Tuesday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 12:1-13

Not only do the people complain, but Aaron and Miriam, the brother and sister of Moses, are also grumbling against their brother.
Ostensibly their complaint was that Moses had married a Cushite woman. This seems to be Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro and a Midianite, whom Moses married when he was in hiding for killing a man prior to his becoming leader of his people (see Exod 2:21). There is an element of contempt in the expression.

However, it seems their real grievance was that God spoke not only through Moses, but also through them. The prophet Micah speaks of Moses, Aaron and Miriam as God’s gracious provision for Israel (Micah 6:4). Yet they were not given the treatment they felt they deserved, the kind of treatment that he was getting from God. Miriam appears as the chief complainer and Aaron simply goes along with her, so she alone will be punished.

In spite of the favours God showered on him, Moses himself is described as being the meekest man on earth (though he could, when need be, speak in very harsh language to wrongdoers). The complaint thrown against him could not be attributed to any arrogance on his part.

So God (how human he appears in all these accounts!) overhears their murmurings and summons all three to the Tent of Meeting. He comes down in a pillar of cloud, stands at the entrance to the Tent and calls Aaron and Miriam to come forward.

God makes his meaning very clear to them. He makes a distinction between other prophets and Moses (Miriam herself was a prophetess). God communicates with prophets through visions and dreams, but only Moses is at home in God’s house and God speaks to him face to face, plainly and not in riddles and Moses sees the very form of Yahweh.

With other prophets and seers, God’s revelation did not always come to them with complete clarity. A prophet might not fully understand the oracles he uttered, and they might seem to be riddles and mysteries. But, in Moses’ case, God spoke with special clarity – like two people speaking face to face. Clearly this was a privilege granted to no other human being.

By way of exception, some others would be given a share in the divine spirit, and God would raise up prophets after Moses’ death, but Moses will remain the greatest of them all, until John the Baptist comes, the forerunner of the new covenant.

How then could Aaron and Miriam have the temerity to speak against someone who had such a close relationship with him? So angry was God with the way Miriam and Aaron criticised God’s special friend that, as soon as he left and the cloud disappeared, Miriam found herself a leper, her whole body as white as snow. Actually, it was not strictly speaking leprosy (Hansen’s disease), but an affliction known as “white leprosy” that is not regarded as serious or of long duration. However, it had the effect of ostracising her from the community for some time.

Aaron then begged that the sin they had foolishly committed be not held against them. He begged that his sister not be left to look like a still-born baby “with its flesh half consumed”. Moses too, begs God to bring healing to his sister. On this note the reading ends.

Later, Aaron will pray to God on behalf of his sister. She will be cured, but not before she spends seven days outside the camp in quarantine and isolation until her skin returns to normal.

Perhaps today we could look into our own hearts and see if there are any traces of jealousy there. What or who are we jealous about and why? And how do we relate with the people towards whom we feel jealous or envious? Can we learn to thank God for the gifts we see in other people?

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