Numbers 12 — Punishing Miriam


Numbers 12


Miriam and Aaron speak about Moses’ leadership, and suggest that they may be of greater service. God punishes Miriam, but not like those who seek to usurp Moses’ position in following chapters. 


Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses. The Hebrew verb translated as “speak” here is feminine singular, so it is probably best to understand that Miriam did the speaking. She speaks because of the Cushite woman that Moses married and asks if God has only spoken through Moses. 

Interpreters are in two camps as to what is happening here. Traditionally, but with notable exceptions, Christians will see something like pre-modern racism here, with Miriam suggesting that Moses’ leadership is somehow compromised because of his marriage to a darker skinned person (who might be the Midianite Zipporah, referred to euphemistically, or another, unnamed wife). 

Traditionally, but with notable exceptions, Jews see Miriam speaking up on behalf of Zipporah, Moses’ wife whom Moses has neglected. At some point in Egypt, Moses had sent Zipporah away (Exodus 18:2). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law brought Zipporah back to Moses, but Moses seems to have received her rather coldly, or not at all, compared to the welcome he gave his father-in-law (Exodus 18:5-7). At the giving of the Law on Sinai, all Israelites were instructed to refrain from sexual activity (Exodus 19:15). After the giving of the law, the Israelites were instructed to “return to your tents” and normal marital life, but Moses was ordered to stay with God, in apparent abstinence (Deuteronomy 5:30:31). By insisting that Moses had married a Cushite woman (“Cushite” being a euphemism for a particularly beautiful woman), Miriam was reminding Moses of his marital duties. By reminding the people that God had spoken through Miriam and Aaron, she was attempting to provide Moses some time off for his neglected marital duties. This interpretation is supported by this passage following immediately after Numbers 11, in which Moses was overworked and needed assistants. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had previously seen Moses’ overworking and family-neglecting tendencies and suggested spreading the workload (Exodus 18:1-27). 

In either case, God’s anger burned against Miriam, and she was punished for speaking against Moses publicly. But, instead of a death sentence, as will happen to all those who seek to usurp Moses’ position in the following chapters, Miriam was sent outside the camp with a skin disease for half the customary time (Leviticus 13:4-5 suggests a minimum of a two-week period in isolation). God apparently acts as Miriam’s inspecting priest to pronounce her clean. The entire Israelite camp refused to move until Miriam was brought back into the community. 

This event, and the relatively light punishment juxtaposed against the surrounding rebellions is meant to show that Miriam was not seeking power for herself, but simply to lessen her brother’s burden. Still, one speaks against Moses at their peril.