Numbers 12 – The Dissension of Aaron and Miriam
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: On the one hand, it seems strange that his sister and brother – his own family – would be the source of such criticism. We might think that they would be Moses’ greatest support. Yet it is not unusual for a prophet to be without honor among his own people (Matthew 13:57).
i. Miriam takes the lead here; “The feminine singular verb that initiates the chapter (lit., ‘and she spoke,’ v.1) and the placement of her name before that of Aaron indicate that Mirian is the principal in the attack against Moses.” (Allen)
b. Because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: This was the reason for their criticism. This is a problem passage for some, because Exodus 3:16-22 indicates Moses’ wife (named Zipporah) was the daughter of a man from Midian.
i. Some think perhaps Zipporah had died, and this was a second wife Moses took after her death. Remember that Moses had a remarkably long life, and was more than 81 at this time – it is entirely possible he outlived several wives.
ii. Others think 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 and had moved to Midian, making Zipporah a Ethiopian by birth but living in Midian.
iv. It may also be possible that Ethiopian here was a derogatory term used to criticize Zipporah because of a dark complexion.
c. For he had married an Ethiopian woman: Interestingly, they criticized Moses and his wife over something she had no control over – her appearance, either because she was an Ethiopian (meaning a Negro) or had a dark complexion as an Ethiopian. Much criticism comes to pastor’s wives and others in ministry over things they really have no control over.
i. However, it seems that the complaint over Moses’ wife was not the real issue, which was addressed in the next verse.
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 attack attempted to put Moses down, making him seem proud. After all, it should matter nothing to Aaron and Miriam if indeed the Lord had spoken only through Moses. Their real charge was that Moses “goes about acting as if he is the only one the Lord speaks through,” accusing Moses of pride.
i. Did the Lord indeed only speak through Moses? No and yes. Of course, the Lord had spoken through many in the Book of Exodus already: The Lord spoke the people through Aaron in Exodus 4:30; He spoke to Aaron in Exodus 12:1; Miriam herself spoke words inspired by God in Exodus 15:21. But in the sense of there being one leader for Israel, there was only one. Moses, under God’s hand, had the authority and the accountability to lead the people.
b. Has He not spoken through us also? This question was meant to lift Miriam and Aaron up. “After all, God speaks to us also. Shouldn’t we get some of the credit around here?” Of course, God had spoken to Miriam and Aaron in the past – but He had not given them the authority to lead the nation.
i. Can God give one man the authority to lead His people? Of course He can. The Old and New Testaments are filled with this kind of leadership (Moses, Joshua, David, Daniel, James, Peter, Paul, Timothy, Titus; and of course Jesus, 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, and doing it thoroughly and heartily and independently and bravely in the sight of God, you very soon run upon quicksands.” (Spurgeon, A Cheery Word In Troublous Times)
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 – as is often the case – were accusing Moses of the very same sin motivating them to make the accusation (pride).
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 had no problem with pride. Quite the contrary – his accusers were the ones with a pride problem.
i. If this genuinely humble man Moses was accused of pride and a dictatorial manner, it should show us that the accusation can be made and is made against others who do not deserve it. Just because a man is accused of pride or arrogance doesn’t mean he is guilty of it.
b. More than all men who were on the face of the earth: Yet if Moses was so humble, and if Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, we wonder how a humble man could possibly call himself the most humble man on the face of the earth. In all likelihood, someone added this comment after the death of Moses – perhaps Joshua, who would have known Moses well.
i. It is important to see Moses didn’t start out as the most humble man on earth; he grew up proud and confident in his abilities. It was only time, desert time, lowly time, that made him a humble – and greatly usable – man.
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. “I think the word is not rightly understood; anav, which we translate meek, comes from anah, to act upon, to humble, depress, afflict, and is translated so in many places in the Old Testament; and in this sense it should be understood here: ‘Now this man Moses was depressed or afflicted more than any man of that land.’” (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, He does bring His justice suddenly.
b. Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting! God called – seemingly, in an audible voice – 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 thought 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. He 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?” Here, God explained exactly what was so special about him. Most prophets receive revelation through a dream or in a vision; God spoke with Moses face to face.
i. What did it mean that God spoke with Moses face to face? Didn’t the Lord say in Exodus 33:20, You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live? How then could God speak with Moses face to face? Face to face is a figure of speech, telling of great and unhindered intimacy; Moses’ face was not literally beholding the literal face of God, but he did enjoy direct, intimate, conversation with the Lord.
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, because he could not see the Lord and live.
iii. “The word ‘form’ is used of visual representations, pictures, or images, of earthly and heavenly beings (Ex. 20:4). Job saw someone’s form, but could not identify the person from it (Jb. 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 remarkable communion with God, and it is worth considering why.
i. Because God needed a man this intimate with Him, to be a vessel of revelation and a proper leader for the nation through this remarkable time of the Exodus; this communion was a gift of the sovereign God to Moses.
ii. Because Moses was a humble man; only the humble – those who are genuinely others centered – can be responsible with such communion with God.
iii. Because Moses, according to God, is faithful in all My house: His walk of righteousness and purity, demonstrated over forty years in obscure service of God in the smallest things, revealed the faithful heart God saw in Moses.
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 before the Lord. They did not speak against Moses as the President 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 confronted or asked the tough questions. In fact, another relative of Moses, his father-in-law Jethro, did confront Moses and ask him the tough questions and he was greatly used of God in doing so (Exodus 18:12-24).
ii. Miriam and Aaron should have been afraid to speak against Moses because their criticism was petty and over something which was beyond control: The wife of Moses.
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 most humble 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 make themselves accountable, and open to criticism and questioning – but need not make themselves quiet targets for those whose criticism is petty, false, and self-motivated.
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 of bodily decay and corruption; it was considered to be a “walking death” – and Miriam had a seriously advanced case of leprosy instantly. At this moment, God caused her body to reflect her heart.
b. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper: It seems that Miriam did not immediately know this; the sense seems to be that Aaron noticed it first as he turned and looked.
2. (11-12) Aaron’s contrition.
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 seems a man easily swayed; swayed by a crowed wanting an idol, swayed by his sister (who seemed to be instigator, because she is named first and was first struck with leprosy), and now swayed quickly back to a humble submission before Moses.
b. Oh my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us: Now Aaron called Moses his master, attributed to Moses the power to strike Miriam with leprosy, and confessed his previous criticism as foolish and sinful.
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 seems full of self-interest.
2. (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, 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 – even as Jesus was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
b. Please heal her, O God, I pray! When Moses spoke, it was in prayer for his accusers. Moses certainly was a man faithful in the Lord’s house.
3. (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 in fact heal Miriam. If she were still a leper, she would not have been allowed to remain in the camp of Israel. 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 spitting in her father’s face; she tried to bring down a leader of God’s people with petty, false, and self-interested criticism.
© 2004 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission