While the Israelites were encamped at Hazeroth (Numbers 11:35) during their wilderness wandering, Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, criticized his marriage (Numbers 12:1). God summoned the trio to the tent of meeting and arbitrated the family feud siding with Moses (Numbers 12:4-8). When God left, Miriam was leprous, “as white as snow (Numbers 12:10 NASB)”. The pallidity indicates that the disease materialized in its most malignant form (Exodus 4:6, II Kings 5:27).
After constantly dealing with criticism from the outside, Moses faced conflict within his own household from people who ought to have proved his greatest support. It is not unusual for a prophet to be without honor among his own people (Matthew 13:57; Mark 6:4; John 4:44).
Has your family ever disapproved of your actions? Can we criticize a leader under whom we work? What is the real source of Aaron’s and Miriam’s animosity?
Two factors are connected to the dispute: Moses’ marriage and his position.
Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the LORD heard this. (Numbers 12:1-2, NASB)The public issue was Moses’ marriage. The wife’s identity is shrouded in mystery as scholars debate her nationality (“Cushite” is ambiguous) and whether the woman in question is Moses’ first wife, Zipporah (Exodus 2:21). Some have seen this as a racist response to an interracial marriage. Those who feel that a second marriage was the sole reason for the dispute note that Miriam’s exile was seven days, the typical duration of a Hebrew wedding feast.
There also seems to be a dispute over hierarchy as Aaron and Miriam remind themselves that God has spoken through them as well as Moses (Numbers 12:2). This is true as Aaron (Exodus 4:15-16; 28:30) and Miriam (Exodus 15:20) had indeed spoken for God. In making this claim, they were asserting their right to lead. In the previous chapter, God granted the prophetic spirit to seventy elders and to Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:24-29), cementing a hierarchy with Moses at the top. Moses’ delegating power was an idea originally suggested by Jethro, the father of Zipporah (Exodus 18:14-26). This could connect the diluting of Aaron’s and Miriam’ s power to Moses’ wife.
The rabbinic interpretations connect the two seemingly divergent strains of the story by imagining that Miriam challenged Moses because she believed that he was neglecting his wife (e.g. Rashi (1040-1105) on Numbers 12:1). In this reading, Aaron and Miriam were, in effect, saying that they were also prophets yet had not disregarded their family obligations. This does not fit the tone of the text as the they name the woman’s nationality unnecessarily and do not name her, which hardly sounds like they are advocating for her.
It appears Moses’ marriage was merely pretense concealing a power play. Moses, the youngest of the three siblings, had become the leader (Exodus 2:3-4, 6:20; Numbers 26:59). The timing of the event in connection with the appointment of the seventy shows that Aaron and Miriam’s power was waning. The otherwise needless parenthetical aside regarding Moses’ humility (Numbers 12:3) signals that pride played a role in this incident. Most decidedly, when God rebukes Aaron and Miriam at length nothing is said of Moses’ marriage, attesting that it was not the issue (Numbers 12:6-8).
Though Aaron acknowledges his own complicity (Numbers 12:11), Miriam receives all of the punishment. Why does Miriam take one for the team? Does gender play any role? What is God’s purpose in afflicting Miriam?
The text subtly demonstrates that Miriam was the instigator in the sedition. Though no modern English translations (outside of [Robert] Young [1822-1888]’s Literal Translation) indicate it, the verb used for “spoke” (dabar) used in Numbers 12:1 is the feminine singular form (v’tidaber). It should literally read “and she spoke” connoting that it was Miriam who spoke against Moses. That Miriam is named ahead of Aaron is further evidence that she spearheaded the attack. In every other instance when the two are named, including two in this story, Aaron is listed ahead of Miriam (Numbers 12:4, 5, 26:59; I Chronicles 6:3; Micah 6:4). Aaron simply followed as he had done at Sinai when he made the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1-6). Even so, Aaron was involved and appears to go undisciplined. In a similar incident, Adam was reproved for his part in “The Fall”, even though he was not the instigator (Genesis 3:17-19).
The Talmud argues that Aaron’s status as high priest excluded him from leprosy as the high priest could not become unclean (Leviticus 21:10-12). In fact, as high priest, Aaron would have been responsible for pronouncing Miriam leprous (Leviticus 13). Had he contracted leprosy, Aaron would no longer have been able to perform his duties as high priest and worship would have been interrupted. Though many priests and preachers have been spared for the sake of institutions they represented, this would set a bad theological precedent as the priest would be allowed to sin more than the populace rather than be held to a higher standard (James 3:1).
Miriam’s contracting leprosy may have been an ingenious method of conflict resolution. The brothers’ protectiveness of their sister kicked in and they reunited immediately to face the issue. Their emotional response to the situation indicates their concern for their sister (Numbers 12:11-13). They may have been close to her in ways they were not to each other. When Miriam contracts leprosy, the group’s focus shifts and all three are reminded that before they were the exalted leaders of a burgeoning nation, they were family. Perhaps God was not making an example out of Miriam but rather reuniting a family, gaining repentance from the offending parties and restoring community. In an instant, that is what happened.
Micah 6:4 remembers the trio as the leaders of the Exodus. Together.
“Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt
And ransomed you from the house of slavery,
And I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam. (Micah 6:4, NASB)