One day, Miriam and Aaron (Moses’ siblings) approach Moses to complain about “that Cushite woman whom he had married” (v.1).

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, is described as a Midianite in Exodus 2:15-22, not a Cushite. I’m seeing a bunch of attempts at explaining this away, such as my Study Bible saying: “The term Cushite apparently includes Midianites and other Arabic peoples” (p.179). The “apparently” used here seems to mean “that way it’s not a contradiction.”

Davis, who has also often tried to smooth over the Bible’s rough patches, adds: “‘Cushite’ has been interpreted as ‘African,’ although Cush might be another word for Midian. Was Zipporah black? Was there a second wife? The Bible doesn’t really say” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.138).

I find it interesting that both assume that we are not understanding the words correctly, rather than that two separate traditions were melded and the continuity checker was asleep at his desk.

That’s the first half of the first verse discussed. Shall we carry on?

So why were they complaining? Before I read the chapter, I wondered if the complaint was about some personal grievance with Zipporah as an individual, and she is only referred to as “that Cushite woman” as a description. As in, “that woman in the blue dress stole the pineapple.” But then we get the second half of the verse, and it minces no words about why Miriam and Aaron don’t like her: “for he [Moses] had married a Cushite woman.” That’s it. This is a race/ethnicity issue.

But also questions of leadership

Then the race issue is completely dropped and Miriam and Aaron start complaining about Moses being the leader. “Has he [the Lord] not spoken through us also?” (v.2) In other words, they’re getting to chat with God too, they are also spiritual leaders (remember Miriam and the songs of praise?). So why is Moses getting all the recognition?

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

Moses, confronted about his Cushite wife, from the Vatopedi monastery, 10th cent

I made a post a few months ago comparing Moses and Abraham, where I mentioned the similarities between Sarah and Inanna. Reading this chapter and, specifically, Miriam’s apparent claim to prophecy makes me think that maybe she and Sarah both have a history in the oral tradition as, if not goddesses, at least some form of cultic archetype. Specifically, my Study Bible talked about the age of the tradition that seems to be behind Miriam’s second song of praise in Exodus 15.

I’ve also talked before about my interest in Aaron as a possible rival prophet (or, at least, a rival tradition) that became amalgamated with the Moses cycle. Now I’m wondering if the same thing might not have happened to Miriam.

But that’s all pretty pure arm-chair speculation, and uninformed speculation at that. So let’s move on.

The narrator starts off by defending Moses, calling him “very meek” – “more than all the men that were on the face of the earth” (v.3).

For most of biblical tradition – and many people still believe this – Moses has been considered the author of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Obviously, verse 3 has long been very troubling. Or, as my Study Bible puts it: “This verse is an age-old stumbling-block to the belief that Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch” (p.174). I mean, either the statement is true, in which case we have a paradox (someone who is meek would never say that they are the meekest person on earth), or it’s not true, in which case we have to take a second look at everything else Moses has claimed. Either way, it doesn’t look good.

God then calls all three siblings to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and there he lectures to them about Moses being in a separate class:

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. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the Lord. (v.6-8)

So if he talks to prophets in dreams and he talks to Moses clearly, where does that leave Miriam and Aaron? Yes, he’s appearing as a pillar of smoke rather than taking the anthropomorphic form that Moses has apparently seen, but he’s also speaking rather clearly and there’s no indication that Miriam and Aaron are asleep.

What’s going on? Is he rebuking them, or is he agreeing that they really do deserve to be in an elevated class? Because there seems to be a contradiction between what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

The punishment

God (or, rather, his smoke pillar) suddenly disappears, and the siblings discover that Miriam is leprous – “white as snow” (v.10). Aaron is conspicuously unharmed.

Still, he begs Moses for mercy and Moses asks God to heal Miriam. But God replies: “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days” (v.14). Spitting in the face is a pretty common curse, so the comparison here is to Miriam having been cursed by her authority figure (or, more charitably, a close family relative).

Because of this, Miriam must be excluded from the camp for seven days. To their credit, the Israelites wait for her to get better before moving out of Hazeroth and going to the wilderness of Paran (which they already did in Numbers 10:12, but whatever).

David Plotz brought up a really interesting point that I wanted to share:

Also, my friend Aryeh Tepper points out that Miriam’s punishment for complaining about Moses’ African wife perfectly fits the crime: She mutters about the wife’s black skin, so God covers her skin with “snow-white scales.”

Well, that’s nice, and it’s certainly an interesting thought. However, as we’ll see later in Numbers, God isn’t too keen on interracial (or, at least, intercultural) marriage either. In fact, an argument could easily be made that Miriam was merely trying to uphold God’s own standards, and not letting Moses get away with being “a law unto himself.”

Also, God never responded specifically to the charge against Moses marrying a non-Israelite. I mean, sure, he blusters on about Miriam and Aaron daring to question Moses in any way, but his response seems far more focused on the issue of leadership than marriage.

And, lastly, nowhere does it say that Zipporah’s skin is black (at least as far as I can recall – correct me if wrong, please), or any darker than Moses’ own skin. We know only that she is a Midianite/Cushite, and the passages I quoted at the beginning of this post make it rather clear that we seem to want to be rather flexible with those designations.

I think that this punishment is much simpler than that. I think that leprosy (including house mold) was simply seen as an outer expression of an inner sin. In this case, Miriam’s sin was in questioning Moses’ authority.

It’s also very much worth noting that, as with the Golden Calf incident, Aaron is at the very centre of a kerfuffle and everyone gets punished except for him. Talk about nepotism!