On their Canaan-bound journey through the wilderness, the Israelites stopped by many places. Each time, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire from God determined how long they had to encamp. For most of them, having encamped at many stops, the length and purpose of their stay had probably become something banal and not of particular note. Once, the Israelites journeyed to a place called Hazeroth and were to remain there for more than a week. At this place, however, a dramatic event occurred which left an indelible mark in their memory: Miriam, one of their three leaders, was suddenly struck with leprosy. She was shut out of the camp for seven days and the whole Israelite congregation could not journey until she was brought in again. The incident, an important event for the Israelites, offers worthy teachings about the spiritual nurture of servants of God and the relationship between workers.
Miriam, together with her brother Aaron, spoke against their younger brother, Moses. Was it merely a domestic dispute? The Bible does not tell us. But we know for certain that Miriam's leprosy as a result of that dispute could not have been kept from the nation (Lev 13:44-46). A closer analysis reveals that Miriam and Aaron accused Moses on the premise that his leadership was questionable—not on private, familial grounds as they claimed. It was not a case of whom this younger brother ought or ought not to have married. Rather, it was an indictment against the spiritual authority Moses wielded as the chief leader. It was probably not a private trial that Moses was put on. The matter involved the whole nation, how they were to be led and who was to lead them. It was a matter serious enough for God to even intervene personally and act harshly against Miriam, herself a leader.
Miriam and Aaron were great assistants to Moses as he led the people out of Egypt. "For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam" (Mic 6:4). In the sight of God, these three siblings were important leaders to His chosen nation. They each had their own roles in the redemption of the Israelite nation.
As a child, Miriam was already a part of God's strategic plan to save the Israelites from their oppressors. When Baby Moses was left among the reeds at the river's brink, Miriam stood at a distance to watch. It might be that she was entrusted with the task of finding out what was to happen to her baby brother. She must have been a reliable and resourceful girl. When the Pharaoh's daughter discovered Moses, she was quick to recommend her mother to be the child's nurse (Ex 2:9). Consequently, baby Moses could be nurtured by his own mother, something crucial in the molding of his identity. Spending his formative childhood years under a Hebrew upbringing, Moses grew up knowing very well who he was and where his loyalty should belong. So, "when he was grown up, (he) refused to be called the son of the Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin" (Heb 11:24-25).
When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, leaving the Egyptian army behind them completely drowned, Moses led the people in singing to God a song of praise. Then Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and continued the song. She showed herself to be a natural leader; all the women went out after her with timbrels and started dancing. The Bible also describes her as "the prophetess" (Ex 15:20). In the eyes of the Israelites, especially among the womenfolk, Miriam was an outstanding woman, a spiritual leader.
As for Aaron, God chose him as Moses' spokesman right from the beginning (Ex 4:14-16). When he went with Moses to negotiate with the Pharaoh, God performed a miracle using his rod, turning it into a snake (Ex 7:8-10). God chose him for an even greater task—that of high priest (Ex 28:1). He was a central figure in the life of worship of the whole nation. On top of that, only those of his lineage could become priests. They were an elite group chosen from among the Levites, who were chosen from all the tribes to serve in the tabernacle. Like his sister, Aaron was also given a special leadership position.
Both Miriam and Aaron were important vessels of God. Unfortunately, this time around, they allowed their weaknesses to get the better of them.
Miriam and Aaron charged that Moses should not have taken a Cushite woman as his wife. Was it because of his position as the leader of the nation? Were Miriam and Aaron concerned that Moses' marriage to a foreign woman would make him a target of gossip and disapproval among his people? The Bible does not explicitly provide the answer. The Bible does, however, tell us the true motivation behind their disapproval and accusation. They said, "Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?" (Num 12:2). Underlying the charge they hurled against Moses was a strong resentment that Moses was the greater leader amongst them. Are we not his equals? Is this younger brother of ours really greater than we? Why is he getting all the limelight while we appear to be merely tagalongs? Are we not as capable, and prophets too? They began to question the spiritual endorsement behind Moses' leadership position. Their psychology had become frighteningly unstable. They failed to realize what they were actually doing and the implications involved.
Pride, the devil's age-old weapon, was at work in their hearts. Right at the beginning, pride motivated Eve when she ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, hoping that she would be like God (Gen 3:5). Pride has caused countless downfalls among God's people over the millennia. It continues to be Satan's lethal weapon.
Pride has ominous potential for destruction. It gives rise to jealousy. Hence, Miriam and Aaron could not accept the fact that Moses was a greater leader than they. They were not humble enough to recognize they were but particles in the vast creation of God and that He had the sole prerogative to assign tasks to whomever He pleased. Their pride caused them to question God's sovereignty. Their lack of humility also blinded them to the grace God had bestowed by allowing them to have a significant part in the nation's leadership.
Their statement against Moses was that his marriage was objectionable. Yet there were no religious grounds to their objection to Moses' marriage to a foreign woman. The Bible tells us that Moses took a wife when he was in the wilderness of Midian. It is very likely that his wife, Zipporah, was a proselyte, for she was the one who circumcised their son (Ex 4:25) and she followed Moses back to Egypt to lead the people. In the Bible, there is no mention of Moses taking a second wife. During the exodus, he was kept busy and we can presume that he could not have taken another wife. Even if there were a second wife, Moses would surely have taken a wife who was a worshipper of his God, someone who would support him in his ministry. Hence, the charge of Miriam and Aaron could not be substantiated.
In actuality, the true source of displeasure in the hearts of Miriam and Aaron was that Moses' leadership position was superior to theirs. Instead of openly admitting their jealousy, they gave their cause a twist and accused Moses of committing wrong in the matter of marriage. Their false charge against Moses veiled everyone, including themselves, from the real underlying reason: pride. They probably did not realize what they were doing; that as a result of their resentment, they were fabricating a narrative to suit their cause.
Worst of all, challenging Moses' authority sowed discord. Unrest was created at the leadership level. The ordinary Israelite probably would have known about it. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron had even moved among the people and publicly criticized Moses. After all, their motive was to undermine Moses' credibility as a great leader and to strip him of the respect he commanded.
At this juncture, God had to step in. He could not allow anyone in His congregation to sow discord, forgetting that He as the sovereign Lord was watching over them all. Even if Moses had really done wrong, Miriam and Aaron were not in the position to "execute justice" using their own methods. That was to be left in the hands of God, and in His hands alone, for vengeance is the Lord's.
"Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!" God's voice resounded in the air (Num 12:4). How did Miriam and Aaron feel then? Did God's voice over their tent waken them from their delusion? Were they awakened to the fact that it was the sore in their hearts, the resentment against Moses, compelling them to do all that they had done? Did they realize they were at fault?
"If there is a prophet among you,
I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision;
I speak to him in a dream.
Not so with my servant Moses;
He is faithful in all My house.
I speak with him face to face,
Even plainly, and not in dark sayings;
And he sees the form of the Lord" (Num 12:6-8).
God spoke and answered the question at the center of the dissension. Moses was indeed the leader, the greatest among the three of them. Yes, God had chosen them too. But Moses was different. With them, God spoke through visions, dreams and enigmas. With Moses, God spoke face to face. Perhaps they had forgotten that whenever the presence of God descended upon the Tent of Meeting, all in the congregation would rise and watch Moses go into the tent to meet with Him. God spoke to Moses as to a friend (Ex 33:9-11). Perhaps they had forgotten that Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Ex 19, 20). God reminded them—and it was no gentle reminder. In a severe tone He asked, "Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?" (Num 12:8). Miriam and Aaron had not expected this. Their words, having incurred God's wrath, now exacted a high price.
"So the anger of the Lord was aroused against them, and He departed. And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous" (Num 12:9-10). Miriam had wanted to weaken the influence of Moses. She got a taste of her own medicine instead. Their great female leader was punished with the most unclean disease. The prophetess who led the womenfolk in singing to the Lord was completely humbled, before herself, before her people and before God. What was more frightening was that God had departed. God had turned His face away from her (Num 12:9). What was she to do?
At this point, Aaron pleaded for Miriam's cure and showed his repentance. The message behind God's punishment was clear. They had to acknowledge that Moses was indeed the one whom God had chosen to lead them, the one with the spiritual, heavenly authority. "Oh, my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us, in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned" (Num 12:11). Aaron finally reckoned Moses as his "lord." He begged Moses to heal Miriam. They had learned that to speak against God's chosen servant is a serious matter before God. To sow dissension among co-workers is even more unbecoming of God's servants. This change of heart in them was a necessary step before Miriam could be healed.
At this, point, Moses' voice was finally heard. He pleaded with God to heal Miriam (Num 12:13). Prior to this, throughout the whole trial, Moses did not utter a word. When the contentions against him were rife, he held his peace. What was going through his mind then? We are not offered any insight. But he certainly knew he had to leave the matter entirely to God. He knew that if he were approved before God, God would vindicate him. He did not need to go round the camp soliciting support. There was no need to explain himself. In the first place, he did not volunteer to be the leader. It was God who had personally called him from the burning bush in the wilderness (Ex 3:1-10). Since his position was given by God, only God could take this authority away from him. If he had been found lacking, then let God deal with him accordingly. Nothing that anyone could say would sway God's decision in any way.
In the narration of this unrest, a seemingly irrelevant and incongruous comment appears: "Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth" (Num 12:3). It highlights the contrast between Moses' response and the ways of Miriam and Aaron. Towards his accusers and in handling the whole issue, Moses had only one response—to maintain his meekness by staying calm, gentle and humble.
It is also worth pondering why the only verse which records Moses opening his mouth shows him interceding for Miriam. He cried out to the Lord, "Please heal her, O God, I pray!" (Num 12:13). Moses, the great intercessor who pleaded with God for his people when they turned to worship the golden calf (Ex 32:31-32), was the same figure of compassion when faced with opposition and personal attacks.
Through the trial, Moses' behavior proved that he was the indisputable leader of the whole nation. It explains why God was on his side. There was no need for him to say anything more. God chooses his own workers. These workers must also prove their spiritual integrity. "Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from [what is dishonor], he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work" (2 Tim 2:21). Moses' heart was pristine, not harboring any grudges. He stayed composed and silent amidst the noise and squabble for power. When the plea came for him to intercede for Miriam, he displayed his magnanimity by his readiness to forgive and do what he could for her, just as he had always done for his people. With that, he silenced all his contenders and won God's added approval. With that, he also left for posterity a precious lesson on being a worker approved by God.