We read, “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.”
The name of the woman is not revealed. Who might she have been? Calvin was addicted to the view that she was none other than Zipporah—a view which he founded upon the following consideration. “She had been brought back by her father, Jethro, only a little while before the delivery of the law, so that at that time she was still alive. Nothing is said of her death, so that it must be assumed that she had not died. If, therefore, this Ethiopian woman was one other than Zipporah, Moses must be charged with the reproach of polygamy. Besides, as an octogenarian, he would have been but little suited for a second marriage. Such a marriage would not have been practicable in the desert. Finally, the Ethiopians (in the original text the woman is called a Cushite) and the Midianites were the same people, so that the woman’s being called an Ethiopian does not militate against the view that she was Zipporah.”
These arguments are not conclusive. If the Ethiopian was Zipporah, it would have to be regarded as strange that she is referred to in Scripture merely as the “Ethiopian woman”. Then, the marital union of Moses and Zipporah was one of long standing; and Zipporah was the mother of Moses two sons. It must therefore be considered most strange and unlikely that Miriam, so long a time after, would criticize Moses for his having married Zipporah. So the conclusion to which we are driven is that Zipporah had died, that the “Ethiopian” was one other than her and that thus Moses had married for the second time.
Why did Miriam object to the Ethiopian woman? Her reason was “the woman’s being an Ethiopian.” The sacred narrator makes this plain, “And Miriam . . . .spake against Moses. . . . ; for he had married an Ethiopian woman.” Just why did Miriam (and Aaron) disapprove of the woman and on her account speak against Moses? The sacred narrator does not go into details. However, the brief statement, “For she was an Ethiopian” makes it plain that all that Miriam could possibly hold against the woman was her being an Ethiopian, that is, a foreigner, a stranger, one not of Miriam’s race, thus a non-Israelite. And the statement, “And Miriam spake against Moses on account of the Ethiopian woman, “interpreted in the light of the statement immediately following, “for he had married an Ethiopian woman,” tells us that Miriam took Moses severely to task solely on account of his having married one who was an Ethiopian, possibly a negress.
Miriam did wrong, certainly in disapproving of the woman just because she was an Ethiopian. For the woman was, must have been, a God-fearing person, thus a true daughter of Abraham, though a foreigner—one who had said, “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God shall be my God.” If not, Moses would not have married her. In the old dispensation, the Jews were not God’s people, but God’s people were Jews and not only Jews but also Moabites and Ethiopians, the Ruths and the Rahabs, in short, as many of the surrounding nations as it pleased the Lord to transport out of the darkness of heathendom into the light of His kingdom. Though there is no ground in Scripture for saying that their number was large, yet they were there. And the law even made provision for them. If a stranger would keep the passover, he might, provided he and all his men-children be circumcised. Having received this sign in his flesh, he might come near and keep it. And he should be as one that was born in the land (Ex. 12:48). The coming to the light on the part of these “strangers” was predictive of the calling of the gentiles and thus an affirmation of the word of God to Abraham that in him would all the families of the earth be blessed. It was not wrong for an Israelite to marry an converted gentile. Why then did Miriam object to Moses’ marrying the Ethiopian? Simply because the woman was an Ethiopian, was thus a woman without standing with Miriam. To think that Moses should have selected that negress (a negress she may have been) for his wife. It was racial pride that had pitted Miriam against the woman. The spirit evinced by Miriam was like unto that which the Baptist found it necessary to rebuke, when he said to the multitude, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham“. (Luke 3:8)
But it may not have been merely her racial and family pride. Miriam was truly a prophetess. But her position in the church was far inferior to that of Moses. He enjoyed prerogatives that she and Aaron did not have. Was this also perhaps one of her fundamental grievances? Was she envious of her brother and was she more or less unconsciously, without being fully aware of it using his having married the Ethiopian merely as a pretext, as a screen to hide the real reasons of her perturbance? It may be. And perhaps she was also envious of the Ethiopian woman. There must have been a strong bond of sympathy between Moses and this woman. This accounts for his having married her after Zipporah’s decease. She was to him a real help meet, so we may imagine, the true mate of his soul, a woman with whom he could have fellowship on a high spiritual plane, a truly lovely person. The result was that after his marriage with this woman, he leaned more and more upon her and less upon Miriam and Aaron. It was in her that he was now wont to confide. Thus the woman had come to stand between him and Miriam . This was perhaps more than she could endure.
Now it must not be supposed that in admonishing and rebuking Moses, Miriam revealed to him the real reasons of her chagrin. Perhaps she wasn’t aware of them herself. There need be no doubt that she assailed Moses with a very pious-sounding argument. She may have chided him in this vein, “Moses, thy doing is evil in the eyes of Jehovah. What was the result of the sons of God taking them wives of all which they chose? The wickedness of man became great in the earth. Consider our father Abraham, I implore thee. Did he not make his servant swear by the Lord that he should not take a wife to Isaac of the daughters of the Canaanites? And thou hast taken a wife to thy self of the daughters of the Ethiopians. Shame on thee. Art thou not at this very juncture in the name of Jehovah forbidding the people of Israel, when they shall come into the promised land, to make marriages with the heathen races infesting that land? Yet thyself hath married this Ethiopian? Thou destroyest by thy example the good effect of thy words. Put the woman from thee!” So she may have spoken to him. And in giving expression to her chagrin, she may have imagined that she was being driven by the purest motives and that she spake even by divine inspiration, that thus her words of reproof had been put into her mouth by the Lord. Said she not to Moses, “Hath He (the Lord) not spoken also by us?” Yet, what drove her was pride and envy. This she herself, to be sure, would have denied. She would have insisted that she was being moved solely by religious considerations. And so it undoubtedly seemed to her at this juncture. She was too perturbed at the moment to perceive that her motives were sordid. Such perception is the fruitage only of calm reflection.
Miriam was a good woman—good in the true sense. She loved fervently Jehovah, His people and His cause. Being the kind of woman she was, she detested pride and envy also in herself. But here she was picking a violent quarrel with her brother, because the good woman he had married was not one of her race and all the while mistaking her sinful excitement for pure zeal of God’s house and her carnal words of rebuke to Moses for a message straight from the Throne. “The heart is deceitful more than anything. Who shall know it?”
But would it not have been wiser for Moses to have married a woman of his own people? On what ground would it have been wiser, if the Ethiopian feared the Lord? And it must be assumed that she did, that she was a woman of exceptional moral worth, a sister in the Lord to Moses. Should Moses then have permitted himself to be deterred by Miriam’s false racial pride and by her envy? Perhaps one of the reasons Moses married the Ethiopian was to rebuke this pride and to shew her and his brethren in general that what had weight with God is not a man’s being a Jew, but a man’s true goodness. But Miriam persisted in denouncing the marriage. And the longer Moses held out against her, insisting that he had done well, the more vehement she became. Assuredly he ought to see and admit that he had done wrong. Why would he not be advised by her? Why was he esteeming her counsel for naught? Was he necessarily right and she wrong? If so, on what ground? On the ground that the Lord spoke only by him? If he thought so, he was deluding himself. She and Aaron were persons to be reckoned with as well as he. Their words had as much weight as his. Was not the Lord speaking by them also as well as by him? In the exact words of Scripture, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken also by us?” “Have a care Miriam. Consider that thou speakest against Moses, and that the Lord listeneth. Bridle therefore thy tongue. For in thy present mood thou mayest so easily offend by thy speech.” The warning comes too late. Her saying to Moses, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses. . . .” is sinful. And the Lord hears it. And His anger is kindled. She had gone too far, said too much. Suddenly the Lord speaks—to Moses, to Aaron, and to Miriam. “Come out, ye three, to the tabernacle of the congregation.” And the three came out. The Lord now comes down in the pillar of cloud. Standing in the door of the tabernacle, He orders Aaron and Miriam to come forth and to stand at attention. Trembling, they obey. The Lord again speaks. Hear now my words,” He is heard saying to them, “if there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known to him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all my house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even clearly, and not in dark speeches; and also the similitude of the Lord will he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
So the Lord speaks. His anger is kindled against the two of them, so much so that “he departed.” Mark you, the Lord departed, that is, He forsook, withdrew from, the tabernacle and thus also from the entire congregation. In token of His departure, “the cloud departed from off the tabernacle.” And behold—“Miriam leprous—as snow!” She is terrified. It cannot be. Let Aaron examine her skin and pronounce her clean. So Aaron “looked upon Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.” Seeing, he, too, is afraid and crestfallen. He admits his and Miriam’s guilt to Moses and beseeches him that the life of both of them be spared. “Alas, my Lord,” he wails, “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.”
It is plain that a terrible sin—one of the first magnitude—had been committed by both of them. But Miriam had greater sin, as she was the instigator of the unholy opposition to Moses. Aaron, in his weakness, had allowed himself to be prevailed upon by his sister. What was their sin? The expression of it was precisely their saying to Moses, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not spoken only by us?”
There can be no doubt that what brought these words over Miriam’s lips was her feverish desire to induce Moses to heed her counsel and put away the woman. The sacred narrator tells us as much when he says, “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married.” There was then a real connection between Moses’ having married the “Ethiopian” and Miriam’s saying to him that she and Aaron as well as he were persons by whom God spake. Now if there was a real connection, it must be that the reason Miriam said to Moses what she said is that she wanted him to understand that she and Aaron were his equals in order that as so understanding he would not allow his being a prophet of God to stand in his way of heeding their counsel. It need not be supposed then that the reason she spake against Moses is that, as enraged by his doing, she was consciously bent on wounding his soul or undermining his authority or dislodging him in his exalted position in the church. To suppose this is to be driven to the conclusion that Miriam was an unprincipled woman, deliberately and knowingly mean, malicious and vindictive. Now this certainly she was not. Her speaking against Moses was representative of an effort on her part to compel him to listen to her and Aaron.
Not having spoken with the conscious and deliberate purpose of assailing Moses’ position in the church, the life of Miriam was spared. Instead of being destroyed she was deeply humbled through her momentarily being smitten with leprosy. But this was not the end of the matter. In response to Moses’ cry, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee,” the Lord replied, “If her father had spit in her face, should she not be ashamed for seven days? Let her be put out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received again.” So had she, for this length of time to be banished from the presence of God and His people, that in her solitude she might reflect upon her doing, come to realize her sin, repent of it and be forgiven and healed. She was brought, therefore, out of the camp, with the token of her sin upon her body. “And the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.”
But just what was Miriam’ and Aaron’s sin? Her saying to Moses, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath He not spoken also by us?” Rut why should this language have so displeased the Lord? Had not Miriam spoken the truth? She is called a (prophetess at Exodus 15:20, “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron. . . .” The sacred narrator goes on to say that Miriam with timbrels and with dances,—answered them thus, “Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously; for the horse and the rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The Lord was speaking by her, when she gave utterance to this song. And as to Aaron, upon his heart was the Urim and the Thummim. Rut it is plain from the language by which the Lord vindicated His servant Moses, that the real issue that Miriam had raised, through her saying to Moses what she said is not whether she and Aaron were prophets by whom the Lord was also occasionally speaking, but whether as prophets they ranked with Moses, or otherwise said, whether Moses as a prophet stood on their level. And the implication of the language employed by Miriam was that he did. The thrust of her speech was that there was as much reason for Moses to submit to her (and Aaron) as if or her to submit to Moses. Now this could be true only on the ground that as prophets the three of them were of equal rank. This being her contention, she unwittingly, we like to think, in the realm of thought, actually unseated Moses in his exalted position of mediator of the Old Dispensation, and drew him down to her own level—thus to the level of ordinary prophet. She thus had spoken against Moses, uttered words derogatory to his singular position in the church, his unique office—the office of Israel’s law-giver—and this he was instrumentally—and thus of founder and builder of the Old Testament typical economy, house of God. If what Miriam by implication had asserted were true, if Moses were but an ordinary prophet, then he was no such builder; and if not, then the law came not by but from him and the patterns of the institutions which he founded had originated in his mind and not in God’s, then, finally, the house of God was not God’s but Moses’. Miriam, it is plain, had uttered words fraught with possibilities incalculably dangerous. She had inaugurated a revolt against Moses and God anticipating that of Korah and his company. She was therefore deserving of the sternest rebuke. And this she also received.
In setting Miriam straight, the Lord directed her attention to precisely the one thing about Moses of which she was unmindful, namely, that among all the prophets of God, Christ excepted, he had no equal, that thus the position he occupied in the church was again held by none other. The Lord makes this plain to Miriam by naming Moses’ singular prerogatives. To all the other prophets the Lord communicates the thoughts of His heart in a vision and in a dream and by dark speeches; but with His servant Moses, who is faithful in all His house, He will speak mouth to mouth, even clearly and not in dark speeches. And Moses in distinction from all the others will behold the similitude of the Lord.
By the similitude of the Lord is to be understood not God’s essence but a revelation of His virtues, glories so superior, so remarkably clear as to be entitled to the name likeness. Moses saw so much of Christ’s God and of Christ—of His love, mercy and compassion—through the law that was communicated to him, that, on one occasion, the skin of his face shone with a heavenly light—the light that was the radiance of a great gladness that was flooding his soul. He had been with God on the mountain. He had seen God’s likeness. The Lord had made all His goodness pass before him and had proclaimed to him the name of the Lord, “The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in mercy and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquities of the father upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation.” So the Lord had spoken. And Moses had made haste and bowed his head toward the ground and worshiped. He had seen the likeness of God and had spoken with Him mouth to mouth. Such were his high privileges. For he was faithful in all God’s house.
In connection with his being spoken against by Miriam and Aaron, the sacred narrator remarks that “the man Moses was very meek, above all men which were on the face of the earth.” Meekness and greatness went hand in hand in Moses remarkably well. The consideration of his high office, of his qualifications for that office, and of the privileges that went with it, did not go to his head, so that he became an impossible person to live and to deal with.
Meekness is the opposite of sinful pride. It is the will on the part of the believer to consider that he is saved by grace, that thus he is not his own but God’s workmanship, created unto good works in Christ. Meekness in practice is for one to walk by God’s mercy in Christ’s footsteps in respect to injuries done to his person. Moses did so. Miriam and Aaron despitefully used him on account of the Ethiopian woman, whom he had married. Rut Moses reviled and threatened not again. Instead he prayed for them. His marrying the Ethiopian must also be regarded as a manifestation of the meekness of the man.