Moses and the Kushite Woman: Classic Interpretations and Philo's Allegory
Classic Interpretations of the Story
Numbers 12 tells the story of Miriam and Aaron slandering Moses’ Kushite wife:
במדבר יב:א וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח.
Num 12:1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman he had married, “For he married a Kushite woman!”
From the Second Temple period and on, Jewish authors and sages debated who this woman was and why Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses’ marriage to her.
1. Who Is the Kushite Woman?
Commentators have suggested two possible answers to the question of the Kushite woman’s identity: either this is a reference to a second wife of Moses or to Zipporah herself.
A) Moses’ Second Wife Was an Ethiopian Princess
Kush is the Hebrew name for Ethiopia (modern day Sudan and Ethiopia). The Greek LXX translates Kush this way here:
And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on account of the Ethiopian woman whom Moses had taken, because he had taken an Ethiopian woman.
This interpretation was also adopted by the medieval commentator, Rashbam. Already in the Second Temple period, a backstory was created in order to explain when and why Moses married this woman. Josephus (Ant. 2:252-253) offers one version of this fantastical tale, which begins with Moses in his early years as an Egyptian prince (before he killed the Egyptian taskmaster and went into exile), leading the Egyptian army in a battle against the Ethiopians:
252 Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians. Observing Moses leading his army near the walls and fighting courageously, marveling at the inventiveness of his undertakings and believing that for the Egyptians who had earlier despaired of their freedom he was responsible for their success, while for the Ethiopians who had prided themselves on their successes against them, he was responsible for their danger in the extreme, she fell madly in love with him. When passion got the better of her, she sent to him the most trustworthy of her servants to enter into discussion about marriage.
253 When he accepted the proposal on condition of her surrendering the city and gave pledges on oath, indeed, that he would take her as a wife and that, having conquered the city, he would not transgress the agreement, the deed anticipated the words. After the annihilation of the Ethiopians, giving thanks to God, Moses contracted the marriage and led the Egyptians back to their land.
Josephus did not make up the story of Moses’ escapades in Ethiopia, since part of it (the campaign against Ethiopia) already appears in the work of the second-century B.C.E. Hellenistic Jewish writer Artapanus. It was likely a Judean legend popular among Hellenized Jews in the diaspora.
B) Zipporah the “Kushite”
According to the Sifrei (Numbers 99), a third century C.E. midrash on Numbers, the Kushite woman was Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, and she was called Kushite because of the way she looked:
וכי כושית היתה והלא מדיינית היתה שנאמר ולכהן מדין שבע בנות (שמות ב טז) ומה ת”ל כושית אלא מה כושי משונה בעורו כך צפורה משונה בנויה יותר מכל הנשים
But was she a Kushite? No, she was a Midianite, as is stated, “the priest of Midian had seven daughters” (Exod. 2:16). Then what does the text mean by “Kushite”? Just as a Kushite stands out because of his [dark] skin, Zipporah stood out among other women because of her beauty.
According to this Rabbinic approach, Zipporah is called a Kushite because of her unusual beauty.
2. What Bothered Miriam and Aaron?
Commentators have taken two opposite approaches to what bothered Miriam and Aaron about “the Kushite woman.” According to one approach, they were bothered that Moses divorced her, according to the other, that he married her.
A) Criticism of Moses’ Separation/Divorce
The traditional Aramaic translation of the Torah from Rabbinic times, Targum Onkelos (ad loc.), who understands “Kushite” to mean beautiful (and thus a reference to Zipporah), suggests that Miriam and Aaron were upset about a separation:
ומלילת מרים ואהרן במשה על עסק אתתא שפירתא די נסיב ארי אתתא שפירתא דנסיב רחיק.
Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses because of the beautiful woman he had married, for he had separated from the beautiful woman he married.
The idea that Moses separated from Zipporah could be adduced from the description of Jethro bringing Moses his wife, “after she had been sent home” (אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ) in Exod. 18:2.The Greek is even more explicit: “after her dismissal” (μετὰ τὴν ἄφεσιν αὐτῆς). These interpretations may be based on the use of the root ש-ל-ח for divorce in Deut 24:1, “and sends her from his home” (וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ).
The Midrash Tanchuma offers a backstory for Moses’ separation from his wife:
בשעה שאמר הקב”ה למשה בסיני קודם מתן תורה שיקדש את העם ואמר להם, לשלושת ימים אל תגשו אל אשה, פרשו הם מנשותיהם ופרש משה מאשתו. ואחר מתן תורה אמר לו הקב”ה, לך אמור להם, שובו לאהליכם,ואתה פה עמוד עמדי, ואל תשוב לדרך ארץ. וכשאמרה צפורה אוי לנשותיהן של אלו, הן נזקקין לנבואה שיהו פורשין מנשותיהם כמו שפרש בעלי הימני.
When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses on Sinai before giving the Torah that the people should sanctify themselves, and he said to them for three days do not approach a woman (Exod 19:15), they separated from their wives and Moses separated from his wife. After the giving of the Torah, the Holy One said to him, “Go tell them that they may return to their tents” (Deut 5:27), but you stand here with me and do not return to standard marital relations.Thus, Tzipporah said [after Eldad and Meded prophesied in the camp] “Woe unto those men’s wives since they are needed as prophets and they will separate from their wives just as my husband has separated from me.
In this interpretation, Miriam is saying that just because God speaks to Moses, Moses should not see himself as too holy to remain married.
B) Criticism of Moses’ Marriage
Some rabbinic commentators note the problem that Moses married a non-Israelite, whether Zipporah the Midianite or an unnamed Ethiopian woman. This problem comes to the fore in a rabbinic midrash describing the rebellion of Zimri ben Salu, who brings a Midianite woman to the Tabernacle (Num 25:6). According to the midrash, Zimri defends his actions with the following (b. Sanhedrin 82a):
אמר לו: בן עמרם! זו אסורה או מותרת? ואם תאמר אסורה – בת יתרו מי התירה לך?
He (=Zimri) said to him (=Moses): “Son of Amram! This one (=Kozbi) is forbidden but this one (=Zipporah) is permitted?!” If you say mine is forbidden, who permitted Jethro’s daughter to you?”
Rashi (ad loc) feels the need to defend Moses:
משה קודם מתן תורה נשא, וכשנתנה תורה כולן בני נח היו ונכנסו לכלל מצות והיא עמהם, וגרים רבים של ערב רב.
Moses’ marriage predated the giving of the Torah and when the Torah was given, they were all (including the Israelites) simply Noachides, and she entered the covenant of mitzvot with them just as the many other converts among the mixed multitude did.
Accordingly, Miriam’s criticism is either about Moses’ taking a second wife or about his marrying a non-Israelite.
Philo (c. 25 BCE – 50 CE), the Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, offers a unique explanation of this passage, in line with his allegorical reading of the Torah’s laws and stories in line with a Greek philosophical framework.
Miriam and Aaron’s Perception of God
In his Allegorical Interpretation, Philo explains the difference between the recognition of God experienced by Aaron and Miriam and the recognition of God experienced by Moses (Leg. All. 3:103):
For Aaron the word (λόγος), and Miriam perception (αἴσθησις), when they rose up against Moses were expressly told that “If there shall arise a prophet to the Lord, God shall be made known to him in a vision, and in a shadow, but not clearly. But with Moses, who is faithful in all his house, God will speak mouth to mouth in his own form, and not by riddles” (Num 12:6-8).
Philo allegorizes both Aaron and Miriam as types of derivative knowledge. In other words, the philosopher has no direct access to God, but relates to God through analyzing God’s works.
Philo refers to this as understanding God by looking at his shadow, ostensibly, referring to Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave, described in book 7 of Plato’s Republic. In this allegory, people sitting in a cave, and forced only to look at the shadows of things walking past the cave’s opening, try to speculate about what the objects or beings making the shadows really are.
This is the kind of knowledge Aaron and Miriam had of God, and it contrasts sharply with Moses’ unique perception (Leg. All. 100):
There is also a more perfect and more highly purified kind which has been initiated into the great mysteries, and which does not distinguish the cause from the things created as it would distinguish an abiding body from a shadow; but which, having emerged from all created objects, receives a clear and manifest notion of the great uncreated, so that it comprehends him through himself, and comprehends his shadow, too, so as to understand what it is, and his reason, too, and this universal world.
In short, Moses perceives God directly and not just God’s shadow, by which Philo means he is cognizant of the existence of God. Aaron and Miriam, who represent logic and perception, cannot understand how this is so and lash out at this more perfect form of knowledge.
But what does this have to do with Moses’ marriage? This becomes clear when we learn how Philo understands what the Kushite woman represents.
Moses Marries “Unchangeable Nature”
Philo bases his allegory on the fact that Moses’ wife is described as Ethiopian, i.e., she is dark skinned. Since black is the color of the eye’s pupil, Philo here consults his knowledge of Greek science, specifically Plato’s scientific description of the world in his Timaeus, where he tries to explain how vision works (Timaeus 36):
White and black are similar effects of contraction and dilation in another sphere, and for this reason have a different appearance. Wherefore, we ought to term white that which dilates the visual ray, and the opposite of this is black.
According to Plato, the blackness of the pupil reflects the contraction or focusing of the visual ray, which Philo translates as “perfect focus.” Thus, in his explanation for why God requires Miriam to remain outside the camp for seven days (Num 12:14-15), Philo writes (2:66-67; Yonge trans.):
It is said also in the case of Miriam, when she was speaking against Moses, “If her father had spit in her face, ought she not to keep herself retired for seven days?” (Num 12:14). For the external sense (=Miriam), being really shameless and impudent, though considered as nothing by God the father, in comparison of him (=Moses) who was faithful in all his house, to whom God himself united the Ethiopian woman, that is to say, unchangeable and well-satisfied opinion, dared to speak against Moses and to accuse him, for the very actions for which he deserved to be praised.
For this is his greatest praise, that he received the Ethiopian woman, the unchangeable nature, tried in the fire and found honest; for as in the eye, the part which sees is black, so also the part of the soul which sees is what is meant by the Ethiopian woman.
In Philo’s reading, Moses’ Ethiopian wife represents “unchangeable nature” or “unchangeable opinion” since she is finely focused and can see the world properly. What this means is that, unlike other prophets who only have words/logic (Aaron) or sensibility (Miriam), Moses has a direct and unmediated relationship with God, represented by his having married “perfect focus” (the Kushite woman).
Philo’s Understanding of the Narrative
To better understand the allegory, we need to ask who, according to Philo, this Ethiopian woman is meant to be: Is it Zipporah or a second wife? Louis Feldman assumes that Philo is picturing a second wife here, mostly because he uses the term “Ethiopian woman.” And yet, a polygynous Moses would be difficult to reconcile with what Philo says about Moses’ attitude towards sex and marriage in other places. For instance, in Life of Moses (De Vita Mosis, 1:28), Philo describes Moses’ youth:
For he never provided his stomach with any luxuries beyond those necessary tributes which nature has appointed to be paid to it, and as to the pleasures of the organs below the stomach he paid no attention to them at all, except as far as the object of having legitimate children was concerned.
It would be strange to suggest a reading of Philo in which Moses conquers his sexual impulses in childhood only to succumb once he was an old man and had reached the highest level of prophecy. It thus seems more likely to me that, despite his use of the term “Ethiopian,” Philo is picturing Zipporah as Moses’ wife in this story. Two further points support this reading.
The rabbinic interpretation of Kushite as implying Zipporah’s beauty and Philo’s description of her in the scene detailing the first encounter between Moses and his father-in-law (Life of Moses 1:59) are somewhat similar:
And their father was at once greatly struck by his appearance, and soon afterwards he learnt to admire his wisdom, for great natures are very easily discovered, and do not require a length of time to be appreciated, and so he gave him the most beautiful of his daughters to be his wife, conjecturing by that one action of his how completely good and excellent he was, and testifying that what is good is the only thing which deserves to be loved, and that it does not require any external recommendation, but bears in itself proofs by which it may be known and understood.
The Torah itself never explains why Reuel chose Zipporah out of all his daughters. Philo’s suggestion that it was because of her good looks may reflect the same interpretive tradition as that behind the rabbinic texts cited above.
Zipporah’s Sublime Virtue
A stronger piece of evidence that Zipporah and the Kushite woman are one and the same in Philo’s thinking comes from a comparison of how both women are treated allegorically. Philo is effusive in his praise of Zipporah. For instance, in his On the Cherubs (De Cherubim, 47), he offers an interpretation of Zipporah’s name and the conception of their first son:
Moses, who received Zipporah, that is to say, winged and sublime virtue (ἀρετή), without any supplication or entreaty on his part, found that she conceived by no mortal man.
The passage appears in a section in which Philo describes how the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Zipporah became pregnant through God’s intervention. For the first three, Philo is building upon the way the verses connect the pregnancy with God. For Zipporah, however, Philo’s analysis appears to be based on how in contrast to the other matriarchs, the text makes no mention of her becoming pregnant at all:
Sarah (Gen 21:1-2)
וַי-הוָה פָּקַד אֶת שָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר אָמָר וַיַּעַשׂ יְ-הוָה לְשָׂרָה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה…
YHWH took note of Sarah as He had promised, and YHWH did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore…
Rebekah (Gen 25:21)
וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַי-הוָה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְ-הוָה וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ
Isaac pleaded with YHWH on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and YHWH responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.
וַיַּרְא יְ-הוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ… וַתַּהַר לֵאָה וַתֵּלֶד
YHWH saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb… Leah conceived and bore…
Zipporah (Exod 2:21-22)
וַיִּתֵּן אֶת צִפֹּרָה בִתּוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן
And [Reuel] gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses and she bore…
For Philo, the point is that Zipporah conceives without the need for any intermediary involvement, such as Isaac’s prayer for Rebekah. Zipporah here thus favorably compares with the matriarchs, in that her conception of a son through God was based on a direct connection. This image of “direct connection” is reminiscent of what Philo writes about the Ethiopian woman, as is his focus on her importance as Moses’ wife. This implies that in Philo’s mind Moses had one wife and that Zipporah and the Ethiopian woman are the same person.
Zipporah and Miriam: The Limited Nature of Perception
Assuming that Philo’s reading of the story is that Miriam and Aaron are complaining about Moses’ marriage to Zipporah (see appendix for a discussion of the option that he divorced her), how does this effect our understanding of Philo’s interpretation? As noted above, in his allegorical treatment of God’s answer, Philo understands Aaron as “word” (λόγος) and Miriam as “perception” or “sensations” (αἴσθησις), a lower form of knowledge with negative overtones in Philo’s taxonomy.
Philo believes that perception is necessary for the perfection of intellect, but its enmeshment within the intellect is replete with dangers both spiritual and philosophical. Yet these dangers do nothing to diminish the necessity of perception to connect the intellect to corporeal reality.
A pure intellect devoid of perception or sensations is utterly miserable and powerless because it lacks any and all connection to earthly reality. Thus Miriam’s complaint about Moses reflects her status as an average prophet, one who falls short of the achievements of the truly great prophet, Moses.
The Uniqueness of Zipporah
Miriam is not the first biblical woman whom Philo identifies with “perception.” According to Philo, women in general represent “perception,” an attitude that was common among Greek philosophers. Nevertheless, Philo noted some exceptions to this rule.
In contrast to Miriam and Eve, Zipporah stands out as an admirable character. In fact, Zipporah actually takes Rachel’s place as the fourth “mother” of Israel in Philo’s nomenclature, likely because of his negative representation of Rachel in his allegories. In his On the Cherubs (De Cherubim, 41), Philo offers his allegorical understanding of the four matriarchs, whom he sees as a special subset of women/wives:
For since we say that “woman” is to be understood symbolically as the outward sense, and since knowledge consists in alienation from the outward sense and from the body, it is plain that the lovers of wisdom must repudiate the outward sense rather than choose it, and is not this quite natural? For they who live with these men are in name indeed wives, but in fact virtues.
- Sarah is princess and guide,
- Rebecca is perseverance in what is good;
- Leah again is virtue, fainting and weary at the long continuance of exertion, which every foolish man declines, and avoids, and repudiates;
- Zipporah, the wife of Moses, is virtue, mounting up from earth to heaven, and arriving at a just comprehension of the divine and blessed virtues which exist there, and she is called a bird.
This celebratory description of Zipporah, and her placement as the fourth matriarch, is in sharp contrast to Miriam’s writing off the Kushite woman. The story would be about how “sensation” (=Miriam) spoke badly about “direct perception” (=Zipporah). In other words, the direct perception of reality and God represented in Zipporah were unintelligible to the likes of Miriam, who embodies the perception of the world through the senses.
Such a reading serves as an ironic denouement to a story often understood as being about how Zipporah was divorced by the great prophet so that she would not be a distraction in his intimate relationship with God.
Exploring the Divorce Option in Philo
Philo never says explicitly whether Miriam is accusing Moses of marrying or divorcing his wife, and he would have been sympathetic with a philosopher divorcing his wife after having children to avoid the distractions of marriage. Philo more than once claims that the purpose of marriage is having children. For example, he writes in his On the Giants (De Gigantibus29):
The greatest cause of our ignorance is the flesh, and our inseparable connection with the flesh. And this, Moses (=the Torah) represents God as admitting, where he says that, “Because they are flesh,” the spirit of God cannot abide in them (Gen 6:3). And yet marriage and the rearing of children, and the furnishing of necessary things, and ingloriousness conjoined with a want of money and business, both private and public, and a countless number of other things cause wisdom to waste away, before it begins to flourish vigorously.
Thus, once the child-bearing stage of marriage is complete, wouldn’t a great philosopher like Moses put an end to the relationship? But this may be overstating Philo’s emphasis on procreation as the only benefit of marriage. Philo’s comments on the subject of the beautiful captive woman in his On Virtues makes it clear that he sees marriage and sex as being about more than just procreation (De Virtutibus, 112):
And, after that period, you shall cohabit with her as with a legitimate wedded wife; for it is right that one who is about to ascend the bed of her husband, not for hire, like a harlot who makes a traffic of the flower of her beauty, but either out of love for him who has espoused her, or for the sake of the procreation of children, should be thought worthy of the ordinances which belong to a legitimate marriage.
A stronger support for the possibility that Philo believed that Moses divorced his wife is that Philo claims that Moses must have been abstinant from sexual relations in order to be available to receive prophecy at all times (Life of Moses 2:68-69):
But, in the first place, before assuming that office, it was necessary for him to purify not only his soul but also his body, so that it should be connected with and defiled by no passion but should be pure from everything which is of a mortal nature, from all meat and drink, and from all connection with women. And this last thing, indeed, he had despised for a long time, and almost from the first moment that he began to prophesy and to feel a divine inspiration, thinking that it was proper that he should at all times be ready to give his whole attention to the commands of God.
It is possible, therefore, that Philo believed that Moses divorced his wife to maintain his policy of abstinence. If so, Miriam’s complaint may stem from a contradictory philosophical principle, namely, the importance of keeping the world whole, which requires the formation and maintenance of marital ties even after procreation has been achieved.
Philo actually has a numerological argument that suggests that humankind bears an ethical obligation to preserve the wholeness of the world due to our being created on the sixth day. This is based on the Pythagorean understanding of the number six as a perfect number, as well as a mixed number that embodies the need to procreate as well as to maintain the male-female balance of the world.
The Significance of the Number Six in Creation
According to Genesis 1, the world is created in six days and human beings are formed on the sixth day. Reflecting neo-Pythagorean influence, Philo argues in On the Creation (De Opificio Mundi, 13) that the number at the root of Creation—six—is the most propitious for procreation because “of all numbers, six is, by the laws of nature, the most productive.”
Philo continues by enumerating the significant aspects of the number 6:
The Sum and Product of Its Factors – In the ancient world, a perfect number was one that was equal to the sum of its factors, in this case: 1+2+3=6. In fact, it is even better than the average “perfect number” since it is also equal to the product of its factors (1x2x3=6).
…for of all the numbers, from the unit upwards, it is the first perfect one, being made equal to its parts (i.e., through addition), and being made complete by them (i.e., through multiplication); the number three being half of it, and the number two a third of it, and the unit a sixth of it.
Product of Even and Odd – The number six is a product of an even and an odd number and in Pythagorean philosophy, even numbers represent female and odd numbers male:
[Six] is formed so as to be both male and female, and is made up of the power of both natures; for in existing things the odd number is the male, and the even number is the female; accordingly, of odd numbers the first is the number three, and of even numbers the first is two, and the two numbers multiplied together make six.
Thus, since six is the product of the first even number with the first odd number (not including 1), Philo concludes:
It was fitting therefore, that the world, being the most perfect of created things, should be made according to the perfect number, namely, six.
If the number six, which is at the root of creation, is perfect, then the created world as well is perfect. What is more, as a number made up of even and odd (male and female) integers, it represents the concept of marriage and procreation. Philo thus connects the commandment to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the land” (Gen 1:22) to the fact that creation is based on the number six. He even mentions that philosophers refer to this number as either “matrimony” or “harmony.”
According to this reading, what Miriam did not understand is that whereas for most people—even most prophets—the need to maintain the world’s balance through marriage is the more important principle, Moses was not like other prophets and in his case, and ascetic ideal was fully justified.
Nevertheless, as nicely as this works out in theory, the allegorical explanation Philo chooses for this story makes it unlikely that this is his reading. If marrying the Ethiopian woman is Moses’ “greatest praise,” since she is “unchangeable nature” and reflects Moses’ ability to have “perfect focus” on God, how could the story be about how Moses divorced her?
It seems more likely, therefore, that according to Philo, Miriam’s criticism was against Moses’ marriage, not his divorce. Yet it is possible to recognize God’s existence without recourse to senses or logic, and this was the unique ability of Moses, the man of God, who was different than all other prophets. As God said to Miriam and Aaron (Num. 12:7): “Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household.”
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June 7, 2018
June 29, 2020
Dr. Elad Filler is a lecturer in Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Jewish Thought, where he received his M.A. and Ph.D. He is the Chair of the SBL’s Judaica Unit, and among his articles are “On Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife in Philo” (Daat [ Hebrew]), “Philosophical and Political Aspects of the Migration of Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans in Philo” (Jewish Studies [Hebrew]),and “Philo’s Threefold Divine Vision and the Christian Trinity” (HUCA).
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