Numbers 12



Miriam and Aaron Oppose Moses (12:1–16)

1 Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses. They did not talk against Moses to his face but behind his back. This is the definition of slander, a sin condemned in many passages of Scripture (Leviticus 19:16; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10; Ephesians 4:31; 2 Timothy 3:3). Slander is different from giving false testimony (Exodus 20:16), because slander doesn’t have to be false; often the most damaging slander is based on truth.

Slander is saying things about someone behind his back, things that tear him down and harm his reputation. Murmuring, gossiping and backbiting are three varieties of slander; false testimony itself can be slanderous. And slander can start in one’s own family—as in the case of Miriam and Aaron.

Miriam was clearly the instigator of the slander against her brother Moses; she is named first,39 and she ended up being the only one punished (verse 10). Aaron, it appears, simply went along with her. And the substance of her slander was essentially true: Moses had married a Cushite wife,40 a non-Israelite. It seems that the Cushites were looked down upon by the Israelites and thus Miriam sought to discredit Moses because of his wife.

2 But Moses’ marriage was not the real issue behind Miriam’s complaint; that was only a pretext—as is so often the case with slander. The real issue was jealousy—sibling rivalry, which most people get over in childhood. Miriam was upset that Moses had been selected to be God’s chief spokesman. “Hasn’t [God] also spoken through us?” she asked.

In fact, God had already spoken through Miriam and Aaron; again her complaint was based on truth (Micah 6:4). Her implication, however, was that because Moses had married a non-Israelite wife he should no longer be God’s chief spokesman and leader of Israel. So she (and Aaron) were basically opposing Moses’ leadership; and in doing so they were opposing God, who had specifically chosen Moses to be Israel’s leader.

Though here Miriam was guilty of a great sin, we must not forget that she was the older sister who helped save the infant Moses and arranged for Moses’ mother to raise him until he was old enough to be adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:110). Furthermore, Miriam was acknowledged to be a prophetess; she led the Israelite women in singing one of the first psalms recorded in Scripture (Exodus 15:20–21). God had already given her great honor; but evidently she was not satisfied.

And the LORD heard this. The Lord “hears” even our thoughts. Just as the Israelites had rejected God’s provision of manna (Numbers 11:6), so Miriam was now rejecting God’s provision of Moses’ leadership; this was, in effect, a rejection of God Himself. At once (verse 4) God took action.

3 But before we’re told what action God took, the writer has added this verse in parentheses: Now Moses was a very humble man. We have already concluded that Moses was the primary author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible (see Genesis: Introduction); but how could Moses have written this verse about himself? The minute one boasts about being humble, he is no longer humble! The commonest explanation for this verse is that it was added later by an editor who compiled Moses’ writings and put them in their final form.41

Regardless of how one explains this verse, the fact remains that Moses was indeed humble. He did not think highly of his abilities (Exodus 3:11; 4:10). He listened to the advice of others (Exodus 18:24). He did not seek power or leadership; rather, he desired to share it with others (Numbers 11:29). His obedience to God led him to the point of self–denial (Exodus 32:31–32; Numbers 11:14–15). In all these ways Moses demonstrated true humility.

To be humble does not mean to demean or devalue ourselves; it means to see the true source of our value. Our value comes from God’s acceptance of us as His children. Being humble means seeing ourselves as God sees us, as wretched sinners saved by grace and now seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6). Being humble means humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand so that He might lift us up in due time (1 Peter 5:6). Being humble means having the attitude of Christ, who is the ultimate example of humility for us all (Philippians 2:5–11).

4–8 There is no record that Moses tried to defend himself against Miriam and Aaron; he didn’t need to. God was his defender.42 Just as God has promised to always take the side of the humble (Proverbs 3:34; 1 Peter 5:5), so He took the side of Moses against his attackers. In essence, He told Miriam and Aaron that they were ordinary “prophets,” but that Moses was different. God spoke with Moses clearly and directly—face to face43 (verse 8). And the reason why God chose to have this intimate relationship with Moses was because Moses was faithful in all [God’s] house (verse 7). Even when all the people around him were being faithless, Moses remained faithful in God’s “house”—that is, in God’s “household,” which was Israel.

From all this, it should be evident that Moses was a forerunner of Christ. Indeed, God told Moses, “I will raise up . . . a prophet like you” (Deuteronomy 18:1719). That prophet was Jesus Christ. Great though Moses was, he was only a forerunner of Christ: Moses was the servant in God’s house; Christ was the son over God’s house (Hebrews 3:5–6)—God’s one and only Son (John 3:16).

9 . . . and he (God) left them. The first sign of God’s displeasure is the withdrawal of His presence. When we sin, we become aware that God is no longer close to us; our sin has repelled Him. His Holy Spirit departs from us. Paul said: . . . do not grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). However, as soon as we confess our sin, the Spirit will return and fellowship with God will be restored.

10–16 Even after confession, however, the punishment for sin must still be borne. God struck Miriam with leprosy (verse 10). Then, as he had done several times before, Moses prayed to God that He might show mercy (verse 13). And once again God responded to Moses’ prayer. He limited Miriam’s punishment to seven days. But she would have to spend those days outside the camp (verse 14), because she had an infectious skin disease that excluded her from the community of Israel (Numbers 5:2).

After the seven days had passed, the Israelites moved on and encamped in the Desert of Paran (Numbers 10:12) at the southern border of Canaan. The conquest of the promised land was now at hand.