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Numbers 12:1-4

Context
Miriam and Aaron Oppose Moses

12:1 1 Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against 2  Moses because of the Cushite 3  woman he had married 4  (for he had married an Ethiopian woman). 12:2 They 5  said, “Has the Lord only 6  spoken through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?” 7  And the Lord heard it. 8 

12:3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, 9  more so than any man on the face of the earth.)

The Response of the Lord

12:4 The Lord spoke immediately to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: “The three of you come to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them went.

1 sn In this short chapter we find a prime example of jealousy among leaders and how God dealt with it. Miriam and Aaron are envious of Moses’ leadership, but they use an occasion – his marriage – to criticize him. Often the immediate criticism is simply a surface issue for a deeper matter. God indicates very clearly he will speak through many people, including them, but Moses is different. Moses is the mediator of the covenant. The chapter is a lesson of what not to do. They should have fulfilled their duties before God and not tried to compete or challenge the leader in this way. There is a touch of divine irony here, for Miriam is turned white with leprosy. The chapter falls easily into the sections of the story: the accusation (vv. 1-3), the Lord’s response (vv. 4-10), the intercession of Moses (vv. 11-16). For further information, see J. S. Kselman, “A Note on Numbers 12:6-8,” VT 26 (1976): 500-504.

2 tn The preposition bet (בְּ) has the adversative sense here, “[speak] against” (see also its use for hostile speech in 21:5, 7). Speaking against is equal to the murmuring throughout the wilderness period. The verb of the sentence is וַתְּדַבֵּר (vattÿdabber), the feminine form of the verb. This indicates that Miriam was the main speaker for the two, the verb agreeing with the first of the compound subject.

sn It may be that Miriam was envious of the Cushite woman Moses married. And, in view of the previous chapter’s content about others being given a portion of the Spirit to share in the leadership role, she may have seen this as her chance finally to become just as important in the nation as her younger brother. After all, she safeguarded his birth and early years (Exod 2). But there are two issues here – the reason she gives (“does the Lord only speak through Moses?”), and the reason the text gives (the Cushite woman).

3 tn The Hebrew text has הַכֻּשִׁית (hakkushit, “the Cushite”) as the modifier of “woman.” The Greek text interpreted this correctly as “Ethiopian.” The word Cush in the Bible can describe the Cassites, east of Babylon of the later period (Gen 10:18), or Ethiopia (Isa 20:3; Nah 3:5; et al). Another suggestion is that it would refer to Cushan of Hab 3:7, perhaps close to Midian, and so the area Moses had been. This would suggest it could be Zipporah – but the Bible does not identify the Cushite as Zipporah. The most natural understanding would be that it refers to an Egyptian/Ethiopian woman. The text does not say when Moses married this woman, or what Miriam’s problem with her was. It is clear that it was a racial issue, by virtue of the use of “Cushite.” Whether she was of darker skin than the Hebrews would be hard to say, since the Bible gives no further detail. Neither does it say if this is a second wife, or a woman Moses married since Zipporah went home (Exod 18:2). These do not seem to be the issues the text wishes to elaborate on; it is simply stating that this woman was the occasion for a deeper challenge.

4 tn Heb “taken.”

5 tn Now the text changes to use a plural form of the verb. The indication is that Miriam criticized the marriage, and then the two of them raised questions about his sole leadership of the nation.

6 tn The use of both רַק and אַךְ (raq and ’akh) underscore the point that the issue is Moses’ uniqueness.

7 tn There is irony in the construction in the text. The expression “speak through us” also uses דִּבֵּר + בְּ(dibber + bÿ). They ask if God has not also spoken through them, after they have spoken against Moses. Shortly God will speak against them – their words are prophetic, but not as they imagined.

sn The questions are rhetorical. They are affirming that God does not only speak through Moses, but also speaks through them. They see themselves as equal with Moses. The question that was asked of the earlier presumptuous Moses – “Who made you a ruler over us?” – could also be asked of them. God had not placed them as equals with Moses. The passage is relevant for today when so many clamor for equal authority and leadership with those whom God has legitimately called.

8 sn The statement is striking. Obviously the Lord knows all things. But the statement of the obvious here is meant to indicate that the Lord was about to do something about this.

9 tc The spelling of the word is a Kethib-Qere reading with only a slight difference between the two.

tn The word עָנָו (’anav) means “humble.” The word may reflect a trustful attitude (as in Pss 25:9, 37:11), but perhaps here the idea of “more tolerant” or “long-suffering.” The point is that Moses is not self-assertive. God singled out Moses and used him in such a way as to show that he was a unique leader. For a suggestion that the word means “miserable,” see C. Rogers, “Moses: Meek or Miserable?” JETS 29 (1986): 257-63.

sn Humility is a quality missing today in many leaders. Far too many are self-promoting, or competitive, or even pompous. The statement in this passage would have been difficult for Moses to write – and indeed, it is not impossible that an editor might have added it. One might think that for someone to claim to be humble is an arrogant act. But the statement is one of fact – he was not self-assertive (until Num 20 when he strikes the rock).



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