Why was only Miriam punished with leprosy when she and Aaron rebelled against Moses?

Q. When Aaron and Miriam rebelled against Moses, why was only Miriam punished with leprosy?

“The Leprosy of Miriam,” woodcut from 1583 Bible.

The main explanation seems to be that Miriam was held more responsible because she instigated the challenge in the first place and then enlisted Aaron to support her.  There are two things in the text that show us this:
• Miriam is named before Aaron at the start of the account.  In every other place in the Bible where they are named together, including later in the same account, Aaron is mentioned first (conventionally, as the eldest brother in the family).
• The verb “speak against” is actually in the feminine singular in Hebrew:  “She spoke, Miriam, and Aaron, against Moses . . .”
Both of these things suggest, as I said, that Miriam originated the challenge and enlisted Aaron to support her, so she is held more responsible and given a greater punishment.  This shows us the fairness of divine justice.

One additional possibility to consider is that God spared Aaron specifically so that he could intercede as Israel’s high priest, approaching Moses with a renewed recognition of him as God’s representative, to ask forgiveness for Miriam’s sin and for his own:  “Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed.”  If Aaron had been struck with leprosy, he would not have been able to function as a priest according to the laws in Leviticus.  So God may have spared him in mercy specifically so that he could intercede for sin in this way as a priest. (It’s Moses who actually prays for Miriam’s healing).  We see that God’s very judgments are tempered with mercy, even if this sometimes makes them seem unfair.

Sparing the high priest so he could intercede for sin is a bit like the way God spared King David from direct personal punishment after he sinned by taking a census of his fighting men.  God may have spared David because the people still needed a king to rule their nation and lead their armies. When David saw the plague that was striking down the people, he recognized his own responsibility and prayed, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong.  These are but sheep.  What have they done?  Let your hand fall on me and my family.”  But instead of afflicting David directly at that point, God in mercy ended the plague entirely.

This is a warning to people in vital offices:  You may be spared immediate personal judgment not because you are entirely innocent, but because God still needs someone in your role and you’re not bad enough yet to be removed from it!  Aaron should not have concluded that he was less deserving of some punishment than Miriam for the same revolt, even if not the same punishment. Leaders today who “think they are standing firm” should “be careful that they don’t fall.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

24 thoughts on “Why was only Miriam punished with leprosy when she and Aaron rebelled against Moses?”

    1. High priests are accountable as well. Remember they had to wear bells around ankles in case they DIED while in Holy of Holies. Therefore not exempt

      1. The purpose of the bells on the hem of the high priest’s robe was so that he would not die. “Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out, so that he will not die” (Exodus 28:33–35).

  1. Just a. Wonderful explanation i.e. Aaron not afflicted with leprosy. I am still sorting it out in my head and heart. Will need to pray, the old testament is holy but yet challenging. I feel so bless to have read Numbers and found this GOLDEN NUGGET in God’s word.

    1. In my opinion, the sin committed was premeditated by Miriam. God knows every-man’s heart. Aaron was more of a follower – that was his weakness. His sister Miriam should have known that as well. Remember? – When the children of Israel rebelled, Aaron followed and made the golden calf; he didn’t start the rebellion. He probably felt it was easier to go along with the crowd. Lastly: Because Aaron wasn’t physically punished doesn’t mean that he didn’t suffer the consequences. He became responsible to mend the bridge between Moses, himself and Miriam, and to pray for redemption for both Miriam and himself. Imagine the burden that was on his shoulder – in fact, he was held the highest level of accountability. Punishment isn’t always what we can see.

    2. Thanks a million for this outstanding explanation. May the grace of God be multiplied unto you in an ever increasing measure for more illuminations and revelations. I am extremely grateful. Looking forward to more revelations in the Word. Pastor Sylvester A. Johnson, The Light Of The World Chapel International, Monrovia, Liberia

  2. Dear brothers and sisters
    I am Isaak and I asked a friend of mine the same question and answered it as follows. Aaron was dressed up with the dress that he should dress while he is presenting himself in front of God, hence God spared him from punishment.
    If someone has a comment my friend ‘s idea I am ready to accept. GBU.

    1. Aaron was anointed to back MOISE one of the purpose of anointing is to protect even an object like the arch of the covenant become holy it is writing touch not my anointing do my prophets no harm…..king saul in his backlide state david refuses to hurt him because he is still God anointed.

  3. I just finished my morning prayer and meditation on this, Numbers 12: 1-16 and said, “Holy Spirit, help me understand why only Miriam was punished, when she and big brother Aaron committed the Sin”.

    Well, I quickly searched online, and from the myriad of results I picked yours and it completely answered my question. Thank you and thanks Holy Spirit.
    When we are focused on serving God, we can rest assured that He has our backs. This passage reveals that and confirms and validates Matt: 6:33.
    Stay blessed.

  4. I feel hopeful after reading this story. I do because I often fail in my conduct. And then I see God’s mercy on display and I understand why it is so important to embrace God’s discipline in our lives!
    Thank you!

  5. It is also suggested that Miriam was “out of order”… Aaron was in a “leadership roll” and could challenge another person (male) in a leadership position. However, due to cultural customs, a woman cannot/should not question a male, spiritual leader. Why? Because of “the Spiritual Ladder of Authority.”

    1. I think this is probably not the explanation, since the Bible says that Miriam was a leader of the Israelites like Moses and Aaron. God says through Micah (6:4), “I brought you up from the land of Egypt; I delivered you from that place of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you.”

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