was actually from Ethiopia but had moved to Midian, making Zipporah an Ethiopian by birth but one who had lived in Midian.
iv. It may also be possible that Ethiopian here was a derogatory term used to criticize Zipporah because of her dark complexion.
c. For he had married an Ethiopian woman: Interestingly, they criticized Moses and his wife for something she had no control over – her appearance, either because she was an Ethiopian (a black or dark African) or had a dark complexion as an Ethiopian.
i. As the following verses will show, the complaint over Moses’ wife was not the real issue. Many people are criticized for things that are not the real issue, or about things they have no control over.
2. (2) A challenge to Moses’ spiritual authority.
So they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it.
a. Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? This question was meant to tear Moses down, asked with the assumption that Moses was spiritually proud. The idea was that Moses arrogantly presented himself as the only spokesman of God to Israel. Though it was presented in the form of a question, it was in fact an attack against the authority of Moses, and the God who appointed Moses.
i. In one sense, the proper answer to their question was no, the LORD had not spoken only through Moses.
· God spoke to the people through Aaron in Exodus 4:30.
· God again spoke to and through Aaron in Exodus 12:1.
· Miriam spoke words inspired by God in Exodus 15:20-21.
· On one other occasion, in some way, God spoke through the elders of Israel in Numbers 11:24-25.
ii. In another sense, the answer to their question was yes – God had spoken only through Moses. God appointed Moses as the foremost leader of Israel, and God used Moses as His spokesman to Israel.
iii. Aaron and Miriam reasoned like this: “We are spiritually gifted, and God has spoken through us. Therefore, Moses should share his place of authority over the congregation of Israel with us.” They didn’t understand that being spiritually gifted or being used by God in themselves did not justify receiving the responsibility and authority of leading the people of God.
b. Has He not spoken through us also? In one sense, this was a strange question. God had spoken through Aaron and Miriam in Exodus 4:30, Exodus 12:1, and Exodus 15:20-21. This wasn’t really a question, but an attempt to lift Miriam and Aaron up. They wanted some of the authority and attention Moses received by God’s appointment.
i. By God’s design, Moses had a singular position of leadership over Israel, and the people were not led by a congress or committee. This type of leadership is often seen in the Bible, shown in leaders such as Joshua, David, Daniel, James, Peter, Paul, Timothy, and Titus. The greatest example of this kind of leadership was Jesus Christ, whose leadership style we are commanded to imitate.
ii. “Every now and then we hear some simpleton or other talking against a ‘one-man ministry,’ when it has been a one-man ministry from the commencement of the world to the present day; and whenever you try to have any other form of ministry, except that of each individual saint discharging his own ministry, and doing it thoroughly and heartily and independently and bravely in the sight of God, you very soon run upon quicksands.” (Spurgeon)
c. And the LORD heard it: Of course, God heard it. God always does, and He hears according to truth, not according to mere appearance. Miriam and Aaron accused Moses of pride, the very same sin that motivated them to make the accusation.
3. (3) The humble heart of Moses.
(Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.)
a. Now the man Moses was very humble: Moses did not have a significant problem with pride; he was very humble. Quite the contrary – his accusers were the ones with a pride problem.
i. If the genuinely humble man Moses was accused of pride and a dictatorial manner, it shows that accusations of pride and authoritarian manner are sometimes untrue. In this case the accusation was false, even though it was made by those close to the accused.
b. More than all men who were on the face of the earth: This statement, if written by Moses, seems to be self-contradictory. It doesn’t seem to be proper for a very humble man to write of his great humility. Though Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, it is likely that someone added this comment after the death of Moses – perhaps Joshua, who would have known Moses well.
i. Another portion of the books of Moses that was completed by a later, inspired editor was the account of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34. Perhaps Joshua was also the editor who added Deuteronomy 34.
ii. It is important to see Moses didn’t start out as the humblest man on earth. As a prince of Egypt, Moses grew up proud and confident in his abilities. It was only time – desert time, lowly time – that made him a humble man, able to be greatly used by God.
c. Moses was very humble: Other commentators suggest that humble is better understood as “low” or “miserable,” and this describes a low point in Moses’ life.
i. Humble: “It is a word that elsewhere is used only in poetry. It sometimes refers to those in real poverty, or those who are weak and liable to be exploited (Amos 2:7; Isaiah 11:4). Such people must look to God for aid, because they are unable to help themselves.” (Wenham)
ii. “The word ‘miserable’ could hardly be more fitting in the context of this chapter. Moses has been under assault from every front.” (Allen)
iii. Moses was “miserable” because “of the great burden he had to bear in the care and government of this people, and because of their ingratitude and rebellion both against God and himself: of this depression and affliction, see the fullest proof in the preceding chapter. The very power they envied was oppressive to its possessor, and was more than either of their shoulders could sustain.” (Clarke)
B. God answers the accusation of Miriam and Aaron against Moses.
1. (4-5) God’s dramatic appearance to Miriam and Aaron.
Suddenly the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!” So the three came out. Then the LORD came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both went forward.
a. Suddenly: There was no long delay. Many of God’s judgments are long in coming, at least from a human perspective – but on occasion, God brings His justice suddenly.
b. Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting: In what seems to have been an audible voice, God called for all three to come before the tabernacle of meeting. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron thought that God would use this situation to correct Moses, whom they claimed was proud and dictatorial.
c. Then the LORD came down in the pillar of cloud: God took a personal, powerful interest in this important matter. The LORD wanted to make His will plainly known.
2. (6-9) God’s vindication of Moses.
Then He said,
“Hear now My words:
If there is a prophet among you,
I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision;
I speak to him in a dream.
Not so with My servant Moses;
He is faithful in all My house.
I speak with him face to face,
Even plainly, and not in dark sayings;
And he sees the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid
To speak against My servant Moses?”
So the anger of the LORD was aroused against them, and He departed.
a. I speak with him face to face: The basis of the complaint of Miriam and Aaron was essentially, “What’s so special about Moses?” God here explained exactly what was so special about him. Most prophets receive revelation through a dream or in a vision, but God spoke with Moses face to face.
i. We understand the phrase face to face to mean great and unhindered closeness in relationship; we do not take this to mean that Moses literally saw a material or physical face of God. In the sense of seeing the material or physical face of God in glory, what God declared in Exodus 33:20 is true: You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.
ii. This is also demonstrated by the phrase, and he sees the form of the LORD. This is what Moses had actually seen of God with his physical eyes – only the form of the LORD, nothing specific or material, because he could not see the LORD and live.
iii. This clarity of revelation from God made Moses unique. “Only Moses could approach the holy mountain and gaze on the Divine Person. Only his face radiated following these encounters. Others might hear the words; only Moses sees God’s person…. At the very least, these words speak of an unprecedented level of intimacy between God and Moses.” (Allen)
iv. “The word ‘form’ is used of visual representations, pictures, or images, of earthly and heavenly beings (Exodus 20:4). Job saw someone’s form, but could not identify the person from it (Job 4:16).” (Wenham)
b. My servant Moses; he is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings: Moses enjoyed remarkably close communion with God, and it is worth considering why.
i. It was because God needed a man this close to Him, to be a vessel of revelation and a proper leader for the nation through this remarkable time of the Exodus. This close relationship was a gift of the sovereign God to Moses.
ii. It was because Moses was a humble man. Only the humble – those who are genuinely others-centered – can be trusted with such communion with God.
iii. It was because Moses, according to God, was faithful in all My house: His walk of righteousness and purity, demonstrated over forty years in obscure service to God in the smallest things, revealed the faithful heart that God saw in Moses. “The vision of God is not given to great intellectual ability or mental gift; but to those who as servants are faithful in the administration of God’s Household…. Such are they that enjoy the face-to-face fellowship, and the mouth-to-mouth speech.” (Meyer)
iv. Faithful in all My house: The author of Hebrews quoted this idea in Hebrews 3:5-6, making a contrast between Moses and Jesus. Moses was a servant faithful in all God’s house, but Jesus was, and is, the Son of God; builder of His own house (the church). Also, “Moses saw God’s form and heard his word, but Jesus was the Word and in the form of God (John 1:14-18; Philippians 2:6).” (Wenham)
c. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses? As much as Miriam and Aaron did not want to recognize it, Moses did have a unique calling and equipping from the LORD. They did not speak against Moses as the leader of Israel as much as they spoke against Moses the servant of God.
i. It was not that Moses was beyond criticism. Moses was not to be simply obeyed and praised, and never held to account or asked difficult questions. In fact, another relative of Moses, his father-in-law Jethro, did confront Moses and ask him difficult questions, and Jethro was greatly used of God when he did this (Exodus 18:12-24).
ii. Miriam and Aaron should have been afraid to speak against Moses because their criticism was petty and about something that didn’t matter or was beyond control: the nationality or appearance of Moses’ wife.
iii. Miriam and Aaron should have been afraid to speak against Moses because their criticism was simply not true. Moses was not a proud man, but the humblest man on earth.
iv. Miriam and Aaron should have been afraid to speak against Moses because their criticism was prompted by their own self-interest; they were jealous of all the attention Moses was receiving and wanted some of it for themselves.
v. Leaders in the house of God must be held to account, and they must be open to criticism and questioning. But they don’t need to make themselves quiet targets for those who bring petty, false, and self-motivated criticism.
d. So the anger of the LORD was aroused against them, and He departed: After making His anger evident, the remarkable presence of God departed. This left an extremely uncomfortable pause for Miriam and Aaron.
C. God’s punishment for Miriam and Aaron.
1. (10) Miriam is made a leper.
And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper.
a. Suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow: Leprosy was a disease where the body rotted and decayed. It was considered a “walking death” – and Miriam had an advanced case of leprosy (white as snow) instantly. At this moment, God caused her body to reflect her heart.
i. “Though ‘leprosy’ is the traditional translation of the Hebrew root ṣara, it is inaccurate. True leprosy (Hansen’s disease) did not reach the Middle East until New Testament times at the earliest. Nor does true leprosy spontaneously disappear, as the various complaints listed in Leviticus 13-14 may do. Rather, biblical leprosy is a patchy, scaly skin complaint, such as psoriasis or severe eczema. It may be that the flaking, peeling scales associated with such complaints prompts the comparison with snow and a still-born infant.” (Wenham)
b. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper: It seems that Miriam did not immediately know this; Aaron noticed it first as he turned and looked at his sister.
2. (11-12) Aaron’s apology.
So Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us, in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned. Please do not let her be as one dead, whose flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother’s womb!”
a. Oh, my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us, in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned: Aaron was easily influenced. When the people of Israel wanted an idol, he was persuaded to provide it (Exodus 32:1-6). He was influenced by his sister (who seemed to be the greater troublemaker, because she was named first and was first struck with leprosy). Now Aaron was quickly influenced back to a humble submission before Moses.
i. Adam Clarke considered one possible reason Miriam was afflicted with leprosy and Aaron was not: “Had he [Aaron] been smitten with the leprosy, his sacred character must have greatly suffered, and perhaps the priesthood itself have fallen into contempt. How many priests and preachers who deserved to be exposed to reproach and infamy, have been spared for the sake of the holy character they bore, that the ministry might not be blamed! But the just God will visit their transgressions in some other way, if they do not deeply deplore them and find mercy through Christ. Nothing tends to discredit the work of God so much as the transgressions and miscarriages of those who minister in holy things.”
ii. Done foolishly: “The Hebrew yaal is a rare term used in Isaiah 19:13, Jeremiah 5:4, and Jeremiah 50:36 to refer to a person who acts in a delusional manner as a result of ignorance, of one lacking knowledge of God and his ways.” (Cole)
iii. “Himself trembling as one who had barely escaped, Aaron could not but confess his share in the transgression.” (Watson)
b. Oh my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us: Aaron called Moses his master (my lord), and he attributed to Moses the power to strike Miriam with leprosy. Aaron also confessed his previous criticism as foolish and sinful (we have done foolishly…we have sinned).
i. Sadly, we can’t seem to separate Aaron’s immediate and dramatic change of heart from the threat that he might be the next victim of God’s judgment. His confession seemed to be full of self-interest.
3. (13) Moses prays for Miriam.
So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “Please heal her, O God, I pray!”
a. So Moses cried out to the LORD: This was the first word spoken by Moses in this chapter. He had not spoken the entire time he was accused, leaving it up to God to answer his critics.
i. When a leader perceives accusations are petty, false, or self-motivated, often the right thing to do is to ignore them, leave them up to God, and keep busy with what the LORD has called the leader to do. Jesus did this, as described in Isaiah 53:7: He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth.
b. Please heal her, O God, I pray: When Moses finally did speak, it was in prayer for his accusers.
4. (14-16) The restoration of Miriam.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp seven days, and afterward she may be received again.” So Miriam was shut out of the camp seven days, and the people did not journey till Miriam was brought in again. And afterward the people moved from Hazeroth and camped in the Wilderness of Paran.
a. Let her be shut out of the camp seven days, and afterward she may be received again: God did heal Miriam. If she were still a leper, she would not have been allowed to remain in the camp of Israel, and she was received again. Yet, God allowed her to live with the outward display of her inward heart for seven days – and allowed the whole nation to know it.
b. So Miriam was shut out of the camp seven days: This was appropriate because Miriam had done something even more shameful than her own father spitting in her face. She tried to bring down a leader of God’s people with petty, false, and self-interested criticism.
i. Afterward the people moved from Hazeroth: “While Miriam was going through her required period of separation and ritual purification, the Israelite camp remained at Hazeroth. This delay was perhaps out of some respect or admiration for Miriam and her noble place within the community leadership. But also Israel would not disembark on the next stage of the journey to the Promised Land until the Lord would lead them by the cloud. Hence the seriousness of the rebellion of one of Israel’s leaders is magnified, and the consequences of such an act would affect the entire community.” (Cole)
c. Camped in the Wilderness of Paran: After leaving Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11-12), now Israel came to the staging ground for the invasion and conquest of Canaan. They were on the threshold of the Promised Land, with God inviting them to take the land by faith.
i. “The Desert of Paran was the staging area for the attack on the land of Canaan…. Now was the time for regrouping, for reconnaissance and evaluation, for placing strategy in place, and for mounting the assault of victory over the Canaanite peoples.” (Allen)