Miriam & Aaron

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.
~ Matthew 10:36

Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised is wisdom.
~ Proverbs 13:10

Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.
~ 1 Timothy 3:6

And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,
~ Deuteronomy 34:10

But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.
~ 1 Timothy 5:6

Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands,
~ Matthew 26:67

Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you: as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do. Remember what the LORD thy God did unto Miriam by the way, after that ye were come forth out of Egypt.
~ Deuteronomy 24:8-9

A Commentary on Numbers 12:1-8, by John Calvin.

Numbers 12:1-16

And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the LORD heard it. (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.) And the LORD spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation. And they three came out. And the LORD came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam: and they both came forth. And he said, 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?

1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses. This relation is especially worthy of observation for many reasons. If Aaron and Miriam had always quietly and cordially supported the honor of their brother, and had not been carried away by perverse and ungodly jealousy, their harmony, however holy it was, would have been perverted by the injustice of many, and alleged against them as a deceitful and insidious conspiracy. It came to pass, then, in the wonderful providence of God, that his own brother and sister set on foot a contention with respect to the supremacy, and endeavored to degrade Moses from the position in which God had placed him: for thus all suspicion of family favor was removed, and it was clearly shown that Moses, being opposed by his own belongings, was sustained by the power of God alone. At the same time it may be perceived how natural is ambition to the minds of almost all men, and also how blind and furious is the lust of dominion. Aaron and Miriam contend with their own brother for the supremacy; and yet they had received the most abundant proofs, that lie, whom they desire to overthrow, had been elevated by the hand of God, and was thus maintained in his position. For Moses had arrogated nothing to himself; and, therefore, it was not allowable that man should attempt to undermine the dignity of that high office, which God had conferred upon him. Besides, God had ennobled their own house and name in the person of Moses, and out of favor to him they had also been endued with peculiar gifts of their own. For by what right had Miriam obtained the gift of prophecy, except for the fuller ratification of her brother’s power? But the arrogance and ingratitude of Aaron was still more disgraceful. He had been by his brother associated with himself: Moses had allowed the high-priesthood to be transferred to him and his descendants, and rims had placed his own in subjection to them. What, then, was there for Aaron to begrudge his brother; when so exalted a dignity was vested in his own sons, whilst all the race of Moses was degraded? Still he was so blinded as to deem the honor of his brother a reproach to himself; at any rate, he could not endure to be second to him in dignity, although he was his superior in right of the priesthood. By this example, then, we are taught how anxiously we should beware of so baneful a plague (as ambition). The wicked brother (38) in the tragic Poet says: —

“For, if injustice must at all be done, Tis best to do it for dominion;”that, under this pretext, he might through treachery and murder proceed against his own blood with impunity. Now, although we all hold this sentiment in detestation, still it plainly shows that, when the lust for rule takes possession of men’s hearts, not only do they abandon the love of justice, but that humanity becomes altogether extinct in them, since brothers thus contend with each other, and rage, as it were, against their own bowels. Indeed it is astonishing that, when this vice has been so often and so severely condemned in the opinion of all ages, the human race has not been ever freed from it; nay, that the Church of God has always been infested by this disease, than which none is worse: for ambition has been, and still is, the mother of all errors, of all disturbances and sects. Since Aaron and his sister were infected by it, how easily may it overspread the multitude! But I now proceed to examine the words.

Miriam is here put before Aaron, not by way of honorable distinction, but because she stirred up the strife, and persuaded her brother to take her side; for the ambition of the female sex is wonderful; and often have women, more high-spirited than men, been the instigators not merely of squabbles, but of mighty wars, so that great cities and countries have been shaken by their violent conduct. Still. however, this does not diminish the guilt of Aaron, who, at the instance of his foolish sister, engaged in an unjust and wicked contest with his brother, and even declared himself an enemy to God’s grace. Further, because they were unable to allege any grounds, upon which Moses in himself was not far their superior, they seek to bring disgrace upon him on account of his wife; as if in half of himself he was inferior to them, because he had married a woman who was not of their own race, but a foreigner. They, therefore, cast ignominious aspersions upon him in the person of his wife, as if it were not at all becoming that he should be accounted the prince and head of the people, since his wife, and the companion of his bed, was a Gentile woman. I do not by any means agree with those who think that she was any other than Zipporah, (39) since we hear nothing of the death of Zipporah, nay, she had been brought back by Jethro, her father, only a little while before the delivery of the Law; whilst it is too absurd to charge the holy Prophet with the reproach of polygamy. Besides, as an octogenarian, he would have been but little suited for a second marriage. Again, how would such a marriage have been practicable in the desert? It is, therefore, sufficiently clear that they refer to Zipporah, who is called an Ethiopian woman, because the Scripture comprehends the Midianites under this name: although I have no doubt but that they maliciously selected this name, for the purpose of awakening greater odium against Moses. I designedly forbear from adducing the frivolous glosses in which some indulge. (40) Moses, however, acknowledges that it (41) was not accorded to him to have a wife of the holy race of Abraham.

2. And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? They pride themselves on their gift of prophecy, which ought rather to have schooled them to humility. But such is the natural depravity of men, not only to abuse the gifts of God unto contempt of their brethren, but so to magnify them by their ungodly and sacrilegious boasting, as to obscure the glory of their Author. Miriam and Aaron had received the spirit of prophecy, in order that the grace of God might shine forth in them; but from thence they raise up clouds to throw darkness upon the light, which was far brighter in Moses. They boast themselves to be prophets; why, then, do they not consider that there was no ground for glorying in this, inasmuch as that, which had been gratuitously bestowed upon them by God, was not their own? Again, why do they not correctly estimate their own insignificance in comparison with the excellency of Moses, so as, by willingly yielding to him, to show that they set at its proper value what God had respectively conferred upon them? Lest, then, the knowledge of those graces which God has intrusted to us, should puff us up with pride and presumption, let us remember that the more each of us has received, the greater obligations are we under to God and our brethren; and let us also reflect how much is wanting, in us, and how much, too, God has conferred on others, so as to prefer to ourselves those whom God has designed to honor.

3. Now the man Moses was very meek. This parenthesis is inserted, in order that we might perceive that God was not moved by any complaint of Moses, to be so greatly wroth with Aaron and Miriam. It is said that “the Lord heard,” that is to say, to undertake the cause in His character of Judge: and it is now added, that He spontaneously summoned the criminals to His tribunal, though no accuser requested that justice should be done him. For this is the, tendency of the eulogium of his meekness, as if Moses had said that he submitted in silence to the wrong, because, in his meekness, he imposed patience on himself. Moreover, he, does not praise his own Virtue for the sake of boasting, but in order to exhort us by his example, and, if it should be our lot to be treated with indignity, quietly and calmly to wait for the judgment of God. For whence does it come that, when any one has injured us, our indignation carries away our feelings in all directions, and our pain boils up without measure, except because we do not think that our ills are regarded by God until we have made loud and boisterous complaints? This passage, then, teaches us that although the good and gentle refrain from reproaches and accusations, God nevertheless keeps watch for them, and, whilst they are silent, the wickedness of the ungodly cries out to, and is heard by, God. Again, the silence of long-suffering itself is more effectual before God than any cries, however loud. But if God does not immediately proceed to execute vengeance, we must bear in mind what is written elsewhere, that the blood of Abel cried out after his death, that the murder which Cain had committed might not be unpunished. (Genesis 4:10.)

4. Come out ye three unto the tabernacle. God calls Aaron and Miriam to the tabernacle, that the very sanctity of the place may cast down their haughtiness; for forgetfulness of God had overspread their minds, when they began to be so insolent before men. They are, therefore, brought back to the presence of God, from which all their senses had turned away, in order that they at length might learn to revere Moses, whose cause is upheld by God. God commands them to “hear His words,” because they would never have dared to murmur against Moses if they had reflected on the account they would have to give. God, therefore, claims their attention, that they may learn to recollect themselves, and to awaken from the senselessness of their presumption. Moreover, they are separated from Moses, that they may confess their inferiority, and be ashamed of their temerity in daring to compare themselves with him.

6. If there be a prophet among you. He makes mention of two methods by which the will of God was wont to be revealed to the prophets, viz., visions and dreams. He does not, however, here use the word chzvn chazon, (42) which signifies a prophecy as well as a vision, but mr’h, marah, expressive of some visible appearance, which confirms and ratifies the truth of His word (oraculi) to the eyes and all the senses. Thus has God often appeared to His servants, so that His majesty might be inscribed upon His addresses to them. Before the giving of the Law such visions were frequently vouchsafed to the Patriarchs; whilst sometimes they were instructed by dreams. Thus Joel, when he promises that under the kingdom of Christ there shall be a complete fullness of all revelations, also enumerates these two forms of them,

“Your sons (he says) and your daughters shall prophesy: your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28.)

But we know that the prophets described the kingdom of Christ under the likeness of their own times: when, therefore, God sets forth these two ordinary modes of revelation, he withdraws Moses from the condition of others, as if to exalt him by a special privilege. Now, since Aaron and Miriam were not superior to others, they were thus reminded that they were far behind Moses in rank. With this view he is said to be “faithful in all God’s house;” in quoting which passage in order to prove his inferiority to Christ, the Apostle says he was a servant, and a member of the Church, whereas Christ was its Lord and builder, or creator. (Hebrews 3:2-6.) But the difference between them is more clearly specified immediately afterwards, viz., that God speaks to him “mouth to mouth,” by which expression, as I have said elsewhere, (43) more intimate and familiar communication is denoted. Still God does not thus deprive the prophets of anything which is requisite for the discharge of their office; but merely establishes Moses as the chief of them all. It is true, indeed, that the Patriarchs are so ranked, as Abraham was called a prophet by the mouth of God, (Genesis 20:7;) and the Prophet thus names him together with Isaac and Jacob in Psalm 105:15; but still God at the same time includes the whole dispensation, which He afterwards chose to employ under the Law; and so prefers Moses to all who were hereafter to arise.

Further, the word vision is used in a different sense from that which it had just above; for God, distinguishing Moses from others, says that He speaks with him in vision, (44) which it would be absurd to explain as meaning an ordinary or common vision. It therefore here signifies actual sight, (45) which He contrasts with “dark speeches (aenigmata) and similitude,” which word is equivalent to a representation (figura,) if the negative be referred to both. For there are some who take similitude for a lively and express image; as if God should assert that He reveals His face to Moses; and therefore read the clause adversatively, as I have given it in the margin. But the former reading is the most natural.

I have elsewhere treated of dreams and visions. It will then be sufficient to give the sum in one word, namely, that they were seals for the confirmation of prophecies; so that the Prophets, as if sent from heaven, might with full confidence declare themselves to be God’s lawful interpreters. For visions had their own peculiar marks, to distinguish them from phantoms and false imaginations; and dreams also were accompanied by their signs, in order to remove all doubt of their authenticity. The prophets, therefore, were fully conscious of their vocation, so that nothing was wanting to the assurance of faith. Meanwhile, the false prophets dressed themselves up in these masks to deceive. Thus Jeremiah, in refutation of their ungodly pretences, says,

“The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat, saith the Lord?” (Jeremiah 23:28.)


(38) They are the words of Eteocles in the Phoenissae of Euripides: — Eiper gar adikein chre, turannidos peri Kalliston adikein; talla d ‘ eusebein. — 538.9 Cicero refers to them, De Off. 3:21. Nam, si violandum est jus, regnandi gratia, Violandum est: aliis rebus pietatem colas.

(39) Josephus (Antiq. 2:10) has led some to suppose that she was Tharbis, daughter of the king of Ethiopia. Augustin, however, (Quaest. in Numbers 20.,) and the great majority of commentators, agree with C. in believing that she was Zipporah, and not a second wife, as contended by Rosenmuller, Michaelis, and others, The main difficulty arises from her being called a Cushite, which our translators have followed 70. and V. in rendering “the Ethiopian.” Bochart endeavors to prove that the Cushites and Midianites were the same people; and Shuckford (vol. 1, p. 166, edit. 1743) states his opinion that “by the land of Cush is always meant some part of Arabia.” Habakkuk 3:7, in which “the tents of Cushan,” and “the land of Midian,” are mentioned together, seems to corroborate this view.

(40) “The Hebrew doctors make his not companying with his wife to be the occasion,” etc. — Ainsworth. So also De Lyra.

(41) “Qu’il n’a pas eu ce bien et honneur;” that he had not the advantage and honor. — Fr.

(42) chzvn, a vision, from chzh, to see, to look upon. mr’h, either the act of sight, or the object of sight; a seeing, or an appearance, from r’h, to see, to perceive. — W.

(43) On Exodus 33:11, ante, (7)vol. 3, p. 372.

(44) A.V. “apparently.”

(45) “Veue, ou regard de quelque figure visible;” the view or look of some visible figure. — Fr.