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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Numbers 12

Verse 1

This remarkable chapter gives the account of Miriam's and Aaron's challenge of the unique position of Moses as God's principal spokesman during the period of the wilderness journeys.

The first paragraph (Numbers 12:1-3) is of the greatest interest to critics who boldly affirm that it appears to have been written ABOUT Moses, rather than BY Moses. Of course, it does have that appearance, and, as a matter of fact, it is possible that this little paragraph came into the Pentateuch by the hand of Joshua, Ezra, or some other inspired writer. Sir Isaac Newton, and many other believing scholars for generations have found no problem whatever with the thesis that such occasional passages as the account of Moses' death, and a few others such as this one, indeed could have been written by some inspired author other than Moses and added to the Pentateuch. There is no challenge whatever to the Mosaic authorship of the whole in any such possibility.

Nevertheless, we find the view that Moses did not write these verses totally unacceptable. Note the lines in Numbers 12:3, where it is declared that, "Moses was very meek, above all men that were upon the face of the earth." Only God could have known such a thing as this, proving absolutely that God Himself is the origin of such a statement. And, since God is most certainly the Revelator here, He might as easily have spoken the words through Moses as through any other person.

Furthermore, the third verse was a very necessary explanation of why God spoke "suddenly" to Moses (Numbers 12:4). That is why the revelation was made, and it is not a mere vain-glorious statement by Moses. To us, it seems abundantly clear that Moses, writing in the third person, as so characteristic of the Sacred Scriptures, and as the great of all times and nations have done, used the third person for the sake of greater objectivity. Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, Xenophon, Thucydides, and Flavius Josephus all wrote in the third person,[1] as indeed did the vast majority of the O.T. and N.T. authors. Matthew, John, Paul, and others used it, and therefore there can be nothing suspicious about its use by Moses.

Critical puzzlement over whether this chapter belongs to this or that "prior document" is complete, and some try to identify it with some "later period," but all such speculations are totally worthless. The nature of the chapter is such that it can be identified now as having come from God Himself, and as being truly inspired, containing in its very texture some of the most eloquent teaching in the Bible regarding Jesus Christ our Lord and the kingdom of heaven, truth that is not assailable and cannot be discredited, even if a different date or authorship could be proved!

See the conclusion of the chapter for discussion of its typical nature.

"And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, Hath Jehovah indeed spoken only with Moses? hath he not also spoken with us? And Jehovah heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth."

"Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses ..." Miriam was the principal offender here, since her name is mentioned first, and also because she alone was severely punished.

"Because of the Cushite woman whom he had married ..." Some allege that Moses divorced Zipporah who was named in Exodus as his wife, and who is there called a Midianite. Others suppose that Zipporah had, in the meanwhile, died; the identity of this "second wife" includes the thesis that, "She was a Sudanese or Ethiopian";[2] "She was the queen of Ethiopia";[3] "She was an Asiatic, rather than an African Cushite."[4] Midianite and Cushite are related terms,[5] but the Cushites included the descendants of Ham and Canaan, and from this some have found no second wife at all, but merely a derogatory word for Zipporah as "a Cushite." It is by no means certain that "Cushite means black," although the KJV renders it "Ethiopian woman." One meaning of the word is "fair of appearance."[6] "The rabbinical interpretation of Cushite is beautiful."[7] Miriam's jealousy of Moses could have been due to the beauty of Zipporah, a much more likely cause of jealousy than nationality.

Most of the comments one encounters deal with this problem, and yet it seems to have no importance at all. This marriage was not the real reason at all for Miriam and Aaron's opposition; it was Moses' AUTHORITY which they sought to share. The marriage is here mentioned merely as a pretext which God did not even deign to discuss. The Bible records no marriage of Moses except that with Zipporah. There is no mention either of her death or of her being divorced. And therefore, we conclude that Zipporah and the "Cushite woman" were one and the same person. There is the most extensive support of this view by scholars: John Joseph Owens,[8] Isaac Asimov,[9] T. Carson,[10] J. A. Thompson,[11] etc. Even the scholars who suppose that a second wife is mentioned here usually take it for granted that Zipporah was deceased. However, "In view of the silence of the Scripture, it is unwise to jump to conclusions."[12]

Moses' marriage with a non-Jew stands in the sacred text in such a manner as to focus attention upon it, and the design of God Himself is visible in this. Moses, the Great Type of Christ in the O.T. outraged the leading Jews of his day, including his family, by his marriage to a Gentile. This stands as a prophecy of the ultimate action of Christ himself in uniting in a spiritual marriage with the Gentiles in his bride the Church. The hatred of Miriam and Aaron aroused by Moses' marriage to a Gentile is a type of the hatred and unwillingness of the Jews of Christ's day to allow that Gentiles were also included in the love and salvation of God. This profound truth, prophesied no more effectively anywhere else in the O.T., identifies the passage as God's Word." No accidental or fraudulent "interpolation" could possibly have done a thing like this. (See the end of the chapter.)

"Hath God indeed spoken only through Moses ..." (Numbers 12:2). Miriam was indeed a prophetess, and Aaron was God's anointed high priest, but the position of Moses was an exalted one, unique indeed in the history of Israel. God would act promptly to safeguard his faithful servant's position.

"The man Moses was very meek ..." (Numbers 12:3). This was included to explain why God acted so quickly (Numbers 12:4). It appears that Moses, because of his meek disposition, simply did not recognize the grave threat to his authority and was in the posture of being likely to pass over the incident without drastic action, but that was not to be.

Verse 4

"And Jehovah spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tent of meeting. And they three came out. And Jehovah came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the Tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forth. And he said, Now hear my words: if there be a prophet among you, I Jehovah will make myself known unto him in a vision, I will speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so; he is faithful in all my house: with him will I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the form of Jehovah shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?"

"And Jehovah spake suddenly ..." (Numbers 12:4). The sudden intervention of God Himself in this high-level rebellion against Moses is explained fully by the fact of Moses' meek and permissive attitude in Numbers 12:3. "That (Numbers 12:3) explains how it was that Moses took no steps to defend himself."[13]

"If there be a prophet ..." (Numbers 12:6). The words following this have the significance of saying that, "God's communication with Moses was in the intimacy of personal contact, but that he spoke to all others by means of riddles and dark sayings, dreams, visions, etc."[14] This reminds us of the opening words of Hebrews that, "By divers portions and in divers manners" God spake of old to the fathers by the prophets. Moses excelled all others of that whole era as the receiver and communicator of the word of God.

"My servant Moses ... (Numbers 12:7,8). This lies back of Isaiah's prophecy concerning God's Servant (the Christ). Also, note the statement that Moses was faithful in all God's house (Numbers 12:7), a theme mentioned in Hebrews 3:5,6. This very word used of persons in so exalted a position, as "in Ugaritic texts in which an intimate of Deity is called a Servant as a term of endearment,"[15] is another of very numerous evidences of the antiquity of the conceptions that are inherent in this passage.

Verse 9

"And the anger of Jehovah was kindled against them; and he departed. And the cloud removed from over the Tent; and behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses, Oh, my lord, lay not, I pray thee, sin upon us, for that we have done foolishly, and for that we have sinned. Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb. And Moses cried unto Jehovah, saying, Heal her, O God, I beseech thee. And Jehovah said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut up without the camp seven days, and after that she shall be brought in again. And Miriam was shut up without the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not until Miriam was brought in again. And afterward the people journeyed from Hazeroth, and encamped in the wilderness of Paran."

This sudden affliction of Miriam with leprosy was indeed a dreadful and shocking penalty, little short of death itself in the shame and wretchedness inflicted by it. Aaron and Moses understood the lesson at once, and Aaron immediately appealed to Moses. Moses having been appealed to, could appeal only to God; and that he promptly did.

"Heal her, O God, I beseech thee ..." (Numbers 12:13). Older versions add the word now. Heal her now! Scholars agree that the now should be omitted. Nevertheless, Gray stated that the narrative "implies that Miriam was healed immediately."[16] Despite this, the quarantine of lepers, even though healed, for a period of seven days was not lifted. God had a law for the cleansing of lepers, and it involved the leper's being thrust without the camp. In this instance, God would not change his law, even for the benefit of Miriam. Healed or not, she would be excluded for a full week.

"If her father had but spit in her face ..." (Numbers 12:14). Such an inelegant statement as this is thought to be undignified on God's part by some; and the Jewish interpreters render it, "If her father had corrected her."[17] God, however, always used language that men could understand, and no Jew of that generation could have misunderstood this. It referred to a public disgrace inflicted upon a child by a father, who had a right so to do, and who felt that the conduct of his offspring had been sufficiently reprehensible that such a public repudiation of it was required. "In patriarchal times, this was a most severe penalty and entailed a period of seclusion and mourning on the part of the offender."[18] In the light of this, how much more severe penalty was to be expected for Miriam who had insulted God Himself by thus opposing and speaking against God's chosen Servant, and even daring to claim a share of his authority for herself! Even though God, in mercy, healed her upon the intercession of Moses, she was required to be excluded as unacceptable to the congregation for a full seven days, during which time the people could not travel.


We are indebted to Adam Clarke for the following summary of the typical importance of this chapter:[19]

1. Zipporah, a Cushite married by Moses, shows the choice which Jesus Christ made in his calling the Gentiles to become his Bride the Church.

2. The jealous opposition of Miriam and Aaron to Moses shows the envious hatred of the Jews against Christ and his apostles, when they saw that the Gentiles also were invited to share the heavenly banquet.

3. The leprosy that came to Miriam foreshadows the wretched state of the Jews as a consequence of their opposing God's will, ever afterward being: (a) without temple; (b) without sacrifice; (c) without state; (d) and without head.

4. Moses in this place is said to be: (a) the meekest of all men; (b) the faithful servant in all God's house; (c) that he had an intimate face to face relation to God; and (d) that God revealed all truth to him clearly. Of Jesus Christ alone could all these be said without reservation, leaving the certainty that God gave these words, though applied to the type, as eloquent witnesses of the Greater Prophet "like unto Moses."

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 12". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.