“And the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1, texts from ASV).
In the 40th year of Israel’s wandering, the first event described was the death of Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses. Her earlier experiences have become part of Jewish history. It was Miriam, though not specifically named, who watched what would become of the infant Moses after their mother placed him in the ark on the river Nile (Exodus 2:3, 4). It was Miriam who went to Pharaoh’s daughter and offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child (Exodus 2:7, 8). Miriam brought her mother Jochebed, who became Moses’ nurse as he grew in Pharaoh’s household.
We next see Miriam during Israel’s exodus from Egypt leading a wonderful song worship of Jehovah after being delivered from Pharaoh’s chariots in the Red Sea. Interestingly, she is designated a “prophetess” (Exodus 15:20). There is no explanation of why she is so described other than this leadership in singing and dancing at the Red Sea deliverance.
The next appearance of Miriam is not as favorable. The account tells of some discontent by Miriam and Aaron. “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1).
Zipporah, the non‑Israelite wife of Moses, evidently aroused some jealously. Miriam had been the most prominent of the Hebrew women during the Exodus. But now, in the wilderness, Moses was joined by his wife and two sons, and some prominence had gone to Zipporah. Aaron apparently was affected somewhat also, as the account describes the sin of both of them.
Their sin was two‑fold. First, the sin of pride, which made them feel that, as part of the family of Moses, they were in some way superior to those outside the family. The account calls attention to the fact that Zipporah was a Cushite. Under the Mosaic Law, Israelites were forbidden to marry outside of Israelite stock. This often led to a superior attitude among Jews, feeling that others were of inferior stock. “Thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For he will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of Jehovah be kindled against you, and he will destroy thee quickly” (Deuteronomy 7:3, 4).
The purpose of this law was to preserve the purity of the seed of Abraham, for Christ would come through his natural descendants, Israel. It was also, as the fourth verse indicates, a means to avoid temptations to idolatry which would inevitably arise in marriage alliances with worshippers of pagan Gods.1
(1) It is clear that Ruth, an ancestress of Jesus, who was also a Moabite, and theoretically forbidden to enter into a marriage with an Israelite man, had converted to the worship of Jehovah before entering Israel and marrying Boaz.
But Miriam’s concern with Zipporah’s ethnicity seems to be an excuse, camouflaging the real reason they spoke against Moses.2 “Hath Jehovah indeed spoken only with Moses? hath he not spoken also with us?” (Numbers 12:2).
(2) While Zipporah was not an Israelite, she was still a descendent of Abraham (Exodus 3:1, Genesis 25:1, 2).
This text reveals a jealousy over Moses’ position in the nation as their leader and spokesman for Jehovah. They imagined that they too were special and had revelations from God. But their sad disposition was heard! Verse 2 continues, “And Jehovah heard it.”
They may have deceived themselves with respect to whom God was using, but their attitudes were fully exposed to God. Before Jehovah’s reaction is mentioned, the beautiful attitude of Moses is described in verse 3. “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.”
The position of this note in the narrative is very revealing. We suppose that in the midst of this rivalry between Moses and his siblings, he wanted to avoid any conflict over leadership and did not attempt to correct them or assert his selection by God over them. He simply waited on Jehovah to reveal His will in the matter.
Meekness is not weakness as it is sometimes viewed today. Rather, it is a deliberate acceptance of circumstances permitted by the Lord. Neither is it simply a resignation to such circumstance, as resignation is often related to giving up and is seldom a virtue. Meekness, on the other hand, is hopeful and patient endurance in every situation, fully accepting God permissive will. It is faithfully expecting His hand to provide direction and deliverance. It is a quality of strength, not a manifestation of weakness.3
(3) That meekness is not a sign of a weak character is uncontestable when we consider Jesus’ own description of himself: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29).
At this point, Jehovah dramatically demonstrated His will! “Jehovah spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, ‘Come out ye three unto the tent of meeting.’ And they three came out. And Jehovah came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the Tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forth” (Numbers 12:4, 5).
The disrespect of Moses, the spokesman of Jehovah, had gone far enough. He commanded the three to gather at the tent of meeting and, in another dramatic scene, manifested Himself in a pillar of cloud right at the door of the tent and called out Aaron and Miriam. This must have been a very fearful moment for them.
Then God spoke to them. “Hear now my words: if there be a prophet among you, I Jehovah will make myself known unto him in a vision, I will speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so; he is faithful in all my house: with him will I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the form of Jehovah shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?” (Numbers 12:6-8).
What an endorsement of Moses! His authority, not only as the spokesman of Jehovah, but also as one who has a very special relationship with the Almighty, was forcefully validated. Then the accusation was leveled: Why were you not afraid to speak against the servant of God?
Miriam and Aaron must have been terrified. And then the punishment was meted out; Miriam was made leprous. Curiously, only Miriam was punished. We can only speculate why Aaron was not punished. Perhaps Miriam was the instigator of the evil speaking against Moses and was therefore the more responsible one. However, if Aaron had also been stricken with leprosy, then, in accord with the Law, he would have been disqualified from the priesthood (Leviticus 22:4). As it was, Aaron was emotionally stricken at seeing his sister in a leprous condition and immediately spoke to Moses, confessing their foolish sin and asking for mercy.
It is Moses then who beseeches Jehovah to heal Miriam, and God heard Moses. But Jehovah specifies that Miriam must be shut up outside the camp for seven days until she be healed and cleansed. This must have been very traumatic for Miriam. She was the oldest sibling of the three and was likely in her 90’s or even 100 years old. She was greatly respected and honored among the Israelites, both for her own talents as well as being the sister of Moses. But now, being reduced to a leper and sent away from the camp in that awful condition would be an unprecedented shame.
There are also prophetic lessons from this episode. Aaron did not plead to God for Miriam, but to Moses. It was Moses that asked for God’s mercy. Aaron was as guilty as Miriam but was spared leprosy, likely for reasons previously discussed. But, the sin of both of them is expressed in the leprosy, a general symbol of sin.
In the Kingdom, when mankind is brought out of the grave, they will still require cleansing from sin. As they recognize their sin and need of cleansing, they will reach out to their King, Jesus, the antitypical Moses, and his bride, the church, and ask for forgiveness and cleansing. By the authority and power of God, Jesus will provide both. The ascending level of power is: the world, The Christ, and Jehovah above all.
Hosea 2:21, 22 describes this same level but in reverse order. “In that day … saith Jehovah, I will answer the heavens, and they shall answer the earth; and the earth shall answer the grain, and the new wine, and the oil; and they shall answer Jezreel.”
Here the order starts at the top, with Jehovah. Jehovah answers “the heavens.” The “heavens” describe Christ and the church, the “new heaven” of Revelation 21:1. In turn, the “heavens” answer the “earth,” i.e. mankind being cleansed from sin and petitioning Jesus and the church for blessings. The “earth” in turn answers the “grain, and the new wine and the oil.” The blessings of the Kingdom are manifest by the material prosperity of the earth’s soil. This blessing in “basket and store” (Deuteronomy 28:5, 17) is the full indicator of Kingdom blessings on mankind as it was in ancient Israel when they obeyed their covenant with Jehovah. And last, “they shall answer Jezreel.” Jezreel means “God will sow.” Ultimately, the direct blessing of Jehovah upon all His tried and obedient creatures will prevail to His honor and glory. As the Apostle Paul put it, “that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
Close of Miriam’s Life
This brings us to the end of Miriam’s life in the last year of Israel’s wanderings. “The children of Israel … came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1).
Miriam’s age when Moses was rescued from the river is not given but she appears to have been a young girl. Therefore, she likely died in her 120’s if not 130’s. It was in the first month of the year, the month of Nisan (or Abib) in the vicinity of Kadesh. Kadesh means “sacred,” a place in the desert (see Strong’s 6946).
Miriam’s life was one of service and devotion to the interests of the people of Israel. She was undoubtedly revered by them. Despite her shortcomings, her strong connection to the deliverance of Israel is confirmed by Jehovah’s own testimony. “For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of bondage; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
Yet, in her experience, we are reminded that no one is above God’s Law, and humility and respect for His arrangements cannot be ignored without consequences. And so, the nation was counseled to never to forget the experiences of Jehovah’s discipline. “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 Jehovah thy God did unto Miriam, by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:8, 9).