Numbers 12
Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures

Numbers 12:1–16

1AND Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the 1Ethiopian woman whom he had 2married: for he had 2married an 1Ethiopian woman. 2And they said, Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the LORD heard it. 3(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all 4the men which were upon the face of the earth.) And the LORD spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the 3tabernacle 5of the congregation. And they three came out. And the LORD came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the 4tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam: and they both came forth. 6And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a 5prophet among you I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. 7My servant Moses is not so, who is 8faithful in all mine house. With him 6will I speak mouth to mouth, 7even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD 8shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant 9Moses? 9And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them: and he departed. 10And the cloud 10departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron 11looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous. 11And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned. 12Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb. 13And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.

14And the LORD said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be 12shut out from the camp seven days, and after that le her be received in again. 15And Miriam was kshut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again. 16And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the wilderness of Paran.13

[Num 12:6. נְבִיא לָכֶם = נְבִיאֲכֶם, the nominal suffix standing for the dative of the personal pronoun; as Genesis 39:21 וַיִּתֵּן חִנּוֹ “he gave his grace,” for “he gave him grace;” comp. Lev. 15:3. NAEGELSBACH, § 78, 1 c, rem. Thus also נביא stands in the constr. state with יהוה, “a prophet of Jehovah to you.” So also KEIL. The LXX. construes יהוה with נביא, προφήτης ὑμῶν κυρίῳ; also the VULG.—TR.].

Num 12:13. Ought one, instead of the strange form אֵל נָא, to read with MICHAELIS and others אַל־נָא? It might even be more expressive of the emotion that Moses felt. [“The connection of the particle נָא with אֵל is certainly unusual; but yet it is analogous to the construction with such exclamations as אוֹי (Jer. 4:31; 45:3), and הְנֵה (Gen. 12:11; 16:2, etc.); since אֵל in the vocative is to be regarded as equivalent to an exclamation; whereas the alteration into אַל does not even give a fitting sense, apart altogether from the fact that the repetition of נָא after the verb, with אל־נא before it; would be altogether unexampled.” KEIL.—TR.].


1. From the Graves of Lust the children of Israel marched to Hazeroth, where they abode for a season. Here Moses had to sustain another insurrection. It was in so far the worst of all as it proceeded from his own brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron, who were his assistants, and it assumed the garb of a higher holiness by virtue of which they would supersede him, or at least would assume equal rank. Female, fanatical enthusiasm and ruffled clericalism had combined against his freedom of spirit, the word of God and his vocation. The occasion was a marriage, which in Israelitish pride they regarded as an objectionable, mongrel marriage; but the consequence was this, that they were at least prophets of equal authority, who, if they did even let him be of account in their college, could conveniently outvote him. Thus, indeed, female fanaticism and priestly presumption in combination have often outvoted the representatives of God’s word.

Our section is brief, but its contents are rich in relation to the outbreaks of fanaticism, to mixed marriages, the forms of revelation, the true divine interdicts that may authenticate theocratic sanctuaries, and the higher power of spiritual intercession when opposed to the condemnatory spirit of a carnal fanaticism.

2. And Miriam, Num 12:1. She was the real instigator, as indeed, time out of mind, sisters have inclined to meddle with the marriage affairs of their brothers; hence the form תְּדַבֵּר. Aaron suffered himself to be carried away, as he had before done in the affair of the golden calf. A fancy for images, dependence on female fanaticism, meddling with the marriage rights of men has ever been an infirmity of priests.

3. Because of his wife the Cushite, whom he had married, Num 12:1. According to the propensity of fanaticism in all ages to exaggerate, to caricature, and to abuse, one might suppose that Zipporah were meant. Such was the view of CALVIN and many others, KNOBEL among them, for whom of course this supposition offers the opportunity of detecting a contradiction. But, apart from the fact that the matter is treated as something quite new, it is against this view that it is added: for he had married a Cushite. This latter, therefore, makes necessary the assumption of MICHAELIS, EWALD, KEIL and others, that Zipporah had died some time previously. The history of Joseph proved that marriage with an Egyptian woman was not antitheocratic. The prohibition to marry with the daughters of Canaan had special reasons of religious self-preservation. The union of Moses with an Ethiopian woman has been ascribed to theological motives. BAUMGARTEN conceives the motive to have been, to represent the fellowship between Israel and the heathen. According to GERLACH it signified the future calling of the Gentiles. There may be more reason in the “Jewish fabling,” according to which the Cushite woman was in the train of the army of God even from Egypt, even if the statement that Moses married the Ethiopian princess Tharbis in Meroe, before the Exodus (JOSEPHUS, Antiq. 2, 10, 2) may be fabulous. That a feminine spirit out of heathendom might be carried away by the theocratic hope as a disciple of Moses, is proved by the history of Tamar, of Rahab and of Ruth. It is true that the High-Priest was allowed to marry only a Hebrew virgin; but that was a limitation belonging to his symbolic position, and the remark that Moses for this reason gave up all claim to the priesthood has no value. The prophetic class, on the other hand, had the task of illustrating the greatest possible letting down of legal restraint, and it offers a remarkable parallel that the next greatest man of the law, Elijah, lived for a considerable time as the table companion of a heathen widow of Zarephath.

4. Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses, Num 12:2. They appear to be willing to allow him still co-ordination, whereas their mind is to bring about the subordination of the younger brother. Thus, also, the older brothers of Jesus asserted themselves presumptuously against Him. Aaron wore the breast-plate, Urim and Thummim; Miriam, as a prophetess, had already led the chorus of the women of Israel. There appears to crop out a prelude of the spiritualism of the rebellion of Korah.

5. Now the man Moses was very meek, Num 12:3. An intimation that he endured in silence and committed his justification to God. If we assume a later redaction of the memorabilia of Moses, then this statement is easily explained as a gloss. Anyway the defence of the view that Moses wrote this himself is no affair affecting faith. See KEIL for the discussions relating to this. [The defence of the integrity of this text may be of great importance even if it be not an “affair affecting faith.” There is really no more ground for impugning it than any other simple statement about Moses made by himself; as for instance: “O my Lord, I am not eloquent; but I am slow of speech.” Exod. 4:10; Exod. 11:3; Num. 12:7, may also be compared. The common objection to it, that it is self-praise, is urged from the view-point of Christian ethics. Certainly before the day of David, who sang the praises of the meek (עָנָו) and of their meekness, no one would have been charged with praising himself who called himself meek. CALVIN’S sensible comment touches the core of the matter: “The eulogium of his meekness amounts to this: as if Moses would say, he swallowed that injury in silence, inasmuch as he imposed a law of patience on himself because of his meekness.” Only it need not be admitted that the text was an “eulogium,” though it is such now. It would not even now-a-days be thought a proof of self-conceit, or more than a modest man might say, if one were to state that he swallowed more affronts than any man of his time. Apart from this unreasonable objection to the words, it is “manifest that the observation referred to occupies a necessary place in the history, being called forth by the occasion, and that the object of its insertion was by no means to magnify Moses.” MACDONALD on The Pentateuch, I., p. 346.—TR.]

6. Num 12:4, 5. Moses, Aaron and Miriam, whose discourse Jehovah had heard, are suddenly cited to the fore-court of the Tent. This notice affords KNOBEL another opportunity for detecting a contradiction. Women in the Sanctuary! Yes, indeed, in the fore-court; in fact there was at a later period an entire fore-court for women. The three presented themselves there and are summoned. The cloud sinking down parts Aaron and Miriam from Moses, after they had approached before the door of the Tent. What they now hear seems to have the form of an inspiration from Jehovah, who manifested Himself in the dividing cloud.

7. If there be a prophet among you, etc., Num 12:6–8 b. The usual form of revelation is: Jehovah makes himself known in an appearance, or in a dream. The dream-vision as a third form is to be understood as included. The form of revelation in which Jehovah makes Himself known to Moses is superior, because Moses is faithful in all His [Jehovah’s] house. נֶאֶמָן may be taken to mean “entrusted with;” but the בְּ seems to favor the other rendering. But, of course, the house of Jehovah is not merely the Sanctuary, but all Israel as the house of Jehovah (KEIL).

[My house, when said by Jehovah, must mean the same as “the house of Jehovah,” when said by Moses. The latter in the Pentateuch never means anything but the Tabernacle. Comp. Exod. 23:19; Deut. 23:18 (19); also Josh. 6:24; 9:23. KEIL says: “It is not primarily His dwelling, the holy Tent (BAUMGARTEN),—for in that case the word ‘whole’ (כָּלּ־) would be quite superfluous.” But כל cannot so extend the meaning of “house of God,” any more than “all the apple” can be made to comprehend the apple and the tree on which it grows. It is better to understand by “my house” the Tabernacle, including the economy that it represents. The Apostle’s reference to this phrase, Heb. 3:2–6, quite consists with this, and most of all his words: “whose house we are,” which KEIL quotes in favor of the other view. For these words in their context present an antithesis to “His (God’s) house.” Moses ministered in a house of types; Christ in the real house, of which believers are the ingredients.—TR.]

To him Jehovah speaks mouth to mouth, i.e. the sound of the words objectively as inspiration and subjectively as law, is thoroughly correct. And it may subserve this that Moses is denied the dangerous gift of eloquence, and that he must speak in lapidary style. Hence, too, his sort of vision is peculiar; free from obscure or enigmatical forms of fantasy or poesy (חִידָה), ideal realism. He beholds the form of Jehovah, His essential form (Exod. 33:11; Deut. 34:10). Still one could not take these words absolutely, without being in conflict with Jno. 1:18, and even Exod. 33 [No more conflict than Jno. 5:37, οὔτε εἶδος αὐτοῦ ἑωράκατε.—TR.] If the prophets saw what was divine only piece-meal and in various forms (Heb. 1:1), so then Moses, too, did not see it synthetically, but analytically. It is therefore saying too much when one affirms: “God spake with Moses without figure and in the complete transparency of spiritual communication.”—What distinguishes him in the Old Testament is the totality and the objective precision of his perception of the law, but still on that account conditioned by visions, as e.g. the vision of the Burning Bush; and if “all the prophets only continued to build on the foundation that Moses laid,” still, on the other hand, each prophet saw a special aspect of the kingdom of God in such a light as Moses had not yet seen it. KEIL says: “On this unique position of Moses to God and to the Theocracy, clearly affirmed in our verses, the Rabbins have justly founded the view of the superior degree of the inspiration of the Thorah.” But we may add: on this misunderstanding of this conditioned uniqueness, the Sadducees, too, founded their doctrine. The New Testament, also, is, according to historical relations, founded on the Old Testament; but, according to inward, essential relations that well up out of the divine depths into the light of day, the Old Testament is rather founded on the New, and in a certain sense John the Baptist is called the greatest prophet of the Old Testament.

8. Wherefore were ye not afraid? Num 12:8 c. They lived with him so long, and yet knew so little his exalted position. He stood too near to them, and they themselves, with their self-consciousness, stood too much in their own light. Again an old history that becomes ever new.

9. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and He departed, Num 12:9; the cloud removed from off the Tent, Num 12:10. It removes; “it mounts aloft.” This lifting up and moving off of the cloud might be portrayed without its significance being regarded. It was the first punishment and a chief one. Aaron was inwardly crushed, the fire on his altar went out, the pillar of smoke no longer mounted up as a token of grace, the cultus was for the moment at a stand-still, and it was as if an interdict of Jehovah lay on the cultus of the Sanctuary. Hence Miriam is not the only one punished when suddenly she stood there snow-white from leprosy. She would stand above Moses snow-white in righteousness, while she looked down on him as unclean. She would be a lady over the Church, for she dominated over Aaron, and now, even as a leper, she must be excluded from the Church. Now Aaron implores Moses, as his lord, to intercede. Here only the spiritual high-priesthood of a divine compassion can deliver the helpless high-priest himself. Lay not the sin upon us, Num 12:11; let us not atone for it. We have played the fool (יָאַל, Niph.). So, too, Luther once said, when looking back to the deliverance concerning the double marriage of Philip of Hesse. His sister seems to him as it were already consumed by the leprosy, as a still-born child may already appear almost corrupted at birth. Mournful image under which Miriam now appears here! He almost speaks as if Moses should heal her. Moses understands it as an indirect request to intercede for her. The reply of Jehovah is the granting of the request in the form of a sharp reproof (Num 12:14). The figurative expression compares her, who desired to be the prophetic regent of the nation, to a dependent maiden in whose face her father had spit on account of unseemly behaviour. Such an one must conceal herself seven days on account of her shame. The same is dictated to Miriam. “A usage among the Arabs is that, when a son and competitor in a race is beaten, the father spits in his face as a sign of his reproof (VON SHUBERT, Reise II., p. 403).” KNOBEL. She is shut up seven days as a leper. Confounded by the sense of guilt, Aaron could not see the sign of hope in the snow-white leprosy. At bottom the confession of Miriam appeared already in that, because the blow proceeded from conscience. In ordering her to a seclusion of seven days, there was implied, however, even already the divine sentence of pronouncing her clean, because the leper pronounced clean could only after seven days be received again (Lev. 14:8). The reception back again required the prescribed sacrifice. Therefore so long the people must remain encamped in Hazeroth. After the seven days the departure from Hazeroth took place. KNOBEL cannot see how the stern features and the mild features in Moses are to be harmonized (p. 30). Of course this is [for him] another contradiction!


Miriam and Aaron in their would-be pious zeal against the alleged mixed marriage of Moses. Two-fold character of the so-called mixed marriages (see on Gen. 6:1–8, Doct. and Eth., § 3; 1 Cor. 7). The intercession of Moses must mediate again and again.


1Or, Cushite

2Heb., taken.

3Tent of Meeting.


5prophet of Jehovah, among you, I make myself, etc.

6omit will.

7and as an appearance.

8he beholds.

9against Moses.



12shut up Without the, etc.


And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
Lange, John Peter - Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical

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