Numbers 12:1
And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
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(1) And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses.—Miriam appears to have been the leader in this insurrection against the authority of Moses. Her name occurs before that of Aaron, either as the nearer or as the more prominent subject; and the verb which is rendered “spake” is in the feminine gender. Moreover, the judgment which was inflicted (Numbers 12:10) fell upon Miriam, not upon Aaron. who seems to have yielded to the suggestions of Miriam, as he had previously done to the request of the Israelites in regard to the golden calf.

Because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married.—Some suppose that the reference is to Zipporah, who may have been included amongst the Asiatic division of the Ethiopians, or Cushites (comp. Habakkuk 3:7, where the tents of Cushan, or Cush, are coupled with the curtains of Midian), and that the occasion of the opposition to Moses was the undue influence which he is supposed to have allowed Hobab and other members of Zipporah’s family to exercise over him. This supposition, however, seems improbable on many accounts. The words, “for he had married an Ethiopian (or Cushite) woman,” naturally point to some recent occurrence, not to one which had taken place more than forty years previously, and which is, therefore, very unlikely to have given occasion to the murmuring of Miriam and Aaron at this time. Moreover, the murmuring is expressly connected with the Cushite herself, not with any of the subsequent or incidental results of the marriage. It seems, therefore, much more probable that Zipporah was dead, and that Moses had married one of the African Cushites who had accompanied the Israelites in their march out of Egypt, or one of the Cushites who dwelt in Arabia, and who were found at this time in the neighbourhood of Sinai. A similar marriage had been contracted by Joseph, and such marriages were not forbidden by the Law, which prohibited marriage with the Canaanites (Exodus 34:16).

Numbers 12:1. And Miriam — Miriam seems to be first named, because she was the first mover of the sedition; wherefore she is more eminently punished. The Ethiopian — Either, 1st, Zipporah, who is here called an Ethiopian, in the Hebrew, a Cushite, because she was a Midianite: the word Cush being generally used in Scripture, not for Ethiopia, properly so called, above Egypt, but for Arabia. If she be meant, probably they did not quarrel with him for marrying her, because that was done long since, but for being swayed by her and her relations, by whom they might think he was persuaded to choose seventy rulers; by which copartnership in government they thought their authority and reputation diminished. And because they durst not accuse God, they charge Moses, his instrument, as the manner of men is. Or, 2d, Some other woman whom he married, either while Zipporah lived, or rather because she was now dead, though that, as many other things, be not recorded. For, as the quarrel seems to have been about marrying a stranger, it is probable it was a flesh occasion about which they contended. And it was lawful for him as well as any other to marry an Ethiopian or Arabian woman, provided she were a sincere proselyte.

12:1-9 The patience of Moses was tried in his own family, as well as by the people. The pretence was, that he had married a foreign wife; but probably their pride was hurt, and their envy stirred up, by his superior authority. Opposition from our near relations, and from religious friends, is most painful. But this is to be looked for, and it will be well if in such circumstances we can preserve the gentleness and meekness of Moses. Moses was thus fitted to the work he was called to. God not only cleared Moses, but praised him. Moses had the spirit of prophecy in a way which set him far above all other prophets; yet he that is least in the kingdom of heaven, is greater than he; and our Lord Jesus infinitely excels him, Heb 3:1. Let Miriam and Aaron consider whom it was they insulted. We have reason to be afraid of saying or doing any thing against the servants of God. And those are presumptuous indeed who are not afraid to speak evil of dignities, 2Pe 2:10. The removal of God's presence is the surest and saddest token of God's displeasure. Woe to us, if he depart! he never departs, till by sin and folly we drive him from us.Miriam, as a prophetess (compare Exodus 15:20-21) no less than as the sister of Moses and Aaron, took the first rank among the women of Israel; and Aaron may be regarded as the ecclesiastical head of the whole nation. But instead of being grateful for these high dignities they challenged the special vocation of Moses and the exclusive authority which God had assigned to him. Miriam was the instigator, from the fact that her name stands conspicuously first Numbers 12:1, and that the punishment Numbers 12:10 fell on her alone. She probably considered herself as supplanted, and that too by a foreigner. Aaron was misled this time by the urgency of his sister, as once before Exodus 32 by that of the people.

Numbers 12:1

The Ethiopian woman whom he had married - (Hebrew, "Cushite," compare Genesis 2:13; Genesis 10:6) It is likely that Zipporah Exodus 2:21 was dead, and that Miriam in consequence expected to have greater influence than ever with Moses. Her disappointment at his second marriage would consequently be very great.

The marriage of Moses with a woman descended from Ham was not prohibited, so long as she was not of the stock of Canaan (compare Exodus 34:11-16); but it would at any time have been offensive to that intense nationality which characterized the Jews. The Christian fathers note in the successive marriage of Moses with a Midianite and an Ethiopian a foreshadowing of the future extension to the Gentiles of God's covenant and its promises (compare Psalm 45:9 ff; Sol 1:4 ff); and in the complaining of Miriam and Aaron a type of the discontent of the Jews because of such extension: compare Luke 15:29-30.


Nu 12:1-9. Miriam's and Aaron's Sedition.

1. an Ethiopian woman—Hebrew, "a Cushite woman"—Arabia was usually called in Scripture the land of Cush, its inhabitants being descendants of that son of Ham (see on [77]Ex 2:15) and being accounted generally a vile and contemptible race (see on [78]Am 9:7). The occasion of this seditious outbreak on the part of Miriam and Aaron against Moses was the great change made in the government by the adoption of the seventy rulers [Nu 11:16]. Their irritating disparagement of his wife (who, in all probability, was Zipporah [Ex 2:21], and not a second wife he had recently married) arose from jealousy of the relatives, through whose influence the innovation had been first made (Ex 18:13-26), while they were overlooked or neglected. Miriam is mentioned before Aaron as being the chief instigator and leader of the sedition.Miriam and Aaron murmur against Moses, Numbers 12:1-3. God commandeth him, Aaron, and Miriam to come to the tabernacle, which they did, Numbers 12:4,5. God rebuketh Aaron and Miriam, Numbers 12:6-9. Miriam becometh leprous, Numbers 12:10. Aaron humbling himself before Moses, Numbers 12:11,12; he intercedeth for him, Numbers 12:13. Miriam remains without the camp seven days, Numbers 12:14,15.

God permitted

Miriam and

Aaron to murmur against their brother, partly to exercise and discover his admirable meekness and patience for the instruction of after-ages; and partly, that by this shaking Mose’s authority might take the deeper root, and the people might be deterred from all sedition and rebellion against him by this example. Miriam seems to be first named, because she was the chief instigator or first mover of the sedition; wherefore she also is more eminently punished.

The Ethiopian woman was either 1. Zipporah, who is here called an Ethiopian, in the Hebrew a Cushite, because she was a Midianite; the word Cush being generally used in Scripture, not for Ethiopia properly so called below Egypt, but for Arabia, as some late learned men have evidently proved from 2 Kings 19:9 2 Chronicles 21:16 Ezekiel 29:10 30:8,9 Hab 3:7, and other places. If she be meant, as it is commonly conceived, I suppose they did not quarrel with him for marrying her, because that was done long since, but for indulging her too much, and being swayed by her and her relations, by whom they might think he was persuaded to make this innovation, and to choose seventy rulers, as he had been formerly, Exo 18; by which copartnership in government they thought their authority and reputation much diminished, especially when no notice was taken nor use made of them in the choice, but all was done by the direction of Moses, and for his assistance in the government. And because they durst not accuse God, who was the chief Agent in it, they charge Moses, his instrument, as the manner of men is. Or,

2. Some other woman, though not named in Scripture, whom he married either whilst Zipporah lived, or rather because she was now dead, though that, as really other things, be not recorded. For as the quarrel seems to be about his marrying a stranger, so it is probable it was a late and fresh occasion about which they contended, and not a thing done forty years ago. And it was lawful for him as well as any other to marry an Ethiopian or Arabian woman, provided she were, as doubtless this woman was, a sincere proselyte, which were by the law of God admitted to the same privileges with the Israelites, Exodus 12:48; so there might be many reasons why Moses might choose to marry such a person rather than an Israelite, or why God so ordered it by his providence, either because she was a person of eminent worth and virtue, or because God intended that the government should not be continued in the hands of Moses’s children, and therefore would have some political blemish to be upon the family, as being strangers by one parent. And this they here urge as a blemish to Moses also.

And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses,.... Miriam is first mentioned, because she was first in the transgression, and so was only punished; Aaron was drawn into the sin by her, and he acknowledged his fault, and was forgiven: it must be a great trial to Moses, not only to be spoken against by the people, as he often was, but by his near relations, and these gracious persons, and concerned with him in leading and guiding the people through the wilderness, Micah 6:4,

because of the Ethiopian woman, whom he had married, for he had married an Ethiopian woman; not a queen of Ethiopia, as the Targum of Jonathan; nor Tharbis, a daughter of a king of Ethiopia, whom Josephus (h) says he married, when he was sent upon an expedition against the Ethiopians, while he was in Pharaoh's court; nor the widow of an Ethiopian king whom he married after his death, when he fled from Pharaoh into Ethiopia, and was made a king there, as say some Jewish writers (i): for there is no reason to believe he was married before he went to Midian; nor was this some Ethiopian woman he had married since, and but lately, Zipporah being dead or divorced, as some have fancied; but it was Zipporah herself, as Aben Ezra, Ben Melech, and so the Jerusalem Targum, which represents her not as truly an Ethiopian, but so called, because she was like to one; indeed she was really one; not a native of Ethiopia, the country of the Abyssines, but she was a Cushite, a native of Arabia Chusea, in which country Midian was, from whence she came; hence the tents, of Cushan, and the curtains of Midian, are spoken of together, Habakkuk 3:7. Now it was not on account of Moses's marriage with her that they spoke against him, for that was an affair transacted in Midian some years ago, which at first sight may seem to be the case; nor because he now had divorced her, as Jarchi, which perhaps would have given them no uneasiness; and for the same reason, not because he abstained from conversation with her, that he might give up himself to the service of God in his house, and perform it in a more holy and faithful manner, which is the common sentiment of the Jewish writers: but rather, as it is thought by others, because of a suspicion they had entertained, that she had interested herself in the affair of the choice of the seventy elders, and had prevailed upon Moses to put in such and such persons into the list she had a mind to serve; at least this seems to be the case, for the displeasure was against Moses himself; they were angry with him, because he transacted that affair without them, and chose whom he pleased, without consulting them; and therefore, though they cared not to ascribe it entirely to him, and his neglect of them, they imputed it to his wife, as if she had over persuaded him, or her brother through her means, to take such a step as he did.

(h) Antiqu. l. 2. c. 10. sect. 2.((i) Dibre Hayamim, fol. 7. 2. Shalshalet Hakabala, fol. 5. 2. so some in Aben Ezra in loc.

And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married {a} an Ethiopian woman.

(a) Zipporah, Moses' wife, was a Midianite, and because Midian bordered on Ethiopia, it is sometimes referred to in the scriptures by this name.

1. the Cushite woman] Cush is usually the Heb. equivalent for Ethiopia. But it has recently been maintained, owing to the occurrence of the name Kusi in some Assyrian inscriptions, that there was also a place of that name in N. Arabia. Of an Ethiopian wife of Moses we hear nothing elsewhere, and the verse would seem to suggest that his marriage was recent. If, then, the wife was a native of N. Arabia, it would be possible to identify her with Ẓippôrah whom Moses had married in Midian (ch. Numbers 10:29, Exodus 2:15-21; Exodus 3:1); according to Jdg 1:16; Jdg 4:11 she was a Kenite.

Verse 1. - And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses. While the people were encamped at Hazeroth (see verse 16), and therefore probably very soon after the events of the last chapter. That Miriam's was the moving spirit in the matter is sufficiently evident,

(1) because her name stands first;

(2) because the verb "spake" is in the feminine (יַתְּדַבֵּר, "and she said");

(3) because the ground of annoyance was a peculiarly feminine one, a mesalliance;

(4) because Miriam alone was punished;

(5) because Aaron never seems to have taken the lead in anything.

He appears uniformly as a man of weak and pliable character, who was singularly open to influence from others, for good or for evil. Superior to his brother in certain gifts, he was as inferior to him in force of character as could well be. On the present occasion there can be little question that Aaron simply allowed himself to be drawn by his sister into an opposition with which he had little personal sympathy; a general discontent at the manifest inferiority of his position inclined him to take up her quarrel, and to echo her complaints. Because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. Hebrew, a Cushite woman. The descendants of Cush were distributed both in Africa (the Ethiopians proper) and in Asia (the southern Arabians, Babylonians, Ninevites, &c.). See Genesis 10. Some have thought that this Ethiopian woman was none other than the Midianite Zipporah, who might have been called a Cushite in some loose sense by Miriam. The historian, however, would not have repeated in his own name a statement so inaccurate; nor is it at all likely that that marriage would have become a matter of contention after so many years. The natural supposition undoubtedly is that Moses (whether after the death of Zipporah, or during her lifetime, we cannot tell) had taken to himself a second wife of Hamite origin. Where he found her it is useless to conjecture; she may possibly have been one of the "mixed multitude" that went up out of Egypt. It is equally useless to attribute any moral or religious character to this marriage, of which Holy Scripture takes no direct notice, and which was evidently regarded by Moses as a matter of purely private concern to himself. In general we may say that the rulers of Israel attached neither political, social, nor religious significance to their marriages; and that neither law nor custom imposed any restraint upon their choice, so long as they did not ally themselves with the daughters of Canaan (see Exodus 34:16). It would be altogether beside the mark to suppose that Moses deliberately married a Cushite woman in order to set forth the essential fellowship between Jew and Gentile. It is true that such marriages as those of Joseph, of Salmon, of Solomon, and others undeniably became invested with spiritual importance and evangelical significance, in view of the growing narrowness of Jewish feeling, and of the coming in of a wider dispensation; but such significance was wholly latent at the time. If, however, the choice of Moses is inexplicable, the opposition of Miriam is intelligible enough. She was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20), and strongly imbued with those national and patriotic feelings which are never far removed from exclusiveness and pride of race. She had - to use modern words - led the Te Deum of the nation after the stupendous overthrow of the Egyptians. And now her brother, who stood at the head of the nation, had brought into his tent a Cushite woman, one of the dark-skinned race which seemed oven lower in the religious scale than the Egyptians themselves. Such an alliance might easily seem to Miriam nothing better than an act of apostasy which would justify any possible opposition. Numbers 12:1All the rebellions of the people hitherto had arisen from dissatisfaction with the privations of the desert march, and had been directed against Jehovah rather than against Moses. And if, in the case of the last one, at Kibroth-hattaavah, even Moses was about to lose heart under the heavy burden of his office; the faithful covenant God had given the whole nation a practical proof, in the manner in which He provided him support in the seventy elders, that He had not only laid the burden of the whole nation upon His servant Moses, but had also communicated to him the power of His Spirit, which was requisite to enable him to carry this burden. Thus not only was his heart filled with new courage when about to despair, but his official position in relation to all the Israelites was greatly exalted. This elevation of Moses excited envy on the part of his brother and sister, whom God had also richly endowed and placed so high, that Miriam was distinguished as a prophetess above all the women of Israel, whilst Aaron had been raised by his investiture with the high-priesthood into the spiritual head of the whole nation. But the pride of the natural heart was not satisfied with this. They would dispute with their brother Moses the pre-eminence of his special calling and his exclusive position, which they might possibly regard themselves as entitled to contest with him not only as his brother and sister, but also as the nearest supporters of his vocation. Miriam was the instigator of the open rebellion, as we may see both from the fact that her name stands before that of Aaron, and also from the use of the feminine תּדבּר in Numbers 12:1. Aaron followed her, being no more able to resist the suggestions of his sister, than he had formerly been to resist the desire of the people for a golden idol (Exodus 32). Miriam found an occasion for the manifestation of her discontent in the Cushite wife whom Moses had taken. This wife cannot have been Zipporah the Midianite: for even though Miriam might possibly have called her a Cushite, whether because the Cushite tribes dwelt in Arabia, or in a contemptuous sense as a Moor or Hamite, the author would certainly not have confirmed this at all events inaccurate, if not contemptuous epithet, by adding, "for he had taken a Cushite wife;" to say nothing of the improbability of Miriam having made the marriage which her brother had contracted when he was a fugitive in a foreign land, long before he was called by God, the occasion of reproach so many years afterwards. It would be quite different if, a short time before, probably after the death of Zipporah, he had contracted a second marriage with a Cushite woman, who either sprang from the Cushites dwelling in Arabia, or from the foreigners who had come out of Egypt along with the Israelites. This marriage would not have been wrong in itself, as God had merely forbidden the Israelites to marry the daughters of Canaan (Exodus 34:16), even if Moses had not contracted it "with the deliberate intention of setting forth through this marriage with a Hamite woman the fellowship between Israel and the heathen, so far as it could exist under the law; and thus practically exemplifying in his own person that equality between the foreigners and Israel which the law demanded in various ways" (Baumgarten), or of "prefiguring by this example the future union of Israel with the most remote of the heathen," as O. v. Gerlach and many of the fathers suppose. In the taunt of the brother and sister, however, we meet with that carnal exaggeration of the Israelitish nationality which forms so all-pervading a characteristic of this nation, and is the more reprehensible the more it rests upon the ground of nature rather than upon the spiritual calling of Israel (Kurtz).
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