Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Numbers 12:10-16 Miriam’s leprosy

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, August 16, 2021

10 The cloud went up from above the tent, and immediately Miriam was leprous, as white as snow. Aaron turned to Miriam and saw that she was leprous.

Hansen’s disease, or “true” leprosy, may or may not have existed in the Middle East in Old Testament times. Commentaries that insist that leprosy was not present until New Testament times don’t (in my opinion) present their arguments in a very convincing manner, and at any rate it is difficult to prove a negative assertion through archaeology and written records. But various diseases of the skin such as severe eczema or psoriasis include a whiteness to the flesh and flaking, peeling scales.

Aaron was not leprous, but only Miriam. She had led the attack on Moses’ authority, but why was Aaron not afflicted? Is it because he was high priest, and therefore could not be removed from office (as leprosy would have done)? That cannot be correct. The deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu show us that the priests and high priestly families were not invulnerable to punishment. In addition to this, Moses himself had been struck with leprosy and then was healed again as a sign to take before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:6), so simply having had leprosy did not disqualify a man from coming before the presence of the Lord. It must be that Miriam’s leadership in this little rebellion was emphasized, as a warning to her immediate family and to the rest of the nation.

11 Aaron said to Moses, “My lord, please do not hold this sin against us. We have acted foolishly. We have sinned. 12 Please do not let her be like a stillborn infant that comes out of its mother’s womb with its flesh half-eaten away.” 13 Moses cried out to the LORD, “God, please heal her, please!”

Both brothers interceded for Miriam. Notice the two uses of the word “lord” in verses 11 and 13. Aaron remembered his place, and begged Moses “my lord” to have mercy and to forgive their sin. He confessed his own guilt. Moses then cried out to “the LORD.” This is the Old Testament name for God, expressing his free grace and his faithful love toward his people.

14 The LORD said to Moses, “If her father had merely spit in her face, would she not be disgraced for seven days? Have her confined outside of the camp for seven days, and after that she can be brought back in.”

Spitting in the face was actually required in the case of the levirate law, for a man who refused to marry his sister-in-law (Deuteronomy 25:8-9), and is always seen as a sign of offense (Job 17:6, 30:10; Isaiah 50:6).

Seven days was the usual isolation for anyone suspected of leprosy, simply to assure that it had not spread (Leviticus 13:4). In fact, another seven days was required under the law after they had been pronounced clean (Leviticus 13:5), but since God had cleansed her, there was no need for the first week. But the Lord wanted there to be an example for the people, and so the minimum amount of separation (one week) was commanded. Someone, perhaps her nephews, would have pitched a temporary shelter for her out beyond the camp, at least a mile and perhaps quite a bit more than a mile, from the tabernacle.

15 Miriam was confined outside of the camp for seven days, and the people did not set out until Miriam was brought back in. 16 Afterward the people set out from Hazeroth and camped in the Wilderness of Paran.

Once again, the Lord brought them up into the high plateau called the Wilderness of Paran. Hazeroth was on the slopes leading down toward the gulf, and now they were headed back up once again into the higher ground. There is considerable evidence in the local ruins that Acacia or seyal trees covered the region at one time, since timbers of this wood are to be found throughout the ruins of ancient homes and other structures. The seyal is a short or medium-sized blossoming tree with feathery leaves resembling those of the mountain ash. Such trees provided the wood for the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10) and the other furniture and posts of the tabernacle.

Aaron’s repentance here was genuine, as was Miriam’s. But there is a warning here for all pastors and ministers of all kinds. A minister must never think that he is incapable of making a mistake, that conclusions he reached years ago need never be revisited, or that he might never face consequences for his sinful actions during his lifetime. Ministers make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes mean that his ministry must come to an end, and that some other servant of God will serve after him. Aaron was spared at this time, and he was grateful for God’s unexpected mercy. “Go home to your family,” Jesus told one man, “and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). David said, “The Lord has heard my cry for mercy” (Psalm 6:9; 31:22). The Psalms are filled with similar cries for mercy. “May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need” (Psalm 79:8). “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us” (Psalm 123:3), “Have mercy on me, O God” (Psalm 57:1, 86:3). Mercy is the kind of love that is brought on by someone’s need or misery. It is the love we beg God for in our prayers over our sins. The leper, the blind man, the wretched and miserable all beg God for mercy. The dust at the bottom of the black pit of despair is the platter on which this prayer for mercy is offered. God’s compassion still reaches here. His arm, he has taught us, is never too short (Numbers 11:23). “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1). Plead for God’s mercy. Do not demand anything of the Almighty Creator, but ask him in sincere humility, to have mercy. And trust him, because he certainly is merciful.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


Browse Devotion Archive