Moving From Failure to Correction

Lesson Focus:  Praising God for His work in one area yet questioning His work in another is inconsistent; it calls into question the character of God. Like Miriam, we can learn to trust God’s character and be content in the way He works.

Acknowledge God’s Leadership:  Exodus 15:19-21.

[19]  For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. [20]  Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. [21]  And Miriam sang to them: "Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea."  [ESV]

[19-21]  Verse 19 provides yet another bit of evidence that those who pursued the Israelites were chariot warriors exclusively. It mentions only Pharaoh’s chariots and his horsemen, no foot soldiers. If there were any foot soldiers in the original contingent that pursued the Israelites as far as the edge of the sea, they did not follow into the sea itself. Although it is likely that Miriam was the older sister who kept watch over Moses when he was in his special little ark and had the presence of mind to secure his own mother to nurse him for Pharaoh’s daughter, there can be no absolute certainty of that identification. For Miriam to be called a prophetess may mean that she had already distinguished herself in the faithful expression of God’s verbal will to some group within, if not all of, the Israelites. Several other godly women bear this same title prophetess in the Old Testament. Micah confirms Miriam’s leadership role in the exodus [Micah 6:4], which, on the analogy of how Moses and Aaron exercised their leadership and how prophets in general do so, would have meant that she received instructive words from God to relay to the people as a way of guiding them. We do not know what these were apart from the present context. Nevertheless, the leadership of the exodus was clearly a family affair, as confirmed also by the specific mention of the death and burial of Miriam and Aaron. Miriam’s role as leading musician-singer agrees with what we know of the role of women in the preservation and dissemination through music of the cultural values of the ancient world. Some Old Testament passages mention women singing and playing tambourines at occasions of victory over enemies [Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6] or other sorts of celebrations [Psalm 68:25], but this also was something men could do just as commonly and that must as well have been done often by mixed groups. The preservation of historical events through song was an expectation of ancient culture. Miriam taught the song to all the women by singing it to them, the way songs have always been taught in all cultures, even today when songs can also be learned by reading from written musical notation. The quotation of 15:1 here in verse 21 by Miriam is simply a way of saying that she taught the Israelite women the entire song, not just the opening words cited in verse 21. Moses had authored this great victory song: Miriam now popularized it among all the women so that it would be known and sung in every family, every home. The result was that every Israelite, whether descended from Abraham or newly joined to the nation [12:38] would know by heart the story of the great divine deliverance of God’s people at the sea.

Avoid a Critical Spirit:  Numbers 12:1-5.

[1]  Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. [2]  And they said, "Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?" And the LORD heard it. [3]  Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. [4]  And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. [5]  And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.

[1-5]  The sad story of human defiance lingers on, casting up yet another example of distressing rebellion, one even more hurtful in that it came from the older members of Moses’ own family. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses [1]. It must have grieved Israel’s leader that two people bound to him by natural blood ties were seriously objecting to his leadership. The story provides important insights into the theme of handling disagreements. Christians are not always good at it. We sometimes find it difficult to live harmoniously with people who think differently from ourselves; peripheral differences lead to major disruptions. Paul urged the believers in Rome to learn how to deal with variant opinions in a compassionate, constructive, even creative manner [Rom. 14:1-23]. When handling disagreement, at least two things need to be done. (1) Identify its source. When people are at loggerheads, differences may not always be confined to the immediate controversy; there are often multiple grounds for the complaint. Hidden resentments frequently underlie fierce objections. Three issues may lurk behind the subversive conversations of Moses’ sister and brother. First, they raised an ethnic objection to his leadership. He had married a Cushite woman. Cushite is a variant term for Midianite, the people with whom Moses had found shelter when he fled from Egypt forty years earlier. Now, two of the people closest to Moses were raising serious objections to the woman he had married, simply because she came from a different ethnic background. Secondly, they raised a vocational objection to his leadership. Why was Moses regarded among the people as someone special? Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Envy is showing its ugly face, and not for the last time in the desert journey [16:1-17:13]. Thirdly, behind this grievance, there may be a hint of domestic rivalry. Aaron was senior, and, within the Hebrew tradition, the firstborn son was given precedence within the family. Yet here was the younger brother telling his elders what God wanted them to do. Family rivalries are common, sometimes leading to bitter disputes and acrimonious relationships. It is sad when those who have grown up as contented children cannot live together as mature adults. (2) Acknowledge its danger. Christians cannot be expected to think exactly alike on every issue in life. There is nothing wrong with holding different opinions; it is how we manage them that matters. Estranged brothers and sisters in the faith are undermining, if not denying, their God-given unity. The bitter complaint expressed by Aaron and Miriam was hurtful to Moses, offensive to God, damaging to the grumblers and a warning to the people. First, it was hurtful to Moses. Moses is identified as being very meek [3]. The word ‘humble’ is from a root meaning ‘bowed down’; in leadership he was genuinely subordinating his personal interest to those of God and His cause. His sensitive spirit must have been profoundly disturbed when members of his own family questioned his divinely appointed role and, particularly, his responsibility as the Lord’s mouthpiece. His brother and sister, of all people, knew how hesitantly he had undertaken the demanding tasks God had entrusted to him. God had provided Aaron as his supportive colleague, and the two brothers became devoted partners in confronting Pharaoh with God’s commands. Yet, little more than a year later, the cooperative partnership was fractured. A genuinely humble man who steadily pursued the will of God for the glory of God found the conflict specially distressing. Secondly, and more seriously, the disagreement was offensive to God. He had appointed Moses to this exacting task, and the community had indisputable proof that he was their divinely chosen leader. Aaron had been given other work to do. His responsibilities were priestly; he and his sons were to officiate at the sacrifices and act as pastoral counselors within the community. When this damaging relationship problem arose, the Lord responded in a way that identified the sin and exposed, judged and pardoned the sinner. The Lord acted swiftly. Moses was not the only one who heard Aaron’s and Miriam’s bitter criticism: And the Lord heard it [2]. God knew that this family grievance must be dealt with immediately before the poison infiltrated the entire community: Suddenly the Lord said [4]. In acrimonious disagreements additional harm can be done by procrastinating. Nobody ought to rush in without careful thought and dependent prayer, but the longer the problem is left the more likely it is that more harmful things will be said and done. The worst feature of sin is its power to reproduce itself. Iniquity multiplies unless firm and loving action is taken to halt its destructive mission. The Lord appeared decisively: And the Lord came down [5]. He then required these two discontented leaders to step forward so that he could expose the seriousness of their rebellion.

Accept God’s Correction:  Numbers 12:6-15.

[6]  And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. [7]  Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. [8]  With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" [9]  And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. [10]  When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. [11]  And Aaron said to Moses, "Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. [12]  Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb." [13]  And Moses cried to the LORD, "O God, please heal her–please." [14]  But the LORD said to Moses, "If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again." [15]  So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again.  [ESV]

[6-8]  In poetic proclamation the Lord affirms Moses’s position as the uniquely commissioned confidant of Yahweh. The poetic form and style augment the effect of the words and place the emphasis in verse 7 on the uniqueness of Moses as a prophet of Yahweh, a man who stands above the others among the Israelites. His calling was to a unique role as mediator of the covenant. He elucidated the relationship between God and His people. He was the spokesman of instruction and revelation from God to the nation and the one who related to God in a uniquely clear way. Other prophets among the Israelites might receive revelation through visions (Isaiah or Ezekiel) or dreams and their interpretation (Joseph and Daniel); but Moses transcended all of those types of prophets. Moses is distinguished as a unique prophet of God first in his character role as a trustworthy servant of God and second in the straightforward manner in which God revealed Himself to him. To be called a faithful or trustworthy servant by God is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a child of God. The three lines at the beginning of verse 8 provide a picture of the unique relationship between Yahweh and Moses within which the faithful prophetic servant encountered some visible manifestation of the presence of God. Moses had indeed been graced with a special relationship with the Lord and had seen plainly and openly, more than any other human had ever envisioned, that which God had allowed of Himself to be observed. In Exodus 33:11, the Lord is said to have spoken to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. This does not mean that Moses literally saw God’s face, for if he had done so he would have surely died [Ex. 33:20]. Earlier in 33:9 the communication between God and Moses is seen in the process of the cloud descending upon the tent and God talking with Moses. Later in that context Moses is said to have seen the backside of God’s glory as He passed over Moses, who was positioned in the cleft of the rock [33:17-23]. Only Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, had seen the Father in His fullness of glory. The encounter closes in 12:8 with the same language (speak against) of the original complaint in 12:1. Since God spoke to and with Moses, how could Miriam and Aaron dare to speak against him. To speak against God’s servant in this case was tantamount to speaking against God Himself, and He surely would respond.

[9-13]  The immediate response of the Lord to Miriam was one of anger, followed by withdrawal. The terminology of the heated response of God to the situation parallels that in 11:1 and 33. The Lord had revealed Himself to Miriam and Aaron in a special way at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. His presence in the encounter was not only one of revelation, but also one of protection while the countercharges were outlined in the indictment. The charges against the plaintiff Moses had been dismissed with resounding affirmation of his character by the ultimate Judge of all of humanity. Now the judgment against the false accuser would be metered out. When the cloud of God’s presence withdrew from over and from within the Tent of Meeting, Miriam and Aaron stood in alarmed disbelief at what they observed. As the billowing cloud lifted, Moses and Aaron witnessed the horror that had spread over the body of their beloved sister, the dreaded skin disease that would require her withdrawal from the proximity of the tabernacle and from the environs of the community itself. The Hebrew word translated leprous was a term for several different kinds of skin diseases that cause a white flaking of the skin. Leprosy in the ancient Near East and in the Bible was often seen as punishment for offenses against God. That Miriam rather than Aaron was plagued by the disease reinforces the gender specific implication of the initial verb (spoke against) in verse 1 that Miriam was the chief instigator of the dispute. Whatever the actual skin disease was that Miriam contracted, she would become an outcast from society, forced to live outside the holy camp of Israel. The laws regarding various skin diseases required the afflicted to live on the outskirts of the camp or town so as to not defile the purity of the community. Indeed the interior of the community was where Yahweh dwelled in their midst, and its sanctity of purity and holiness was to be maintained. Knowing this, Aaron’s reaction may have been a combination of his dismay at Miriam’s physical disfigurement, his realization that she would have to be separated from Moses and himself, and his fear that he might subsequently be struck with this heinous disease and suffer the same disgrace from the community. With deep emotion Aaron immediately apologized to Moses, addressing him as lord and submissively confessing his sin of rebellion. He who had opposed Yahweh’s servant so presumptuously, promptly placed himself in the servant position under that very same individual. Perhaps attempting to lighten the potential judgment against himself, he characterized his transgression as foolishness. The Hebrew word translated foolishly refers to a person who acts in a delusional manner as a result of ignorance, of one lacking knowledge of God and His ways. As such his offense could be expiated through a propitiatory act of intercession. Intentional rebelliousness was punishable by banishment or death by stoning. Out of concern for his stricken sister, he begged Moses not to hold Miriam culpable for their sin, by which she might be afflicted even further with chronic leprosy. He asked that God not afflict Miriam such that she might have the appearance of a stillborn child. Like Aaron’s distressed appeal, Moses turns to the Lord with a great emotive entreaty, O God, please heal her. Faced with the dilemma of letting Miriam suffer the consequences of her rebellion against him or pray for her restoration, Moses graciously becomes the intercessor on behalf of his accuser.

[14-15]  Grace and mercy are evidenced in the Lord’s response to Moses, for Miriam survives the ordeal. With chronic leprosy she would have been banished from the community for life. She would have to endure, however, the consequences of her rebellion: public humiliation and isolation from the camp of the community for seven days. The seven days of separation were the standard period for the purification process for a leper. While Miriam was going through her required period of separation and ritual purification, the Israelite camp remained at Hazeroth. This delay was perhaps out of some respect or admiration for Miriam and her noble place within the community leadership. But also Israel would not disembark on the next stage of the journey to the Promised Land until the Lord would lead them by the cloud. Hence the seriousness of the rebellion of one of Israel’s leaders is magnified, and the consequences of such an act would affect the entire community. They must all wait upon the Lord until He leads them.

Everyone had something to learn from this episode about handling disagreement. Moses learnt the importance of silence. Aaron and Miriam complained, but Moses said nothing. When things go wrong in relationships, additional harm is inflicted by unhelpful speech and especially by attempts at self-justification. When people say cruel things about us or about others, why do we find it necessary to answer? It would be better by far to say nothing, letting the offending remark hang in the air, embarrassing the heedless or cruel speaker. Moses kept a still tongue and let the Lord do the talking. Aaron learnt the value of prayer. The high priest had unique access into the presence of God, but that day he too was glad of a compassionate intercessor. As he heard Moses pray he realized afresh how crucial it is to pray for others as well as for ourselves, and to do so intelligently, lovingly and dependently. Miriam learnt the generosity of grace. She had offended but was mercifully forgiven. During that week of enforced confinement she reflected on the infinite compassion of God. Once resentful of her younger brother’s role, now she treasured healthier priorities. Pardoned, cleansed and healed, there was nothing greater she desired. The people learnt the seriousness of sin. Eager to press on with their desert journey, they were compelled to wait until everybody had recognized that sin not only grieves God and destroys us; it damages others as well. Whenever we sin, others are always affected in one way or another. Even if we sin ‘secretly’, we have affected other people by our iniquity, although they may be ignorant of it. Offenders emerge from the sordid transgression as less than they might have been. Their holiness has been defiled, their testimony marred, their resistance weakened. The offense of Aaron and Miriam had held them up in their desert travels, but it would be a week well spent if it taught them to honor God and to shun sin.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Contrast the behavior of Miriam in Exodus 15:20-21 and Numbers 12:1-2. At one point, she is leading the people in a beautiful song of praise to Yahweh. Then she is exhibiting a critical and complaining spirit. What caused this change in Miriam? Do you see the same thing happening in your life at times?

2.         From Numbers 12:1-15, what do we learn about the character of Miriam, Aaron, Moses, and Yahweh?

3.         How did God respond to this dispute between Miriam, Aaron and Moses? Why did God act quickly [4]? Why was God angry and departed [9]?

4.         What do we learn about how to handle disagreements between believers from Numbers 12:1-15? What do you think Miriam, Aaron, Moses and the Israelites learned from these events?


The Message of Exodus, J.A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

Exodus, Douglas Stuart, NAC, Broadman.

Numbers, Dennis Cole, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Numbers, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts