There is a spectrum of approaches to understanding the actions and motivations of Miryam and Aharon. Nearly all classical and medieval exegetes (and many modern ones as well), attempt to minimize the infraction and its implications by viewing it as simply idle chatter or poor judgment. The Sifre and related Midrashim are perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this position, as they view Miryam as simply trying to encourage the resumption of normal marital life between Moshe and Zipporah and having no spiteful intent whatsoever.
A middle ground staked out by R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ibn Kaspi view Moshe's siblings' critique of him as stemming from their objection to his taking either a foreign or second wife, but they also view the story as a private familial spat with mistaken (and even understandable) errors of judgment. Finally, several modern exegetes view Miryam and Aharon's statements as a questioning of Moshe's worthiness to lead. According to them, the book of Bemidbar tells the tale of a Moshe besieged by serious challenges to his authority from both within his own family and without.
Defamatory Gossip (לשון הרע)
Miryam and Aharon sinned in speaking negatively about Moshe and criticizing his behavior. The commentators who adopt this approach differ in their understandings of both the specifics of the slander and why it was unjustified:
Miryam and Aharon disparage Moshe for marrying someone who was not an Israelite.
- In Moshe's youth, before he married Zipporah – Rashbam, basing himself on an obscure Midrashic work, Divrei HaYamim LeMoshe Rabbenu,2 claims that after Moshe fled from Egypt, he became the king of Cush for forty years,3 and it was during this period that he married the queen of Cush.4 For Rashbam, it is difficult to understand why Moshe's siblings are suddenly dredging up an event which occurred many decades before.
- During the Israelite's trek through the wilderness – R"Y Bekhor Shor5 and Shadal, on the other hand, assume that the marriage took place after Moshe was already the leader of the nation,6 and they attribute no royal status to the Cushite woman. According to them, Miryam and Aharon's complaint logically follows this recent event.
- Intermarriage itself – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor maintains that the siblings are bothered by the fact that Moshe married a foreign woman of an uncircumcised nation. The Cushites, in particular, were descendants of Cham, which might be viewed as even more problematic.7
- Hubris – Both R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Shadal suggest that Miryam and Aharon criticized Moshe for being vain and thinking that the women of Israel were not good enough for him.8
- Jealousy – In his HaMishtadel, Shadal raises the possibility that the siblings were hoping that Moshe would marry one of their children,9 and were thus upset when he opted instead for a foreigner.
- Yes – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor and Shadal, there appears to be no Biblical prohibition. Even according to them, though, it would not seem to be a recommended course of action, and no justification is provided for Moshe's taking of a foreign wife given he had the opportunity to marry within his own nation. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor leaves this question unanswered, saying merely: "ואעפ"י שלא נודע למה היתה סיבה זאת של משה, אין גלויין לנו כל הסודות".11
- No – This appears to motivate Rashbam's position (following the Midrash) that Moshe's marriage to the Cushite woman took place long before the Exodus, and that, in addition, Moshe never consummated the marriage.
- No alternative – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Shadal explain that the siblings were not bothered by Moshe's marriage to Zipporah, even though she was also a foreigner, since while he was in Midyan, fleeing from Egypt, there were no Israelites to marry.12
- Descendant of Avraham – Rashbam distinguishes between Zipporah, a descendant of Keturah and Avraham, and the Cushite woman who was a descendant of the accursed Cham.
Miryam and Aharon criticize Moshe for abstaining from marital relations with his wife.
- Zipporah – Almost all of these commentators identify the Cushite with Moshe's known wife, Zipporah. However, as the Torah clearly states that Zipporah came from Midyan,14 and not Cush, these commentators are forced15 to render the "Cushite" appellation as a figurative term:16
- A woman from Cush – Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) asserts that the verse is referring to the Queen of Cush.19
- According to most of these commentators,24 it was only after the appointment of the elders that the details of Moshe's married life became known to Miryam. When Zipporah lamented the fate of the spouses of the new prophets, she inadvertently revealed her own situation to her sister-in-law.
- Ran, instead, asserts that until this point the siblings had justified Moshe's neglect of his wife, thinking that his all consuming leadership responsibilities left no time for family life. With the appointment of assistants, this excuse was no longer valid.
- Alternatively, it was only recently that Yitro had returned Zipporah to Moshe.25
- Explaining God's intervention – According to Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) and R. Hirsch the statement is clarifying that Moshe himself was not bothered by his siblings' criticism. Since he would never defend himself, Hashem intervened on his behalf.
- Clarifying the complaint – Abarbanel asserts that this statement is not a parenthetical statement made by the text, but is rather a rhetorical question posed by Miryam and Aharon.26 They raise, and reject, the possibility that it is Moshe's extreme humility that led him to abstain from relations.
- Defense of Moshe – R. Hirsch suggests that this statement proves that Moshe's actions could not have been motivated by any feelings of pride or gloating.27
- Defense of Miryam and Aharon – R. Hirsch further proposes that Moshe's extreme modesty is what led the siblings to their error. Due to Moshe's humility, they never knew that there was a difference in the level of Moshe's prophetic status and that he, thus, had a good reason for his separation from Zipporah.
- Double beauty – Sifre and Rashi suggest that the doubling comes to teach that Zipporah was beautiful (their understanding of "Cushite") both inside and out.
- Miryam's speech – Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel propose that this is not the narrator's words, but rather the content of Miryam's speech.32
Moshe's siblings are upset that he veered from the monogamous ideal by taking an additional wife.
Challenge to Moshe's Authority
Miryam and Aharon's fault lies in their contesting of Moshe's leadership and viewing themselves as his equals.
- Pretext to challenge leadership – It is possible that the main issue is stated in verse 2, where the siblings question Moshe's unique status and suggest that they should be his equal in leadership. The complaint about his wife is merely a pretext to find fault with Moshe's character.
- A question of succession – Alternatively, the two remarks are part of the same issue. The siblings question not Moshe's leadership per se, but the potential succession of his children.40 They highlight his marriage to a foreigner to show that his children are tainted and not suitable to be leaders.