Bible Commentary: Numbers 12-13

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Numbers 12-13

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Miriam’s Leprosy

Resisting God-ordained authority has been as common a temptation as presuming to speak for God when not appointed to do so. Often in the case of sedition and rebellion, we see both. And in chapter 12, we find Miriam and Aaron doing both. Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth (verse 3)—a note probably inserted by Joshua or a later biblical editor to put the challenge against Moses in perspective. And this humble man patiently waited on the Lord to intervene and uphold him. He did nothing to refute his sister and brother.

People who are jealous of someone will often run them down, which is what Miriam and Aaron proceed to do. They start by attacking him over “the Ethiopian [or Cushite] woman whom he had married” (verse 1). Many have built theories on this accusation. We have no other record in Scripture of the woman mentioned here, for the only wife we do know of, Zipporah, was a Midianite. Thus, we cannot know for sure when Moses married this woman. It is possible that he married her decades earlier while a prince in Egypt, after winning a victory against Ethiopia, as this is what Josephus records. This first-century Jewish historian refers to her as Tharbis, daughter of the king of Ethiopia (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, chap. 10). Moses may have retrieved her when he returned to Egypt to free the Israelites—we simply do not know. In any case, there is no record of God issuing any criticism of Moses in this circumstance. Indeed, God exonerates Moses as being faithful in all His house (verse 7).

But do not Miriam and Aaron also speak for God? Is not their disapproval sanctioned by Him? The question is even raised as to whether Moses was unique in his role as the one through whom God communicated. At the very least, Miriam and Aaron wanted to have an equal say with Moses. Perhaps it was jealousy, perhaps it was pride, perhaps a family argument. They convinced themselves that they had a valid claim—after all, Miriam was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20 Exodus 15:20And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances.
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) and God spoke to Aaron, too (Leviticus 10:8 Leviticus 10:8And the LORD spoke to Aaron, saying,
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; Leviticus 11:1 Leviticus 11:1And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them,
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; Leviticus 13:1 Leviticus 13:1And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,
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; Exodus 6:13 Exodus 6:13And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and gave them a charge to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.
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; Exodus 12:1 Exodus 12:1And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying,
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; etc.). God does, then, speak to all three of them. Yet, while exonerating Moses, He comes down hard on Miriam and Aaron. Miriam, it appears, may have been the instigator of the criticisms of Moses, as her name is mentioned first (verse 1) and the principal punishment befalls her (verses 10, 14). Remarkably, Moses’ wonderful character shines through as he intercedes for his brother and sister despite the personal betrayal he must have felt.

Spies in Canaan: Two Witnesses Against an Evil Report 

Journey of the Spies into
Spies Journey into Canaan

No doubt God inspired the decision to send these two who He already knew to be faithful—ensuring that there would be at least two faithful witnesses among this generally faithless group to fulfill His requirement that we are to accept something on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Interestingly, in the end time, after the organized work of God is publicly silenced, there will still be two witnesses (Revelation 11:3 Revelation 11:3And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and three score days, clothed in sackcloth.
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) who will give a faithful report on the nature of the future promised land, the Kingdom of God. Yet, as before, the vast majority of those reporting on God’s Kingdom will be false witnesses—as is the case even now. While we see God here telling Moses to send men to spy out the land (13:1-2), Deuteronomy 1:21-23 Deuteronomy 1:21-23 [21] Behold, the LORD your God has set the land before you: go up and possess it, as the LORD God of your fathers has said to you; fear not, neither be discouraged. [22] And you came near to me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by what way we must go up, and into what cities we shall come. [23] And the saying pleased me well: and I took twelve men of you, one of a tribe:
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shows that this idea was initially brought to Moses by the people. The idea pleased Moses, who evidently took it to God for approval—which God gave with more details here in Numbers 13. (It is, of course, likely that God intended this plan all along—perhaps inspiring the people to come up with it.) Twelve men, one from each tribe, were chosen to spy out the land. They were to check out the soil, trees, people, cities, everything, and then report back. These 12 men are different leaders of Israel than those we saw in chapters 1 and 7. Only two of these men brought a favorable report, Caleb and Joshua. Caleb said, evidently because of his faith in God, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (verse 30).

Another important factor to consider is that even if everything the evil witnesses said were actually true, the omnipotent God was easily able to defeat obstacles like giants and massive fortresses—a fact that should already have been evident from the plagues upon Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. God had, after all, brought low the most powerful kingdom on earth—the Egyptian empire—right before their eyes, and the city-states of Canaan were much weaker in comparison.

Besides not expanding fears about the dangers of the land beyond all proportion, Joshua and Caleb knew—had the faith—that God would deliver on His promise. They were the ones the Israelites should have listened to. Sadly, however, this was not to be.

Supplementary Reading: “Miriam: A Lifetime of Faith,” The Good News, May-June 1997, pp. 25-27.

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