The Sin of Miriam and her Restoration

(Numbers 12: 1-16)

Hugo Bouter

Miriam's sin

The account of the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to Canaan contains many valuable lessons for the church of God in the present dispensation. We too are a pilgrim people but we are on our way to a better, that is, a heavenly country. We find Israel's deliverance from Egypt in the book of Exodus, while the book of Numbers describes their journey from Mount Sinai up to and including the conquest of Transjordan. The book of Numbers particularly speaks about the failures of God's people during their journey through the wilderness. Israel failed to listen to God's Word, failed to submit to Moses' authority, failed to take possession of the Promised Land, and so on.

In this respect the complaint that God uttered in Numbers 14: 22 is particularly striking: they "have tempted Me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to My voice." Time and again the grumbling people were punished by God but it all seemed to be of no avail. The people died a miserable death in the desert and therefore it was a new generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) that entered the land of promise. Man in the flesh, who was tested by the law, could not please God and had to be born again. Every attentive reader of this Bible book must come to this conclusion and no doubt this is one of the important lessons that God wants to teach us here.

In Numbers 12 the spirit of rebellion that dominated the people also seemed to take control of Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses the man of God, who had both been used by God and had played an important part in the exodus from Egypt. Apparently Miriam contributed most to this rebellion against Moses, but Aaron was far too willing to listen to her and therefore their confession is put in the plural: "Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly..." (v. 11). What was the reason for Miriam's slander? We read that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married (v. 1). Is one not allowed to talk about the marriage of one's own brother? Of course this is allowed but what is important is the manner in which you talk about it! Miriam did so in a negative way and thus became guilty of slander. She disapproved of Moses' marriage and thus damaged his position and good name. This is not said in so many words but can be clearly gathered from the context.

This means that Miriam opposed Moses' course of action and therefore she turned to Aaron for support. Together they then said: "Hath the LORD indeed spoken only by Moses? hath He not spoken also by us?" (v. 2). "And the LORD heard it," says the next sentence. Let us remember that, when we feel we have to say something about our fellow brother or sister! There is a Witness who hears our conversations, who knows our thoughts and even knows what is at the bottom of our hearts. We cannot hide anything from Him. So it is not without reason that the apostle James so seriously warns about the dangers of the tongue, which can be full of "deadly poison." With our tongue we bless God, and with it we also curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God (James 3: 8-9). This is a serious evil and when somebody persists in it it will ultimately lead to their exclusion, for a railer should be put away from ourselves as a wicked person (1 Cor. 5: 11-13). In 1 Corinthians 6: 10 Paul says that a reviler is among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Such a person is considered to be among "them that are without." Unfortunately, things can reach this stage when somebody will not keep their tongue under control through the power of the Holy Spirit (this self-control is also a fruit of the Spirit: Gal. 5: 19-23).

Put out of the camp

This is what happened to Miriam as we see in type in this story. She had not hesitated to speak against Moses and therefore she had to be put out of the camp as a leper. In the book of Numbers outside the camp is the place of all unclean persons (see 5: 1-4; the lepers are mentioned first in those verses). It is the same in Leviticus 13 and 14, where we find the laws concerning leprosy and the cleansing of healed lepers. A leper was unclean as long as he had the plague: "... he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be" (Lev. 13: 46).1 (See footnote on opposite page).

The remarkable thing is that with Miriam it was apparently a form of leprosy in an advanced stage. The Lord's anger was aroused against Miriam and Aaron and immediately Miriam stood there "leprous, white as snow" (v. 10). This complete whiteness was, according to Leviticus 13: 13, precisely the condition for being pronounced clean again! This means that Miriam was stricken by God's judgment, yet right away a proof of His grace could be observed-grace that had her restoration in mind. She was completely leprous, no doubt about that. She had to be put outside the camp as an unclean person and she had to cry out that she was unclean (Lev. 13: 45). But it was not forever. God wanted to receive her again after she had been shut out of the camp seven days (Num. 12: 14).

I think that this period of seven days (which was also common for other cleansing ceremonies, see e.g. Numbers 19) refers to the complete measure of repentance required for a godly restoration. Similarly, a work of regret and repentance had to take place with the person excluded in Corinth before he could be received again in the midst of the believers (2 Cor. 2: 7). Godly sorrow had produced "repentance to salvation not to be repented of" (2 Cor. 7: 10), both in his heart and in the hearts of the Corinthians who had first tolerated the wicked person in their midst.

Removing a wicked person from the midst of the believers, shutting a leper out of a clean camp, should therefore always take place with the hope of restoration. Priestly attention and care are necessary to be able to determine what stage the "leprosy" (which is an outstanding image of sin in a manifest form) has reached. When the leper has been completely stricken with the disease, then the typical lesson is that the person excluded no longer expects anything from himself and recognises that nothing good dwells in his flesh (cf. Rom. 7: 18). In other words, a work of regret and repentance can be observed in him. As soon as that has been established the person involved can be restored and brought back to his former place among the believers.

After seven days, Miriam was allowed to re-enter the camp. She was "received in again" (v. 14). So this is a striking example of the excommunication of a wicked person, but also of the restoration of the offender. We cannot deal lightly with sin. God wants us to enforce discipline but at the same time, in His grace, He wants to prepare the way for a complete restoration. Miriam had to wait outside the camp for seven days before she could be re-admitted. But it is very striking to read that the people within the camp also waited for seven days until she had joined them again: "... and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again" (v. 15). She waited outside and the people waited inside until the work of restoration had been accomplished!

1 Here the camp was the dwelling place of the people of God, as recognised by God. He was in their midst as the Holy One and the Just, and they were encamped around the sanctuary of God as a holy and righteous people. As soon as the camp was defiled by idolatry, the place of the faithful was, with Moses "without the camp, afar off from the camp" (Ex. 33: 7). Similarly, after the rejection of the Messiah the place of the Hebrew believers was with their Lord "without the camp" (Heb. 13: 13).

Let us then notice Moses' attitude which also has much to tell us. No doubt Moses was grieved about the sin of Miriam and Aaron (who as an older brother should have known better but who also played a dubious role in the story of the golden calf). What then was Moses' reaction to this act of rebellion against his authority as the man of God? He kept silent and committed it to Him who judges righteously (1 Peter 2: 23). The only thing that we read here about Moses is that he "was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (v. 3).

Moses was not naturally humble. He had learned this humility in the school of God. By nature he was a quick-tempered man. He killed the Egyptian and even in his old age his hot temper flared up again, when in his indignation about the rebellious people he started striking the rock instead of speaking to it (Num. 20). Here in Numbers 12, however, Moses reminds us of the One who said to His disciples, "... learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matt. 11: 29). As disciples of Christ, as students who are brought up in His school, we have to react in this way when we have become the object of slander. That is what our personal attitude should be, although in such matters there is also a common responsibility of the church according to Matthew 18: 15-20. We even see here that Moses prayed for his sister with a view to her restoration: "And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee!" (v. 13).

Hugo Bouter.

The Sin of Miriam, and her Restoration (2)

(Numbers 12: 1-16)

Prophetic lessons

We see Moses here as a type of Christ. He prayed for His enemies, even for those who stood up against Him and mocked Him: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23: 34). Just as Miriam was restored on the basis of Moses' intercession, so the people of Israel were shown mercy because of Christ's prayer on the cross. In the book of Acts we see how the way of salvation and restoration was shown to Israel (cf. Acts 3: 17).

But there are more prophetic lessons in the story of Numbers 12. Moses is a clear type of Christ as the great Prophet, Apostle and Teacher of His people (Deut. 18: 15; John 5: 46; Acts 3: 22; Heb. 3: 1-6). Well then, if Moses is a type of Christ what does his marriage to a foreign woman have to say to us? The answer is obvious: Christ took a Gentile bride. Moses' Ethiopian wife was a stranger-she did not belong to the people of God. Yet this Gentile woman became the bride of Moses. Likewise, the church, which is now the bride of Christ, is made up mostly of believers from the Gentiles. We can also see Zipporah as such a type of the church (and similarly Asenath, the Egyptian wife of Joseph). The grace and love of God that have been revealed in Christ could not be limited to the Jews. The core of the gospel is that all men are equal before God. They are all sinners but God wants to bestow His grace on all. Jews and Gentiles are alike "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2: 1). God has made us alive together with Christ and has created one new man from the two. That is the church, which is the body and the bride of Christ, the habitation of God in the Spirit.

This grace shown to the Gentiles, however, resulted in a breach with the people of Israel, just as Moses' love for his Gentile bride (temporarily) broke off his ties with Miriam. Christ was rejected by His own, His kinsmen according to the flesh (John 1: 11). He had to endure such hostility from sinners against Himself (Heb. 12: 3), but He endured it in a patient and gentle way. He acted just like Moses, who resigned himself to the opposition from his relatives and left it in the Lord's hands. Israel's rejection of the Servant of the Lord, however, resulted in the Nation being set aside, just as Miriam's rebellion against Moses (who was God's servant, v. 8) resulted in her being shut out of the camp. Because of their rejection of the Messiah, God has (temporarily) rejected Israel as His people. He has now stretched out His hands towards the nations and the Lord Jesus is joined with bonds of love to His Gentile bride.

In this matter between Miriam and Moses, God Himself pronounced the verdict. Because of her sin she was put out for a certain period of time. Likewise, Israel has become Lo-ammi, Not-My-People (Hosea 1: 9). Just as the cloud of God's presence departed from above the tabernacle when He had spoken to Aaron and Miriam (vv. 9-10), so God has now withdrawn from His people. The glory of the Lord has left the people of Israel and it will only return at the beginning of the kingdom of peace (Ezek. 43). Miriam was shut out of the camp, outside the place of blessing in the presence of God. Similarly, wrath has come upon Israel as a rebellious people and the blessing of God's presence is now found in the midst of the church.

But there is a glorious and gracious "until." Israel's rejection is not final. The story of Numbers 12 did not end with the sad message of Miriam's exclusion but with her restoration. God's wrath may have come upon Israel to the uttermost (i.e., fully), yet He is gracious and even in His wrath He remembers mercy (1 Thess. 2: 16; Hab. 3: 2). He determines the extent and measure of Israel's suffering, as He also determined the period of "seven days" of Miriam's exclusion. He will be merciful to Israel and comfort His people when her warfare is ended and her iniquity is pardoned (Isa. 40: 1-2). This serious story thus has a happy ending. As Miriam was received again (v. 14) and was cleansed from her leprosy, so also Israel will be received again as God's people (after the rapture of the church) and be cleansed from all ungodliness.

It was the apostle Paul, who suffered so much opposition from the Jews as he preached the gospel of God's grace to the nations, who revealed to us the divine mystery of Israel's restoration ("that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in." Rom. 11: 25-27). In this passage we find the gracious "until," the announcement of a time determined by God in which He will restore the fortunes of His people.

Just as the Lord (as the One who heals His people) acted in favour of Miriam and healed her, so He will save His earthly people in a coming day. And He will save them not only from their enemies that oppress them from outside but also from their sins that accuse them inwardly. He took away the leprosy from Miriam and likewise He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob and will accept His people. They will be raised spiritually from death to life. Israel's rejection meant the reconciling of the world, for God stretched out His hands to all mankind and extended the word of reconciliation to both Jews and Gentiles. So what will their acceptance be but life from the dead (Rom. 11: 15)? Just as Miriam as a cleansed person was received again in the camp, so Israel will be received again by God as a nation that has been raised from its death sleep and has been cleansed from the sickness which branded it "as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed" (v. 12).

Some translations read that Miriam was to be "brought back," or "brought in again" (v. 14). The original meaning of the word seems to be "to gather," or "to collect." That is also the meaning of the word "receiving" in Romans 11: 15. God will gather the people to Himself again, the Nation from which He had to hide His face for a certain period of time. He will bring them back to the place of blessing in His presence. That will mean a new beginning, a spiritual revival: life from the dead (cf. Ezek. 37).

Let us meanwhile, as part of the church, be on our guard that we do not fall into the same error and rebel against Christ, our great Moses. Resistance against His authority, against His Word and Spirit, are characteristic features of the last days and will inevitably bring about God's judgment (cf. the epistle of Jude).