"Wasn't Miriam punished for questioning male authority, while Aaron was not?"

[Note: This is a simple summary of the detailed data in the syllabus. Refer there for sources/discussion. Updated: 01/02/97]
This was another one of those "I cannot believe it actually says that..." passage:
Miriam's courage and frankness lead to a great humiliation by Yahweh when she challenges Moses' spiritual authority. It is important to note that Miriam receives the heavy punishment of leprosy while Aaron, who also challenged Moses, does not. There is a message in this for all women who want to question male authority. (WS:AST:10).

The passage the author is discussing is Numbers 12:

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. 2 "Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" And the LORD heard this. 3 (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.) 4 At once the LORD said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, "Come out to the Tent of Meeting, all three of you." So the three of them came out. 5 Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, 6 he said, "Listen to my words:

"When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.
7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house.
8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?"

9 The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them. 10 When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam -- leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy; 11 and he said to Moses, "Please, my lord, do not hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. 12 Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away."

13 So Moses cried out to the LORD, "O God, please heal her!" 14 The LORD replied to Moses, "If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back." 15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back.

There are several points about this passage that are important to note:

  1. Miriam is the PRINCIPAL instigator of the attack on Moses. The Hebrew is quite clear, although English renderings do not reflect this, typically. For example, in verse 1, the actual verb form is "SHE spoke against..."--a 3fsg form. And, her name is placed BEFORE Aaron's in the attack about the Cushite wife; but Aaron's is put first in the attack on Moses' uniqueness (4-5). [They BOTH were not included in the "sharing of the spirit" event in Num 11.16f, and commentators suggest that this was what triggered their status-greedy attack.]

  2. Others have suggested a rather infantile episode of sibling rivalry--they WERE brothers and sisters--based around the Moses-only event in Num 11.15-17.

  3. The passage is filled with irony, and this forms the nature of the punishments on Miriam and Aaron. Miriam is the initial attacker about Moses' 'black wife' (i.e. the Cushite)--so God turns her 'white' with a skin disease! Aaron is the initial attacker about Moses having a unique relationship with YHWH--so God makes Aaron have to ask Moses to intercede to YHWH for them! (see Ashley in NICOT, s.v.).

  4. The punishment on Miriam is instantly lifted at the request of Moses; the very-short exclusion outside the camp is simply a public statement before the people (in front of whom these attacks undoubtedly occurred).

  5. Aaron, as the high priest, was not allowed to become ritually unclean for ANY reason, so it is entirely reasonable that his "humbling" come from a different direction--the need to ask Moses to talk to YHWH for him!

  6. Also, note that God maintains Miriam's good reputation throughout biblical history--both the immortalizing of her words in Exodus 15-16, and His word through Micah shows this:
    I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. (Micah 6.4)
    As can be seen from the above, a close exegesis of the passage reveals a structure that in no way has gender-related determinants. Miriam and Aaron are dealt with NOT as gender-based agents; but rather, are dealt with according to their actions.

    [It might also be pointed out that Miriam's punishment here is the lightest--by far--of the punishments inflicted on the leaders of the time! Moses and Aaron were forbidden from entering the Promised Land for THEIR joint-failure (Num 20), and the rebellion of Korah resulted in the destruction/death of all of the participants and their families (Num 16)! A skin disease for a few minutes, and a week outside the camp--relative to these punishments--seems like a 'token' action at its worst.]

    The Christian ThinkTank...[https://www.Christianthinktank.com] (Reference Abbreviations)