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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Numbers Chapter 12

Numbers 12:1

num 12:1

All the rebellions of the people hitherto had arisen from dissatisfaction with the privations of the desert march, and had been directed against Jehovah rather than against Moses. And if, in the case of the last one, at Kibroth-hattaavah, even Moses was about to lose heart under the heavy burden of his office; the faithful covenant God had given the whole nation a practical proof, in the manner in which He provided him support in the seventy elders, that He had not only laid the burden of the whole nation upon His servant Moses, but had also communicated to him the power of His Spirit, which was requisite to enable him to carry this burden. Thus not only was his heart filled with new courage when about to despair, but his official position in relation to all the Israelites was greatly exalted. This elevation of Moses excited envy on the part of his brother and sister, whom God had also richly endowed and placed so high, that Miriam was distinguished as a prophetess above all the women of Israel, whilst Aaron had been raised by his investiture with the high-priesthood into the spiritual head of the whole nation. But the pride of the natural heart was not satisfied with this. They would dispute with their brother Moses the pre-eminence of his special calling and his exclusive position, which they might possibly regard themselves as entitled to contest with him not only as his brother and sister, but also as the nearest supporters of his vocation. Miriam was the instigator of the open rebellion, as we may see both from the fact that her name stands before that of Aaron, and also from the use of the feminine תּדבּר in Num 12:1. Aaron followed her, being no more able to resist the suggestions of his sister, than he had formerly been to resist the desire of the people for a golden idol (Ex 32). Miriam found an occasion for the manifestation of her discontent in the Cushite wife whom Moses had taken. This wife cannot have been Zipporah the Midianite: for even though Miriam might possibly have called her a Cushite, whether because the Cushite tribes dwelt in Arabia, or in a contemptuous sense as a Moor or Hamite, the author would certainly not have confirmed this at all events inaccurate, if not contemptuous epithet, by adding, "for he had taken a Cushite wife;" to say nothing of the improbability of Miriam having made the marriage which her brother had contracted when he was a fugitive in a foreign land, long before he was called by God, the occasion of reproach so many years afterwards. It would be quite different if, a short time before, probably after the death of Zipporah, he had contracted a second marriage with a Cushite woman, who either sprang from the Cushites dwelling in Arabia, or from the foreigners who had come out of Egypt along with the Israelites. This marriage would not have been wrong in itself, as God had merely forbidden the Israelites to marry the daughters of Canaan (Exo 34:16), even if Moses had not contracted it "with the deliberate intention of setting forth through this marriage with a Hamite woman the fellowship between Israel and the heathen, so far as it could exist under the law; and thus practically exemplifying in his own person that equality between the foreigners and Israel which the law demanded in various ways" (Baumgarten), or of "prefiguring by this example the future union of Israel with the most remote of the heathen," as O. v. Gerlach and many of the fathers suppose. In the taunt of the brother and sister, however, we meet with that carnal exaggeration of the Israelitish nationality which forms so all-pervading a characteristic of this nation, and is the more reprehensible the more it rests upon the ground of nature rather than upon the spiritual calling of Israel (Kurtz).

Num 12:2-3

Miriam and Aaron said, "Hath Jehovah then spoken only by Moses, and not also by us?" Are not we - the high priest Aaron, who brings the rights of the congregation before Jehovah in the Urim and Thummim (Exo 28:30), and the prophetess Miriam (Exo 15:20) - also organs and mediators of divine revelation? "They are proud of the prophetic gift, which ought rather to have fostered modesty in them. But such is the depravity of human nature, that they not only abuse the gifts of God towards the brother whom they despise, but by an ungodly and sacrilegious glorification extol the gifts themselves in such a manner as to hide the Author of the gifts" (Calvin). - "And Jehovah heard." This is stated for the purpose of preparing the way for the judicial interposition of God. When God hears what is wrong, He must proceed to stop it by punishment. Moses might also have heard what they said, but "the man Moses was very meek (πραΰ́ς, lxx, mitis, Vulg.; not 'plagued,' geplagt, as Luther renders it), more than all men upon the earth." No one approached Moses in meekness, because no one was raised so high by God as he was. The higher the position which a man occupies among his fellow-men, the harder is it for the natural man to bear attacks upon himself with meekness, especially if they are directed against his official rank and honour. This remark as to the character of Moses serves to bring out to view the position of the person attacked, and points out the reason why Moses not only abstained from all self-defence, but did not even cry to God for vengeance on account of the injury that had been done to him. Because he was the meekest of all men, he could calmly leave this attack upon himself to the all-wise and righteous Judge, who had both called and qualified him for his office. "For this is the idea of the eulogium of his meekness. It is as if Moses had said that he had swallowed the injury in silence, inasmuch as he had imposed a law of patience upon himself because of his meekness" (Calvin).

The self-praise on the part of Moses, which many have discovered in this description of his character, and on account of which some even of the earlier expositors regarded this verse as a later gloss, whilst more recent critics have used it as an argument against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, is not an expression of vain self-display, or a glorification of his own gifts and excellences, which he prided himself upon possessing above all others. It is simply a statement, which was indispensable to a full and correct interpretation of all the circumstances, and which was made quite objectively, with reference to the character which Moses had not given to himself but had acquired through the grace of God, and which he never falsified from the very time of his calling until the day of his death, either at the rebellion of the people at Kibroth-hattaavah (ch. 11), or at the water of strife (at Kadesh (ch. 20). His despondency under the heavy burden of his office in the former case (ch. 11) speaks rather for than against the meekness of his character; and the sin at Kadesh (ch. 20) consisted simply in the fact, that he suffered himself to be brought to doubt either the omnipotence of God, or the possibility of divine help, in account of the unbelief of the people.

(Note: There is not a word in Num 20:10 or Psa 106:32 to the effect, that "his dissatisfaction broke out into evident passion" (Kurtz). And it is quite a mistake to observe, that in the case before us there was nothing at all to provoke Moses to appeal to his meekness, since it was not his meekness that Miriam had disputed, but only his prophetic call. If such grounds as these are interpolated into the words of Moses, and it is to be held that an attack upon the prophetic calling does not involve such an attack upon the person as might have excited anger, it is certainly impossible to maintain the Mosaic authorship of this statement as to the character of Moses; for the vanity of wishing to procure the recognition of his meekness by praising it, cannot certainly be imputed to Moses the man of God.)

No doubt it was only such a man as Moses who could speak of himself in such a way, - a man who had so entirely sacrificed his own personality to the office assigned him by the Lord, that he was ready at any moment to stake his life for the cause and glory of the Lord (cf. Num 11:15, and Exo 32:32), and of whom Calmet observes with as much truth as force, "As he praises himself here without pride, so he will blame himself elsewhere with humility,"-a man or God whose character is not to be measured by the standard of ordinary men (cf. Hengstenberg, Dissertations, vol. ii. pp. 141ff.).

Numbers 12:4

num 12:4

Jehovah summoned the opponents of His servant to come at once before His judgment-seat. He commanded Moses, Aaron, and Miriam suddenly to come out of the camp (see at Num 11:30) to the tabernacle. Then He Himself came down in a pillar of cloud to the door of the tabernacle, i.e., to the entrance to the court, not to the dwelling itself, and called Aaron and Miriam out, i.e., commanded them to come out of the court,

(Note: The discrepancy discovered by Knobel, in the fact that, according to the so-called Elohist, no one but Moses, Aaron, and the sons of Aaron were allowed to enter the sanctuary, whereas, according to the Jehovist, others did so, - e.g., Miriam here, and Joshua in Exo 33:11, - rests entirely upon a groundless fancy, arising from a misinterpretation, as there is not a word about entering the sanctuary, i.e., the dwelling itself, either in the verse before us or in Exo 33:11.)

and said to them (Num 12:6.): "If there is a prophet of Jehovah to you (i.e., if you have one), I make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream (בּו, lit., "in him," inasmuch as a revelation in a dream fell within the inner sphere of the soul-life). Not so My servant Moses: he is approved in My whole house; mouth to mouth I speak to him, and as an appearance, and that not in enigmas; and he sees the form of Jehovah. Why are ye not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?" נביאכם = לכם נביא, the suffix used with the noun instead of the separate pronoun in the dative, as in Gen 39:21; Lev 15:3, etc. The noun Jehovah is in all probability to be taken as a genitive, in connection with the word נביאכם ("a prophet to you"), as it is in the lxx and Vulg., and not to be construed with the words which follow ("I Jehovah will make Myself known"). The position of Jehovah at the head of the clause without a preceding אנכי (I) would be much more remarkable than the separation of the dependent noun from the governing noun by the suffix, which occurs in other cases also (e.g., Lev 6:3; Lev 26:42, etc.); moreover, it would be by no means suited to the sense, as no such emphasis is laid upon the fact that it was Jehovah who made Himself known, as to require or even justify such a construction. The "whole house of Jehovah" (Num 12:7) is not "primarily His dwelling, the holy tent" (Baumgarten), - for, in that case, the word "whole" would be quite superfluous, - but the whole house of Israel, or the covenant nation regarded as a kingdom, to the administration and government of which Moses had been called: as a matter of fact, therefore, the whole economy of the Old Testament, having its central point in the holy tent, which Jehovah had caused to be built as the dwelling-place of His name. It did not terminate, however, in the service of the sanctuary, as we may see from the fact that god did not make the priests who were entrusted with the duties of the sanctuary the organs of His saving revelation, but raised up and called prophets after Moses for that purpose. Compare the expression in Heb 3:6, "Whose house we are." נאמן with בּ does not mean to be, or become, entrusted with anything (Baumgarten, Knobel), but simply to be lasting, firm, constant, in a local or temporal sense (Deu 28:59; Sa1 2:35; Sa2 7:16, etc.); in a historical sense, to prove or attest one's self (Gen 42:20); and in an ethical sense, to be found proof, trustworthy, true (Psa 78:8; Sa1 3:20; Sa1 22:14 : see Delitzsch on Heb 3:2). In the participle, therefore, it signifies proved, faithful, πιστός (lxx). "Mouth to mouth" answers to the "face to face" in Exo 33:11 (cf. Deu 34:10), i.e., without any mediation or reserve, but with the same closeness and freedom with which friends converse together (Exo 33:11). This is still further strengthened and elucidated by the words in apposition, "in the form of seeing (appearance), and not in riddles," i.e., visibly, and not in a dark, hidden, enigmatical way. מראה is an accusative defining the mode, and signifies here not vision, as in Num 12:6, but adspectus, view, sight; for it forms an antithesis to בּמּראה in Num 12:6. "The form (Eng. similitude) of Jehovah" was not the essential nature of God, His unveiled glory, - for this no mortal man can see (vid., Exo 33:18.), - but a form which manifested the invisible God to the eye of man in a clearly discernible mode, and which was essentially different, not only from the visionary sight of God in the form of a man (Eze 1:26; Dan 7:9 and Dan 7:13), but also from the appearances of God in the outward world of the senses, in the person and form of the angel of Jehovah, and stood in the same relation to these two forms of revelation, so far as directness and clearness were concerned, as the sight of a person in a dream to that of the actual figure of the person himself. God talked with Moses without figure, in the clear distinctness of a spiritual communication, whereas to the prophets He only revealed Himself through the medium of ecstasy or dream.

Through this utterance on the part of Jehovah, Moses is placed above all the prophets, in relation to God and also to the whole nation. The divine revelation to the prophets is thereby restricted to the two forms of inward intuition (vision and dream). It follows from this, that it had always a visionary character, though it might vary in intensity; and therefore that it had always more or less obscurity about it, because the clearness of self-consciousness and the distinct perception of an external world, both receded before the inward intuition, in a dream as well as in a vision. The prophets were consequently simply organs, through whom Jehovah made known His counsel and will at certain times, and in relation to special circumstances and features in the development of His kingdom. It was not so with Moses. Jehovah had placed him over all His house, had called him to be the founder and organizer of the kingdom established in Israel through his mediatorial service, and had found him faithful in His service. With this servant (θεράπων, lxx) of His, He spake mouth to mouth, without a figure or figurative cloak, with the distinctness of a human interchange of thought; so that at any time he could inquire of God and wait for the divine reply. Hence Moses was not a prophet of Jehovah, like many others, not even merely the first and highest prophet, primus inter pares, but stood above all the prophets, as the founder of the theocracy, and mediator of the Old Covenant. Upon this unparalleled relation of Moses to God and the theocracy, so clearly expressed in the verses before us, the Rabbins have justly founded their view as to the higher grade of inspiration in the Thorah. This view is fully confirmed through the history of the Old Testament kingdom of God, and the relation in which the writings of the prophets stand to those of Moses. The prophets subsequent to Moses simply continued to build upon the foundation which Moses laid. And if Moses stood in this unparalleled relation to the Lord, Miriam and Aaron sinned grievously against him, when speaking as they did. Num 12:9. After this address, "the wrath of Jehovah burned against them, and He went." As a judge, withdrawing from the judgment-seat when he has pronounced his sentence, so Jehovah went, by the cloud in which He had come down withdrawing from the tabernacle, and ascending up on high. And at the same moment, Miriam, the instigator of the rebellion against her brother Moses, was covered with leprosy, and became white as snow.

Numbers 12:11

num 12:11

When Aaron saw his sister smitten in this way, he said to Moses, "Alas! my lord, I beseech thee, lay not this sin upon us, for we have done foolishly;" i.e., let us not bear its punishment. "Let her (Miriam) not be as the dead thing, on whose coming out of its mother's womb half its flesh is consumed;" i.e., like a still-born child, which comes into the world half decomposed. His reason for making this comparison was, that leprosy produces decomposition in the living body.

Numbers 12:13

num 12:13

Moses, with his mildness, took compassion upon his sister, upon whom this punishment had fallen, and cried to the Lord, "O God, I beseech Thee, heal her." The connection of the particle נא with אל is certainly unusual, but yet it is analogous to the construction with such exclamations as אוי (Jer 4:31; Jer 45:3) and הנּה (Gen 12:11; Gen 16:2, etc.); since אל in the vocative is to be regarded as equivalent to an exclamation; whereas the alteration into אל, as proposed by J. D. Michaelis and Knobel, does not even give a fitting sense, apart altogether from the fact, that the repetition of נא after the verb, with נא אל before it, would be altogether unexampled.

Numbers 12:14

num 12:14

Jehovah hearkened to His servant's prayer, though not without inflicting deep humiliation upon Miriam. "If her father had but spit in her face, would she not be ashamed seven days?" i.e., keep herself hidden from Me out of pure shame. She was to be shut outside the camp, to be excluded from the congregation as a leprous person for seven days, and then to be received in again. Thus restoration and purification from her leprosy were promised to her after the endurance of seven days' punishment. Leprosy was the just punishment for her sin. In her haughty exaggeration of the worth of her own prophetic gift, she had placed herself on a par with Moses, the divinely appointed head of the whole nation, and exalted herself above the congregation of the Lord. For this she was afflicted with a disease which shut her out of the number of the members of the people of God, and thus actually excluded from the camp; so that she could only be received back again after she had been healed, and by a formal purification. The latter followed as a matter of course, from Lev 13 and 14, and did not need to be specially referred to here.

Num 12:15-16

The people did not proceed any farther till the restoration of Miriam. After this they departed from Hazeroth, and encamped in the desert of Paran, namely at Kadesh, on the southern boundary of Canaan. This is evident from ch. 13, more especially v. 26, as compared with Deu 1:19., where it is stated not merely that the spies, who were sent out from this place of encampment to Canaan, returned to the congregation at Kadesh, but that they set out from Kadesh-barnea for Canaan, because there the Israelites had come to the mountains of the Amorites, which God had promised them for an inheritance.

With regard to the situation of Kadesh, it has already been observed at Gen 14:7, that it is probably to be sought for in the neighbourhood of the fountain of Ain Kades, which was discovered by Rowland, to the south of Bir Seba and Khalasa, on the heights of Jebel Helal, i.e., at the north-west corner of the mountain land of Azazimeh, which is more closely described at Num 10:12, where the western slopes of this highland region sink gently down into the undulating surface of the desert, which stretches thence to El Arish, with a breadth of about six hours' journey, and keeps the way open between Arabia Petraea and the south of Palestine. "In the northern third of this western slope, the mountains recede so as to leave a free space for a plain of about an hour's journey in breadth, which comes towards the east, and to which access is obtained through one or more of the larger wadys that are to be seen here (such as Retemat, Kusaimeh, el Ain, Muweileh)." At the north-eastern background of this plain, which forms almost a rectangular figure of nine miles by five, or ten by six, stretching from west to east, large enough to receive the camp of a wandering people, and about twelve miles to the E.S.E. of Muweileh, there rises, like a large solitary mass, at the edge of the mountains which run on towards the north, a bare rock, at the foot of which there is a copious spring, falling in ornamental cascades into the bed of a brook, which is lost in the sand about 300 or 400 yards to the west. This place still bears the ancient name of Kudēṡ. There can be no doubt as to the identity of this Kudēṡ and the biblical Kadesh. The situation agrees with all the statements in the Bible concerning Kadesh: for example, that Israel had then reached the border of the promised land; also that the spies who were sent out from Kadesh returned thither by coming from Hebron to the wilderness of Paran (Num 13:26); and lastly, according to the assertions of the Bedouins, as quoted by Rowland, this Kudes was ten or eleven days' journey from Sinai (in perfect harmony with Deu 1:2), and was connected by passable wadys with Mount Hor. The Israelites proceeded, no doubt, through the wady Retemat, i.e., Rithmah (see at Num 33:18), into the plain of Kadesh. (On the town of Kadesh, see at Num 20:16.)

(Note: See Kurtz, History of the Old Covenant, vol. iii. p. 225, where the current notion, that Kadesh was situated on the western border of the Arabah, below the Dead Sea, by either Ain Hasb or Ain el Weibeh, is successfully refuted.)

Next: Numbers Chapter 13