Miriam's Leprous Rebuke

… When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
(Numbers 12:6–8)

Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses — God’s chosen vessel. But before rebuking them for their insubordination, God explained that Moses was unique. Where God gave prophets visions, dreams, and dark speeches, he spoke face to face with Moses. God told these usurpers that his special relationship with Moses was reason enough for them to hold their tongues. God said in effect, “Who do you two think you are?”

So, what was their issue? Moses did not marry a nice Jewish girl. Instead, he chose the Ethiopian woman, Zipporah — and Aaron and Miriam (who were Moses’ siblings… and leaders in their own right) spoke against Moses for this… but they didn’t handle it wisely. When they said, “Hasn’t [the Lord] also spoken through us?” they were lifting themselves up; they implied that they were equal with Moses.

This is why God called a meeting. He spelled-out the relative positions of the siblings — that Moses was superior — and he showed his displeasure with what had preceded. God reminded everyone that Moses’ meekness was a characteristic that he loved, and this contrasted with the arrogance underlying Aaron and Miriam’s rebuke of Moses. Now, if ever there were a teachable moment, this was it… and God brought it home with leprosy!

Everyone feared that disease — and not just for its physical devastation. Lepers were also ritually unclean. As such, they had to leave the camp. So, although Aaron was spared in this punishment (probably due to his priestly office), he had to bear the responsibility of poor leadership: his sister Miriam had just received a death sentence — and he was at fault! But Moses, ever the intercessor, did not take a “let her rot” attitude… which would have been his right. But rather, he pleaded with God for her healing… and the Lord agreed… but he had a few conditions.

God ordered Miriam to fulfill a seven-day period of cleansing outside of the camp. But instead of citing leprosy as the reason, the Lord cited another infraction — a father spitting in the face of his daughter. This offense carried a seven-day sentence of shame.

God did two things here: First, he made Miriam pay for her sin; she had to bear that shame for seven days. Second, God warned the world that an insult to Moses was an insult to himself. Acting for Moses as Miriam’s father, God spit on her face… and in an honor-based society, this was serious business. Miriam — who was a very public person — had to bear a very public shame… and the camp did not move for those seven days because of it.

What this meant in practical terms is that about two-million people found themselves with time on their hands… and with a shamed leader in their conversational crosshairs. Do you think that anyone in the camp did not know of Miriam’s shame by the end of that week? That is a powerful and poignant punishment for speaking evil of Moses. In fact, the leprosy was comparatively incidental; it was healed… but not her reputation.

This evil incident started because Miriam objected to Moses’ choosing an outsider to be his wife, but God is a lover of irony: Miriam became an outsider for seven days. God simply turned her evil back upon herself. But God is merciful — and he put limits on her punishment. So, after seven days, God allowed Miriam to come back into the camp. She could then rejoin her family — which, by the way, included Zipporah.

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