Who was Moses’ Cushite Wife and why is she in the Bible?

Moses Cushite Wife Jacob_Jordaens-Rubenshuis-Moïse_et_Séphora
White Hebrew Levite Moses and his Black Cushite (Ethiopian) wife, by Rubens, public domain. Num 12:1-2

Updated 4/22/17. In Num 12:1-2 there is a reference to a “Cushite” wife of Moses:

 Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has Yahweh spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And Yahweh heard this.

This is the only place in the Bible where there’s a reference to Moses having a Cushite wife. In numerous other places, a wife of Moses’ is referred to as a Midianite named Zipporah.

A number of extra-biblical sources refer to Moses‘ military campaigns for Egypt against Ethiopia. These sources all lived much later than Moses in the 13th Century BCE, if he was a historical figure. Josephus, the 1st C CE Jewish historian for Rome, comments on Moses taking an Ethiopian (Cushite) princess named Tharbis as a wife during a military campaign he waged for the Egyptians. It’s not known who Josephus’ source is, but he was a serious historian and considered it a true account.

Josephus says Tharbis fell in love with Moses at first sight from the king’s city walls; seeing how he waged war against her dad caused her to see the ‘writing on the wall‘, to realize Moses was the Man and her destiny. She communicated her desire for marriage to him through servants; she agreed to betray the city to him, and he agreed to take her as his wife if she did so.

Tharbis did, Moses took the city, “consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.” Interesting commentary here points out that it’s not clear from the oldest source (the Bible’s source texts) whether Moses had one or two wivs and which came first if two. Also see commentary and evidence cited here and here for more info and insights.

Regarding the Numbers 12:1-2 reference to the ‘Cushite wife’; this may mean the wife is from the Cushan region of Midian, or it may mean she’s from Ethiopia/Cush, and her skin is dark. Either way, she was different racially and/or ethnically. She was not genetically a Hebrew.

Moses and Aaron were brothers and descendants of Levi. They were both priests and prophets, and Miriam was a prophet. But in response to the talk by Aaron and Miriam, God calls the three of them and tells them that he speaks to prophets in visions and dreams, but he speaks to Moses face to face:

Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” The anger of Yahweh burned against them, and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous —it became as white as snow. Num 12:8-10

According to the text, God turns Miriam’s skin leprous and as ‘white as snow‘ for her sin in claiming equality with Moses as a prophet of Yahweh. This is quite a contrast; the sin and leprous-white skin of Aaron’s wife versus the virtuousness, vindication and elevation of humblest-man-on-Earth Moses who has taken a Black wife.

According to many Pentateuch scholars including Richard Elliot Friedman, the J source favors Southern Judah and the E source favors Northern Israel. Aaron is the hero of the Aaronid priesthood in the South. Moses is a hero of Israel and the Levites in the North, who lost status in the Jerusalem Temple under Solomon, and who had more ties to Northern Israel regardless.

This particular episode in Numbers is attributed to the E source for other reasons, but note that the only reference in the Bible to Moses having a Cushite wife is in order to provide context for an account in which Moses is humble and elevated and Aaron and Miriam are sinful and tarnished by their own actions. This seems polemical, an attempt by the E source to use history to advance an agenda that elevates Moses and diminishes Aaron.

See Friedman’s book, Who Wrote the Bible?, pp. 77-79 and other pages on the Snow White Miriam episode and how it relates to the polemics between J and E, and why sources that make heroes look bad could wind up in a single book that makes the bad-looking heroes look mostly good or at least important overall.

Nothing else is said about the Cushite wife in the Bible, before or since this episode. She is mentioned, used and tossed aside. Maybe she was a great human being or not, but this was the only reason any of the Biblical writers had to mention her.

Also note that nothing apparently happens to Aaron, the priest, who must be pure.  Only the woman, his wife Miriam, is disciplined, leading some commentators to assume that Miriam had led him astray ala Eve. However, there’s nothing in the text to directly indicate Miriam’s leading role.

And, unlike Adam, Aaron suffers no punishment for listening to the woman, though this is apparently a serious offense. Aaron certainly appears to be responsible for grumbling about the Cushite wife and comparing his status with God to Moses’, which was Miriam’s sin, it seems.

The point of this blog post, like many on this 6 Sucks Sex site, is to document that the Bible is – to paraphrase and go beyond the US founding-father and slave-holding-and-raping and race-mixing Thomas Jefferson – that the Bible is a pile of bullshit produced in some ways by men of small minds and low morals, and the God that is Love loves this and us, and hid his Word in the History of Israel and the pages of the Good Book. More on that in other blog posts.

Also, props to Moses for race-mixing. In the words of the immortal Bulworth, one solution to the social problem of the rich using race and class to divide the People: “Everybody just gotta keep fuckin’ everybody til they’re all the same color”

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