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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 12

Coke's Commentary on the Holy BibleCoke's Commentary



Miriam's and Aaron's sedition rebuked: Miriam is punished with leprosy, and afterwards healed at the intercession of Moses.

Before Christ 1490.

Verse 1

Numbers 12:1. And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses Miriam is mentioned before Aaron, probably because she was the beginner of this sedition, and drew Aaron into it. It is uncertain what occasioned them to quarrel with him about his wife Zipporah: they might possibly be jealous of his being ruled too much by her and her relations; for it was by her father's advice that he constituted the judges and officers, mentioned in Exo 18:21-22 and, perhaps, they imagined that she and Hobab had a hand in choosing the seventy elders, mentioned in the foregoing chapter: the history being immediately connected with that, would lead one at least to think that they have some relation to each other. Thus the real motive of the quarrel was jealousy: the pretended one, that his wife was a foreigner, not belonging to the commonwealth of Israel. An Ethiopian, we render it after the LXX; the Hebrew is כשׁית cushit, a Cushite, or Arabian woman; for she was of the land of Midian, a part of Arabia Petraea. See Exodus 2:16; Exodus 2:25.

Verse 2

Numbers 12:2. And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? &c.— As both Aaron and Miriam had been favoured by communications from God, and the gifts of his Spirit; (Exodus 4:14-15; Exodus 15:20.) and as they are joined with Moses, as conductors of the people while they were in the wilderness, they might think they had a right to be consulted in constituting the elders, who were to be Moses's assistants in the government. They expressed their indignation, therefore, that he took no notice of them when he chose those elders, as if he alone was acquainted with the mind of God: in which, properly speaking, they murmured not against Moses, but against God himself, by whose immediate direction Moses had acted in that affair.

Verse 3

Numbers 12:3. Now the man Moses was very meek, &c.— It has been supposed by many, that this passage was not written by Moses, but inserted by some other hand in after-times. The reason, however, urged for this supposition, namely, its containing a high encomium of himself, is by no means sufficient; for the encomium, as it here stands, evidently appears extorted from Moses as a necessary vindication of himself from calumny; in which situation, self-praise is not unbecoming even the most modest, nor at all unusual to the simplicity of ancient writers: nay, indeed, St. Paul, and even our Saviour himself, are put upon magnifying themselves, by the malignity of their enemies. John 10:36. 2Co 10:18; 2 Corinthians 10:18. This meekness of Moses is mentioned as an aggravation of Aaron and Miriam's fault, and as that which provoked the divine displeasure; and, certainly, it is a proof of the impartiality of Moses to recite, with such an honest simplicity, those defects of his own relations, which he might so easily have concealed. The Scripture affords many instances of the meekness of Moses: in particular, see Exodus 14:13; Exodus 32:10, &c. Exodus 32:31-32.Numbers 11:2; Numbers 11:2; Numbers 12:13; Numbers 14:13; Numbers 14:45; Num 21:7 and Deuteronomy 18:22; Deuteronomy 18:22.

REFLECTIONS.—Of all in the camp, Miriam and Aaron were surely the last from whom Moses had need to apprehend complaint; they were near relations, and distinguished professors. Let no man think it strange that his nearest relatives are set against him; nor reckon his case hard, or be discouraged, if some eminent for religion reflect most unkindly and unjustly on his conduct. Moses was thus treated before him.

The complaint against him was, that, in the choice of the seventy elders, he had been influenced by his wife Zipporah; and Miriam, jealous of her authority, seems to have instigated Aaron to this ungrateful behaviour towards his brother, insinuating that they had equal authority from God, and therefore ought to have been consulted. Note; (1.) Contentions for superiority among Christians are too common, and very sinful. (2.) Nothing breeds bitterer disputes than jealousy about power. (3.) Through evil suggestions, like Miriam's; the dearest friends are often separated. (4.) When persons quarrel, they cannot be at rest unless they draw others into the dispute.

Moses maintained the same composure for which he is so famed; and in silence referred his cause to God, though from them this must have been peculiarly afflictive. The unkindness of professed friends is ever harder to be borne than the insults of professed enemies. He must be well disciplined in the school of Christ, who can, under such provocations, in patience and meekness possess his soul.

Verse 5

Numbers 12:5. And they both came forth Read, They both had come forth.

Verse 6

Numbers 12:6. If there be a prophet among you It is very plain, that the design of the Lord in this speech is to shew the evident superiority of Moses, as a prophet, over Aaron and Miriam. They boasted, Num 12:2 that the Lord had spoken by them as well as by Moses. The Lord, therefore, now condescends to settle the dispute, and to shew the difference between them. In which view, I cannot help thinking our translation dark and unintelligible; and therefore I would propose the following version, which is certainly as agreeable to the Hebrew as that of ours, which is pretty generally followed, though I have the countenance of the Arabic and Syriac for what is now offered. If either of you have at any time been a prophet, [or have prophesied,] I the Lord have made myself known unto you by a vision: in a dream have I spoken unto you, Numbers 12:7. Not so with my servant Moses: he is faithful (a trusty and constant servant) over all my house, Numbers 12:8. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, openly, and not by dark speeches or parables; and in figures, or similitudes, shall he behold the Lord. The Arabic renders the last verse thus: I speak to him without a medium, and grant him to see visions, not in a dark enigmatical way, but by figures of God exhibited to him. See Exodus 33:11. Houbigant, however, thinks, that the clause, and he sees the appearance of the Lord, is right, and that it refers to Moses seeing Christ in that human form wherein he afterwards manifested himself upon earth. ("Deo Mosi se talem monstrante, qualis erat in terris videndus, et cum hominibus habitaturus.") Moses enjoyed the highest degree of prophesy: he was employed as a minister over all God's house; over all Israel, who were the family or chosen people of the Lord: and in this trust he was faithful; executing all the divine commands, and doing nothing of himself, as he was now falsely accused. In this, the apostle assures us, he was the type of Christ, who is constituted head of the Christian church, but with a far more extensive power. Calmet observes, very ingeniously, that the word, which we render faithful, נאמן neeman, is used as an appellative, and signifies a person in high trust, as an ambassador, minister, or secretary. Thus Samuel is said to be a namen, established to be a prophet of the Lord. 1 Samuel 3:20. Job speaks of namenim, in the plural number, as persons of dignity; ch. Job 12:20 see Proverbs 13:17; Proverbs 25:13. In the same way the word fidus is used in Latin for a trusty servant. Jesus Christ is called the faithful and true witness, Revelation 3:14; Revelation 19:11. Moses is here considered as a faithful domestic in the Lord's house, and as such indulged in the freest intercourse with his divine Lord and Master: the others, Aaron and Miriam, as only visited occasionally by him, and that in a distant and reserved manner.

REFLECTIONS.—Though the innocent may be silent, God will be the avenger of their quarrel. We have here,

1. The immediate interposition of God: he summons the parties to appear at his bar to decide the controversy, and will make them know the difference between his chosen servant Moses and all other prophets. He made himself known to them in visions, and a great favour that was; but Moses was more highly favoured. 1. God testifies of his fidelity: eminent it was, and distinguished; and this he most approves. It is not so much great gifts, or great abilities, but faithfulness and simplicity of heart, which God esteems. 2. The manifestations made to him were peculiar. His eyes beheld more of God's glory than any before him, and the revelations given him were more distinct and clear, God speaking to him familiarly, not in dark speeches, but as a man speaketh to his friend. Note; If prophetical visions have ceased, and we see no more the similitude of the Lord, yet, blessed be God, we enjoy now distincter views of gospel-mysteries than even the holy prophets; and, in the face of Jesus Christ incarnate, have been favoured with brighter displays of the divine glory, grace, and truth, than even Moses on the mount.

2. God's anger was kindled, and he shews it by some visible sign, or by his sudden departure, without waiting for their excuse. Note; (1.) The reputations of God's ministers are his jealous concern; when God shall arise to plead their cause, confusion shall cover their adversaries. (2.) When God is provoked he will depart; and no judgment heavier than to be forsaken of him.

Verse 10

Numbers 12:10. And, behold, Miriam became leprous We have here another instance of the expressive beauty of the original being spoiled by the insertion of the italics. Nothing can be more nervous and significative than the passage is without them: the cloud departed; and behold Miriam leprous as snow! As a token of the divine displeasure, after having justified Moses, the Lord instantly withdrew, and struck Miriam with a leprosy, whose whiteness declared it of the most inveterate kind. See Exo 4:6. 2 Kings 5:27.

Verse 11

Numbers 12:11. Aaron said,—Alas, my Lord Alarmed at this terrible punishment inflicted upon his sister, and justly apprehensive of the like, Aaron, conscious of his misdemeanour, in the humblest terms, begs of Moses to forgive them, and to intercede with God for the life of his sister, who, he knew, without the divine interposition, must needs die of this loathsome and consuming distemper; Numbers 12:12. Calmet observes, that it was probably on account of this repentance that he himself was spared; as also because he is thought to have been less in fault, (see note on Numbers 12:1.) and from a regard to his sacred character, that the priesthood might not fall into contempt.

Verse 14

Numbers 12:14. If her father had but spit in her face, &c.— That is to say, "If she had, by some undutiful behaviour, provoked her father to be angry with her, and to spit in her face, as an indication of that anger, (Job 30:10. Isaiah 50:6. Mark 14:65; Mark 15:19.) she would certainly be ashamed for some time to look him in the face. How much more, then, ought she to be ashamed, when she lies under this severe mark of my displeasure; and to exclude herself, at least, from the camp during the time appointed for legal cleansing from such impurities." Leviticus 14:8. Numbers 6:9.

Many of the fathers have considered the events of this chapter as remarkably typical. Zipporah, espoused to Moses, is, according to them, a type of the Gentiles espoused by our Saviour: Miriam and Aaron represent the jealous synagogue; the leprosy of Miriam, the sin of the Jews; Moses, Jesus Christ: in fine, says Calmet, the eulogy which God himself gives to Moses is too elevated to be applied in the strictness of the letter to that law-giver. It is only of Jesus Christ that we can say, with strict truth, that he is the most meek and the most patient of all men, that he saw God face to face, and is most faithful in the house of God.

Verse 16

Numbers 12:16. And pitched in the wilderness of Paran That all the people might be admonished of the sin of Miriam, they were not permitted to remove from Hazeroth till her days of cleansing were fulfilled, when they removed and pitched in the wilderness of Paran. This station was at the mountain of the Amorites, at the south part of Canaan; (Deuteronomy 1:20.) so that their next removal was to have been into the promised land, had not they hindered themselves by their rebellion. "As tradition," says Dr. Shaw, "has continued down to us the names of Shur, Marah, and Sin, so has it also that of Paran; the ruins of the late convent of Paran, built upon those of an ancient city of that name (which might give denomination to the whole desart) being found about the half way between Sinai and Corondel, which lie at forty leagues distance. This situation of Paran, so far to the south of Kadesh, will illustrate Gen 14:5-6 where Chedorlaomer, and the kings that were with him, are said to have smote the Horites in their mount Seir, unto El Paran, (i.e. unto the city, as I take it, of that name,) which is in or by the wilderness. The whole country round about Paran is very mountainous, making part of the μελανα ορη of Ptolemy; which, he tells us, extended from the promontory of Paran as far as Judaea.—From the more advanced part of the wilderness of Paran, (the same which lay in the road betwixt Midian and Egypt, 1 Kings 11:18.) Moses sent a man out of every tribe to spy out the land of Canaan, ch. Num 13:3 who returned to him, after forty days, unto the same wilderness, to Kadesh Barnea; ch. Numbers 32:8. Deuteronomy 1:1-2.Joshua 14:7; Joshua 14:7. This place or city, which in Gen 14:7 is called En-mishpat, (i.e. the fountain Mishpat,) is, ch. Numbers 20:1 Num 27:14 Num 33:26 called Tzin Kadesh, or simply Kadesh, as in Genesis 16:14; Gen 20:1 and being equally ascribed to the desart of צין, Tzin, and to the desart of Paran, we may presume that the desarts of Tzin and Paran were one and the same: צן, or צנים, may be so called from the plants of divers palm grounds upon it." Travels, quarto, p. 318.

REFLECTIONS.—God's displeasure was manifest, and now it appeared,

1. Miriam becomes leprous. She, who was challenging equality with Moses, bears in her forehead a brand of infamy, and becomes viler than the meanest Israelite. Those who walk in pride God is able to abase. The fair face that swells the heart with vanity, one stroke of disease can quickly make loathsome. Aaron is spared, as least in the offence, or perhaps for his office-sake, that it may not appear vile; but, as God's high-priest, he is obliged to pronounce that sentence on his sister, which must cover himself with confusion. In the execution of their office no connections must influence ministers; if their nearest relatives are found leprous, they should be excluded from the communion of God's people.
2. Aaron's humble submission and entreaty. He acknowledges their mutual sin, asks pardon of his brother, whom he has vilified, and earnestly begs his intercession for his sister, that she might not be cut off, as one dead, from the congregation of the Lord. Note; (1.) They who revile God's servants shall be brought to bow to them, like Aaron in time, or like Dives in eternity. (2.) When we have offended, we cannot be too early in begging forgiveness both of God and man. To continue impenitent is certain ruin. (3.) They who are cut off from the communion of the Lord by their sins, are, worse than leprous Miriam, spiritually dead.

3. Moses's charity appears as exemplary as his meekness. He instantly cries to God for help. Instead of calling down judgment as she deserved, he prays for that forgiveness with God which he found from himself. We must thus learn to forgive our enemies, and pray for them who despitefully use us. This is the spirit of Christianity.
4. His request is granted. Miriam is healed. But for her humiliation, and for example to others, she is excluded the camp seven days, to bear her shame for such ungrateful conduct. When we do evil, we ought to take that shame to ourselves that we have deserved, and submit to every humiliatory process which may serve to shew our own sorrow, and to warn others against our sin.
5. During the time of Miriam's separation the people halted. Note; (1.) In our way to heaven all our hindrances arise from our sins. (2.) God will have us treat those with the greatest tenderness, who, however vile they have made themselves, are now in penitential tears returning from their evil ways.

6. The people go forward to the borders of Canaan. One step more, and they had been safely lodged in it. But the next chapter relates a fatal change. Note; While we are on this side the grave we need to watch and pray. Many have gone to the borders of heaven, who will never enter it; they were almost, but not altogether Christians.

General Reflections on the eleventh and twelfth Chapters.

What can be so horrible as the ingratitude, so senseless as the rebellion of this infatuated populace! They form a camp, they dwell in it, they change it, enjoying a perfect liberty and security under the immediate protection of God their legislator, their creator, the guide and conductor of their whole army: yet they long again for their servitude in Egypt, hard and intolerable as it was—that servitude in which their souls had so often been depressed; which had caused them so many labours, so many groans! How striking a resemblance of those wretched worldlings, who always prefer the past, though far worse, to the present and the future; and that with a design to lessen those obligations which the ungrateful are unwilling to avow for benefits received!
The pillar of cloud and of fire, which appeared day and night, was a manifest sign to the Israelites of the Divine presence. They saw God, if we may so say, as in a mirror; and though they enjoyed the most uncommon and precious privileges, temporal and spiritual, they were less sensible of all these blessings, than of the few miserable ideas of the fish, the melons, the cucumbers and onions of Egypt! Can there be a more melancholy instance of our corruption, than to see reasonable beings thus preferring nothing to the most important realities; earth to heaven; death to life?
For an appointed season they gather the heavenly and miraculous mature: they grow satiated with this delicious food; and, not content with this, these worms of the earth are still craving for meat. They prescribe laws to God their Creator, Redeemer, and Preserver: day after day they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel; foolish enough to wish to set bounds, as it were, to his omnipotence! Nor was this the first instance of their rebellion: before their arrival at mount Sinai they had shewn the same spirit. But God bore with the crimes they committed before the promulgation of the law. After that law was given, God altered his conduct in this respect, and always proportioned the crime to the light wherewith he endued them: a consideration which ought peculiarly to influence Christians, whose offences are aggravated according to their knowledge; and who can have no excuse for preferring earthly things to heavenly, now that life and immortality are so fully brought to light by the Gospel.

It is remarkable, that Moses, to whom nothing in general appeared difficult after he had accepted the commission of lawgiver to the people of God, lost all courage as soon as this unhappy people fell into any great crime. The sins of a nation are more terrible than the most invincible armies: holiness and piety are the best bulwarks for covering and defending it. There was, perhaps, something too impatient in the complaint of Moses, ch. 11: Numbers 12:11, &c. nevertheless God took pity of his weakness, as well knowing that it had for its motive true zeal and undissembled love; but the complaint of the Israelites arose from far different causes: it is true, their petition was granted, but the grant was punishment. How should this instruct Christians to submit all their desires to the will of God! They often know not what they ask: and when they ask improperly and impatiently, God frequently fulfils their desires, and accomplishes their wishes, to shew them in a little time that this accomplishment is the greatest evil. The Christian's best prayer at all times is, NOT MY WILL, BUT THINE BE DONE.

It was a severe trial to Moses to be exposed to the murmurings of the people; but how much more severe to be exposed to those of his own brother and sister! Good men frequently experience the heaviest trials, even from those who ought most to comfort and assist them; but this instructs them to draw nearer to God, whose comforts are everlasting. Who can look for love and prosperity at once, when Moses finds enmity in his own flesh and blood? Authority cannot fail of opposition, if it be ever so mildly swayed; to do well, and hear ill, is princely. It is no uncommon thing to find the evil attempts of enemies productive of effects directly contrary to their design. The envy of Miriam and Aaron proved the occasion of confirming the authority, and of gaining from the Almighty the highest eulogium of Moses. The remunerations of the Almighty are infinitely gracious. He never will want honour and patronage who seeks the honour of his Maker. The ready way to true glory is goodness.
Though both Aaron and Miriam sinned, Miriam alone is punished. It was not the dignity of his priesthood alone which rescued Aaron; the greatness of that dignity added heinousness to his sin. It was his repentance which delivered him. We cannot wonder to see him escape while we see him penitent. The universal antidote for all the judgments of God, is the merit of the atoning Blood made over to the humble penitent.
Miriam would have wounded Moses with her tongue; Moses would heal her with his. Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee! The wrong is the greater because his sister did it. He does not say, "I sought not her shame, she sought mine: if God have revenged it, I have no reason to consider her as a sister, who considered me as an adversary;" but, as if her leprosy were his own, he intercedes for her cure.—Admirable meekness of Moses! His people, the Jews, rebelled against him: God proffers punishment; he declares himself ready to die, rather than they should perish. His sister rebelled against him: God avenges him; he will not cease to importune that God till she be restored. Behold a noble and worth example for us to follow! How far are they from this disposition, who are not only content that God should punish, but are ready to prevent God's punishment with their own revenge!

To return good for evil, and to pray for those who despitefully use us, is the certain fruit of a true Christian temper: endowed with which, we shall not only be blest ourselves, but, by our pious and charitable prayers, through the alone merits of Christ, appease the wrath of God towards others, and engage for them his grace and favour.*

* See Scheuchzer and Bishop Hall.

Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 12". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/numbers-12.html. 1801-1803.
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