Bible Commentaries
Numbers 12

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verse 1

1. Miriam The only sister of Moses named in history, (Numbers 26:59,) was older by several years. Exodus 2:4. From the fact that she is mentioned first, and from the feminine form of the Hebrew verb, we infer that she was the prime mover in this revolt, and that Aaron, with characteristic pliancy and instability, as in the affair of the golden calf, (Exodus 32:0,) yielded to his misjudging sister, and was led into an act which tarnishes his fair name. Though Jehovah was angry with both of them, punishment fell only on Miriam.

Because of the Ethiopian woman The subsequent account shows that the marriage with the “Cushite woman” (R.V.) was rather the occasion, and the envy rankling in Miriam’s heart was the real cause, of her collision with her brother. Some have supposed that Zipporah, the Midianite wife of Moses, was the occasion of offence. Against this are: (1.) The fact that this marriage had occurred forty years before, while Moses was a fugitive from Pharaoh’s wrath. There had been ample time for chagrin to be allayed. (2.) The Midianites are called Cushites, or Ethiopians, only once, and that at least seven centuries after the exode. Habakkuk 3:7. A more reasonable theory is that Zipporah had died and Moses had married a Cushite wife from Arabia, or from the foreigners who had come out of Egypt with Israel. This was lawful, since only intermarriage with the Canaanites was forbidden. Exodus 34:16. Yet Ezra (Ezra 9:1) includes the Amorites, Moabites, and Egyptians among the nations with whom it was unlawful for Israelites to intermarry.

Edersheim says: “For the first time we here encounter that pride of Israel after the flesh, and contempt for other nations, which often appeared throughout their after history, and in proportion as they have misunderstood the spiritual meaning of their calling.” The suggestion of Ewald, that the Cushite was a concubine taken while the first wife was still living, is an irreverent reflection upon the purity of the great lawgiver. The lofty character of Moses is a sufficient answer to such an assertion.

Verses 1-8


Up to this time the various insurrections against Moses had arisen in consequence of the peculiar hardships of the journey through the wilderness. In these outbreaks against his authority he had been sustained by the loyalty and sympathy of his own kindred. But now he is to find disloyalty and bitter envy in his own father’s family. In this respect Moses resembled his great antitype, the Prophet like unto himself, who went forth to proclaim the “kingdom of God” as at hand, notwithstanding the unbelief of his brethren. Mark 3:21; John 7:5, note. A high spiritual vocation is always an enigma to worldly minds; and, if accompanied by authority, awakens envy and resistance on the part of equals in worldly circumstances.

Verse 2

2. Only by Moses Jealousy of Moses, as the exclusive organ of divine revelation, is the inspiration of this unpleasant affair. Human forbearance is put to a severe test when those who were once our equals or inferiors are promoted to dignities and honours far above us. This truthfulness to fallen human nature is no small confirmation of the reality of this account.

And the Lord heard The fact here mentioned prepares the way for the divine judgment which follows.

Verse 3

3. Moses was very meek This statement is not a gratuitous piece of self-praise, but is necessary in order to bring out the reason why Moses not only refused to vindicate himself, but also to invoke the vengeance of Jehovah on account of the injury which had been done to him. “For this is the idea of the eulogium of his meekness, that he had swallowed the injury in silence, since he had imposed a law of patience upon himself because of his meekness.” Calvin. This verse furnishes no argument against the Mosaic authorship of this book, as, when properly viewed, it contains no offensive egotism or vain-glorying. “As he praises himself without pride, so he will blame himself elsewhere with humility.” Numbers 20:12, note. We must call to mind the great candour of Moses in recording his own faults his killing the Egyptian, (Exodus 2:12,) his backwardness to obey God’s call, his neglect to circumcise his child, (Exodus 4:10-26,) and the sin which excluded him from Canaan. We must bear in mind that Moses was repelling the foul and envious slander that he was fond of power and ambitious to usurp it. Since the inner life is inscrutable, and its external manifestations may be counterfeited, all the graces inwrought by the Sanctifier are to be declared by the lips while they are confirmed by the life. That the meekness of Moses was only of grace and not of nature is plainly seen from the sudden vengeance wreaked on the Egyptian oppressor. Exodus 2:12. “Should we admit that in a very few instances a word or even a verse or paragraph may have been inserted by some duly authorized person for the sake of explanation or of greater completeness of record, we would not invalidate the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.” Dr. W.H. Green.

Verse 4

4. Spake suddenly Indicating the fierceness of Jehovah’s displeasure.

Come out Of the camp.

Unto the tabernacle Not into the tabernacle, into which only the priests were permitted to enter. Hence Knobel’s fancied discrepancy between the so-called Elohist writer in Numbers 18:7, and the Jehovist here and in Exodus 33:11, vanishes.

Verse 5

5. The Lord came down This anthropomorphic expression is to be understood as an accommodation of the mystery of divine revelation to human comprehension. Though God is everywhere, there is a sense in which he draws near to man when he wishes to communicate with him.

They both came forth Leaving the company of Moses, the two placed themselves near the door of the tabernacle, in the doorway of which the cloud stood, to hear what the Lord had to say to them.

Verse 6

6. If there be a prophet The literal rendering of this verse is, If there be a prophet of Jehovah to you, (that is, if ye have one,) I reveal myself to him in a vision, I speak to him in a dream.

Vision… dream Trances and dreams are here represented as modes of divine communication, but they do not bestow the highest dignity upon the man who is the organ of the revelation.

Verse 7

7. Faithful Tried, trustworthy, and true. The root of the Hebrew word is amen. See Revelation 3:14.

All mine house The whole family of Israel, to the government of which Moses had been called. Baumgarten says that the house is “primarily his dwelling, the holy tent.” But in this sense the word “all” would be out of place. Moreover, after the consecration of Aaron the tabernacle was in his charge. The duties of Moses were not sacerdotal, but administrative and prophetic. Not to the priests, but to Moses and succeeding prophets, was intrusted the office of receiving and declaring the holy oracles which make wise unto salvation. The aggregate of believers in Jesus Christ are now God’s house. Hebrews 3:6.

Verse 8

8. Mouth to mouth This answers to “face to face” in Exodus 33:11. It implies great familiarity, mutual confidence and esteem, and the absence of all reserve and of any mediation. Such converse is the highest honour bestowed upon man under the Old Testament dispensation.

Even apparently Literally, as an appearance; R.V., “manifestly,” implying sight, or rather insight, and not vision. Dreams and visions are subjective; that is, pertain to the internal perception of the thinking subject. But the phenomena attending the intercourse of Jehovah with Moses were not intuitive and subjective, but objective; that is, outward and addressing the senses.

Dark speeches Riddles or enigmas. These are a test to one on probation who is not yet approved and taken into the fullest confidence. Moses was treated as a man of fixed fidelity who had passed his probation.

The similitude of the Lord The form of Jehovah was not the essential nature of God, his unveiled glory, for this no mortal can see, (Exodus 33:18-20,) “but some unmistakable evidence of his glorious presence.” Bible Commentary. He talked with Moses without figure, addressing his spiritual intuitions in such a way as to give to him infallible certainty. Thus since the day of Pentecost, Jesus manifests himself to the advanced believer. John 14:21, note. “Here (in Numbers 12:2-8) we have, as it were, in epitome, the mystery of the prophetic gift and function; and in such a manner as to exhibit the strength of this credential most impressively. It is the voice of Jehovah, jealous of his own honour and of the honour of his servants, at once describing and defending the prophetic law of revelation.” W.B. Pope.

Were ye not afraid In view of the extraordinary honour which God had bestowed upon Moses they should have restrained all murmuring and envious words.

Verse 9

MIRIAM PUNISHED, Numbers 12:9-15.

9. He departed Phraseology importing that the Lord withdrew all manifestation of his presence when the cloud departed from the tabernacle.

Verse 10

10. Leprous See the symptoms of leprosy described in Leviticus xiii, and notes. Also, 2 Kings 5:27. This disease developes itself so slowly that it requires a week or two for the priest to determine its character. See the rules laid down in Leviticus 13:0. Hence the suddenness of this leprosy of Miriam shows that it was a supernatural infliction.

Verse 11

11. I beseech thee Here we have an instance of a double supplication. Aaron, the anointed high priest, having sympathized with the revolt against Moses, dare not go directly to Jehovah and plead for his partner in sin, but feels that he himself needs a mediator.

We have sinned Here is Aaron’s confession of complicity in the wrong. The exigency was too great for him to wait till the great day of atonement, in which he could offer a sin offering for himself, and thus become qualified to offer for the sins of the people. Leviticus 16:11, note.

Verse 12

12. As one dead Cut off from society and from all religious privileges, dwelling alone without the camp. Compelled to proclaim her own defilement to all comers. Leviticus 13:45-46, notes. Keil renders this thus: Let her not be as the dead thing on whose coming out of his mother’s womb half its flesh is consumed; that is, like a stillborn child, which comes into the world half decomposed. Leprosy decomposes the living body.

Verse 13

13. Heal her now Strong faith always insists on a present blessing. Says J. Wesley, in respect to the healing of the leprosy of inbred sin, “If it is by faith, why not NOW?” Weak faith drops out the now, grasps no definite time, and looks only for a gradual cure. The greatest achievement of faith requires for its condition the idea of immediateness and instantaneousness.

Verse 14

14. Spit in her face “Spitting at or upon a person or thing has been the mode of expressing the utmost contempt from very ancient times. It is still an intolerable insult, and you may thus interpret the spitting upon the ground by fanatical Moslems as we pass them. They dare not do more, or we would have it in our faces! Many years ago I saw a woman in great rage pluck off her old shoe, and, spitting on the sole of it, shake it frantically in the face of her antagonist.” Dr. W.M. Thomson.

Ashamed seven days The humiliating indignity and defilement of the father’s spitting in a child’s face would cause her to hide seven days from the presence of Jehovah at the tabernacle. Much more ought she to be banished from the holy God and his holy people, after receiving so striking evidence of Jehovah’s displeasure, infinitely more polluting than the contempt of her supposed father.

Verse 15

15. And the people journeyed not More than two million people Bertheau calculates three million are retarded in their journey by the sin of one influential person. Thus the unbelieving spies kept the whole nation out of Canaan nearly thirty-nine years. The sins of the great are national calamities.

Till Miriam was brought in There is no account of her healing. She was probably healed when Moses prayed. The healed leper was not permitted to enter his tent till seven days after the priest declared him healed. Leviticus 14:8. Two of the Targums read thus: “Because Miriam, the prophetess, had watched for a little hour on the river bank to know what would be the fate of Moses, for the sake of that merit all Israel, numbering sixty myriads, being eighty legions, and the cloud of glory, the tabernacle, and the well, went not till she was healed.”

Verse 16


16. Wilderness of Paran Genesis 12:6, note; Numbers 10:12, note. By comparing Numbers 13:26 with Deuteronomy 1:19-24, it will be seen that the place in this wilderness to which they removed was Kadesh-barnea. Genesis 14:7; Joshua 10:41, note. But in Numbers 33:18, the station after Hazeroth is Rithma, which is either the same as Kadesh or perhaps the modern Wady Abu Retemet, a wide and well-watered plain near Ain Gadis, which Rowland and other recent travelers identify with Kadesh.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 12". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.