Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 6: Harmony of the Law, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
1. Et loquuta est Maria et Aharon contra Mosen propter uxorem AEthiopissam quam acceperat: uxorem enim AEthiopissam acceperat.
2. And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it.
2. Et dixerunt, Nunquid solummodo per Mosen loquutus est Jehova? nonne etiam per nos loquutus est? Et audivit Jehova.
3. (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)
3. Vir autem ille Moses mansuetissimus fuit prae cunctis hominibus qui erant super faciem terrae.
4. And the Lord spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation. And they three cane out.
4. Ergo extemplo dixit Jehova ad Mosen, Aharon et Mariam, Egredimini vos tres ad tabernaculum conventionis. Et egressi sunt ipsi tres.
5. And the Lord came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam: and they both came forth.
5. Et descendit Jehova in columna nubis, et stetit ad ostium tabernaculi: vocavitque Aharon et Mariam, et egressi sunt ambo ipsi.
6. And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, f the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.
6. Quibus dixit, Audite nunc verba mea, Si fuerit propheta vobis, ego, Jehova in visione apparebo ei, in somnio loquar cum eo.
7. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house.
7. Non sic servus meus Moses, qui in tota domo mea fidelis est.
8. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?
8. Ore ad os loquor cum eo, atque in visione: non autem per aenigmata, neque (vel, sed) per similitudinem Jehovae aspiciet: quare ergo non timuistis loqui adversus servum meum Mosen?
9. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and he departed.
9. Exarsit ergo furor Jehovae in eos, et discessit.
10. And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.
10. Nubesque recessit a tabernaculo: et ecce Maria erat leprosa sicut nix, respexitque Aharon Mariam, et ecce erat leprosa.
11. And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas! my Lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned.
11. Tunc dixit Aharon ad Mosen, Quaeso domine mi, ne nunc nobis imputes peccatum: quia stulte egimus, et quia peccavimus.
12. Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb.
12. Ne, quaeso, sit quasi abortivus foetus, qui dum egreditur ex utero matris suae consumptus est dimidio suae carnis.
13. And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee.
13. Clamavit itaque Moses ad Jehovam, dicendo, Deus, quaeso, sana nunc illam:
14. And the Lord said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again.
14. Respondit Jehova ad Mosen, Quod si pater ejus spuendo spuisset in faciem ejus, nonne erubesceret septem diebus? Excludatur septem diebus extra castra, et deinde recipietur.
15. And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days; and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.
15. Itaque reclusa est Maria extra castra septem diebus: neque populus progressus est, donec reciperetur Maria.
16. And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the wilderness of Paran.
16. Postea autem profectus est populus de Haseroth, et castrametati sunt in deserto Paran.
1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses. This relation is especially worthy of observation for many reasons. If Aaron and Miriam had always quietly and cordially supported the honor of their brother, and had not been carried away by perverse and ungodly jealousy, their harmony, however holy it was, would have been perverted by the injustice of many, and alleged against them as a deceitful and insidious conspiracy. It came to pass, then, in the wonderful providence of God, that his own brother and sister set on foot a contention with respect to the supremacy, and endeavored to degrade Moses from the position in which God had placed him: for thus all suspicion of family favor was removed, and it was clearly shown that Moses, being opposed by his own belongings, was sustained by the power of God alone. At the same time it may be perceived how natural is ambition to the minds of almost all men, and also how blind and furious is the lust of dominion. Aaron and Miriam contend with their own brother for the supremacy; and yet they had received the most abundant proofs, that lie, whom they desire to overthrow, had been elevated by the hand of God, and was thus maintained in his position. For Moses had arrogated nothing to himself; and, therefore, it was not allowable that man should attempt to undermine the dignity of that high office, which God had conferred upon him. Besides, God had ennobled their own house and name in the person of Moses, and out of favor to him they had also been endued with peculiar gifts of their own. For by what right had Miriam obtained the gift of prophecy, except for the fuller ratification of her brother’s power? But the arrogance and ingratitude of Aaron was still more disgraceful. He had been by his brother associated with himself: Moses had allowed the high-priesthood to be transferred to him and his descendants, and rims had placed his own in subjection to them. What, then, was there for Aaron to begrudge his brother; when so exalted a dignity was vested in his own sons, whilst all the race of Moses was degraded? Still he was so blinded as to deem the honor of his brother a reproach to himself; at any rate, he could not endure to be second to him in dignity, although he was his superior in right of the priesthood. By this example, then, we are taught how anxiously we should beware of so baneful a plague (as ambition). The wicked brother 38 in the tragic Poet says: —
“For, if injustice must at all be done,
‘Tis best to do it for dominion;”
that, under this pretext, he might through treachery and murder proceed against his own blood with impunity. Now, although we all hold this sentiment in detestation, still it plainly shows that, when the lust for rule takes possession of men’s hearts, not only do they abandon the love of justice, but that humanity becomes altogether extinct in them, since brothers thus contend with each other, and rage, as it were, against their own bowels. Indeed it is astonishing that, when this vice has been so often and so severely condemned in the opinion of all ages, the human race has not been ever freed from it; nay, that the Church of God has always been infested by this disease, than which none is worse: for ambition has been, and still is, the mother of all errors, of all disturbances and sects. Since Aaron and his sister were infected by it, how easily may it overspread the multitude! But I now proceed to examine the words.
Miriam is here put before Aaron, not by way of honorable distinction, but because she stirred up the strife, and persuaded her brother to take her side; for the ambition of the female sex is wonderful; and often have women, more high-spirited than men, been the instigators not merely of squabbles, but of mighty wars, so that great cities and countries have been shaken by their violent conduct. Still. however, this does not diminish the guilt of Aaron, who, at the instance of his foolish sister, engaged in an unjust and wicked contest with his brother, and even declared himself an enemy to God’s grace. Further, because they were unable to allege any grounds, upon which Moses in himself was not far their superior, they seek to bring disgrace upon him on account of his wife; as if in half of himself he was inferior to them, because he had married a woman who was not of their own race, but a foreigner. They, therefore, cast ignominious aspersions upon him in the person of his wife, as if it were not at all becoming that he should be accounted the prince and head of the people, since his wife, and the companion of his bed, was a Gentile woman. I do not by any means agree with those who think that she was any other than Zipporah, 39 since we hear nothing of the death of Zipporah, nay, she had been brought back by Jethro, her father, only a little while before the delivery of the Law; whilst it is too absurd to charge the holy Prophet with the reproach of polygamy. Besides, as an octogenarian, he would have been but little suited for a second marriage. Again, how would such a marriage have been practicable in the desert? It is, therefore, sufficiently clear that they refer to Zipporah, who is called an Ethiopian woman, because the Scripture comprehends the Midianites under this name: although I have no doubt but that they maliciously selected this name, for the purpose of awakening greater odium against Moses. I designedly forbear from adducing the frivolous glosses in which some indulge. 40 Moses, however, acknowledges that it 41 was not accorded to him to have a wife of the holy race of Abraham.
2. And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? They pride themselves on their gift of prophecy, which ought rather to have schooled them to humility. But such is the natural depravity of men, not only to abuse the gifts of God unto contempt of their brethren, but so to magnify them by their ungodly and sacrilegious boasting, as to obscure the glory of their Author. Miriam and Aaron had received the spirit of prophecy, in order that the grace of God might shine forth in them; but from thence they raise up clouds to throw darkness upon the light, which was far brighter in Moses. They boast themselves to be prophets; why, then, do they not consider that there was no ground for glorying in this, inasmuch as that, which had been gratuitously bestowed upon them by God, was not their own? Again, why do they not correctly estimate their own insignificance in comparison with the excellency of Moses, so as, by willingly yielding to him, to show that they set at its proper value what God had respectively conferred upon them? Lest, then, the knowledge of those graces which God has intrusted to us, should puff us up with pride and presumption, let us remember that the more each of us has received, the greater obligations are we under to God and our brethren; and let us also reflect how much is wanting, in us, and how much, too, God has conferred on others, so as to prefer to ourselves those whom God has designed to honor.
3. Now the man Moses was very meek. This parenthesis is inserted, in order that we might perceive that God was not moved by any complaint of Moses, to be so greatly wroth with Aaron and Miriam. It is said that “the Lord heard,” that is to say, to undertake the cause in His character of Judge: and it is now added, that He spontaneously summoned the criminals to His tribunal, though no accuser requested that justice should be done him. For this is the, tendency of the eulogium of his meekness, as if Moses had said that he submitted in silence to the wrong, because, in his meekness, he imposed patience on himself. Moreover, he, does not praise his own Virtue for the sake of boasting, but in order to exhort us by his example, and, if it should be our lot to be treated with indignity, quietly and calmly to wait for the judgment of God. For whence does it come that, when any one has injured us, our indignation carries away our feelings in all directions, and our pain boils up without measure, except because we do not think that our ills are regarded by God until we have made loud and boisterous complaints? This passage, then, teaches us that although the good and gentle refrain from reproaches and accusations, God nevertheless keeps watch for them, and, whilst they are silent, the wickedness of the ungodly cries out to, and is heard by, God. Again, the silence of long-suffering itself is more effectual before God than any cries, however loud. But if God does not immediately proceed to execute vengeance, we must bear in mind what is written elsewhere, that the blood of Abel cried out after his death, that the murder which Cain had committed might not be unpunished. (Ge 4:10.)
4. Come out ye three unto the tabernacle. God calls Aaron and Miriam to the tabernacle, that the very sanctity of the place may cast down their haughtiness; for forgetfulness of God had overspread their minds, when they began to be so insolent before men. They are, therefore, brought back to the presence of God, from which all their senses had turned away, in order that they at length might learn to revere Moses, whose cause is upheld by God. God commands them to “hear His words,” because they would never have dared to murmur against Moses if they had reflected on the account they would have to give. God, therefore, claims their attention, that they may learn to recollect themselves, and to awaken from the senselessness of their presumption. Moreover, they are separated from Moses, that they may confess their inferiority, and be ashamed of their temerity in daring to compare themselves with him.
6. If there be a prophet among you. He makes mention of two methods by which the will of God was wont to be revealed to the prophets, viz., visions and dreams. He does not, however, here use the word חזון chazon, 42 which signifies a prophecy as well as a vision, but מראה, marah, expressive of some visible appearance, which confirms and ratifies the truth of His word (oraculi) to the eyes and all the senses. Thus has God often appeared to His servants, so that His majesty might be inscribed upon His addresses to them. Before the giving of the Law such visions were frequently vouchsafed to the Patriarchs; whilst sometimes they were instructed by dreams. Thus Joel, when he promises that under the kingdom of Christ there shall be a complete fullness of all revelations, also enumerates these two forms of them,
“Your sons (he says) and your daughters shall prophesy: your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”
But we know that the prophets described the kingdom of Christ under the likeness of their own times: when, therefore, God sets forth these two ordinary modes of revelation, he withdraws Moses from the condition of others, as if to exalt him by a special privilege. Now, since Aaron and Miriam were not superior to others, they were thus reminded that they were far behind Moses in rank. With this view he is said to be “faithful in all God’s house;” in quoting which passage in order to prove his inferiority to Christ, the Apostle says he was a servant, and a member of the Church, whereas Christ was its Lord and builder, or creator. (Heb 3:2-6.) But the difference between them is more clearly specified immediately afterwards, viz., that God speaks to him “mouth to mouth,” by which expression, as I have said elsewhere, 43 more intimate and familiar communication is denoted. Still God does not thus deprive the prophets of anything which is requisite for the discharge of their office; but merely establishes Moses as the chief of them all. It is true, indeed, that the Patriarchs are so ranked, as Abraham was called a prophet by the mouth of God, (Ge 20:7;) and the Prophet thus names him together with Isaac and Jacob in Ps 105:15; but still God at the same time includes the whole dispensation, which He afterwards chose to employ under the Law; and so prefers Moses to all who were hereafter to arise.
Further, the word vision is used in a different sense from that which it had just above; for God, distinguishing Moses from others, says that He speaks with him in vision, 44 which it would be absurd to explain as meaning an ordinary or common vision. It therefore here signifies actual sight, 45 which He contrasts with “dark speeches (aenigmata) and similitude,” which word is equivalent to a representation (figura,) if the negative be referred to both. For there are some who take similitude for a lively and express image; as if God should assert that He reveals His face to Moses; and therefore read the clause adversatively, as I have given it in the margin. But the former reading is the most natural.
I have elsewhere treated of dreams and visions. It will then be sufficient to give the sum in one word, namely, that they were seals for the confirmation of prophecies; so that the Prophets, as if sent from heaven, might with full confidence declare themselves to be God’s lawful interpreters. For visions had their own peculiar marks, to distinguish them from phantoms and false imaginations; and dreams also were accompanied by their signs, in order to remove all doubt of their authenticity. The prophets, therefore, were fully conscious of their vocation, so that nothing was wanting to the assurance of faith. Meanwhile, the false prophets dressed themselves up in these masks to deceive. Thus Jeremiah, in refutation of their ungodly pretences, says,
“The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat, saith the Lord?” (Jer 23:28.)
9. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them. The expostulation is succeeded by punishment. God’s departure was a sign of immediate condemnation; because there was no need of any further questioning, as concerning some matter of obscurity. After God, then, had convicted them of their sin, and had inveighed in a severe and stern reprehension against the ingratitude of Miriam and Aaron, He first pronounced their sentence, and then suddenly withdrew. What follows, that “the cloud departed,” is added in explanation; for God, who fills all things, never moves from His place; but His name is applied metaphorically to the cloud, which was the symbol of His absence or presence.
The nature of the punishment which was inflicted upon Miriam was very appropriate to the offence. The foolish woman, puffed up with pride, had coveted more than was lawful; and her ignominy was the just reward of her arrogance, according to the declaration of Christ, “Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased.” (Lu 18:14.) Let us understand, then, that in proportion as the proud are led away by their ambition to long for unlawful honors, they bring upon themselves nothing but disgrace; and although they may gloriously triumph for a season, still, it cannot be but that their glory will at length be turned into disgrace. For inasmuch as all who exalt themselves wage war with God, He must needs encounter them with the awful power of His hand, in order to restrain their madness. Now, whosoever are moved by envy to enter into contention with His servants, endeavor, as hr as in them lies, to overthrow His glory by obscuring the gifts of the Spirit. No wonder, then, that God should avenge the insult offered to Himself, and should repay them with the infamy they deserve; as it is written,
“Them that honor me I will honor, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” (1Sa 2:30.)
Miriam desired to be equal with her brother, whom God had exalted above all others; what she attains is, that she should not occupy the extremist corner of the people, but be cut off from companionship with mankind. A similar instance occurred in the case of king Uzziah, who, not contented with the royal dignity, when he had unlawfully attempted to make an incense-offering, was also smitten with leprosy, so as to be no longer suffered to continue in association even with the common people. (2Ch 26:16-21.)
Here, however, the question arises, why, when Aaron participated in the guilt, he was exempted from the punishment? If no reason existed, still we should have to adore the judgment of God; for it is not our business to complain, when He has mercy upon whom He will have mercy, nevertheless, it appears probable that God’s wrath was more exceedingly kindled against Miriam, because she had applied the torch to the ungodly contention, and had inflamed her brother’s mind, as we see at the beginning of the chapter. It was just, then, that the blame should rest on her, since she had been the origin of the evil. I imagine, however, that in sparing Aaron, He had regard to the priesthood, inasmuch as, in his person, it would have been subjected almost to eternal disgrace. Since, therefore, Aaron was an image of God’s only-begotten Son and our only Mediator, and this great dignity had recently had its commencement in him, it was of exceeding importance that he should be exempted from such infamy, lest any diminution of the reverence due to religion should arise.
11. And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas! my lord. Although Aaron was aware that, through God’s indulgence, his own punishment was remitted, still he does not cease to consider what he had deserved. For we ought not to wait until God smites ourselves, but since in chastising others He invites us to repentance, although He may spare ourselves, we should profit betimes by their punishments. The disfigurement, therefore, of his sister, alarmed and terrified Aaron, so that, examining his own condition, he acknowledged himself to be deserving of a similar judgment. His humble prayer manifests that those high aspirations were subdued, which had carried him away into unholy jealousy. Moses, who was younger than himself, and whose superiority he just before could not endure, tie now calls his lord, and confesses himself to be subject to his authority and power. Thus the dread of punishment was the best medicine to cure his disease of ambition. In beseeching Moses not to impute his sin to him, he does not usurp for mortal man a right which God by Isaiah claims for Himself alone; 46 but inasmuch as Moses had been injured, he asks his pardon, lest by his accusation he should be brought before the divine tribunal. Where he confesses his own and his sister’s foolishness, he does not extenuate the grossness of his crime, as most people do, when they generally seek to cover their transgressions under the plea of error or thoughtlessness; but it is precisely as if he had said that they were senseless, and out of their minds, as we gather from the next clause, in which he plainly acknowledges their criminality.
By the comparison which he introduces, it is evident that the leprosy of Miriam was of no ordinary kind, for nothing can be more disgusting than the dead body of any abortive foetus, corrupt with purulence and decay.
13. And Moses cried unto the Lord. The event now proves, what was recently asserted, that Moses was of a meek and gentle disposition beyond all other men; for he is not only ready at once to forgive, but also intercedes with God for them. And thus the presumption of Miriam is best reproved; for the only hope of safety that remains to her is in the dignity of Moses, which of late she could not endure.
From the reply of God, it is manifest that the punishment which she alone had received was intended for the instruction of all. The pride and temerity of Miriam were sufficiently chastised, but God wished it to be a lesson for all, that every one should confine himself to his own bounds. Meanwhile, let us learn from this passage to pay due honor to the judgments of God, so that they may suffice us as the rule of supreme equity. For if such power over their children is accorded to earthly parents, as that they may put them to shame at their will, how much more reverence is due to our heavenly Father, when he brands us with any mark of disgrace? This was the reason why Miriam was shut out for seven days, not only that she might mourn apart by herself, but also that her chastisement might be profitable to all. It is likewise addressed to us, that we may learn to blush whensoever God is angry with our sins, and thus that shame may produce in us a dislike of sin. This special example afterwards passed into a law, as we have already seen, (De 24:9); 47 for when God commands lepers to be separated, He recalls to the recollection of the people what He had appointed with respect to Miriam, lest, if internal impurity be cherished, its infection may spread beyond ourselves.
They are the words of Eteocles in the Phoenissae of Euripides: —
Εἴπερ γὰρ ἀδικεῖν χρὴ, τυραννίδος πέρι
Κάλλιστον ἀδικεῖν· τἄλλα δ ᾿ εὐσεβεῖν. — 538.9
Cicero refers to them, De Off. 3:21.
Nam, si violandum est jus, regnandi gratia,
Violandum est: aliis rebus pietatem colas.
Josephus (Antiq. 2:10) has led some to suppose that she was Tharbis, daughter of the king of Ethiopia. Augustin, however, (Quaest. in Numbers 20.,) and the great majority of commentators, agree with C. in believing that she was Zipporah, and not a second wife, as contended by Rosenmuller, Michaelis, and others, The main difficulty arises from her being called a Cushite, which our translators have followed 70. and V. in rendering “the Ethiopian.” Bochart endeavors to prove that the Cushites and Midianites were the same people; and Shuckford (vol. 1, p. 166, edit. 1743) states his opinion that “by the land of Cush is always meant some part of Arabia.” Hab 3:7, in which “the tents of Cushan,” and “the land of Midian,” are mentioned together, seems to corroborate this view.
“The Hebrew doctors make his not companying with his wife to be the occasion,” etc. — Ainsworth. So also De Lyra.
“Qu’il n’a pas eu ce bien et honneur;” that he had not the advantage and honor. — Fr.
חזון, a vision, from חזה, to see, to look upon. מראה, either the act of sight, or the object of sight; a seeing, or an appearance, from ראה, to see, to perceive. — W.
On Exodus 33:11, ante, vol. 3, p. 372.
“Veue, ou regard de quelque figure visible;” the view or look of some visible figure. — Fr.
No reference is here given by C. He probably alludes to Isa 43:25.
Ante, vol. 2, p. 12.