It is because she spoke against Moses to Aaron. So why did God strike her with a skin disease because of what she said? How are the two connected? To find out we need to consider what is going on with skin diseases in the Bible.
There is a biblical connection between skin diseases and evil speech. In the Bible, a skin disease can be a result of some form of gossip or slander. That is because the skin disease does not come from physical contamination, but from spiritual contamination. That is why the priest needed to take a look at it. To discern if it was one of the skin diseases that had a spiritual cause. The spiritual condition of a person’s heart would bring about a physical manifestation of a skin disease.
Jesus (Yeshua) referred to what makes a person unclean when he said this:
“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” – Matthew 5:18-20
Now, in modern times biblical leprosy is not in effect as it was when the Temple stood. These skin diseases were not a punitive measure for gossip and slander, they were corrective. In their own way these skin diseases were a blessing. People do not readily admit when they gossip and slander other people. These are sins of the heart, and many times they remain in the heart unless revealed by the one who hides them. By giving sins of the heart a physical manifestation there would be no way to hide these destructive sins, they would be dealt with. It is hard to deny that you have sinned when you get a supernatural skin condition from it.
This brings us to the incident in Numbers when God strikes Miriam with leprosy for what she says against Moses. So let’s take a look at those verses:
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, ‘Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the LORD heard it.” – Numbers (Bamidbar) 12:1-2 ESV
Even though both Aaron and Miriam seem to be speaking against Moses, since Miriam is mentioned first it is believed that she was the one doing the sinning since she is the one who comes down with the leprous spots. Her conversation is seen to be almost harmless, for us the temptation is to say that she must have been saying something terrible to receive the correction that she did. The fact that the sin is so small tells us a lot about how seriously God takes this sin. God confronts Miriam and Aaron:
“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. – Numbers (Bamidbar) 12:9-10
What exactly did she say? The gist of the conversation may have gone something like this. “Hey Aaron why is Moses so special? God speaks to us as well, and Moses is married to that Cushite woman (this implies that Moses’ wife was a foreigner). All true facts, and in her heart, most likely a legitimate question. So why such a strong reaction? Let’s look at several reasons:
- It shows how much respect God has for Moses and what their relationship is like. If God is like this with Moses and cannot abide the smallest verbal slight to him, then this gives us a good idea about how we should feel about those we consider close friends. The smallest slight and God comes immediately to the defense of Moses. Our we that loyal to our friends? I think it is something to strive for.
- It shows us how serious the offense of gossip really is. We might not think much of what we say about other people. Surely Miriam thought her words were perfectly fine at first. Moses does not take offense and even prays for her immediately, but Miriam’s words put a slight shade on the reputation of Moses. The strong reaction from God shows us that even the smallest infraction are serious to Him. We should take heed that we guard our speech carefully.
- It shows that God wants to make an example of Miriam so that others do not follow in her footsteps. Miriam, being a prophetess and a leader in Israel, is held to a strict accounting. If God would do this to Miriam over such a seemingly small matter, what might happen to someone not as important as Miriam? God did not want anyone thinking that this type of speech was harmless. It puts everyone on high alert to treat their neighbor with respect.
- It shows that while there may be forgiveness there are still consequences. Miriam still had to spend seven days outside the camp. Everyone waited for her to return. This was for Miriam’s benefit as well as the camp. Everyone would be carefully studying how to speak with one another because of what happened to Miriam, and Miriam would be making sure that this did not happen again.
Most translator’s and commentators translate the Hebrew word tzara’at (צָרַעַת) as ‘leprosy’. What we call leprosy in modern times is actually Hansen’s disease and it is unrelated to biblical skin diseases translated as leprosy in the Bible. It is a bit confusing, right? Don’t worry we can clear this up shortly. (No pun intended). Let’s start with a key verse.
“When a person has on the skin of his body a rising or a scab or a bright spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests,” – Leviticus (Vayikra) 13:2
There are three forms of the skin disease described here.
A RISING (שְׂאֵת) SE’ETH (seh-ATE) This word in Hebrew means to rise, to be exalted, to be elevated. For this reason, this form of skin disease was connected a person who would speak against others to raise his or her own stature.
A SCAB (סַפַּחַת) SAPPAHCHAT (sa-pah-CHAT) This word for this skin disease is related to the word for annexation SIPUACH (סִפּוּחַ). It represents the person who would not normally gossip, but if they were join a group of evil doers they would join right in.
A BRIGHT SPOT (בַּהֶרֶת) BAHERET (ba-he-RET) This word for bright spot means the same as the Hebrew word BAHIR (בָּהִיר), a bright spot. It represents the one who after they have spoken against another person then tries to justify his or her behavior and exonerate themselves by trying to make clear why they acted the way they did.
If we look at the description the Bible gives about the type of skin disease Miriam had, then we would have to say it matches the third kind the best. The text says she was covered like snow. This gives the idea that she was covered in white spots. Obviously, she justified her behavior, if not right before she spoke, then shortly after. After all wasn’t she just trying to find out why Moses was so special? She thought that her and Aaron were on the same level as Moses if not slightly better. This turned out to be a big mistake. It was so subtle that she seemed to have missed it.
This is why it is a good idea to pray for divine assistance each day to help us guard our speech. If it could happen to Miriam it could happen to anyone, and unlike back then we do not get struck with a skin disease when we gossip.
Why not? I do not have a definitive answer. I would say it is because there is no Temple, no Priest to declare clean or unclean, and no way to perform the necessary sacrifices. Instead we must study the Bible and know when we are gossiping. We must study the instruction of God regarding pure speech, if anything, we need to take more responsibility. You might ask, “If all of those things are gone how do we put things right when they go wrong?”
The answer is that God does not take things away and neglect to provide a way for forgiveness. As always, we repent of our sin. We see that we have done what is not right in the eyes of God. We change our hearts and begin to attach the same gravity that God attaches to our misdeeds. We need to view sin as He does. This begins with confession. We tell God that we have broken His commandments when it comes to how we speak. We repent which means we change our ways, we replace our ways with God’s ways. We work to turn our misdeeds into righteous acts. The critical thing is to really understand how on a practical everyday level God wants us to act toward each other.
One more verse I would leave you with is this:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” – 1st John 1:9 ESV
You may think, “Okay, now I’ve got it. Thanks!” However, I would encourage you to dedicate some serious time in Bible study and prayer on this matter. So much hangs upon our words. The Bible is quite adamant about this subject. It seems to come up constantly in Scripture when you look for it. In fact, the world may just hang in the balance depending on how we speak. Let’s be the holy people God called us to be. Let’s learn to speak well and guard our tongues well.
Thank you for reading this and God’s grace to you as you consider these things for yourself.