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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Numbers 12



Verse 3

‘Now the man Moses was very humble, above all the men that were on the face of the earth.’

Moses himself was not like that, says the writer. He probably did not defend himself. Nor did he go to Yahweh about it. He was very humble, above all men who were on the face of the earth. This does not mean ‘meek and mild’, it means that he did not defend himself or become concerned when he was attacked, unless it was likely to harm the cause of God. As we know he could get angry when that happened. That was why he had said nothing to Yahweh. The idea was that he was self-effacing and concerned only for God’s glory.

This comment was probably put in by the one who was writing down his words. It is not likely that it is to be seen as the words of Moses himself. But that it is an important part of the chiastic pattern demonstrates that it was not a later interpolation. It was written down at the same time as Moses’ words were being finally recorded.

EXCURSUS. The Meekness of Moses.

The question is often put as to whether Moses could have spoken of himself as humble/meek above all men on the face of the earth. Is it not, people ask, a contradiction in terms? Clearly we cannot say with certainty who wrote these words. But the first question we must ask is whether Moses could have spoken of himself in these terms. After all, the use of the third person by a writer speaking of himself is not unusual. It is a literary technique.

The first point we must make is that the comment is not necessarily just a huge compliment. Consider if we translate 'meek' as 'diffident', and thus as not being willing to defend himself because of a certain withdrawal in his personality. We have seen at his calling in Exodus how he tried to avoid God's call because he felt unable to cope with it, and wanted to hide behind his poor speech (Exodus 3:11; Exodus 4:1; Exodus 4:10; Exodus 4:13). We find it difficult to recognise the fact but Moses was in fact sometimes portrayed as being to some extent of a shy and retiring nature. He was bold in some things (like, as a trained martial arts expert, probably armed, in his dealings with a few shepherds) but he was not always so when it came to the big picture.

The fact that he did what he did was because God had spurred him on and given him little choice. But Exodus demonstrates that in fact it was Aaron who made the first overt moves in the deliverance from Egypt. It was only once Moses had gained confidence that he took over. Possibly what Moses is saying here is that God acted on his behalf because he himself was so naturally diffident the most diffident man on earth, and was thus deriding himself. For the meaning of the word translated 'meek' compare Job 24:4 'the meek of the earth hide themselves together'; Psalms 147:6 'Yahweh lifts up the meek'. It is not a boasting word but in a sense a disparaging word. It describes someone ''humble' because they are lowly and wanting and seek to cringe from public notice. They see themselves as not of sufficient courage to defend themselves. So it may well be that Moses saw himself as the least forthcoming person in the whole world (not to be taken too literally - shy people can often feel like this) and therefore was speaking disparagingly of himself. This comment may thus well have arisen from his own personal shyness, especially at dealing with aspects of his married life. It may simply be describing an excess of meekness that was actually not a good thing, an indication that he was not forthright in his own defence because of this lack in his make up. Not many men would see themselves as boasting if they described themselves as meek.

Or alternately if we insist on assuming that meekness is intended to indicate a good feature it may be that God actually told Moses that He Himself was about to defend him because he was so meek and would not defend Himself, that He was defending him because he was the meekest man on earth. And God had reason to know. He had had to struggle with Moses' meekness. Thus Moses may simply have been writing down God's own description of himself and not have felt proud of the fact at all.

In fact what might be considered more unlikely is that anyone else would call Moses meek, lowly and humble in position, where 'humble' means of a lowly position and stature. Many things, yes, but not 'meek' (we read into 'meek' a good Christian trait, signifying not aggressive, but that was probably not the original meaning of the Hebrew word). Even though it is true that Moses was humble in the best sense, would anyone have described him as ‘meek’?

We must remember in this context that here in the West we hesitate to speak the truth about ourselves, because it is not 'the done thing'. A friend of mine who played tennis for England was asked by a colleague whether she played tennis and she replied 'a little'. When he played her and was soundly beaten the humiliation was such that he never spoke to her again. Her meekness had led her into trouble. But it would not have been English to say 'I play for England'. So she learned to deliberately lose when playing men instead. Was that good? Would not honesty have been better? But she was shy too, and meek, and it misled people. However, in the East things are very different. I remember the shock I had when I first came across this Eastern trait. They spoke what they believed to be a true estimate about themselves, with no false humility, and spoke correctly. And I was astounded. I thought them conceited until I realised that they all did it and that their description of themselves was true. They were in fact just making an honest assessment of themselves. It was simply an aspect of their culture. So we must not necessarily judge the words by over-humble Western standards.

Others (usually Westerners with the Westerners code) have suggested that while Moses was responsible for the content of the Pentateuch the actual engraving and finalising might have been done by a master scribe, even possibly Joshua when he was alone or with Moses in the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7-11), and then later possibly as acting secretary in Moses' own tent. Thus this may be a comment added by Joshua or any other scribe, and be equally the word of God. But it could be argued that it is doubtful whether it would be used by these people of Moses. The word is not really complimentary. Each must decide the matter for themselves, but it does not affect the genuineness of the saying, nor does it discount the overall authorship of Moses. Indeed we should note how well it fits into the chiastic pattern.

End of Excursus.

Verse 4

‘And Yahweh spoke suddenly to Moses, and to Aaron, and to Miriam, “Come out you three to the tent of meeting.” And they three came out.’

Then Yahweh called Moses, Aaron and Miriam to come out to the Tent of meeting. It was seemingly ‘out of the blue’. None would know the reason for the call, and Aaron and Miriam probably initially had a feeling of satisfaction that the fact that they were all being called together was proving them right. Did it not demonstrate that God did see them as on a par with Moses? So the three ‘came out’

Verse 5

‘And Yahweh 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.’

Yahweh then came down to the door of the Tent of meeting in a pillar of cloud and called for Aaron and Miriam to approach. Even at this stage they probably still had no inkling of what was about to happen. But they had a vital lesson to learn.

Verse 6

‘And he said, “Hear now my words. If there is a prophet among you, I Yahweh will make myself known to him in a vision, I will speak with him in a dream.’

Firstly He confirmed what a prophet was. He was a man who received visions and dreams. That, said Yahweh, was how He made Himself known to the general run of prophets. Both of them probably knew something about that, so, yes, they were prophets. He acknowledged that. But how different they were from Moses.

Verse 7-8

My servant Moses is not so. He is faithful in all my house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even openly (manifestly), and not in dark speeches, and the form of Yahweh shall he behold. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?”

Then He sternly reminded them what Moses was. He was not just a prophet like that. Moses was faithful in his appointment over all Yahweh’s house, over the whole people of Israel, from the High Priest downwards. He had made Moses supreme. To Moses He spoke openly mouth to mouth. To Moses alone spoke ‘the Voice’ (Numbers 7:89). Moses did not learn things from Yahweh in mysteries and speeches which were difficult to interpret, and hard to understand. Yahweh talked with him as a man talks with his friend (Exodus 33:11). Moses alone had been allowed to behold His form, even if it was a back view when His glory had diminished (Exodus 33:21-23), or in the form of fire in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2-4), or on the Mount. He had seen and known more of Yahweh than any other person, as they well knew. Why then were they not afraid to speak evil against him?

By this time they would be feeling decidedly uneasy, and not quite so happy as when they had started out with such confidence.

Verse 9-10

‘And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against them, and he departed, and the cloud removed from over the Tent. And, behold, Miriam was skin-diseased, as white as snow. And Aaron looked on Miriam, and, behold, she was skin-diseased.’

And Yahweh’s aversion to their behaviour was revealed by His next act, for in His ‘anger’ (aversion to their sin) He departed and the pillar of cloud moved away from over the Tent. And then, when Aaron turned and looked at his sister, he saw that she was severely stricken with a skin disease that made her white as snow. We can only imagine the shock that they both experienced. Yahweh had rendered her ‘unclean’. Far from being a greater prophetess, she would now no longer be welcome at the door of the Tent of meeting, she would no longer be welcome in the camp. She would never again lead the women in singing and worship. Her days as a prophetess were over. She would live as an outcast, outside the camp, totally dependent on others for her survival. She had reaped a grim reward for her envy and covetousness.

Aaron’s mind may possibly have flashed back to another occasion when he himself had been afflicted in the same way, when he was demonstrating God’s signs to the elders on Moses’ behalf (Exodus 4:30 with Exodus 4:6). But then it had only been temporary. He had known that Yahweh would put it right. This was different. This skin disease was permanent, and there was nothing that he could do about it. They must have looked at each other speechless with horror. She had been smitten by Yahweh. God had shown her the sinfulness of her heart in the most striking way possible, and had at the same time given a salutary lesson to Aaron.

Aaron was seemingly spared, probably partly because he had not been the instigator of the complaints, and partly because as High Priest his being rendered permanently unclean would have been a huge blow to Israel. Another High Priest would have had to be appointed (as later would be necessary, but not yet). And furthermore he did no doubt perform many useful services for Moses. Remembered also would be the fact that he had stood with Moses against Pharaoh. But he must have recognised what a close escape he himself had had. However, to his credit his concern was for Miriam.

Verse 11

‘And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, lay not, I pray you, sin on us, in that we have done foolishly, and in that we have sinned.’

Broken in heart and spirit and recognising how foolish they had been Aaron turned to what he knew was her only hope. Gone was his sense of equality with Moses. Gone was his pride. Gone was his concern over his own position. No longer did he feel in his heart that really there was not much difference between them. He recognised now how great a difference there really was. Here was a situation where he himself could do nothing. All he could do was humble himself and plead with a greater than himself. The thought of his sister living out her life like this was more than he could bear.

So he humbled himself before his younger brother. ‘My lord Moses.’ Yahweh’s words had made him aware of Moses’ true status, lord over Israel, and lord over him, lord over Yahweh’s house (Numbers 12:7). And he now openly acknowledged the fact. He no doubt remembered the amazing events of Egypt and of how Moses could cause and then remove all the afflictions with which Egypt was afflicted. And he did not doubt that Moses could do something. He begged that Moses would not lay their sin on them, that is, cause them to experience fully what they deserved. He humbly admitted that they had behaved foolishly, and had sinned. Could he not now obtain forgiveness for them and deliver Miriam from the consequences of her sin?

Verse 12

‘Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’

He begged that she might not be as a stillborn baby coming from its mother’s womb wrinkled, partially formed and looking grotesque, a baby that no one bothered to clean it up. For if she was permanently skin diseased she too was distorted, and was as good as dead.

(Note: ‘Leprous’ is probably a misnomer. Modern leprosy was seemingly fairly rare in Old Testament times. The word means rather a general skin disease. It could also be used of mould and fungi in clothes and houses.)

Verse 13

‘And Moses cried to Yahweh, saying, “Heal her, O God, I beseech you.’

So Moses heard their plea and prayed to Yahweh and begged Him to heal her. Note that his prayer was to ‘God’, not ‘Yahweh’, recognising that by her behaviour Miriam had put herself outside covenant promises. Moses is ever the final intercessor.

How we should rejoice that we have an even greater intercessor, the One Who lives ever to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25). But it is not intercession that our sin be overlooked, but rather that we might be saved from it. It is not an intercession that leaves us as we are.

Verse 14

‘And Yahweh said to 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.” ’

Yahweh’s reply was stern. It was important that Miriam learned her lesson. She must face up to her shame. A spit in the face was an insult, and depicted someone who had not done their duty (Deuteronomy 25:9), and when coming from someone who was unclean, it rendered unclean (Leviticus 15:8). This being like one spit in the face compares with Moses’ meekness (Numbers 12:3 - see analysis in that verse). He was worthy, she was not. Furthermore to be spat on in the face by her father would be even more humiliating and devastating. It would mean that she had done something very dishonourable and was being virtually disowned. It may well be that to so be spat on by a father rendered a woman unclean for seven days, although we are nowhere told so. But whatever the situation was about that, Miriam was to go through a seven day cleansing outside the camp. It would in fact strictly be necessary because of her skin disease, even though it was presumably cured immediately, for a skin diseased person could not be clean until seven days after they were found to be free from their disease. But she had to recognise that it was because of a sin that deserved the utmost contempt.

Verse 15

‘And Miriam was shut up outside the camp seven days, and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.’

So Miriam was made an outcast from the camp for seven days, after which she was allowed in again. It could hardly go unnoticed. All would know that she had been stricken by Yahweh, even if the reason for it was only rumoured. They would see her here excluded from the camp and rumour would be rife. But at least, because of Moses’ intercession, it was only temporary.

Miriam’s status among the people comes out in the fact that they were ready to wait for her return to the camp before proceeding, and that Moses could expect them to.

Verse 16

‘And afterwards the people journeyed from Hazeroth, and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.’

The whole incident is a reminder that those who are truly servants of God should be honoured as such, and that to seek to harm them is to bring a person under the judgment of Yahweh. While their bodies may not be affected, their inner beings certainly will be. Where it is against one who is being faithful to God, murmuring makes our hearts become diseased, for God honours those who honour Him. It is a reminder to all Christian leaders that they must honour other leaders who are the chosen of God, and not become jealous about their own position. What a contrast there was between Moses, who wanted others to share in his privileges, ‘would that all Yahweh’s people were prophets’, and the attitudes of Miriam and Aaron (‘would that we were equal to Moses’). One sought only Yahweh’s glory, the others sought their own glory.

The incident being over, and the seven days having passed, the people moved from Hazeroth to the wilderness of Paran. All was now ready for the invasion of the land.


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 12:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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