Numbers 12
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Moses proved to be unique as a prophet of Jehovah

This narrative belongs to the same circle of ideas as the narrative of the inspiration of the elders in ch. 11. and of the Tent in Exodus 33:7-11. The Tent is outside the camp, and Jehovah comes down in the cloud to speak.

And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
1. the Cushite woman] Cush is usually the Heb. equivalent for Ethiopia. But it has recently been maintained, owing to the occurrence of the name Kusi in some Assyrian inscriptions, that there was also a place of that name in N. Arabia. Of an Ethiopian wife of Moses we hear nothing elsewhere, and the verse would seem to suggest that his marriage was recent. If, then, the wife was a native of N. Arabia, it would be possible to identify her with Ẓippôrah whom Moses had married in Midian (ch. Numbers 10:29, Exodus 2:15-21; Exodus 3:1); according to Jdg 1:16; Jdg 4:11 she was a Kenite.

And they said, Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the LORD heard it.
2. They do not deny Moses’ prophetic capacity, but they claim an equality with him. If Numbers 12:1 is not a fragment of a separate narrative, as some think, we must suppose that Moses’ marriage was the particular case which gave rise to their claim.

indeed spoken only] The Heb. is emphatic by the use (not found elsewhere) of the two synonyms—spoken only and solely.

with Moses] R.V. marg. ‘by Moses’ is a possible rendering, implying that Jehovah makes use of His prophet as a channel of communication with other men. But in Numbers 12:6 the poetic parallelism shews that ‘with him (in a dream)’ is equivalent to ‘unto him (in a vision).’ It is better, therefore, to retain that meaning here.

(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)
3. very meek] very humble; it might almost be rendered ‘very pious.’ The word does not connote meekness towards men, in the sense of patience under wrongs or insults, but always pious humility towards God. It is found frequently in the Psalms; and see Zephaniah 2:3. Because of Moses’ humble piety, Jehovah grants him an overwhelming vindication in answer to the jealous challenge. To those who have held that the Pentateuch was from Moses’ own pen, this verse, with its appearance of self-righteousness, has always been a serious difficulty.

And the LORD spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation. And they three came out.
4. the tent of meeting] The narrative affords an instance of the way in which the tent was used. It was not intended for congregational purposes (see on Numbers 1:1), but for obtaining an oracular answer from God. And it is possible that this use explains the original meaning of its name, ’ôhel mô‛çd. The word mô‛çd denotes ‘a fixed time,’ ‘sacred season.’ The Assyr. word âdânu, from the same root, described one of the functions of Babylonian priests, i.e. that of determining the right or auspicious time for an undertaking. And it has been suggested, though it cannot at present be regarded as more than a guess, that the Heb. expression may originally have denoted ‘the tent where the proper time for an undertaking was determined,’ and hence, more generally, the ‘oracletent.’

And the LORD came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam: and they both came forth.
5. they both came forth] i.e. probably from the tent, not from the camp. In Exodus 33:8 f. it is said that Moses used habitually to enter the tent, and God talked with him there. The same thing may have occurred in the present case. Aaron and Miriam, in vaunting their claim to equality, imitated the action of Moses and entered with him; and they were then summoned to come forth to hear Jehovah’s oracle. His previous command ‘Come out ye three unto the tent of meeting’ was a challenge to Aaron and Miriam to do as Moses did, and to experience the result. Compare the similar challenge made by Aaron in Numbers 16:6 f. (P ).

And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.
6. if there be a prophet among you, I Jehovah &c.] The Heb. text is corrupt. The true reading is probably ‘a prophet among you’ (נָבִיא בָכֶם for נְבִיְאַכֶם, and ‘Jehovah’ must be omitted. Its position in the Heb. forbids the rendering of the R.V. Possibly it has been accidentally transposed, and the verse should begin ‘And Jehovah said,’ as Syr. and LXX. Luc. [Note: uc. The Lucianic recension of the Septuagint.] have it.

6–8. The words of Jehovah (from ‘If there be a prophet’) are couched in rhythmical form, as was the common practice in the utterance of oracles. As they stand in the Heb. text they fall into ten short lines.

My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house.
7. faithful in all my house] i.e. in everything that has to do with Israel, who are often called the ‘house of Israel.’ The passage is referred to in Hebrews 3:2; Hebrews 3:5, where it is understood to mean that Moses was faithful in such a way that his influence (like that of a trusted servant) extended over the whole of the Old Dispensation, as that of Christ (the Son) does over the New.

With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the LORD shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?
8. even manifestly] This is not a translation of the Heb., which is corrupt. It is the sort of meaning required, but no satisfactory emendation has been proposed. The versions suggest בְּמַרְאֶה (for וּמַרְאֶה), which could perhaps mean ‘in appearance,’ i.e. in a personal manifestation.

and not in riddles] A reference to the enigmatical utterances of oracles.

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and he departed.
And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.
10. the cloud removed] Jehovah shewed His anger by departing from Aaron and Miriam in the cloud, not previously to its removal.

leprous as snow] Cf. 2 Kings 5:27, Exodus 4:6 (J ). There were different kinds of leprosy—the White Leprosy (Leviticus 13:13) and two forms of elephantiasis. The former, which is the milder kind, is here thought of. (See Driver and White, Leviticus, p. 76.)

Aaron received no punishment, possibly because Miriam took the lead in the complaint against Moses. See Deuteronomy 24:9.

lay not … sin upon us] Do not bring upon us the consequences of our sin.

And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned.
Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb.
12. be as one dead] i.e. become so by the terrible effects of the spreading disease.

And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.
And the LORD said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again.
14. I beseech thee] A single exclamatory particle, which is rendered ‘I pray thee’ in Numbers 12:11, and ‘I pray’ in Numbers 12:12. We must probably read ’al for ’çl (‘O God’)—Nay, I pray, heal her I pray.

spit in her face] Cf. Deuteronomy 25:9, Job 30:10, Isaiah 50:6. Possibly a reference to a custom, which is said to exist among the Arabs of to-day, by which the disgrace was inflicted as a punishment for a misdemeanour. It is implied, though not stated, that Miriam was healed at once, but the pollution of the leprosy remained.

And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.
And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the wilderness of Paran.
16. wilderness of Paran] See on Numbers 10:12.

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