“And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.” Numbers 12:1
It is a very brief insight which the Scriptures give into Moses’ personal life when they write, “He had married an Ethiopian woman”; but the implications of it are of considerable interest.
We know that Moses was first married in Midian, some time after fleeing from Pharaoh, to Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter. Although we perhaps have no reason to doubt that she like her father worshipped the true God, it appears that in all respects the marriage was not completely successful. It evidently was impossible for her to understand why the nation of Israel should be considered the peculiar people of God in distinction from all others. Because of this she was not able to uphold and strengthen her husband in his work, but in fact often opposed him. When he was called by God to return to Egypt and his people, she went along only hesitantly. When God met them on the way with the demand that their children should be circumcised, she agreed to do it only after God threatened her husband with death; and even then she could not refrain from giving utterance to bitter complaints. With this it became evident to Moses that, if Zipporah went along with him to Egypt, she would be more of a hindrance to him in his work than an aid. As a matter of discretion Moses returned her with the children to the care of her father to wait for him until the deliverance from Egypt had been completed.
It was after the deliverance from Egypt as Israel was approaching Mt. Sinai, we are told, that Jethro came to bring Zipporah and the children back to Moses. Beyond that we read nothing more of her. She made no significant contribution to her husband’s work as leader to the children of Israel. Zipporah never came to understand the deep spiritual nature of her husband’s work and was never one with whom he could consult or share his problems. For this he looked to his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who were well able to strengthen and encourage him because both were blessed with a special measure of the Spirit of God, Miriam as a prophetess and Aaron as God’s High Priest elect. This continued until Zipporah died, perhaps during the encampment at Sinai. It was soon after Israel had resumed its journey that Moses married again, this time to an Ethiopian woman.
We have noted in the past that there was a mixed multitude of people that followed Israel out of Egypt. These were people of many different nationalities who like the Israelites had been oppressed by the tyrannical Egyptians. Many, if not most of them were opportunists who thought that in following the Israelites they could greatly improve their own status in life. Being purely carnal in their goals, they were an endless cause of trouble to God’s people. Nonetheless, there were also others, people who had come to see and believe in the greatness and wonder of Israel’s God. To them nothing was more important than to live in as close a contact as possible to the people that belonged to that God. They were themselves children of God at heart, and their presence was a blessing and source of strength to the children of Israel. Surely it was to this group that the Ethiopian woman belonged.
In this marriage Moses found for himself a helpmeet and companion such as he had never had in Zipporah. The Ethiopian woman possessed an understanding and appreciation of the distinctive position and calling of Israel that was far greater than that of many actual Israelites. With her Moses could speak freely of the many problems and burdens that rested upon his heart, and she would understand. Her presence was for Moses a constant source of encouragement and strength. It meant, however, that Moses no longer felt the need for the companionship of Aaron and Miriam as he had before. Soon he was making many decisions by himself with which formerly he would have consulted them. This was hardly to their liking. They had come to assume it to be their prerogative to advise Moses in the affairs of the nations. Now they felt that their rightful position had been usurped by another. Soon especially Miriam began to assume a very invidious attitude toward Moses’ wife. With the backing of Aaron she voiced her complaint.
It almost seemed, however, that Miriam had a point that was valid, at least enough so for her to convince herself that the cause which she upheld was really righteous. This Ethiopian woman was not after all a descendant of Abraham, in fact, she was not even of Shem, she was of the family of Gush, the son of Ham. But it had been Abraham’s children alone that had been separated as the people of God, and had been commanded to keep themselves separate and distinct. Already Abraham had commanded that his son should never marry a woman of the Canaanitish race. Could it possibly be right then for Moses to marry a woman of a foreign race? Was he not guilty of ignoring the commandment of God and of corrupting Abraham’s seed?
But in this there was one thing which Miriam forgot. The separation of God’s chosen people was essentially a spiritual distinction and not racial. It was true that in a typical sense God had separated Abraham’s descendants as a peculiar nation; but this typical distinction was, subject to and for the service of a much more important spiritual distinction, for the service of those who were truly the children of God in their hearts. Thus those who continued in wicked ness among them were commanded to be cut off from the nation even if they were descendants of Abraham after the flesh, while allowance was made that those of the Gentiles who believed in God could easily be taken in. This was well understood throughout the greater part of the Old Dispensation. Already Abraham had been commanded to circumcise his servants regardless of their racial background. When the Passover was instituted allowance was made for the stranger also to partake of it if he believed and was circumcised. In later years Rahab and Ruth were taken readily into the nation: because it had become perfectly evident that they believed in God. And undoubtedly there were many others. It was not until many years later when the hypocritical pride of the Pharisees gained power that it became a very hard and difficult thing for a believing Gentile to be united with their nation. But Miriam anticipated their prejudices, not for spiritual reasons as she liked to think, but to excuse a personal jealousy that had arisen in her own soul.
Moreover, Miriam was not one to stop with just a bitter attack upon Moses’ marriage. She knew that Moses, having taken the Ethiopian woman to wife, was not apt to put her away; and because of that woman she and Aaron had lost a position of great influence in Israel. Miriam wanted that restored. Soon her bitterness had led her on to a more serious attack. It was her claim that after all Moses did not even have the right to assume the leadership of Israel alone. She was a prophetess in Israel, and Aaron was the High Priest. Did not that give them a right to have a part in the important decisions concerning the nation? When Moses failed to consult them, was he not doing wrong? Rallying Aaron to the cause, she stood up with him to express her thoughts. “Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?”
We read at this point in Scripture, “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” The purpose is to give us a feeling of the reaction of Moses to this attack. Through his intimate communion with God, Moses had become very bold in opposing that which was evil and in upholding that which, was good; but at the same time he had become ever more conscious of his own personal limitations and sin. He was very conscious of his own inability to lead the children of Israel by himself, and it was far from him to deprecate in any way the gifts of others. Now that a personal attack had been made against his ability and right to lead the nation by himself, and coming from those whom he loved so dearly and whose gifts he appreciated so much, it was more than he could do to answer. Had it been an attack directly against God, coming even from Miriam and Aaron, he would have denounced it. But being directed so personally against him, he was silent.
But the Lord in heaven also heard Miriam and Aaron’s accusation, and He did not hesitate to give answer, he came directly to Moses and Aaron and Miriam and said; “Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation.”
No doubt the situation had quickly become more serious than Aaron or Miriam had anticipated. Soon they found themselves standing at the door of God’s tabernacle with the cloud of God’s holy presence hovering before their faces. It was a fearful sight to behold, and then the voice of God began to speak. “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?” No, God did not deny that He had given His Spirit to Miriam and Aaron, and had revealed through them His Word and will. But at no time did that give them the right to presume to be equal to Moses. Moses had been appointed to be God’s typical deliverer and mediator in Israel and had been provided by God with most intimate communion. In speaking against Moses, their attack was upon God.
It was then that a most fearful thing happened. The cloud of God’s presence withdrew away from the tabernacle and without the camp. The anger, of the Lord was kindled. Aaron and Miriam had corrupted not just themselves, but, also the nation to which, they belonged. God would not dwell with Israel as long as such corruption remained in the camp. When Aaron turned to look at Miriam, he saw the reason even more clearly: Miriam had become leprous, white as snow. The law had clearly stipulated. Leprosy was a sign of moral corruption. Those afflicted with it must be driven out of the camp.
Suddenly Aaron realized the magnitude of the sin in which they had engaged. Miriam had led the way, but he had consented to follow. Now he saw the results clearly demonstrated before his eyes; and Miriam felt it on her own body. Turning to Moses, Aaron pleaded in her behalf, “Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, therein 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.”
Now the true excellence of Moses’ office came into clear relief. He was Israel’s typical mediator, and it was he that prayed for the sister that had rebelled against him, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.”
To this prayer God listened, and Miriam was healed, but not without qualifications. The Lord said to 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.”
For seven days Miriam sat alone without the camp contemplating the shame which she had brought upon herself. And for seven days Israel remained, without continuing its journey, to contemplate the seriousness of rebellion against the servant who was appointed by God.