Complaint, Response, and Leadership in Numbers 11-12

As the Israelites wandered, they whined. In the wake of a series of complaints raised by Israelites and Moses himself in the course of their travels after the Exodus, Numbers 12 relates the story of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint against Moses, and Yahweh’s response. Following the complaint, Yahweh variously punishes the three siblings to suggest their proper relationships to one another, to him, and to the Israelites at-large. The complaint against Moses, voiced in Numbers 12:1-2 can sustain multiple interpretations. However, a careful reading of Numbers 11 suggests how best to interpret the complaints that follow it. Finally, the remainder of Numbers 12 clarifies the ambiguities in the text, imparting an object lesson that is directed not only at Miriam and Aaron, but Moses as well.

The opening of Numbers 12 presents ambiguities as to who is complaining, and about what. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married” (Num 12:1) [Unless otherwise specified, all Biblical quotations are from Jewish Publication Society, The Bible, ed. by Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael A. Fishbane (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)]. The verb for “spoke” appears in the feminine singular. This, along with the initial placement of her name, suggests that Miriam, not Aaron may be the main instigator. Furthermore, the identity of the Cushite woman is unclear; it may be Zipporah, Moses’s original wife and a Midianite, or it may be another, unnamed woman. Though Cushan is at times referred to in conjunction with Midian (Hab 3:7), which makes the former interpretation plausible, the latter one seems more likely. The text’s identification of the woman only as a Cushite (and repetition of that fact later in the verse) suggests that her ethnicity is the reason for outrage. This makes the most sense if she were a (non-Midianite) Cushite, who would have been not just a non-Israelite but a descendant of Cush, brother of the cursed Canaan as well as Mizraim, the namesake of the land from which Israel had fled (Gen 10:6; 9:25-27). Continue reading “Complaint, Response, and Leadership in Numbers 11-12”