Miriam envies her younger brother. Who does Moses think he is? Why has he assumed leadership of the nation of Israel?
Her brother’s second marriage gives Miriam an opportunity to complain and criticize. Apparently, Zipporah (Moses’ Midianite wife) is dead. Miriam’s new sister-in-law is a Cushite. Does Miriam resent the woman because of her dark skin? Does she feel that the Cushite wife somehow threatens her own position as a prophetess? I don’t know.
But Miriam has the audacity to question Moses’ God-appointed authority. Her brother Aaron joins the attack. Is Moses the Lord’s only prophet? Hasn’t God spoken through them too? Moses is a humble man. He doesn’t say anything.
The Lord has something to say, though. He appears at the tent of meeting, sharply rebukes Aaron and Miriam, and strikes her with leprosy. Her skin is a ghastly white. She looks like a corpse. Leprosy is a fitting symbol of sin. It leads to separation and exclusion. It disfigures and deforms.
The ugliness in Miriam’s heart is now visible on her face. Aaron has claimed full equality with his brother, but in his horror he instinctively knows the truth. Aaron, the high priest of Israel, doesn’t cry out to God for help. He begs Moses to plead with God for their sister. Moses immediately does so.
The Lord honors his servant’s prayer for healing. But Miriam must suffer humiliation for one week. She must join the other lepers in quarantine outside the camp. Israel won’t move another step toward the Promised Land until her time of punishment ends. “If her father had but spit in her face,” God asks, “should she not be shamed seven days?” (Num. 12:14).
Should she not be shamed? Intriguing question. Americans seem to have some mixed-up ideas about shaming people. Supposedly, no one should ever shame anyone else. But theory and practice don’t mesh. A homosexual must never be shamed. Decent people honor homosexuality and celebrate it. People who call homosexuality a sin are homophobes. They should be ashamed. Radical Muslims must never be shamed. Decent people honor Islam as the religion of peace and refuse to say the words “fanatical Islam.” People who say that Islam promotes a culture of abuse and death are bigots and racists. They should be ashamed. Women who abort their babies must never be shamed. Decent people celebrate abortion as a woman’s freedom to choose. People who call abortion a heinous crime are misogynists. They should be ashamed.
God shames Miriam because she behaves shamefully. The refusal to admit that sin is shameful is tragic. It leads to even more sin and decay. Then God graciously forgives Miriam and welcomes her back into the camp. The refusal to show mercy also leads to more sin and decay. A sinner swallowed by shame feels hopeless.