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Miriam’s Challenge
Why was Miriam severely punished for challenging Moses’ authority while Aaron got off scot-free? There is no way to avoid the fact that the story presupposes a patriarchal society.
By Bernhard W. Anderson
The story in Numbers 12 is one of the most troublesome in Scripture. It is unlikely to be read in a worship service with a concluding announcement, “The word of the Lord”; if it were, many worshipers would murmur or perhaps storm out in protest.
The brief story, involving Moses, Aaron and Miriam, portrays an episode that occurred on Israel’s wilderness itinerary, at a place called Hazeroth. It falls into the following parts:
1. Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses, challenge Moses’ authority (Numbers 12:1–3). They speak against Moses, saying: “Is it only by Moses that the Lord [Yahweh] speaks? Doesn’t God also speak through us?” The occasion for questioning their sibling’s authority is Moses’ marriage to an “outsider”—perhaps Zipporah, his Midianite wife (Exodus 2:21), though his dark-skinned Cushite wife may be referred to. However, what they regard as a flaw in Moses’ background is only a pretext to get at the real issue. “Question authority” is their intention, to cite the slogan seen on bumper stickers today. Moses, however, does not defend himself, for he is “the humblest man on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3)—an ancient stumbling block to the view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, for a humble man would hardly brag about his humility!

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