LEADERSHIP ENVY (WHICH CHALLENGES GOD’S AUTHORITY) RECEIVES GOD’S DISCIPLINE OF SHAME AND HUMILIATION
The fear of God should give one pause when it comes to challenging His authority by speaking against His divinely appointed spiritual leaders. Here we have the close family members and ministry associates of Moses complaining that they are not respected on his level. God’s angry response is swift and decisive. Instead of Miriam and Aaron grasping greater glory for themselves, their rebellious complaint leads to temporary disease, shame and humiliation. But even in dispensing severe discipline, God acts in love and compassion and mercy to mitigate the harm done. Eventually the camp of the Israelites is reunited under the leadership of Moses and able to move forward to reach Paran – the key staging area to prepare for entrance into the Promised Land.
Gordon Wenham: In form and content this story of Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to Moses’ supreme authority has many points in common with the previous two episodes. Though this protest appears to be much less serious than the widespread popular discontent described in the previous chapter, it was in fact a peculiarly piquant and fundamental one. It was not just a case of petty family jealousy, for Aaron, Moses’ brother, was also the high priest and therefore supreme religious leader and most holy man in Israel; while Miriam, his sister, was a prophetess and thus head of the spirit-filled women (Exod. 15:20f.). Here, then, is an alliance of priest and prophet, the two archetypes of Israelite religion, challenging Moses’ position as sole mediator between God and Israel. His vindication is at once decisive and dramatic: indeed the description of his position and office clearly prefigures that of our Lord in the New Testament.
Gordon Keddie: The message of all of these complaints – the “people” and their alleged hardships (11:1), the “rabble” and their desire for meat (11:4), and Miriam and Aaron over Moses’ leadership (12:1) – is, as James Philip aptly comments, “not that they were finally lost, but that they were disqualified in the purposes of God – a grim and solemn reality. This murmuring, complaining, critical spirit . . . got into them, and did something to them, rendering them progressively incapable of rising to their divine calling until, at a moment of crisis, they crashed.” The seeds of compromise soon flourish as the weeds of failure.
I. (:1-3) LEADERSHIP ENVY (JEALOUS JOCKEYING — MORE THAN JUST A FAMILY FEUD) – RIVALS TO THE LEADERSHIP OF MOSES
A. (:1-2a) Attack on the Leadership of Moses
1. (:1) Criticism of Moses by Miriam and Aaron
“Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman);”
This was just a smokescreen issue for the real cause of the leadership crisis = desire to be viewed as equal to Moses
Dennis Cole: The section begins with the feminine singular form of the verb watĕdabber, implicating Miriam as the leader in this endeavor.
MacArthur: Ethiopia (also known as Cush) S. of Egypt, was inhabited by the descendants of Cush, the firstborn son of Ham (Ge 10:6, 7). Although the term “Cushite” could have been used concerning Zipporah, Moses’ first wife, it seems more likely that Moses had remarried after the death of Zipporah. The marriage to the Ethiopian woman had been recent and furnished the pretext for the attack of Miriam and Aaron.
Timothy Ashley: Since Cushites were not Israelites, perhaps the Cushite woman referred to was a part of the mixed multitude of Exod. 12:38, or even one of the rabble of Num. 11:4. If the latter speculation is true (and it is speculation), then a complaint from Miriam may not be surprising, especially in the light of what had just happened at Kibroth-hattaavah. Another basis for this complaint may well be the fact that Miriam and Aaron were not included in the sharing of the Spirit in ch. 11, and this complaint about a foreign wife was really only a surface issue that concealed the deeper problem of jealousy over their brother’s unique status before God in the community (see v. 2).
Roy Gane: “First lady”? That may explain why Miriam is mentioned before Aaron as the instigator of criticism (12:1). With her brothers, she was a leader of the Exodus (Mic. 6:4). It was “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister,” who took a tambourine and led all the Israelite women in a song of triumph at the Red Sea (Ex. 15:20–21). Now she likely feels displaced, perhaps by one who has never experienced the horrors of slavery and the trauma of leaving Egypt. . .
Although we should not hasten to import all of our modern conceptions of racism into the context of ancient Israel, which incorporated many kinds of foreigners throughout its history, it seems clear that a kind of racism does have a negative impact within the complex social dynamics reflected in Numbers 12. God’s devastating reaction implies that he regards such an attitude as intolerable moral “leprosy.”
Iain Duguid: Legalism — Marriage outside the covenant community was not forbidden (except for marriage to the tribes that occupied the land of Canaan); yet it was potentially risky behavior. There was the inherent danger of marrying someone who might not share your spiritual values. The key point is that it was not forbidden by God per se. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron would have claimed simply to be concerned for Moses’ spiritual welfare, but the fact is that they sought to safeguard it in the wrong way, by expanding the scope of the Law beyond what God had decreed.
Constable: Evidently Miriam and Aaron felt their leading roles in Israel as prophetess (Exodus 15:20) and high priest were losing distinctiveness as God gave 70 elders the privilege of mediating His word. Perhaps Miriam saw in Moses’ new wife a threat to her role as the leading female in Israel. Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman may have been nothing more than an excuse.
2. (:2a) Self Promotion by Miriam and Aaron
“and they said, ‘Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses?
Has He not spoken through us as well?’”
Gordon Wenham: Miriam and Aaron claim that the Lord speaks with them in the same intimate way that he speaks with Moses. ‘Speak with’ is a better rendering of the Hebrew dibber bĕ than rsv speak through (2), for the same phrase is used in verses 6 and 8 of the close and intimate discussions between God and his servants. Their questioning of Moses’ unique authority follows the account of the sharing of Moses’ spirit with the seventy elders, which could be interpreted as showing that Moses was just first among equals. However, the very terms in which Aaron and Miriam phrased their challenge shows they recognized there was a difference in fact between their authority and Moses’. This is confirmed by God’s words in verses 6 to 8, the judgment on Miriam in verse 10, Aaron’s inability to help her (11–12) and her cure through Moses’ intercession (13–15).
Raymond Brown: The bitter complaint expressed by Aaron and Miriam was hurtful to Moses, offensive to God, damaging to the grumblers and a warning to the people.
B. (:2b) Expect a Response from the Lord
“And the LORD heard it.”
This has an ominous tone about it.
C. (:3) Don’t Expect a Response from Moses
“(Now the man Moses was very humble,
more than any man who was on the face of the earth.)”
not going to get serious push-back from Moses; contrast how the Apostle Paul recognized the serious nature of attacks against his apostleship and aggressively took up his defense.
Raymond Brown; The word humble is from a root meaning ‘bowed down’; in leadership he was genuinely ‘subordinating his personal interests to those of God and his cause’. His sensitive spirit must have been profoundly disturbed when members of his own family questioned his divinely appointed role and, particularly, his responsibility as the Lord’s mouthpiece (2). His brother and sister, of all people, knew how diffidently he had undertaken the demanding tasks God had entrusted to him. God had provided Aaron as his supportive colleague, and the two brothers became devoted partners in confronting Pharaoh with God’s commands. Yet, little more than a year later, the cooperative partnership was fractured. A genuinely humble man who steadily pursued the will of God for the glory of God found the conflict specially distressing.
Warren Wiersbe: Moses proved his meekness (humility) by refusing to fight them; he left his cause in the hands of God. God has promised to defend His servants (Isa. 54:17)….In his writings, Moses was honest enough to record his sins and failures, and we accept what he wrote, so why can’t we accept a statement about his godly character?
II. (:4-8) DIVINE DEFENSE – DON’T MESS WITH MOSES
A. (:4) Court Called into Session
“And suddenly the LORD said to Moses and Aaron and to Miriam, ‘You three come out to the tent of meeting.’ So the three of them came out.”
Dennis Cole: The Lord interjected himself into the dispute suddenly and awesomely. Allen describes the Lord’s entrance into the situation as “an abrupt response of the Lord that was pregnant with terror.” All three siblings are summoned to come out to the Tent of Meeting, probably to the entrance of that central locale of divine revelation. . . The hearing took place in the context of the visible evidence of the presence of the Lord, for the cloud pillar descended and stood erect at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
G. Campbell Morgan: “The Lord spoke suddenly unto Moses” — That is an arresting statement. It marks an action on the part of God, so definite and immediate, that to Moses His speech was that of suddenness. It lends emphasis to the importance of this story. It is the story of rebellion against Moses, the God-appointed leader of the people, on the part of Miriam his sister, and Aaron his brother. The occasion was that of Moses’ marriage with a Cushite woman. This was not the reason of it. It gave Miriam and Aaron an opportunity of acting upon a deeper feeling of jealousy which was present in their hearts. They resented the exercise of Moses’ authority, evidently desiring to share it with him in a larger degree. The story illustrates a great truth in human experience. Sooner or later, if there be hidden evil, circumstances will occur in which it will be outwardly manifested. Stern and majestic was the Divine method of dealing with this outbreak. The sudden summons of God brought these three people out from the host, and into the immediate presence of God. Then in the plainest terms Jehovah vindicated His servant. Thus are we taught that God will not permit any interference with His appointments. To question the authority of those whom He appoints is to question His authority. There is great beauty in the end of the story. Aaron pleaded with Moses on behalf of his sister. Moses pleaded with God on her behalf. The cry was heard, and after seven days Miriam was restored. Surely He is ever a God ready to pardon. Nevertheless, the warning was solemn and severe, showing that rebellion is most reprehensible when it is manifested by the most highly placed.
B. (:5-6a) Supreme Judge Appears
1. (:5a) Impressive Presence
“Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the doorway of the tent, and He called Aaron and Miriam.”
Supreme example of being called out; being called on the carpet.
2. (:5b-6a) Impactful Proclamation
“When they had both come forward, 6 He said, ‘Hear now My words:’”
This must have been an awkward confrontation.
C. (:6b-8) Defense of the Divinely Appointed Leadership of Moses
1. (:6b-8a) Uniqueness of Role of Moses
a. (:6b) Elevated Above Normal Prophets
“If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a vision.
I shall speak with him in a dream.”
Dennis Cole: Should only Moses hold the position of leadership in the prophetic community of Israel as well as the community at large? Should he hold such a unique status while yet having a foreign wife? That Miriam and Aaron possessed prophetic gifts was not the issue. Both are described in prophetic terms in the Old Testament.
b. (:7-8a) Exalted to the Most Intimate Relationship
1) Faithful Servant – I delegate the highest level of responsibilities to him
“Not so, with My servant Moses,
He is faithful in all My household;”
Eugene Merrill: a reference Moses’ faithful performance of his role as covenant mediator between God and Israel.
2) Confidant – I fully disclose Myself to him – Both Verbally and Visually
“With him I speak mouth to mouth,
Even openly, and not in dark sayings,
And he beholds the form of the LORD.”
Brueggemann: friendship is probably in view here (Exod 33:11; Deut 34:10). “The image is that of a royal house in which only the most trusted servant has regular access to the monarch. Such ones are literally called ‘those who see the face of the king.’”
Gordon Wenham: Whereas ordinary prophets had to be content with receiving God’s word through dreams and visions and in riddles, Moses is in a different class. He is God’s servant entrusted with looking after all his estate, i.e. Israel, and like other men in his position he has immediate access to the owner of the estate (Gen. 24:2; 40:20). He speaks to God directly mouth to mouth and therefore can interpret God’s will for Israel with total authority. Other men in the Old Testament, e.g. Abraham, Joshua, David and Elijah (Gen. 26:24; Josh. 24:29; 2 Sam. 7:5; 2 Kgs 10:10), are called God’s servants, but only Moses is described as entrusted with all my house. Finally he sees the very form (tĕmûnâ) of God (8). That is not to say he saw God directly and unveiled. This, apparently, was the privilege that Moses requested when he asked to see God’s ‘face’. On that occasion he had to be content with seeing God’s ‘back’ (Exod. 33:18–23). The word ‘form’ (Hebrew tĕmûnâ) is used of visual representations, pictures or images, of earthly and heavenly beings (Exod. 20:4). Job saw someone’s form, but could not identify the person from it (Job 4:16). Thus, although Moses enjoyed a much closer relationship with God than any ordinary prophet, he saw only God’s form, not the very being of God.
Roy Gane: As God’s messenger, Moses plays a crucial role in making theocracy work by conveying the divine will to the Israelites. The Lord is the religious and civil leader of Israel through Moses. Other prominent roles of Moses that are based on his intimate connection with God include miracle-working deliverer (e.g. Ex. 3:10; 4:1–9; 7:8–21), highest judge (Ex. 18:13–26; Deut. 1:17), founder of the Israelite ritual system (Ex. 40; Lev. 8), and intercessor (Ex. 32:11–14, 31–33; 33:12–17; Num. 14:13–19). Other biblical individuals perform some of the same functions as Moses, but none comes close to matching his foundational and comprehensive leadership as the “father of his country.”
Harrison: Although God had in fact spoken through others, such as the elders who prophesied when part of the gifts of Moses were bestowed upon them, it was the great Israelite leader himself who was commissioned to convey the Lord’s will to the covenant community (cf. Heb. 3:2-6).
2. (:8b) Ungodly Arrogance to Dare to Criticize Moses
“Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant,
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Brueggemann: Miriam and Aaron were out of line, and the Lord went away “angry with them” (12:9). How much worse for those who reject the Logos made flesh (John 1:1, 14)—those who oppose the one who is “entrusted with God’s entire house” (Heb 3:2–6).
Matthew Henry: “How dare you abuse any servant of mine, especially such a servant as Moses, who is a friend, a confidant and steward of the house? “ How durst they speak to the grief and reproach of one whom God had so much to say in the commendation of! Might they not expect that God would resent it, and take it as an affront to himself?
III. (:9-15) DIVINE DISCIPLINE BUT MERCIFUL MITIGATION
A. (:9-10) The Angry Judgment
1. (:9) Display of God’s Anger
“So the anger of the LORD burned against them and He departed.”
Raymond Brown: There they were, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, abandoned by God. The Lord left them (9) in their sins, isolated in their guilt, silenced by their transgression and subdued by deep remorse. The pillar of cloud, a perpetual reminder of God’s presence and holiness, was lifted way above the Tent. God had spoken his word of condemnation and walked out on them, leaving them in their solitariness to feel the enormity of their sin.
2. (:10) Description of Judgment = Miriam Struck with Skin Disease
“But when the cloud had withdrawn from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. As Aaron turned toward Miriam, behold, she was leprous.”
B. (:11-13) The Intercessory Appeal
1. (:11-12) Aaron Appeals to Moses
a. (:11) Expression of Repentance and Plea for Mercy
“Then Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my lord, I beg you, do not account this sin to us, in which we have acted foolishly and in which we have sinned.’”
Must have been very humbling for Aaron to have to come crawling to Moses for help and intervention.
Timothy Ashley: It is literarily interesting that Yahweh’s judgment on Miriam made her skin very white, since her complaint against her brother’s Cushite wife concerned a woman whose skin was probably dark. This judgment by reversal is another reason to connect this judgment with the original complaint in which Miriam took the lead (v. 1), rather than the assertion of equality with Moses, in which Aaron took the lead (vv. 4–5). This reversal is not the only ironic element in the story.
11–13 Aaron intercedes with Moses who, in turn, intercedes with Yahweh for Miriam’s restoration. Here again, the irony is obvious. Aaron, who had wanted to be able to be like his brother in the latter’s role as a speaker for Yahweh, is forced to intercede with Moses who intercedes with God. Thus the theme of equality and the complaint over Moses’ wife (issuing in this judgment) come together at this point. Yahweh is right—Moses is special!
Dennis Cole: With deep emotion Aaron immediately apologized to Moses, addressing him as lord and submissively confessing his sin of rebellion. He who had opposed Yahweh’s servant so presumptuously, promptly placed himself in the servant position under that very same individual. Perhaps attempting to lighten the potential judgment against himself, he characterized his transgression as foolishness. The Hebrew yāʾal is a rare term used in Isa 19:13 and Jer 5:4 and 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. As such his offense could be expiated through a propitiatory act of intercession. Intentional rebelliousness was punishable by banishment or death by stoning. Out of concern for his stricken sister, he begged Moses not to hold Miriam culpable for their sin, by which she might be afflicted even further with chronic leprosy. He asked that God not afflict Miriam such that she might have the appearance of a stillborn child, whose scaly flesh would sometimes peel off with the amniotic fluids when handled after birth. The Hebrew phrase at the beginning of v. 12 literally reads, “Please do not let her be like the dead,” which heightens Aaron’s appeal; he realized that if she continued in this state, she might die.
b. (:12) Dismay at the Horrific Nature of the Disease
“Oh, do not let her be like one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes from his mother’s womb!”
2. (:13) Moses Intercedes with God for Healing
“And Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, ‘O God, heal her, I pray!’”
What graciousness and forgiveness on the part of Moses to passionately plead for mercy and healing for Miriam.
Dennis Cole: The urgency of his plea is reflected in this terse request through his use of the short form El in referring to God and the imperative verb form in pleading for her physical restoration. The prayer is stated in monosyllables and in an introverted structure in the Hebrew text: ʾēl nāʾ rĕpāʾ nāʾ lāh, with the pivotal focus being on the term for healing (rĕpāʾ).
C. (:14-15) The Merciful Mitigation of the Shameful Curse
1. (:14) Some Shame is Necessary – Healing and Humbling
“But the LORD said to Moses, ‘If her father had but spit in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut up for seven days outside the camp, and afterward she may be received again.’”
Eugene Merrill: Spitting in one’s face expressed contempt (cf. Deut. 25:9). The Lord expressed His contempt for Miriam’s presumption by afflicting her with a horrible skin disease.
2. (:15a) Cleansing and Isolation Limited to Seven Days
“So Miriam was shut up outside the camp for seven days,”
3. (:15b) Punishment Impacted the Entire Camp
“and the people did not move on until Miriam was received again.”
Raymond Brown: The offence of Aaron and Miriam had held them up in their desert travels, but it would be a week well spent if it taught them to honour God and to shun sin. Sadly, they were not good learners; the Lord’s patience was to be tried even more. On the immediate horizon was an act not of family rivalry but of community rebellion. In the desert of Paran, they did not merely denigrate Moses; they defied God, as we shall see next.
Dennis Cole: 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. They must all wait upon the Lord until he leads them. In the period of Israel’s entrance into Canaan under Joshua, the sin of one man’s (Achan) family resulted in their being defeated in the strategic battle at Ai (Josh 7:1–5). Only after the restoration of one of their key leaders would the people of Israel be allowed to move toward their final destination, the promised Holy Land.
(:16) EPILOGUE – GEOGRAPHICAL TRANSITION
“Afterward, however, the people moved out from Hazeroth
and camped in the wilderness of Paran.”
Dennis Cole: The Paran Wilderness was the goal of the first phase of the journey (10:11), and from that area the spies were to be sent to explore the Promised Land (13:3).
Ronald Allen: At last, the destination of the grand march was achieved. The Desert of Paran was the staging area for the attack on the land of Canaan. Despite numerous terrible events that marred the dream of the triumphal march, at last the people were at their destination. 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. Yes, there had been troubled times on the journey. But glory awaits. Or at least that is what should have been the case.