Miriam and Aaron Oppose Moses
1sn In this short chapter we find a prime example of jealousy among leaders and how God dealt with it. Miriam and Aaron are envious of Moses’ leadership, but they use an occasion – his marriage – to criticize him. Often the immediate criticism is simply a surface issue for a deeper matter. God indicates very clearly he will speak through many people, including them, but Moses is different. Moses is the mediator of the covenant. The chapter is a lesson of what not to do. They should have fulfilled their duties before God and not tried to compete or challenge the leader in this way. There is a touch of divine irony here, for Miriam is turned white with leprosy. The chapter falls easily into the sections of the story: the accusation (vv. 1-3), the Lord’s response (vv. 4-10), the intercession of Moses (vv. 11-16). For further information, see J. S. Kselman, “A Note on Numbers 12:6-8,” VT 26 (1976): 500-504. Then Miriam and Aaron spoke againsttn The preposition bet (בְּ) has the adversative sense here, “[speak] against” (see also its use for hostile speech in 21:5, 7). Speaking against is equal to the murmuring throughout the wilderness period. The verb of the sentence is וַתְּדַבֵּר (vattÿdabber), the feminine form of the verb. This indicates that Miriam was the main speaker for the two, the verb agreeing with the first of the compound subject.sn It may be that Miriam was envious of the Cushite woman Moses married. And, in view of the previous chapter’s content about others being given a portion of the Spirit to share in the leadership role, she may have seen this as her chance finally to become just as important in the nation as her younger brother. After all, she safeguarded his birth and early years (Exod 2). But there are two issues here – the reason she gives (“does the Lord only speak through Moses?”), and the reason the text gives (the Cushite woman). Moses because of the Cushitetn The Hebrew text has הַכֻּשִׁית (hakkushit, “the Cushite”) as the modifier of “woman.” The Greek text interpreted this correctly as “Ethiopian.” The word Cush in the Bible can describe the Cassites, east of Babylon of the later period (Gen 10:18), or Ethiopia (Isa 20:3; Nah 3:5; et al). Another suggestion is that it would refer to Cushan of Hab 3:7, perhaps close to Midian, and so the area Moses had been. This would suggest it could be Zipporah – but the Bible does not identify the Cushite as Zipporah. The most natural understanding would be that it refers to an Egyptian/Ethiopian woman. The text does not say when Moses married this woman, or what Miriam’s problem with her was. It is clear that it was a racial issue, by virtue of the use of “Cushite.” Whether she was of darker skin than the Hebrews would be hard to say, since the Bible gives no further detail. Neither does it say if this is a second wife, or a woman Moses married since Zipporah went home (Exod 18:2). These do not seem to be the issues the text wishes to elaborate on; it is simply stating that this woman was the occasion for a deeper challenge. woman he had marriedtn Heb “taken.” (for he had married an Ethiopian woman).
2 Theytn Now the text changes to use a plural form of the verb. The indication is that Miriam criticized the marriage, and then the two of them raised questions about his sole leadership of the nation. said, “Has the Lord onlytn The use of both רַק and אַךְ (raq and ’akh) underscore the point that the issue is Moses’ uniqueness. spoken through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?”tn There is irony in the construction in the text. The expression “speak through us” also uses דִּבֵּר + בְּ(dibber + bÿ). They ask if God has not also spoken through them, after they have spoken against Moses. Shortly God will speak against them – their words are prophetic, but not as they imagined.sn The questions are rhetorical. They are affirming that God does not only speak through Moses, but also speaks through them. They see themselves as equal with Moses. The question that was asked of the earlier presumptuous Moses – “Who made you a ruler over us?” – could also be asked of them. God had not placed them as equals with Moses. The passage is relevant for today when so many clamor for equal authority and leadership with those whom God has legitimately called. And the Lord heard it.sn The statement is striking. Obviously the Lord knows all things. But the statement of the obvious here is meant to indicate that the Lord was about to do something about this.
3 (Now the man Moses was very humble,tc The spelling of the word is a Kethib-Qere reading with only a slight difference between the two.tn The word עָנָו (’anav) means “humble.” The word may reflect a trustful attitude (as in Pss 25:9, 37:11), but perhaps here the idea of “more tolerant” or “long-suffering.” The point is that Moses is not self-assertive. God singled out Moses and used him in such a way as to show that he was a unique leader. For a suggestion that the word means “miserable,” see C. Rogers, “Moses: Meek or Miserable?” JETS 29 (1986): 257-63.sn Humility is a quality missing today in many leaders. Far too many are self-promoting, or competitive, or even pompous. The statement in this passage would have been difficult for Moses to write – and indeed, it is not impossible that an editor might have added it. One might think that for someone to claim to be humble is an arrogant act. But the statement is one of fact – he was not self-assertive (until Num 20 when he strikes the rock). more so than any man on the face of the earth.)
The Response of the Lord
4 The Lord spoke immediately to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: “The three of you come to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them went.
5 And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent; he then called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.
6 The Lordtn Heb “he.” said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you,tn The form of this construction is rare: נְבִיאֲכֶם (nÿvi’akhem) would normally be rendered “your prophet.” The singular noun is suffixed with a plural pronominal suffix. Some commentators think the MT has condensed “a prophet” with “to you.” I the Lordtn The Hebrew syntax is difficult here. “The Lord” is separated from the verb by two intervening prepositional phrases. Some scholars conclude that this word belongs with the verb at the beginning of v. 6 (“And the Lord spoke”). will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream.
7 My servantsn The title “my servant” or “servant of the Lord” is reserved in the Bible for distinguished personages, people who are truly spiritual leaders, like Moses, David, Hezekiah, and also the Messiah. Here it underscores Moses’ obedience. Moses is not like this; he is faithfultn The word “faithful” is נֶאֱמָן (ne’eman), the Niphal participle of the verb אָמַן (’aman). This basic word has the sense of “support, be firm.” In the Niphal it describes something that is firm, reliable, dependable – what can be counted on. It could actually be translated “trustworthy.” in all my house.
8 With him I will speak face to face,tn The emphasis of the line is clear enough – it begins literally “mouth to mouth” I will speak with him. In human communication this would mean equality of rank, but Moses is certainly not equal in rank with the Lord. And yet God is here stating that Moses has an immediacy and directness with communication with God. It goes beyond the idea of friendship, almost to that of a king’s confidant. openly,tn The word מַרְאֶה (mar’eh) refers to what is seen, a vision, an appearance. Here it would have the idea of that which is clearly visible, open, obvious. and not in riddles; and he will see the formtn The word “form” (תְּמוּנָה, tÿmunah) means “shape, image, form.” The Greek text took it metaphorically and rendered it “the glory of the Lord.” This line expresses even more the uniqueness of Moses. The elders saw God on one special occasion (Exod 24:10), and the people never (Deut 4:12, 15), but Moses has direct and familiar contact with God. of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
9 The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he departed.
10 Whentn The disjunctive vav (ו) is here introducing a circumstantial clause of time. the cloud departed from above the tent, Miriam becametn There is no verb “became” in this line. The second half of the line is introduced with the particle הִנֵה (hinneh, “look, behold”) in its archaic sense. This deictic use is intended to make the reader focus on Miriam as well. leproussn The word “leprosy” and “leprous” covers a wide variety of skin diseases, and need not be limited to the actual disease of leprosy known today as Hansen’s disease. The description of it here has to do with snow, either the whiteness or the wetness. If that is the case then there would be open wounds and sores – like Job’s illness (see M. Noth, Numbers [OTL], 95-96). as snow. Then Aaron looked attn Heb “turned to.” Miriam, and she was leprous!
The Intercession of Moses
11 So Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord,tn The expression בִּי אֲדֹנִי (bi ’adoni, “O my lord”) shows a good deal of respect for Moses by Aaron. The expression is often used in addressing God. please do not hold this sin against us, in which we have acted foolishly and have sinned!
12 Do not let her be like a baby born dead, whose flesh is half-consumed when it comes out of itstc The words “its mother” and “its flesh” are among the so-called tiqqune sopherim, or “emendations of the scribes.” According to this tradition the text originally had here “our mother” and “our flesh,” but the ancient scribes changed these pronouns from the first person to the third person. Apparently they were concerned that the image of Moses’ mother giving birth to a baby with physical defects of the sort described here was somehow inappropriate, given the stature and importance of Moses. mother’s womb!”
13 Then Moses cried to the Lord, “Heal her now, O God.”tc Some scholars emend אֵל (’el, “God”) to עַל(’al, “no”). The effect of this change may be seen in the NAB: “‘Please, not this! Pray, heal her!’”
14 The Lord said to Moses, “If her father had only spittn The form is intensified by the infinitive absolute, but here the infinitive strengthens not simply the verbal idea but the conditional cause construction as well. in her face, would she not have been disgraced for seven days? Shut her out from the camp seven days, and afterward she can be brought back in again.”
1996 - 2007 by Biblical Studies Press, LLC
Used by permission, All rights reserved.