Did Miriam Mean to Speak Evil Tongue?
The Rabbis teach that “lashon hara”, evil tongue, is punishable with “tsara’at”, “leprosy”. They also teach that a Jew cannot speak evil tongue against another Jew, and rightfully so. They derive this teaching from the story in Numbers 12 where Miriam and Aharon spoke against their brother Mosheh.
Miriam and Aharon spoke against Mosheh because of the Kushite woman whom he had married. Later in the story she was punished with “tsara’at”, “leprosy”, for speaking evil tongue and stayed isolated outside of the camp for seven days for what she did against her brother.
But, why was only Miriam afflicted with tsara’at by YHVH and not Aharon?
In Num 12:1, the Hebrew word translated as “they spoke” is actually וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר vatedaber, which means “she spoke”, and the correct translation would be: “And Miriam spoke to Aharon against Mosheh. Therefore, we learn from this that it was Miriam who spoke against Mosheh; it was her who instigated the whole issue in Chapter 12.
In verse 2, however, we read וַיֹּאמְרוּ vayomeru, “they said”, “Has Yehovah spoken only through Mosheh? Has He not also spoken through us?”
What does the issue in verse 1: the Kushite woman, has to do with the issue in verse 2 whether YHVH spoke only through Mosheh?
Miriam’s punishment that followed seems completely disproportionate to her “crime” for expressing her concerns about Mosheh’s decision to marry. She was afflicted with “leprosy” and sent out of the camp for seven days. All this for expressing concern about her brother’s marriage?
And why would Miriam’s concern about her brother’s choice to marry a Kushite woman be an issue that led to such a dire consequence?
Would it not be natural for a sister to express before her sibling a concern about their brother’s decision to marry? What was so wrong with discussing such a family matter that the displeasure of YHVH burned against them? Would we not do the same, as Miriam did, if we have felt that our sibling is about to make a wrong step? Not only should we, but we are obligated to do something. We may be wrong in our opinion, but not wrong in our action.
Miriam did nothing wrong by having expressed her concern about Mosheh’s decision to marry another woman. Yet, she was punished. Why?
In Tanchuma Tzav 13 we read the commentary of the Rabbis,
How did she know that Moses had separated from his wife? R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me”. From this, Miriam knew [about it] and told Aharon. Now if Miriam, who did not intend to disparage him [Mosheh] was punished, all the more so someone who [intentionally] disparages his fellow.
Keep this in mind, because we will return to it later.
So, what went wrong between Miriam and Mosheh?
To answer this question, we need to consider first what we know about Miriam.
As a young girl in Egypt, she and her mother Yocheved defied Pharaoh’s decree that all Jewish baby boys must be killed at birth (that was the first recorded account of a partial birth abortion in the history of mankind).
When her mother placed the baby in a basket on the Nile, it was Miriam who hid in the reeds and hoped that salvation would come from somewhere. And when her baby brother was saved by the Egyptian princess (read more), it was Miriam, who arranged that he be nursed by his own mother.
At the splitting of the Red Sea (read more about the real location of crossing), Miriam led all the women in song and dance. Together with her brothers Mosheh and Aharon, she led Israel for forty years in the desert.
Miriam meant well, when she spoke. Yet, that was displeasing to YHVH. Why?
According to the tradition, when the seventy elders were appointed, Miriam said: “Fortunate are these men, and fortunate are their wives!” Tziporah, her sister-in-law, said to her: “Do not say, ‘Fortunate are their wives,’ but say: ‘Woe unto their wives!’ For from the day that God spoke to Mosheh your brother, he has not had relations with me”.
Upon hearing that, Miriam went to Aharon to discuss the matter about their brother’s separation from his wife. Here, according to the tradition, they said: “Did God speak only with him? He has already spoken with many prophets, ourselves included; did we separate from our spouses?”
Here we are coming back to the narrative continues in verse 2. In verse 2, we read וַיֹּאמְרוּ vayomeru, “they said”, “Has Yehovah spoken only through Mosheh? Has He not also spoken through us?” And YHVH heard it.
Verse 2 appears to give the answer: it was not the marriage to the Kushite woman that was questioned, but the authority of Mosheh. And since Miriam was the instigator of the complaint, it was Miriam who bore the chastisement.
And YHVH came down in the column of cloud and stood in the door of the Tent, called Aharon and Miriam and said,
Hear, please, My words: If your prophet is of Yehovah, I make Myself known to him in a vision, and I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Mosheh, he is trustworthy in all My house. I speak with him mouth to mouth, and plainly, and not in riddles. And he sees the likeliness of Yehovah. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Mosheh? (Num 12:6-8)
The words “he sees the likeliness of Yehovah” are not occasionally chosen here. They refer to the vision of the “back” in Exo 33:23 as it says, “and you will see My back”. To better understand the significance of these words and what the man of YHVH saw at the cliff of the rock, read the article “To foresee Yeshua the Messiah“.
And the expression “mouth to mouth” implies that the words which Mosheh spoke were a direct speech from the mouth of YHVH, as though breathed into him. The implication of this rhetorical question, “So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Mosheh?“, is clear: if YHVH had chosen Mosheh to be His servant and had breathed His words into him, who were Miriam and Aharon to speak against him, much less to question his authority given from above?
Therefore, the issue here appears to be the authority of Mosheh. And the chastisement in Num 12:10 came quickly. Miriam was corrected with what all translations call “leprosy”, but in Hebrew “tsara’at”. But what is tsara’at?
The origin of צָרַעַת tsara’at is YHVH, not a natural cause; it is not a skin disease, much less leprosy, it is not a disease at all. Further in the chapter we learn that the affliction is a result of discipline whose goal is to evoke repentance and restitution from the afflicted person. And as we know, repentance, which literally means to return to YHVH, leads to the restoration of the afflicted one to YHVH.
But, we should also notice that no specific sin is even mentioned in the laws of the tsara’at in the Torah. The rabbinical teaching says that lashon hara, evil tongue, is what causes the tsara’at, but nowhere can this be found in the Torah or in the entire Tanak. Most definitely, lashon hara, evil tongue, is a sin that can bring “tsara’at” on the sinner. But the speaking evil against someone else is not the only sin that can cause “tsara’at”.
For more insight on what “tsara’at” is, the reader may refer to the article “The Son of David will not come until the whole world …“
So, when YHVH spoke to Miriam and Aharon, “If your prophet is of Yehovah, I make Myself known to him in a vision, and I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Mosheh”, according to the tradition, He also said, “And it was I who told him to separate from his wife”.
But, where is it recorded that YHVH had said such a thing?
Following the revelation at Sinai, when all the people were commanded to separate from their wives for three days, YHVH said to Mosheh:
Go to the people and set them apart today and tomorrow. And they shall wash their garments, and shall be prepared by the third day. (Exo 19:10-11) … And Mosheh came down from the mountain to the people and set the people apart, and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, ‘Be prepared by the third day. Do not come near a wife’. (Exo 19:14-15)
And YHVH called Mosheh to the top of the mountain, and Mosheh went up and stayed with Him (see Exo 19:20).
From that moment one, Mosheh separated himself from his wife and did not have intimate relations with her. We derive this not only from this passage, but from the laws of purity in the Torah (Leviticus 15).
These laws of purity teach us that when a man and a woman have had intercourse, they are considered impure and thus unacceptable to come near YHVH until they are completely cleansed; we cannot come to YHVH on our terms, but on His.
Therefore, we see that the issues with the Kushite woman and the questioning the authority of Mosheh are not two separate issues but interconnected. Moreover, Miriam and Aharon had not questioned Mosheh’s authority, at all. They knew very well from whom this authority came. They knew that their little brother was the chosen one to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt.
And there is no indication whatsoever in the narrative or anywhere in the Torah that YHVH punished Miriam, because she had questioned her brother’s authority, as we see such a rebellion in the Korach case.
So, why was she punished so harshly?
What she failed to understand was that, even though she knew her brother was chosen by YHVH and given the authority to lead the nation to the land, Mosheh was very different prophet from her and Aharon. As a leader of the nation, she was obligated together with Aharon to go to their brother and speak openly.
Mosheh was required to be ready to appear before YHVH at any given moment. He, therefore, had to be ritually pure at all times, meaning he had to even refrain from marital relations with his wife, Tziporah. Moshe knew the laws of YHVH and having realized his unique position in Israel he understood that that responsibility came with a price.
He had to give up even his personal life to serve YHVH. Mosheh knew what great responsibility was to be the prophet of YHVH. On some occasions he expressed his frustrations for not being able to lead the nation and for exceeding burden he had on his shoulders. It was not easy for him to be the leader whom everyone would blame for almost everything; even when those blames came from those closest to him.
Miriam learned of Mosheh the hard way. Undoubtedly, Miriam’s intentions were pure and upright, but she erred in her basic evaluation of her brother, namely that he was unique, a prophet like no other. Being a prophet of YHVH, she learned that Mosheh was not to be judged by the same measure as any other prophet, even prophets as great as her and Aharon.
That she learned from the very words of YHVH: If your prophet is of Yehovah, I make Myself known to him in a vision, and I speak to him in a dream. Not so with My servant Mosheh, he is trustworthy in all My house. I speak with him mouth to mouth.
So, speaking evil tongue!
The “tsara’at”, “leprosy”, is the punishment for “lashon hara”, speaking evil tongue. They teach that a Jew cannot speak evil against another Jew, but … one.
The modern Rabbis have spoken and still speak disparagingly against that Jew. They have even repeated almost word for word the evil tongue of their ancestors, saying, ‘He did not save himself, but he will save the world?’.
Let us recall again their own words: if Miriam, who did not intend to disparage him [Mosheh] was punished, all the more so someone who [intentionally] disparages his fellow.
So, why do we not see Rabbis afflicted with tsara’at, as white as snow, for speaking evil tongue against that Jew? Will they not be found guilty for intentionally speaking evil?
Did not Mosheh tell his people to await for another prophet, a prophet like him? And if Mosheh was a unique prophet unlike any other prophet of Israel, would that Prophet not be higher in the eyes of YHVH than Mosheh was? Read more.
We do not know why tsara’at is not applicable in such cases of evil tongue today, at least the present author does not know. But one thing that comes to mind is that, perhaps, YHVH does not afflict them with tsara’at for the sake of the Rabbis of blessed memory who saw that their fellow Jew was the prophet Mosheh spoke of.
For more insight of the faith of the Rabbis of blessed memory had in the Messiah of YHVH, refer to the articles “Did Israel Reject the Messiah?” parts 1 and 2, and “Revealing the Name of Yeshua Secretly Guarded by the Rabbis“.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.