In our broadcast today we will examine an event that took place in the life of Miriam, the sister of Moses, while the nation of Israel was wandering in the wilderness. This event is recorded for us in Numbers 12. We read that chapter from the KJV.
And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it. (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.) 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. 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. 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. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. 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? 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. 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. 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. And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.
We consider this particular event in the life of Miriam not in order to disparage her name. We will find that she was a believer, as were the other women we have considered. But we are reminded in the account before us that we as God’s people must take heed to ourselves lest we fall into sin as she did at this point in her life. Not everything in the lives of believers is done in faith. We are called to learn from the sins of God’s saints lest we follow in the same way and taste of God’s displeasure. Bearing in mind this particular application of God’s Word, we consider this woman of the Bible.
Miriam’s Lamentable Fall
I. Miriam’s Sin
The account before us today involves three people. All three are family. Moses, chosen leader of the nation of Israel, was the youngest of the three. His sister, Miriam, was the oldest. Aaron falls in between. It may seem as if the words spoken against Moses in the first couple of verses of this chapter came from the mouths of both Miriam and Aaron. After all, the information we receive immediately in verse 1 is this: “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses.” But that the onus of the sin lies upon Miriam and that Aaron was a follower is evident from the fact that her name is mentioned first, and the more obvious fact that Miriam is punished for speaking out against Moses. Miriam was a powerful and influential person in the nation of Israel. She was right when she spoke the words of verse 2, “Hath Jehovah indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us?” God had both spoken to and by the mouths of Aaron and Miriam.
Aaron was called by God to persuade the people of Israel to listen to Moses and leave the land of Egypt. Miriam, in Exodus 15:20, is referred to as a prophetess. In Exodus 15 we find that she led the women of Israel in song after crossing the Red Sea to escape Egypt. That she was a women of influence and even leadership in Israel is also evident when we read of her what Jehovah spoke through the prophet Micah many years later in Micah 6:4: “For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” We learn here that Miriam was used by God in a powerful way to assist Moses in leading God’s people through the wilderness.
In the second place, we must fully understand that Miriam was a believer. She loved Jehovah and His cause and kingdom in this world. This is evident already when she was a little girl and was told by her mother to watch over her baby brother while he lay in his little ark among the reeds of the Nile River. It is evident when she sang of the victory over God’s enemies with the women after crossing the Red Sea. It is also evident simply by her role in assisting Moses and Aaron in leading the people through the wilderness. Even though we learn of Miriam’s sin in this chapter we ought not to think any less of her as a God-fearing woman than we would of David or Peter, whose sins are also recorded for us in Scripture. Miriam was a believer. God had worked in her heart by His grace and she truly loved Him. But she too, at a point of weakness in her life, stumbled into sin.
In verse 1 of Numbers 12 we find that Miriam used as an occasion to speak against Moses the fact that Moses had married an Ethiopian woman. Now, we are not going to enter into the debate over who this woman was. Some commentators insist that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, had died and Moses now married an Ethiopian woman. I am convinced, however, that this Ethiopian woman to whom Miriam refers was none other than Zipporah herself. Several years earlier, Moses was traveling with Zipporah and their two sons to Egypt to free the captive nation Israel from the tyranny of Pharaoh. God met Moses along the way to kill him because of him failure to circumcise his youngest son. It was at that point that Moses sent Zipporah back to Midian while Moses continued by himself to Egypt. After the people of Israel had escaped Egypt and were encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai, Zipporah’s father, Jethro, took her and Moses’ sons to be with Moses again. Up to this point Miriam and Aaron had never met Zipporah. Zipporah had nothing to do with the deliverance of Israel from Egypt as had Miriam and Aaron. Yet Moses had thrown a grand welcome for them at Sinai. Afterwards Jethro gave wise advice to Moses to organize the nation under rulers of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands. These could be set to judge the people under Moses. Moses took this advice of his father-in-law. Jethro then returned to Midian but left Zipporah behind with Moses. Miriam and Aaron—more so Miriam—were jealous that Moses listened to advice from this Ethiopian man. Besides, Miriam and Aaron were not numbered among those rulers Moses elected to rule in Israel. Jealousy and pride set in. Now, Miriam and Aaron took out their jealousy on this wife of Moses.
There was more involved too. You see, Jethro, and therefore also Zipporah, were from Midian. The Midianites were a people just beginning to develop along the eastern banks of the Red Sea in the Arabian Peninsula. Prior to the Midianites settling there, the Cushites inhabited this land. The Cushites were descendants of Ham. The word Ethiopian is not really the correct term. Miriam accused Moses of marrying a Cushite, a descendant of Ham, rather than a Hebrew or Israelite woman. So Miriam’s complaint was that Moses was married to a woman of the unbelieving sons of Ham. That leaves the question open, of course, as to whether she was justified in her complaint. The answer is that she was not at all justified. Jethro was a priest of Jehovah in the land of Midian. He had already exhibited his own love for God when, hearing what God had done with Israel, he offered sacrifices for Israel to God. So Miriam’s accusation against Zipporah was false.
But Miriam was using this merely as an occasion for a deeper sin that characterized her. She was covetous of Moses’ position of authority over the nation of Israel. She felt that she could rule over this people just as well as Moses could, and she persuaded Aaron to agree with her.
Together, therefore, they spoke out against Moses. In other words, what Miriam was now espousing was rebellion against God’s established authority in Israel. If left unchecked, these divisive words could only lead to schism, to division and strife, in the nation of Israel. Mind you, Miriam did not complain to Moses. She did not speak these words in Moses’ presence. He did not hear them. But God did. Miriam becomes an example of a sin that dwells in every one of us.
That is the sin of pride. She had been used of God to lead Israel. God had spoken by her too and by her brother Aaron—not just by Moses. Now Moses seemed to be pushing her and Aaron aside because of the advice of Moses’ wife’s father—a Cushite. Where was her role now among the people of Israel? Where was her leadership? Zipporah, in her mind, had just turned the affections of her brother away from her. Miriam had become proud in her place in Israel. She did not commit herself to God and humbly accept the place God had given her. She was seduced by her own pride, she neglected prayer and watching, and she fell.
II. Moses’ Intercession
God suddenly spoke to the two brothers and their sister. “Come out you three to the tabernacle of the congregation!” They followed God’s command. We read of God’s reaction to the words of rebellion spoken by Miriam and Aaron in verses 5-9. There God explains the difference between Moses on the one hand and Miriam and Aaron on the other. God makes Himself known to prophets (this would include the way He spoke with Aaron and Miriam) by means of visions and dreams. But the same was not true of Moses. God spoke mouth to mouth to Moses in Mt. Sinai when dictating to him the words of the law and the history of Genesis and Exodus. God did not speak in symbolic language or dark speeches. God spoke directly and plainly or openly with Moses. Moses even saw a similitude of God in the mountain. God revealed to Moses His hinder parts, that is, His back in an earthly form. This was true of no other prophet before or after Moses. This is also why Moses is a type of Jesus Christ, who is the great Prophet of Jehovah. In this Miriam’s sin is exposed. God raised up Moses to lead His people out of the land of bondage, through the wilderness, to the land of Canaan. Miriam and Aaron were chosen by God to help and assist Moses. They were not of equal authority with Moses. God says, “why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” God then departed in anger. And Miriam? Her entire body from head to foot was covered with the awful disease of leprosy.
Leprosy in Scripture is used to picture the rottenness of sin. Isaiah describes sin as the whole head being sick and heart faint, no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores. This is leprosy. And that is sin too, from a spiritual point of view. This description can be used of the sin of Miriam in her pride and rebellion against Moses, and therefore against God, who placed Moses in authority over her. That is how ugly sin is! Our sin too. It is as the disease of leprosy. If we find that disease loathsome, how much more so is our sin! It is striking how Miriam is now humbled by God in her sin. Her sin caused her to decline from a leading figure in Israel to one who is cast out of the camp as one unclean. Humiliation! In silence Miriam stands before God condemned for her sin of rebellion. But Aaron sees what has happened to Miriam too. In desperation Aaron—not Miriam—cries out to Moses on behalf of Miriam. Aaron, and we can assume Miriam too, now recognize the special place Moses has with God. Aaron does not speak to God but to Moses. He asks Moses to intercede with God on behalf of Miriam. Right there by the door of the tabernacle, immediately, Aaron asks Moses to plead with God.
Moses does not hesitate to do this. While still standing in the door of the tabernacle, with Miriam standing before him white with leprosy, Moses pleads with God on her behalf.: “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee!” Moses does not react in pride. He does not say to Aaron, “Why should I do that? Look at what she did to me! She has ripped my wife to shreds and questioned my authority. She deserves what she has!” Moses loved his sister! His personal hurt did not matter.
He intercedes with God without any hesitation. Why? We read of the reason this took place in the parenthetical reference Scripture makes in verse 3: Moses was very meek, above all men which were upon the face of the earth. Meekness is not weakness. It is not letting someone walk all over you and being too frightened to say anything. Meekness is the strength to listen to criticism, even if it is totally unwarranted, demeaning, and harsh. It is to be reviled and not to revile in return. It is to suffer under the hands of cruel men and not to threaten in return. It is committing oneself to God who judges righteously. Such was Moses.
And this is how Moses is a type of Christ. Christ says of Himself in Matthew 11:29, “I am meek and lowly in heart.” Moses was not really the meekest of all men. Our Savior was. Moses as a type of Christ failed when he in sin lost his patience and meekness and spoke harshly to God’s people, calling them rebels. Christ never did this. On the cross, when He was reviled by men, He said not a word. He suffered and threatened not. In meekness and humility Christ has gone the way of death in order to earn for us a salvation we did not deserve. He died to take away our sin and reproach. By doing so He reconciled us to God. He removed our guilty stains and brought us back into God’s favor. Even now Christ sits at God’s right hand in heaven and makes intercession for us. He is our perfect Mediator, who is passed into the heavens and makes reconciliation for our sins. Christ loves us. He loved us unto the bitter end of the cross. He sees us in our sins and pleads with God on our behalf, “Heal them now, O God, I beseech thee.” God hears the cry of our Savior for us, and for Jesus’ sake He forgives us of our sins. Of this, Moses was a type in his intercession with Miriam. God heard Moses and restored to Himself Miriam whom He had smitten.
III. Miriam’s Restoration
But the restoration of Miriam did not take place immediately. God was not easy on Miriam. Her sin was not little. God does not close His eyes to sin against His authority and rule over His people. Miriam had to experience her shame by being shut out of the camp of Israel for a week.
This probably means that her leprosy was immediately healed, but according to law she had to stay outside the camp for another seven days to be sure the leprosy was gone. Miriam had to experience the shame of her sin. “If her father had but spit in her face.” Would not this daughter feel shame if her own father, who loved her, spit in her face over such a sin? This is what God was doing. He was her Father in heaven and God was spitting in her face to cause her to experience the seriousness of her sin. For a week the nation of Israel stayed in Hazeroth before continuing on its journey. Everyone knew why they tarried there. Miriam was humbled low in her sin. She felt the shame of being cast out. But we read something telling in our text concerning Miriam.
After the seven days she was received. The word “again” is added to the Hebrew text. It would have been better to leave that addition out. After seven days she was received in. The same thing is true in verse 15,where we read at the end of the verse that the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in. The word “again” is again added. There is nothing wrong with adding that word, but the idea here is that, after her sin and its subsequent chastisement, Miriam was received in or brought in by God and His people. Miriam was restored! She was restored to her former place in the congregation. Her sin was forgiven by God and by her fellows saints. She was not just brought in and received into the camp again. She was received into the fellowship and favor of God and Israel. Here is a beautiful testimony of God’s grace in granting His people the forgiveness of sin. They are received as His sons and daughters. He casts their sins far from Him and blots them out of His sight. We are taught a hard reality about sin in God’s Word here.
It is no little thing. What stands on the foreground as we end our broadcast is the grace of God in forgiving us. Whom the Lord loves He chastens, that it might yield in us the peaceable fruit of righteousness.