Reference: Numbers 12:1-2.
Heart of the Story: Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because of his Cushite wife. Scholars question whether or not the Cushite woman identified in Numbers 12 was Zipporah or another woman that Moses married. Conceivably Moses was a bigamist; he had two wives at the same time.
Back Story: The Bible provided no documentation that Moses married a Cushite woman, except the reference in Number chapter 12. Often Cush is translated as Ethiopian. Cush (AKA Ethiopia) was a country south of Egypt inhabited by offspring of Ham, the second son of Noah. The Cushites were dark-skinned individuals.
The great Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that Moses married an Ethiopian. In Antiquity of Jews (Book 2, Chapter 10), Josephus recorded that while Moses lived in Egypt, he commanded the Egyptian army in a long war against the Ethiopians. While fighting one battle, Tharbis, daughter of the Ethiopian king, saw Moses leading the Egyptian army and fell in love with him. She sent word to Moses that she would deliver the city to him if Moses would marry her. Moses agreed to the marriage. Almost immediately, Tharbis told Moses how to capture the city. After the battle, Moses married Tharbis, an Ethiopian princess.
Moses role as commander of the Egyptian army was congruent with being a royal son of Pharaoh. So too, was Moses’s decision to marry a royal princess. Because Moses didn’t flee Egypt until he was 40 years of age, he was probably in his 30s when he married Tharbis. Likely Moses brought his Ethiopian bride from Cush to his Egyptian mother and to Pharaoh’s royal court. There is no information to suggest that Moses had offspring with Tharbis.
Story Line: When Moses fled Egypt, he stayed with Jethro, a Midianite clan leader, who herded goats and sheep. The Midianites were offspring of Abraham and his wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-4). They lived in the northwest area of what is now Saudi Arabia. Their land bordered the Gulf of Aquaba. Sometime during the 40 years that Moses stayed with Jethro, he married Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, and sired two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Moses’ second wife was a Midianite woman whose skin may have been tanned from the desert son, but she was not a member of the Negro race. For Miriam and Aaron to call Zipporah a Cushite would have been a stretch of their imagination and inaccurate.
After God directed Moses to return to Egypt and free the Israelites, Moses gathered Zipporah and his sons and started the journey back to Egypt (Exodus 4:19-20). At some point on Moses’s journey to Egypt, Moses sent Zipporah and his two sons back to Jethro. A possible scenario is that when Aaron met Moses on the mountain of God (Mt. Horab in the Sinai Peninsula), Aaron told Moses that his Cushite princess-wife still lived in Egypt. Aaron’s information was the stimulus for Moses sending Zipporah and sons back to Jethro in Midian. Moses didn’t want the distraction of dealing with two wives and possibly two families while he convinced Pharaoh to give the Israelites their freedom.
Pondering Relationships: When Moses married Zipporah, likely he didn’t expect to ever return to Egypt or ever again see his Ethiopian princess-wife. Further after living 40 years with Jethro and the Midianites, Moses may have surmised that his Cushite princess, Tharbis, died at some point while he was in Midian. Fortunately or unfortunately, Tharbis was very much alive. She left Egypt with Moses and the freed Israelite slaves. While the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, Jethro brought Zipporah and Moses’s two sons to Moses. Moses was so happy to see them that he left the Israelite camp and went out to meet them (Exodus 18:1-8). In this scenario, Moses had two wives in the Israelite camp, i.e., Tharbis, the Cushite princess, and Zipporah, the Midianite daughter of Jethro and mother of Moses’s sons.
When Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses for taking a Cushite woman as his wife, the Israelites were camped at Hazeroth on the Sinai Peninsula. The Tabernacle had been dedicated; God had anointed 70 elders to assist Moses with management of the Israelite masses; and the Israelites had been fed with quail. The Bible record in Numbers 12:1-2 makes the reader wonder if Miriam and Aaron were searching for something—anything—to criticize Moses over while at the same time elevating themselves. Calling attention to Moses’s non-Israelite (i.e., Cushite) wife appealed to the emerging nationalism among the Israelites. They wanted no non-Israelites in their midst and definitely no non-Israelite in a key position in the group.
The Bible recorded that Moses didn’t respond to Miriam and Aaron’s criticism of his dark-skinned Cushite wife; however, God responded by causing Miriam to be inflicted with leprosy for seven days. After God caused Miriam to develop leprosy for criticizing Moses for having a Cushite wife, there is no biblical record that any Israelite criticized the color his first wife’s skin. In fact, there is not further mention of her in the Bible.
Reflection: How was Moses having a Cushite wife a symbol of God’s love for all people?
Copyright February 29, 2016; Carolyn A. Roth