Commentary on Numbers 12

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married (for he had married an Ethiopian woman).

Miriam and Aaron are Moses’s sister and brother, respectively. Since this section begins with the feminine singular form of the verb va-tedabber it means Miriam is the leader in this passage.

We know from earlier passages that Moses was married to Zipporah the Midianite (Ex 2:21; 18:2). The NET plausibly identifies Cush with Ethiopia (Gen 2:13; 10:6; 2 Kgs 19:9; Ps 68:31; Isa 18:1). If this is correct then we should understand this as a second marriage for Moses. But Hab 3:7 associates Cushan with Midian, where Moses’s wife Zipporah is from. If Cush is Midian then the woman in this verse could be Zipporah and the verse is not describing a second marriage for Moses. Regardless of the identity of Cush, the objection to the wife is based on her ethnicity.

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.1

Ethnic purity was an important issue in ancient Israel, as is evidenced in the commands to drive out and/or annihilate the Canaanites from the Promised Land and later in the instructions of Ezra to the formerly captive Israelites to separate themselves from their pagan foreign wives because they potentially could lead their husbands into idolatry. Throughout the Pentateuch, however, there are explicit instructions that there was to be one code of law for the native Israelite and the sojourning foreigners in the land. In Num 9:14 aliens living among the Israelites could even celebrate the Passover if they did so according to the statutes related to its commemoration, including that of circumcision as an indicator of that individual’s coming under the covenant relationship with the God of Israel. Zipporah had of course circumcised her son on the way from Midian to Egypt, bringing him under the covenant umbrella. It also would seem strange for Miriam to bring up a case against Zipporah after so much time had transpired, yet humans with a contentious mind will look far and wide in time and space to find something on which to base their grievances. Again, Miriam’s complaint against Moses on the basis of ethnicity is undermined further, supporting the view that this was not the real reason for her objections to Moses.2

Nothing else is said about this dispute. The rest of the passage focuses on Moses’s spiritual authority.

2 They said, “Has the LORD only spoken through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?” And the LORD heard it.

The previous episode, where the Spirit rests on the seventy elders (11:24-30), opened the door to the possibility that legitimate leaders other than Moses exist (see also Ex 24). The Hebrew can be translated as “spoken to” or “spoken through”. Miriam is called a prophetess in Ex 15:20. Aaron, the high priest, is said to act like Moses’s prophet in Ex 4:16 and 7:1. Alongside Moses, both Miriam and Aaron are said to be leaders in Micah 6:4.

That Miriam and Aaron are Moses’ siblings also may have spurred their claim to prophetic equality with their brother. The divinatory profession is known to have been handed down within families, especially among the early Arabs. That this familial prerogative is herewith denied may also be part of the prophetic revolution within Israel. Beginning with Moses, prophecy is an individual not a group phenomenon.3

3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth.)

The phrase “the man Moses” emphasizes Moses’s humanity (he is only a man). Moses was humble in the sense that he did not push himself into a position of leadership (Ex 3:11; 4:10, 13).

The term anaw used is not the normal Hebrew word for humility, meekness, or weakness but one that conveys an individual’s devout dependence upon the Lord. It may also describe a state one must experience before one is honored by God or man. In his first encounter with the Lord at Horeb in the burning bush, Moses realized his human limitations–“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exod 3:11). But with the assurance of the divine presence–“I will be with you” (Exod 3:12)–he went forth by faith, even though initially reluctant, and was used by God in ways that far surpassed human comprehension. His humility in this manner far exceeded that of any other person on the earth.4

When his leadership is questioned here he does not respond; the Lord responds for him.

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.

In an ironic twist, God speaks directly to Aaron and Miriam (v 5) before telling them that he has a special relationship with Moses (v 8).

6 The LORD said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream. 7 My servant Moses is not like this; he is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I will speak face to face, openly, and not in riddles; and he will see the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”

In the Hebrew Bible, prophets are normally described as receiving visions (Gen 15:1; 2 Sam 7:17; Isa 1:1; Obad 1; Nah 1:1; Amos 1:1; Mic 1:1; Hab 1:1) or dreams (Gen 20:7; 31:10-13; 37:9; 1 Kgs 3:5-14; Job 33:14-18; Dan 2:19; 4:6; 7:1). Moses has the unique role of being the mediator of the covenant. He has spoken more directly with God and seen the form of the Lord (Ex 33:7-23). To speak against God’s servant is tantamount to speaking against God himself.

The New Testament draws many comparisons between Moses the mediator of the old covenant and Jesus the mediator of the new. Jesus is the prophet like Moses (Acts 7:37). Like Moses, Jesus is meek and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29), and kept silent before his accusers (1 Pet. 2:23ff.). But whereas Moses was but a servant in God’s house, our Lord was the son of the house (Heb. 3:1-6); Moses saw God’s form and heard his word, but Jesus was the Word and in the form of God (John 1:14-18; Phil. 2:6).5

9 The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he departed.

10 When the cloud departed from above the tent, Miriam became leprous as snow. Then Aaron looked at Miriam, and she was leprous!

Recall that the Hebrew sara’at is describing a skin condition that should not be equated with what we call leprosy. There may be irony in Miriam being displeased with Moses’s marriage to the presumably dark-skinned Ethiopian (if Cush is Ethiopia, see note on v 1) and having her skin turned snow white. However, her skin may be scaly as snow intead of white as snow. Why is only Miriam punished? It may be because the Lord does not want to make the high priest unclean since his role is vital to the cult. Or it may be because Miriam was the leader in this complaint (see note on v 1).

11 So Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, 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 its mother’s womb!”

The only other time Aaron calls Moses “my lord” is at the golden calf incident. Aaron acknowledges that “we” acted foolishly despite the fact that he was not punished.

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.6

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!7

13 Then Moses cried to the LORD, “Heal her now, O God.”

In the Hebrew this prayer is a fervent plea.8

14 The LORD said to Moses, “If her father had only spit 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.”

Spit could render someone unclean until evening (Lev 15:8). No case law in the Torah or ancient Near East concerns a father spitting in his child’s face. It must have been a matter of humiliation (Deut 25:9; Job 30:10; Isa 50:6). “The purpose of this analogy may have been as follows: If a human father’s rebuke by spitting entails seven days of banishment, should not the leprosy rebuke of the Heavenly Father at least require the same banishment?”9 Lev 13-14 prescribe the rituals for someone who recovers from a skin condition. Seven days of separation are prescribed for the purification process.

15 So Miriam was shut outside of the camp for seven days, and the people did not journey on until Miriam was brought back in.

16 After that the people moved from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Ashley 1993, 224 
  2. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 6328-6338 
  3. Milgrom 1990, 94 
  4. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 6368-6374 
  5. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1990-1993 
  6. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 6490-6493 
  7. Ashley 1993, 227 
  8. Friedman 2001, 469 
  9. Milgrom 1990, 98 
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