Miriam’s Leprosy

Remember what the LORD thy God did unto Miriam by the way, after that ye were come forth out of Egypt.
~ Deuteronomy 24:9

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh like the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests:
~ Leviticus 13:2

And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.
~ Acts 7:58

And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.
~ Revelation 11:8

And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.
~ Luke 23:33

But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.
~ Lamentations 3:32

Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.
~ Micah 7:8-9

O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.
~ Habakkuk 3:2-3

A Commentary on Numbers 12:9-16, by John Calvin.

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and he departed. And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, 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. And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee. And the LORD said unto 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. And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again. And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the wilderness of Paran.
~ Numbers 12:9-16

9. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them. The expostulation is succeeded by punishment. God’s departure was a sign of immediate condemnation; because there was no need of any further questioning, as concerning some matter of obscurity. After God, then, had convicted them of their sin, and had inveighed in a severe and stern reprehension against the ingratitude of Miriam and Aaron, He first pronounced their sentence, and then suddenly withdrew. What follows, that “the cloud departed,” is added in explanation; for God, who fills all things, never moves from His place; but His name is applied metaphorically to the cloud, which was the symbol of His absence or presence.

The nature of the punishment which was inflicted upon Miriam was very appropriate to the offence. The foolish woman, puffed up with pride, had coveted more than was lawful; and her ignominy was the just reward of her arrogance, according to the declaration of Christ, “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased.” (Luke 18:14.) Let us understand, then, that in proportion as the proud are led away by their ambition to long for unlawful honors, they bring upon themselves nothing but disgrace; and although they may gloriously triumph for a season, still, it cannot be but that their glory will at length be turned into disgrace. For inasmuch as all who exalt themselves wage war with God, He must needs encounter them with the awful power of His hand, in order to restrain their madness. Now, whosoever are moved by envy to enter into contention with His servants, endeavor, as hr as in them lies, to overthrow His glory by obscuring the gifts of the Spirit. No wonder, then, that God should avenge the insult offered to Himself, and should repay them with the infamy they deserve; as it is written,

“Them that honor me I will honor, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” (1 Samuel 2:30.)

Miriam desired to be equal with her brother, whom God had exalted above all others; what she attains is, that she should not occupy the extremist corner of the people, but be cut off from companionship with mankind. A similar instance occurred in the case of king Uzziah, who, not contented with the royal dignity, when he had unlawfully attempted to make an incense-offering, was also smitten with leprosy, so as to be no longer suffered to continue in association even with the common people. (2 Chronicles 26:16-21.)

Here, however, the question arises, why, when Aaron participated in the guilt, he was exempted from the punishment? If no reason existed, still we should have to adore the judgment of God; for it is not our business to complain, when He has mercy upon whom He will have mercy, nevertheless, it appears probable that God’s wrath was more exceedingly kindled against Miriam, because she had applied the torch to the ungodly contention, and had inflamed her brother’s mind, as we see at the beginning of the chapter. It was just, then, that the blame should rest on her, since she had been the origin of the evil. I imagine, however, that in sparing Aaron, He had regard to the priesthood, inasmuch as, in his person, it would have been subjected almost to eternal disgrace. Since, therefore, Aaron was an image of God’s only-begotten Son and our only Mediator, and this great dignity had recently had its commencement in him, it was of exceeding importance that he should be exempted from such infamy, lest any diminution of the reverence due to religion should arise.

11. And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas! my lord. Although Aaron was aware that, through God’s indulgence, his own punishment was remitted, still he does not cease to consider what he had deserved. For we ought not to wait until God smites ourselves, but since in chastising others He invites us to repentance, although He may spare ourselves, we should profit betimes by their punishments. The disfigurement, therefore, of his sister, alarmed and terrified Aaron, so that, examining his own condition, he acknowledged himself to be deserving of a similar judgment. His humble prayer manifests that those high aspirations were subdued, which had carried him away into unholy jealousy. Moses, who was younger than himself, and whose superiority he just before could not endure, tie now calls his lord, and confesses himself to be subject to his authority and power. Thus the dread of punishment was the best medicine to cure his disease of ambition. In beseeching Moses not to impute his sin to him, he does not usurp for mortal man a right which God by Isaiah claims for Himself alone; (46) but inasmuch as Moses had been injured, he asks his pardon, lest by his accusation he should be brought before the divine tribunal. Where he confesses his own and his sister’s foolishness, he does not extenuate the grossness of his crime, as most people do, when they generally seek to cover their transgressions under the plea of error or thoughtlessness; but it is precisely as if he had said that they were senseless, and out of their minds, as we gather from the next clause, in which he plainly acknowledges their criminality.

By the comparison which he introduces, it is evident that the leprosy of Miriam was of no ordinary kind, for nothing can be more disgusting than the dead body of any abortive foetus, corrupt with purulence and decay.

13. And Moses cried unto the Lord. The event now proves, what was recently asserted, that Moses was of a meek and gentle disposition beyond all other men; for he is not only ready at once to forgive, but also intercedes with God for them. And thus the presumption of Miriam is best reproved; for the only hope of safety that remains to her is in the dignity of Moses, which of late she could not endure.

From the reply of God, it is manifest that the punishment which she alone had received was intended for the instruction of all. The pride and temerity of Miriam were sufficiently chastised, but God wished it to be a lesson for all, that every one should confine himself to his own bounds. Meanwhile, let us learn from this passage to pay due honor to the judgments of God, so that they may suffice us as the rule of supreme equity. For if such power over their children is accorded to earthly parents, as that they may put them to shame at their will, how much more reverence is due to our heavenly Father, when he brands us with any mark of disgrace? This was the reason why Miriam was shut out for seven days, not only that she might mourn apart by herself, but also that her chastisement might be profitable to all. It is likewise addressed to us, that we may learn to blush whensoever God is angry with our sins, and thus that shame may produce in us a dislike of sin. This special example afterwards passed into a law, as we have already seen, (Deuteronomy 24:9); (47) for when God commands lepers to be separated, He recalls to the recollection of the people what He had appointed with respect to Miriam, lest, if internal impurity be cherished, its infection may spread beyond ourselves.


(46) No reference is here given by C. He probably alludes to Isaiah 43:25.

(47) Ante, (8)vol. 2, p. 12.

And afterward the people departed from Hazeroth. At first sight Moses appears to be at variance with himself: for he here states that he sent the spies at God’s command, whereas in Deuteronomy 1:22, he relates that he made this concession at the request of the people; (48) but the two statements are easily reconciled. It is, indeed, unquestionable that God had regard to the infirmity and distrust of the people; for the spies are not sent to see in what direction the land was to be attacked, with which design two were afterwards sent by Joshua, but God had here no other object than to encourage them, when they else were cowardly and inert, to throw off their inactivity, and eagerly to advance. The necessity of such a remedy was evidently shown, when they all demanded this of Moses. The second narrative, therefore, is fuller, and in it Moses goes back further than he had done in the first, viz., that it arose from the timidity and pusillanimity of the people that he did not at onto hasten whither God invited him; for, if they had straightway obeyed, they would have won the land of their enemies without any delay; but they requested that a respite might be given them. It is, then, by no means inconsistent that Moses did, at the request of the people, what God at the same time enjoined, because tie saw that they were otherwise hesitating, and but little disposed to advance, and needed this stimulus. For, if the spies had honestly per.-formed their duty, the people would have been led forward as if they had seen the land themselves, which would have been the readiest means for putting an end to all delays.

First, however, the place is described, from whence the spies were sent, viz., at no great distance from mount Sinai, although they had encamped twice, so that it was their third station. It has already been stated in chapter 10, that the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran, which some understand to have been said by anticipation, (prolepsin,) as if Moses had said that, from the time when the people left Mount Sinai, they had not made any permanent halt, until they came to that wilderness, and there pitched their tents. But this opinion is by no means consistent; for it is clear that they stayed some time in Taberah; and many days were spent at the graves of lust, (Kibroth-hattaavah;) for there they were gorged for a month with the flesh of the birds, and then the pestilence attacked them, which cut off many of them, for whose burial it was necessary to provide. Now, their next halt was for more then seven days. It, therefore, appears probable to me that by the word Paran, a different place is not expressed; but that it is merely meant that, though they advanced, they still remained in some part of that wilderness. For, since the wilderness of Paran was in one direction contiguous to Mount Sinai, that name is sometimes given to it; for Moses certainly confounds them elsewhere, as also does the Prophet Habakkuk. (Deuteronomy 33:3; Habakkuk 3:3.)

2. Of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man. If all had been taken from one tribe, or from any single portion of the people, their fidelity might have been suspected by the others. God, therefore, would have each tribe assured by its own witness, in order that their report might be more unquestionable. All cause for jealousy was also to be taken away; lest, if any tribe had been passed over, it might have excepted against the messengers, whom it supposed to have been elected in contempt of it. This, then, was the advantage of the equal distribution, lest any sinister suspicion or offence might disturb the unanimity of the whole people. Secondly, it is required that they should be possessed of personal dignity, since God commands that chief men should be chosen, whose testimony would be of greater authority; for it would have been easy to throw discredit upon obscure individuals. Since, however, both precautions were unsuccessful, it appears from hence that there is no counsel so wise and salutary as not to be capable of perversion by the wickedness of mankind. Thus this excellent providence of God rendered the people the more inexcusable. At the same time, God has reminded us once for all by this example that, however those, who seemed to be like pillars, may totter and stumble, or even fall altogether, still our minds must be supported by faith, so as not to give way.

Their names are enumerated, in perpetual remembrance of their ignominy, except in the case of two, Joshua and Caleb; for it was just that their crime should be handed down to all ages, and that the infamy of their perfidiousness should never be blotted out, since they endeavored, as far as in them lay, to bring to naught the promise and the grace of God.

Moses gave the name of Jehoshua to the son of Nun in the spirit of prophecy, as a presage of the exalted function to which he was destined. Ambition is so rash, that men are often disappointed in the result, when they invent titles of honor of their own accord; but Moses was not induced by the blindness of affection to change the name Oshea into Jehoshua; but God directed his tongue and mind thus to commend, beforehand, him who (49) was to be the future minister of their preservation. Still it cannot be inferred with certainty from this passage at what time the new name was given him; for it is not specified that he was called Jehoshua at the time he was sent out; nay, it is probable that he had been previously thus distinguished, viz., from the period in which he had been associated with Moses as his companion and minister in all important matters.

18. And see the land what it is. The counsel of Moses had this object, that the people might be made aware how rich and fertile the land was; for a barren country does not support a large population; and the healthfulness of a locality is inferred from the rigor of its inhabitants, tie, therefore, chiefly insists on the goodness of the land and its abundant production of fruits. Still, perhaps, God would intentionally have the Israelites forewarned, that they would have to do with strong and powerful enemies; lest they might be alarmed and discouraged at suddenly beholding them. But the main point was, that the pleasantness and fertility of the land might allure them to take possession of it.

22. And they ascended by the south, and came unto Hebron. Their direct course was not, indeed, towards the south, but they proceeded along the southern border, until they came to Rehob and Hamath, after having passed the mountains. Hebron, however, in which Abraham had sojourned, is specified from amongst the other cities; and it is probable that the three sons of the giant, who are here named, were in possession of that city. But some think that Anak is not a proper name, and is used, by enallage of the number, for giants. In fact, giants are elsewhere called Anakim. Nor is there any doubt but that these three, who are mentioned, were formidable from their great stature and strength, as we gather from the book of Joshua. It is, then, equivalent to saying that this city was then possessed by warlike men, famous for their prowess. It will, however, appear from the end of the chapter, that Anak was the proper name of a man, whose sons were of excessive height. The antiquity of the city is afterwards signalized by comparison, viz., that it was founded seven years before Zoan, one of the chief cities of Egypt, and of which mention is often made in Scripture. Heathen writers call it Tanis; (50) and it is situated on one of the seven famous mouths of the Nile, which is called from the city, Ostium Taniticum. Now, since the Egyptians gloried in their antiquity above all other nations, it is evident that the land of Canaan was well peopled immediately after the deluge; and this is a sign of its great fertility, for if the neighboring countries had been more so, they would. not have settled themselves there by preference, when they were at liberty to make their choice. A prolepsis is to be noted in the name of the valley of Eshcol: for it was afterwards that it began to be so called by the Israelites in memory of the remarkable cluster of grapes which Moses states to have been brought from hence; and this is immediately after specified,

25. And they returned from searching of the land. The activity and diligence of the twelve men is commended, who in so short a time examined the whole of the land from the desert of Sin to the sea, and along the whole course of the Jordan; and this, too, in the hottest part of the year, when the grapes were beginning to ripen. Thus far, then, they faithfully executed the task intrusted to them. In their report, also, there seems to be nothing unworthy of honest men. They had been commanded by Moses to consider the inhabitants of the land, whether they were strong or weak, and also whether the cities were fortified; and they relate nothing which was not true and fully ascertained by them. In a word, at first sight their relation contains nothing worthy of reprehension. Nevertheless, we may gather from the context that the ten of them, whose desire was to turn away the people, spoke in such discouraging terms of their difficulties, that they produced exactly the contrary effect to what Moses had hoped. No other accusation, however, is as yet alleged against them, than that, by maliciously and deceptively inspiring despondency, they held back the people from entering the land. Although, therefore, they had not openly lied, they were wanting in sincerity. Perhaps, too, the whole of their address is not recorded; because Moses deemed it sufficient to state their perversity of feeling, in that they added to their praises of the land an exception, which overwhelmed the people’s minds with fear. From whence also we gather a useful admonition, that crafty sophists avail nothing with God, when they endeavor to cover their deceit by tortuous prevarication’s. Wherefore, if we desire to approve our discourse to God, we must take care to lay aside all such unfair evasions, and, rejecting all disguise, to speak simply and from the heart. The ten spies, then, lay a foundation of good faith, in order that they may afterwards be more competent to deceive. The land, they say, is a good one, except that the people are strong; and what is this but that there was little hope that the Israelites would obtain the blessing promised them by God, and that the attempt must by no means be made? With the same view they thunder out (51) the names of several nations, in order to increase the alarm; for, after having reported that they had seen the sons of Anak, they state that their contests would be too arduous with the various peoples, who would advance from all sides to resist them.

30. And Caleb stilled the people before Moses. That is, he restrained the murmurs of the people before Moses, against whom they had begun to rise tumultuously. Hence it appears that much was said on both sides which is passed over in silence, for there would have been no need of restraining the violence of the people, unless the contention had waxed warm. His words, however, show what was the state of the whole case and question, viz., that the ten treacherous spies had dissuaded the people from foolishly advancing to the land, which it was impossible to win; and urged them not to attack rashly very powerful enemies, to whom they would be far from equally matched. But Caleb opposes them with the confidence of victory. We (he says) shall conquer the land, and upon this he grounds his exhortation. Moreover, there is no doubt but that, relying on God’s promise, he believed that they would, be successful, and thus boldly foretold it, whilst the others took not at all into consideration that, with the banner of the Lord before them, the people would come into the promised inheritance.

This does not appear to accord with what Moses relates in Deuteronomy 1, where he absolves the spies, and casts the whole blame on the people; but the contradiction is easily reconciled, for there he had no other object than to assert the criminality of the Israelites, who, by their contumacy, had for a long time impeded the fulfillment of God’s promise. Omitting, therefore, that part of the history which did not affect the matter in hand, he only adverts to that which convicted them of wicked ingratitude, i.e., that the fertility of the land was commended by the spies; and consequently, since the people were abundantly assured of God’s liberality, that they sinned grossly by rejecting it. He, therefore, states their crime to have been, that they were rebellious against the mouth or word of Jehovah, viz., because they had refused to follow Him when He invited them.

What Moses here ascribes to Caleb alone, he elsewhere attributes to Joshua also. It is plain, then, that Caleb spoke for both of them, and that Joshua was prudently and modestly silent, lest a tumultuous altercation should arise. It may, however, be probably conjectured that the bravery and firmness of him, who is praised, was the more conspicuous, whilst the honesty of Moses is perceivable, inasmuch as, by his preference of Caleb, he obscures and diminishes the praise due to his own minister.

32. But the men that went up with him said. We here see, as in a mirror, how impiety gradually gathers audaciousness in evil. At the outset, the authors of the rebellion were ambiguous in their expressions, and contented themselves with obscure insinuations; they now throw aside all shame, and openly and acrimoniously oppose the address of Caleb, which was certainly nothing less than casting discredit on God’s words, and setting at naught His power. God had promised to give the land to the Israelites; they deny that He will do so. He had afforded them many proofs that nothing is difficult to Him: they deny that His aid will suffice against the forces of their enemies. Moreover, they at length break out into such impudence, that in their falsehood they contradict themselves. They had confessed that the land was rich; they now declare that it consumes or devours its inhabitants, which is entirely the reverse. For this is equivalent to saying, that the wretched men, who cultivated it, wore themselves out with their assiduous labors; or, at ally rate, that it was pestilential from the inclemency of its climate; either of which statements was utterly false. The mode in which some understand it, viz., that the giants (52) in their violence committed indiscriminate slaughter, is without foundation; for this evil was by no means to be feared by the people, after the extermination of the inhabitants. I do not doubt, then, but that it means that the cultivation of the land was difficult, and full of much inconvenience.

At the end of the last verse, where it is said, “as grasshoppers,” etc., I think the words are inverted, and ought to be thus connected; “As grasshoppers are despised in our eyes, so we were looked down upon by these giants on account of our lowness of stature.”


(48) Hengstenberg (Dissertations on the Genuineness of the Pentateuch, vol. 2, p. 344,) discusses this point, in opposition to Vater and De Wette, though he reminds us that “the discrepancy is no new discovery, but has been thoroughly canvassed; compare Gerhard on Deut., p. 53.” “That the contradiction is only apparent (he says) is clear from Numbers 13:26; for, since those, to whom the answer was brought back, must be identical. with the persons who sent out the spies, it appears from this passage that. not merely Moses and Aaron, but also the congregation, had a share in giving the commission. The author, therefore, cannot intend to deny this, when, in verse 1 and 2, he refers the matter to God.” “The sending out of the spies (he further argues) was a part of God’s plan, and hence was expressly commanded by Him, as soon as its indispensable condition, the proposal on the part of the people, had taken place. For one thing, it would insure to the well-disposed a strengthening of their weak faith; on the other hand, it formed a part of God’s design, that the evil-disposed should take occasion by this undertaking to manifest their unbelief, and be ripened by it for judgment, This design we learn from the result, which can never be contrary to the design. If the divine purpose was the essential point, and the proposal of the people the mere conditio sine qua non of its being carried into effect, it will be easily understood how the latter might be passed over in the Book of Numbers, although, as we have already seen, it is pre-supposed. After what has been remarked, Calvin’s view of the mutual relation of the two passages will clearly appear to be the correct one.”

(49) “Afin que ce nom d’honneur servist a l’authoriser;” in order that this name of honor might serve to give him authority. — Fr. Calvin here alludes to the apparent contradiction arising from the fact that Joshua had already been called by his new name in Exodus 17:9; Exodus 24:13; Exodus 33:11; and Numbers 11:28, which, as Hengstenberg remarks, was a topic of discussion as early as the times of Justin Martyr. Hengstenberg reviews the three modes of meeting the difficulty proposed, viz., 1. That he was so called in the earlier passages by prolepsis. 2. That Moses now only renewed the name. 3. That a statement is here made of what had taken place a considerable time before. To this view he himself inclines, and says, “That the author here first mentioned that he, whom he had originally called simply Joshua, originally bore the name of Hoshea, was not without good reason. What had been hitherto related of Joshua, belonged to him as a servant of God; the sacred name was, therefore, properly employed. But here Hoshea must stand; for he went to spy out the land, not as a servant of Moses, but as one of the heads of the children of’ Israel,’ — one of the plenipotentiaries of the congregation.” — Genuineness of Pentateuch, vol. 2, p. 323.

(50) Thus the word is translated by the LXX. See note on Psalm 78. — C. Soc. Edit. (9)Vol. 3 p. 239.

(51) “Ils parlent a plene bouche;” they speak with open mouth. — Fr.

(52) Corn. a Lapide has the following note on verse 33; “nphlym, nephilim, i.e., giants, who are called nephilim, that is, falling, because they were so tall, that those who saw them fell from terror, or rather falling, i.e., making to fall, (the Kal being put for the Hiphil,) laying prostrate and slaying other men in all directions, for these giants were savage men and truculent tyrants.”