Bible Commentaries
Numbers 12

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-3

Miriam was the outspoken leader in this incident. The priority of her name over Aaron’s and the feminine gender of the verb in the Hebrew text translated "spoke" indicate this (Numbers 12:1).

The Cushite woman Moses had married was probably not Zipporah (Exodus 2:21). Zipporah was from Midian that was in Arabia. At this time Cush was a name for Upper Egypt (Ethiopia).

". . . the Septuagint and the Vulgate translate ’Cushite’ in Numbers 12:1 as ’Ethiopian,’ the word used by the Greeks and Romans to refer to the region south of Egypt inhabited by people with black skin." [Note: J. Daniel Hays, "The Cushites: A Black Nation in the Bible," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:612 (October-December 1996):398.]

Merrill, however, believed that "Cushite" described people who lived in Arabia as well as in Cush proper in which case Moses’ wife may not have been black and may have been Zipporah. [Note: See Merrill, "Numbers," in The Bible . . ., p. 288, and idem, in The Old . . ., p. 113-14.] It seems unlikely that Miriam would have objected at this time that Moses had married Zipporah. He had married her years before this incident. The repetition of the phrase "for he had married a Cushite woman" (Numbers 12:1) seems to imply a recent marriage. This would explain Miriam’s objection at this time better. We may assume, therefore, that Zipporah had died and that Moses had remarried. Moses wrote in Psalms 90:10 that a normal lifespan was about 70 years. He would have been in his early eighties at this time, so perhaps Zipporah had died of old age, assuming she was about the same age as he. There is no reason to believe that Moses was married to two women at the same time, though that is possible. Marriage to a Cushite was within the will of God. God had only forbidden the Israelites from marrying Canaanites (Exodus 34:16).

Evidently Miriam and Aaron felt their leading roles in Israel as prophetess (Exodus 15:20) and high priest were losing distinctiveness as God gave 70 elders the privilege of mediating His word. Perhaps Miriam saw in Moses’ new wife a threat to her role as the leading female in Israel. Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman may have been nothing more than an excuse. [Note: Noordtzij, p. 107.]

The statement of Moses’ humility (Numbers 12:3) was not a boastful claim by the writer but an inspired statement of fact. We need not conclude that another writer added it later since it is essential to the argument of this passage. That another writer added it later is a distinct possibility, however. One writer suggested that on the basis of etymology, usage, and context the qere reading of the Hebrew word used here is preferable. He believed the Hebrew word should be translated "miserable" rather than "meek." [Note: Cleon Rogers, "Moses: Meek or Miserable?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 29:3 (September 1986):257-63.]

Verses 1-16

The rebellion of Miriam and Aaron ch. 12

Perhaps it was God’s exaltation of Moses by bestowing the gift of prophecy on the elders that provoked the envy of Miriam and Aaron. God reminded the people of Moses’ special endowment with the Spirit when He blessed the elders with the Spirit.

Verses 4-9

God’s common method of communicating with His prophets was by giving them visions and dreams (Numbers 12:6). [Note: See Richard L. Ruble, "The Doctrine of Dreams," Bibliotheca Sacra 125:500 (October-December 1968):360-64. For more information on the structure of God’s words here, see J. S. Kselman, "A Note on Numbers xii 6-8," Vetus Testamentum 26:4 (October 1976):500-504.] Moses was a specially privileged prophet, however, with whom God spoke directly without any special mediation or reserve. He spoke with Moses as friends converse (Numbers 12:8; cf. Exodus 33:11). Michael Fishbane suggested that Paul had Numbers 12:8 in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 13:8. [Note: Michael Fishbane, "Through the Looking Glass: Reflections on Ezekiel 43:3, Numbers 12:8 and 1 Corinthians 13:8," Hebrew Annual Review 10 (1986):63-74. See also Edward J. Young, My Servants the Prophets, ch. II: "Moses and the Prophets," for an exposition of Numbers 12:1-8.]

Verses 10-15

The Lord punished Miriam for her dissatisfaction with her divinely appointed role in the nation. He punished her with leprosy, the disease that specially symbolized sin (Leviticus 13-14). Frank Cross suggested that Miriam’s punishment of white, leprous skin was a divine response to her prejudice against her black sister-in-law. [Note: Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, p. 204. See also Cain H. Felder, Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family, p. 42.] All the Israelites probably identified her self-assertion as sin. Perhaps God did not smite Aaron because his involvement was not as great.

"In the present narrative, the sign of Moses’ leadership was Miriam’s ’leprosy, which was white as snow’ (Numbers 12:10). Similarly, one of the first signs given to vindicate God’s election of Moses as leader of his people was the sign of ’leprosy, white as snow’ (Exodus 4:6). In the initial narratives dealing with the work of Moses, Moses himself doubted his calling and consequently became a leper. Here, however, it is Miriam who doubts and thus becomes a leper. We should also note that the other sign given to vindicate the role of Moses in the earlier narrative was the serpent that came from Moses’ rod (Exodus 4:3). So also here, when Moses’ authority is further questioned by the people at the end of their time in the wilderness (Numbers 21:5), God responds by sending serpents against them (Numbers 21:6)." [Note: Sailhamer, pp. 386-87. Cf. 2 Kings 5:27.]

Moses interceded for Miriam at Aaron’s pleading. Ironically Aaron had wanted to be like Moses (Numbers 12:2), but instead of being able to intercede directly with God as Moses did, Aaron had to appeal to Moses who interceded with God. [Note: Ashley, p. 227.] God again showed mercy. He removed Miriam’s leprosy but punished her with exclusion from the camp for seven days (Leviticus 14:8). Spitting in the face (Numbers 12:14) was an act of contempt for one who had done something despicable (cf. Deuteronomy 25:9; Job 17:6; Job 30:10). The people suffered too as a result of Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion. God halted their progress toward the Promised Land again (Numbers 12:15; cf. Numbers 11:20).

"Aaron, on seeing the judgment of leprosy come upon his sister, beseeches Moses for mercy. There is surely in his prayer an implicit recognition of the different kind of authority that Moses had. Indeed, he is acknowledging that Moses possessed a power in intercession with God that he himself could not exercise, hence his appeal to his brother." [Note: Philip, p. 148.]

"The purpose of this chapter, then, is to vindicate Moses’ divinely given leadership and to brush aside any further suggestion that, because of the establishment of other forms of authority, the type of leadership epitomized in Moses was no longer valid." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 386.]

Verse 16

From Hazeroth Israel moved on to the wilderness of Paran and Kadesh on the southern border of Canaan.

These three failures to be content with God’s provisions and plans at Taberah, Kibroth-hattaavah, and Hazeroth prepared the Israelites for an even more serious failure at Kadesh.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.