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 a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. 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 Scriptures 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 has an A.B. 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.

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

  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.

  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.

  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.

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