It’s been a long time since Moses has had the pleasure of his wife’s company. He met and married her during his personal desert exile before he ever saw the burning bush. He was separated from her and their two sons for quite a while during his rounds with Pharaoh and the cranky Israelites. Back in Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro heard that the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness under Moses’ leadership and he traveled to meet up with his son-in-law. Moses and Jethro are clearly friends and when Jethro comes, he reunites Moses with Zipporah and their two sons. It’s a very happy moment when a haggard leader gets his personal support system back. Finally Moses’ tent isn’t lonely anymore.
In Numbers 10, Jethro is ready to leave again but Moses pleads with him to stay, further demonstrating the bond of friendship between them. When Moses points out that his father-in-law can be a helpful guide through the wilderness territory that he is familiar with, Jethro finally agrees to stay on. What a relief and blessing for Moses. This is before the Israelites start grumbling again and God strikes them with fire and a a deadly plague. Israel is having to dig a lot of graves lately, but at least Moses has his family with him again.
Aaron and Miriam are Moses’ siblings whom he was separated from as an infant when he went sailing away downstream in a reed basket. Now Moses’ high calling from God has done quite a bit to raise up Aaron and Miriam as well. Aaron is the head priest and Miriam is considered a prophetess. You’d think they’d be glad to see their brother reunited with his loved ones. Instead, they’re jealous. They don’t know Moses’ Midianite relatives very well, but it’s obvious that Moses is bonded to them. Now that Jethro and Zipporah have moved in, there’s a shift in the relational dance. Suddenly Aaron and Miriam aren’t feeling as important as they were before. What do we do when we are jealous of someone taking our spot in someone’s life? Gossip about them, of course. A little slander goes a long way to make the old flesh feel nice and satisfied. As a woman, Zipporah seems like a safe target. Might as well pick on her about something—but what? They need some good ammunition and they don’t have any. Apparently Zipporah is a pretty upstanding lady. It’s time to pull out one of the old standards. They’ll say nasty things about her because she’s a Midianite from Cush. Criticizing someone for a quality they can’t change—like their skin color or birth place or ethnicity—has always been the cheater’s way out but it works in a pinch. Aaron and Miriam start bagging on their younger brother because he married a foreigner. That’s pretty ironic coming from two people that have fresh memories of being whipped and beaten for their ethnicity by the Egyptians.
“Has Yahweh spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t He also spoken through us?” And Yahweh heard this. (Num. 12:2)
This verse confirms that professional jealousy is what’s really motivating these two snarky siblings. After all, they’ve all prophesied for God. Why should Moses get all the attention while they get taken for granted?
Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth. (Num. 12:3)
We believe that Moses was the author of Numbers, which means God must have directed him to add this little side comment about himself to the book. Under normal circumstances, a humble man doesn’t go around trumpeting his own humility. Clearly this comment is meant to give us contrast. Aaron and Miriam are being petty and accusing Moses of being pompous while in fact he is totally the opposite. Aaron and Miriam are being very foolish, for they are forgetting that God judges people by their heart attitudes.
At once Yahweh said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you. (Num. 12:4)
Notice how quickly God reacts here: “at once.” He’s not going to tolerate this kind of dissention among His top leaders, nor is He going to let Aaron and Miriam gang up on their brother. It’s time for a trip to the principal’s office.
Then Yahweh came down in a pillar of cloud; He stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. (Num. 12:5)
Moses is standing there watching as the two guilty ones are called forward. God now delivers this angry speech from His cloud pillar:
“When there is a prophet among you, I, Yahweh, reveal Myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of My servant Moses; he is faithful in all My House. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of Yahweh. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?” (Num. 12:6-8)
God has just made it very clear where His loyalties lie. He’s also reminded the pompous siblings just how great they are not. The typical prophet experience was to receive visions and dreams from God, but Moses got to see God face to face. The obvious conclusion is that Moses has somehow gained God’s extreme favor. It’s very clear to God that He is going to take Moses’ side against anyone who tries to harm him. It should have been obvious to Aaron and Miriam as well. They should have been afraid to cross Moses and ignite God’s anger against them. Since they weren’t, they now deserve what they will get.
The anger of Yahweh burned against them, and He left them. (Num. 12:9)
This extra emphasis on God’s anger is very ominous. Did Miriam and Aaron feel the effects of this anger in a physical or spiritual way? We’re not sure, but when the cloud of God’s Presence lifts, Miriam has a skin disease that has turned her as white as snow. Many translations say leprosy, but we aren’t told a specific disease name. What we do know is that God spends a lot of time talking about how unclean skin diseases are, so Miriam’s career as a respected prophetess has just come to an abrupt and devastating end.
Aaron is horrified when he sees the condition his sister is in and begs Moses for mercy. His words give us a clue as to just how gross Miriam’s condition is to look at.
“Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.” (Num. 12:11-12)
Moses is equally horrified and has no interest in holding a grudge. He cries out to Yahweh to heal his sister. God’s reply indicates that He’s still not done emphasizing His loyalty to Moses:
Yahweh replied to Moses, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back.” So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back. (Num. 12:14-15)
Spitting in someone’s face was a way to publicly communicate your disapproval of them. God is figuratively spitting in Miriam’s face by making her look deformed in the sight of the people. According to God’s laws, Miriam’s condition makes her unclean and she will now have to go through specific cleansing rituals before she can come back into the camp. While she’s sitting outside of the camp feeling disgraced for a long week, Miriam has plenty of time to think about her actions and repent of her petty behavior.
But what about Aaron? How come he gets off scot free while Miriam gets publicly disgraced? He doesn’t. He saw his sister mutilated before his eyes and no doubt shared her feelings of disgrace as she was driven from the camp. If God had struck Aaron with the disease, it would have put the head priest out of commission for a week which would have created a whole host of other problems. Instead, God lets Aaron continue his work with a renewed sense of fearful reverence. No doubt Aaron started paying extra close attention to his duties after Miriam was packed off. Not that long ago God burned the priest’s two oldest sons to death for not performing their priestly duties correctly. Now Miriam looks like a decaying corpse. If anything, Aaron is feeling very scared, very guilty and very nervous that next time it will be his turn to experience physical injury for crossing God. Before we decide that God is an unfair judge, we must remember that some people need harsh consequences to learn while others are best humbled by receiving mercy they know they do not deserve.