Numbers 12
Pulpit Commentary
And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
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.
And they said, Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the LORD heard it.
Verse 2. - And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? This is evidently not the "speaking against Moses" mentioned in the previous verse, for that is distinctly said to have been on the score of Moses' marriage. This is their justification of themselves for daring to dispute his judgment and arraign his proceedings; a thing which clearly required justification. Moses himself, or more likely others for him, had remonstrated with them on the language they were using. They retorted that Moses had no monopoly of Divine communications; Aaron also received the revelation of God by Urim and Thummim, and Miriam was a prophetess. They were acknowledged in a general sense as sharing with him the leadership of Israel (see Micah 6:4); upon this they meant to found a claim to coordinate authority. They would have had perhaps all matters settled in a family council in which they should have had an equal voice. It was hard for them both to forget that Moses was only their younger brother: for Miriam that she had saved his life as an infant; for Aaron that he had been as prominent as Moses in the original commission from God to the people. And the Lord heard it. In one sense he hears everything; in another sense there are many things which he does not choose to hear, because he does not wish to take judicial notice of them. Thus he had not "heard" the passionate complaints of Moses himself a short time before, because his will was then to pardon, not to punish (cf. Isaiah 42:19; Malachi 3:16).
(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)
Verse 3. - Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth. For the Hebrew עָנָו the Septuagint has πραὺς here; the Vulgate, mitis. The Targum Palestine has "bowed down in his mind," i.e., overwhelmed ("plagued," Luther). The ordinary version is undoubtedly' right; the object of the parenthesis was either to explain that there was no real ground for the hostility of Miriam and Aaron, or to show that the direct interference of the Lord himself was necessary for the protection of his servant. The verse bears a difficulty on its very face, because it speaks of Moses in terms which could hardly have been used by Moses of himself. Nor is this difficulty in the least degree diminished by the explanations which are offered by those who are determined to maintain at any cost the Mosaic authorship of every word in the Pentateuch. It is no doubt true to some extent that when a great and good man is writing of himself (and especially when he writes under the influence of the Holy Spirit), he can speak of himself with the same calm and simple truthfulness with which he would speak of any other. It is sufficient, however, to refer to the example of St. Paul to show that neither any height of spiritual privilege and authority, nor any intensity of Divine inspiration, obliterates the natural virtue of modesty, or allows a really humble man to praise himself without pain and shrinking. It is also to be observed that while St. Paul forces himself to speak of his privileges, distinctions, and sufferings, all of which were outward to himself, Moses would here be claiming for himself the possession of an inward virtue in greater measure than any other living soul. Surely it is not too much to say that if he did possess it in such measure, he could not possibly have been conscious that he did; only One was thus conscious of his own ineffable superiority, and this very consciousness is one of the strongest arguments for believing that he was infinitely more than a mere man, howsoever good and exalted. There is but one theory that will make it morally possible for Moses to have written this verse, viz., that in writing he was a mere instrument, and not morally responsible for what he did write. Such a theory will find few upholders. But, further, it is necessary to prove not only that Moses might have made this statement, but also that he might have made it in this form. Granted that it was necessary to the narrative to point out that he was very meek; it was not necessary to assert that he was absolutely the meekest man living. And if it was unnecessary, it was also unnatural. No good man would go out of his way to compare himself to his own advantage with all men upon the face of the earth. The whole form of the sentence, indeed, as well as its position, proclaim it so clearly to be an addition by some later hand, that the question may be left to the common sense and knowledge of human nature of every reader; for the broad outlines of human character, morality, and virtue are the same in every age, and are not displaced by any accident of position, or even of inspiration. A slight examination of passages from other sacred writers, which are sometimes adduced as analogous, will serve to show how profound is the difference between what holy men could say of themselves and what they could not (cf. Daniel 1:19, 20; Daniel 5:11, 12; Daniel 9:23; Daniel 10:11). On the question of the inspiration of this verse, supposing it to be an interpolation, and as to the probable author of it, see the Preface. As to the fact of Moses' meekness, we have no reason to doubt it, but we may legitimately look upon the form in which it is stated as one of those conventional hyperboles which are not uncommon even in the sacred writings (cf. Genesis 7:19; John 21:25). And we cannot avoid perceiving that Moses' meekness was far from being perfect, and was marred by sinful impatience and passion on more than one recorded occasion.
And the LORD spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation. And they three came out.
Verse 4. - The Lord spake suddenly. How he spoke we cannot tell, but the word "suddenly" (Septuagint, παραχρῆμα) points to something unexpected and unusual. The voice seems to have come to the three in their tents before there was any thought in their minds of such an intervention. Come out ye three, i.e., out of the camp - probably the camp of Moses and Aaron, on the east of the tabernacle court (see Numbers 3:38).
And the LORD came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam: and they both came forth.
Verse 5. - The Lord came down in the pillar of the cloud. The cloud which had been soaring above the tabernacle descended upon it (see Numbers 11:25 and Numbers 12:10). And stood in the door of the tabernacle. It would seem most natural to understand by these words the entrance to the holy place itself, and this would manifestly accord best with the movements of the cloud, as here described; for the cloud seems to have sunk down upon the sacred tent in token that the Lord was in some special sense present within it. On the other hand, the phrase must certainly be understood to mean the entrance of the court, or sacred enclosure, in Leviticus 8:3, 31, 33, and probably in other places. As it is hardly possible that the phrase can have had both meanings, the latter must be preferred. And they both came forth. Not out of the sanctuary, into which Miriam could not have entered, but out of the enclosure. The wrath which lay upon them both, and the punishment which was about to be inflicted upon one, were sufficient reasons for calling them out of the holy ground.
And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.
Verse 6. - If there boa prophet among you I the Lord will make myself known. More probably "the Lord" belongs to the first clause: "If there be to you a prophet of the Lord, I will make myself known." So the Septuagint, ἐὰν γένηται προφήτης ὑμῶν Κυρίῳ... . γνωσθήσομαι. In a vision. Ἐν ὀράματι. An internal vision, in which the eyes (even if open) saw nothing, but the effects of vision' were produced upon the sensorium by other and supernatural means (see, e.g., Amos 7:7, 8; Acts 10:11). Speak unto him in a dream. Rather, speak "in him" - בּו. The voice that spake to the prophet was an internal voice, causing no vibration of the outer air, but affecting only the inner and hidden seat of consciousness. It is not necessary to restrict the prophetic dream to the time of sleep; a waking state, resembling what we call day-dream, in which the external senses arc quiescent, and the imagination is freed from its usual restraints, was perhaps the more usual mental condition at the time. Indeed the Divine communications made to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; Matthew 2:13) and to the Magi (ibid. Numbers 2:12) are almost the only ones we read of as made during actual sleep, unless we include the case of Pilate's wife (ibid. Numbers 27:19); and none of these were prophets in the ordinary sense. Compare, however, Acts 2:17 b.
My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house.
Verse 7. - My servant Moses is not so. No words could more clearly and sharply draw the distinction between Moses and the whole laudabilis numerus of the prophets. It is strange that, in the face of a statement so general and so emphatic, it should have been doubted whether it applied to such prophets as Isaiah or Daniel. It was exactly in "visions" and in "dreams," i.e., under the peculiar psychological conditions so-called, that these greatest of prophets received their revelations from heaven. The exceeding richness and wonder of some of these revelations did not alter the mode in which they were received, nor raise them out of the ordinary conditions of the gradus propheticus. As prophets of future things they were much greater than Moses, and their writings may be to us far more precious; but that does not concern the present question, which turns exclusively upon the relation between the Divine Giver and the human receiver of the revelation. If words mean anything, the assertion here is that Moses stood on an altogether different footing from the "prophet of the Lord" in respect of the communications which he received from the Lord. It is this essential superiority of position on the part of Moses which alone gives force and meaning to the important declarations of Deuteronomy 18:15; John 1:21 b.; John 6:14; 7:40, &c. Moses had no successor in his relations with God until that Son of man came, who was "in heaven" all the time he walked and spake on earth. Who is faithful in all mine house, נֶאֶמָן with בּ means to be proved, or attested, and so established (cf. 1 Samuel 3:20; 1 Samuel 22:14). The Septuagint gives the true sense, ἐν ὅλῳ τῷ οἴκῳ μου πιστός, and so it is quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chapter 3:2). The "house" of God, as the adjective "whole" shows, is not the tabernacle, but the house of Israel; the' word "house" standing for household, family, nation, as so often in the sacred writings (see Genesis 46:27; Leviticus 10:6; Hebrews 3:6).
With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?
Verse 8. - Mouth to mouth. Equivalent to face to face in Exodus 33:11. What the exact facts of the case were it is not possible to know, scarcely to imagine; but the words seem to imply a familiar speaking with an audible voice on the part of God, as distinguished from the internal voice, inaudible to the ear, with which he spake "in" the prophets. To assert that the revelations accorded to Moses were only subjective modifications of his own consciousness is to evacuate these strong words of any meaning whatever. Apparently. מַרְאֶה (Septuagint ἐν εἴδει) is an accusative in apposition to what goes before by way (apparently) of further definition. It is the same word translated "vision" in verse 6; but its meaning here must be determined by the expression "in riddles," which stands in antithesis to it. It was confessed]y the case with most prophetic utterances that the language in which they were couched was quite as much intended to conceal as to express their full meaning; but to Moses God spake without any such concealments. The similitude of the Lord shall he behold. מַרְאֶה. Not the essential nature of God, which no man can see, but a form (wholly unknown and unimaginable to us) in which it pleased him to veil his glory. The Septuagint has τὴν δόξαν Κυρίου εῖδε, referring, apparently, to the vision promised in Exodus 33:22; and the Targum Palestine speaks here of the vision of the burning bush. The motive for this alteration is no doubt to be sought in a profound jealousy for the great truth declared in such texts as Deuteronomy 4:15; Isaiah 40:18, and afterwards in John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16. But the statement in the text is a general one, and can only mean that Moses habitually in his intercourse with God had before his eyes some visible manifestation of the invisible God, which helped to make that intercourse at once more awfully real and more intensely blessed. Such manifestation to the sense of sight must be distinguished both from the visionary (or subjective) sight of God in human figure accorded to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:26), to Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1), to St. John (Revelation 4:2, 8), and perhaps to others, and also from such theophanies in angel guise as are recorded in Genesis 32:30; Judges 13:9, 2, and elsewhere. On the other hand, the seventy elders seem to have seen the "Temunah" of the Lord upon that one occasion when they were called up into Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:10, 11). Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses! No doubt it was the double fact of their relationship to Moses after the flesh, and of their sharing with him in certain spiritual gifts and prerogatives, which made them oblivious of the great distinction which lifted him above their rivalry, and should have lifted him above their contradiction. That contradiction, however, served to bring out in the clearest way the singular and unapproached position of the mediator of Israel; and it serves still to enable us to estimate aright the peculiar dignity of his legislation and his writings. The substance of prophetic teaching may be of deeper interest and of wider import titan "the law," but this latter will still rank higher in the scale of inspiration, as having been more directly communicated front on high. Thus "the law" (as the Jews rightly taught) remained the body of Divine revelation until "that Prophet" came who was "like unto" Moses in the fact that he enjoyed constant, open, and direct communication with the Godhead.
And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and he departed.
Verse 9. - And he departed. As a judge departs from his judgment-seat after trying and convicting evil-doers.
And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.
Verse 10. - The cloud departed from off the tabernacle. During this awful interview the cloud of the Presence had rested on the tabernacle, as if it were the Divine chariot waiting for the King of Israel while he tarried within (cf. Psalm 104:3; Isaiah 19:1; Revelation 11:12). Now that his work is done he ascends his chariot again, and soars aloft above the host. Miriam became leprous. The Hebrews had become familiar with this terrible disease in Egypt. The Levitical legislation had made it more terrible by affixing to it the penalty of religious and social excommunication, and the stigma, as it were, of the Divine displeasure. Before this legislation Moses himself had been made partially and temporarily leprous, and that solely for a sign, and without any sense of punishment (Exodus 4:6). In Miriam's ease, however, as in all subsequent cases, the plague of leprosy was endued with moral as well as physical horror (cf. 2 Kings 5:27). As snow. This expression points to the perfect development of the disease, as contrasted with its earlier and less conspicuous stages. Aaron looked upon Miriam. If we ask why Aaron himself was not punished, the answer appears to be the same here as in the case of the golden calf.

1. He was not the leader in mischief, but only led into it through weakness.

2. He was, like many weak men, of an affectionate disposition (cf. Leviticus 10:19), and suffered his own punishment in witnessing that of others.

3. He was God's high priest, and the office would have shared in the disgrace of the man.
And 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.
Verse 11. - Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech thee. Septuagint, δέομαι Κύριε. In thus addressing his brother Aaron acknowledged his superior position, and tacitly abandoned all pretension to equality. Lay not the sin upon us. Aaron speaks to Moses almost as if he were praying to God, so completely does. he recognize in his brother the representative of God (in a far higher sense than himself), who had power to bind and loose in the name and power of God. What Aaron really prays for is that the sin, which he frankly confesses, may not be imputed to them. The Levitical law had taught them to look upon sin as a burden, which in the nature of things the sinner must carry, but which by the goodness of God might be got rid of, or transferred to some one else (cf. Leviticus 4:4; Leviticus 16:21; John 1:29).
Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb.
Verse 12. - As one dead. Rather, "as the dead thing," i.e. the still-born child, in which death and decay have anticipated life. Such was the frightful effect of leprosy in its last stages.
And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.
Verse 13. - Moses cried unto the Lord. A much harder and prouder man than Moses was must needs have been melted into pity at the sight of his sister, and the terrible suggestion of Aaron. Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee. The "now" has no place here, unless it be merely to add force to the exclamation. Moses, although directly appealed to himself, can only appeal to God.
And the LORD said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again.
Verse 14. - The Lord said unto Moses. Presumably in the tabernacle, whither Moses would have returned to supplicate God. If her father had but spit in her face. The "but" is superfluous, and obscures the sense; the act mentioned is referred to not as something trifling, but as something in its way very serious. The Septuagint renders it correctly εἰ ὁ πατὴρ... πτύων ἐνέπτυσεν. The Targums have, "if her father had corrected her." Probably they used this euphemism from a sense of a certain want of dignity and propriety in the original expression, considered as coming from the mouth of God. The act in question was, however, not uncommon in itself, and in significance clearly marked (see Deuteronomy 25:9). It was the distinctive note of public disgrace inflicted by one who had a right to inflict it. In the case of a father, it meant that he was thoroughly ashamed of his child, and judged it best (which would be only in extreme cases) to put his child to shame before all the world. So public a disgrace would certainly be felt in patriarchal times as a most severe calamity, and entailed by ordinary custom (as we learn here) retirement and mourning for seven days at least. How much more, when her heavenly Father had been driven to inflict a public disgrace upon her for perverse behavior, should the shame and the sorrow not be lightly put away,, but patiently endured for a decent period! (cf. Hebrews 12:9).
And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.
Verse 15. - Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days. It does not say that Miriam was healed forthwith of her leprosy, but the presumption is to that effect. Not the punishment itself, but the shame of it, was to last according to the answer of God. Her ease, therefore, would not fall under the law of Numbers 5:2, or of Leviticus 13:46, but would be analogous to that treated of in Leviticus 14. No doubt size had to submit to all the rites there prescribed, humiliating as they must have been to the prophetess and the sister of the law-giver; and these rites involved exclusion from her tent for a period of seven days (Leviticus 14:8). By God's command exclusion from her tent was made exclusion from the camp.
And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the wilderness of Paran.
Verse 16. - In the wilderness of Paran. It is somewhat strange that this note of place should be used a second time without explanation (see chapter Numbers 10:12, 33). Probably it is intended to mark the fact that they were still within the limits of Paran, although on the very verge of their promised laud. In the list of stations given in chapter Numbers 33, it is said (verse 18), "They departed from Hazeroth, and pitched in Rithmah." This is with some probability identified with the Wady Redemat, which opens front the mountain mass of the Azazimat into the singular plain of Kudes, or Kadesh, the scene of the decisive events which followed.

The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by BibleSoft, inc., Used by permission

Bible Hub
Numbers 11
Top of Page
Top of Page