Moses’ Kushite Wife Was Zipporah the Midianite
After killing an Egyptian, Moses runs away to Midian, where he marries Zipporah, the daughter of the local priest (Exod 2:15–22). When YHWH commissions Moses to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from bondage, Moses takes Zipporah with him, at least part of the way (Exod 4:20, 24–26). She is later reunited with Moses when her father brings her and her son to the mountain of God (Exod 18:2–5).
The next time we hear of Moses’ wife is when Miriam and Aaron complain about her in the book of Numbers:
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 whom he had married (for he had married a Kushite woman)….
Given that Zipporah is described as a Midianite, this has long been understood as a reference to Moses’ marriage to another woman, from Nubia/Ethiopia.
An African Wife
Nubia, the area south of Egypt, extending deep into east central Africa, was known to the Egyptians as Kash, kꜢš (𓎡𓄿𓈙𓈉), and variants of this name were adopted by several languages of the Ancient Near East: Babylonian (kūšu), Assyrian (kūsu), Old Persian (kūšā), Old Nubian (kas), Meroitic (qes), and, of course, the biblical כּוּשׁ (kûš).
Modern translations of the Bible often use the terms Ethiopia and Ethiopian as translations for Kush and Kushite respectively. This goes back to the early Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew. In the Greek- and Latin-speaking world of antiquity, “Ethiopia” meant black Africa.
Indeed, the Bible uses the term Kush for the area south of Egypt in several passages. For example, when cursing Egypt, Ezekiel writes:
יחזקאל כט:י לָכֵן הִנְנִי אֵלֶיךָ וְאֶל יְאֹרֶיךָ וְנָתַתִּי אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְחָרְבוֹת חֹרֶב שְׁמָמָה מִמִּגְדֹּל סְוֵנֵה וְעַד גְּבוּל כּוּשׁ.
Ezek 29:10 Assuredly, I am going to deal with you and your channels, and I will reduce the land of Egypt to utter ruin and desolation, from Migdol to Syene (=Aswan), all the way to the border of Kush.
When describing the people of Kush, Jeremiah is speaking of black-skinned Africans:
ירמיה יג:כג הֲיַהֲפֹךְ כּוּשִׁי עוֹרוֹ וְנָמֵר חֲבַרְבֻּרֹתָיו גַּם אַתֶּם תּוּכְלוּ לְהֵיטִיב לִמֻּדֵי הָרֵעַ.
Jer 13:23 Can the Kushite change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Just as much can you do good, who are practiced in doing evil!
If African Kush is the intended referent in Numbers 12, then this source either had a different tradition about whom Moses married or believed Moses had a second wife. Indeed, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, ca. 1085–1158) notes that the simple meaning of the text is that Moses had a second wife, from Nubia:
כושית – שהיא ממשפחת חם.
Kushite—that she was from the family of Ham.
The biblical author ends with a parenthetical comment, acknowledging the truth of Miriam and Aaron’s claim, כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח “for he had married a Kushite woman.” As R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th century) writes in his gloss on the verse:
לפי שלא מצינו במקום אחר שמשה לקח אשה כושית, הגיד לך הכתוב כי בודאי אשה כושית לקח.
Since nowhere were we told that Moses had married a Kushite, Scripture tells us “for indeed he had married a Kushite.”
A second Kush is mentioned in the list of Noah’s descendants, where Genesis calls attention to Nimrod:
בראשית י:ח וְכוּשׁ יָלַד אֶת נִמְרֹד הוּא הֵחֵל לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ... י:י וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר.
Gen 10:8 Kush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth…. 10:10 The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.
These toponyms are all in Iraq, and refer to cities of Sumer, Akkad, and Babylonia. The verses that follow refer to major cities in the Assyrian Empire, whose heart was in modern day Kurdistan (parts of Syria and northern Iraq). Thus, Kush here is not Nubia but Mesopotamia.
Most scholars identify the Kush of Genesis 10 as a reference to the Kassites (Kaššu/Kuššu in the cuneiform texts, Greek Kossaioi) of Mesopotamia who overthrew the first Babylonian dynasty in 1595 B.C.E. and ruled Babylon for the next 450 years. During this time, Babylonia was known as the land of the Kassites.
I am not suggesting that Moses’ Kushite wife was Mesopotamian, but the use of the name for an area in Mesopotamia highlights that Kush may refer to more than one place. In fact, the Bible speaks of a third Kush, one that may solve the problem of Moses’ “new” wife.
Immediately preceding the description of Nimrod and his cities, the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 lists other descendants of Kush:
בראשית י:ז וּבְנֵי כוּשׁ סְבָא וַחֲוִילָה וְסַבְתָּה וְרַעְמָה וְסַבְתְּכָא וּבְנֵי רַעְמָה שְׁבָא וּדְדָן.
Gen 10:7 The descendants of Kush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.
The descendants of Kush here are names of groups or toponyms (place names) or both. Some evidence indicates that Seba may be in Africa, but all the other names—and perhaps even Seba—correspond to names of peoples who inhabited the southern and southwestern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. This implies that parts of Arabia were known to the biblical authors as having a close connection to Kush.
Like the Midianites, also an Arabian people, the Kushites may have had groups living in the northwestern part of Arabia or even the Negev. In fact, Middle Egyptian execration [cursing] texts (19th or 18th century B.C.E.) and possibly other Egyptian sources as well, refer to a group of nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes located in the Negev or on the southern border of Israel, as Kushu (kwšw). Scholars have variously identified these Bedouin people behind some of the biblical references to Kush or Kushite.
In Chronicles’ description of the war against King Joram of Judah, the Kushites are described as neighbors of the Arabs:
דברי הימים ב כא:טז וַיָּעַר יְ־הוָה עַל יְהוֹרָם אֵת רוּחַ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּים וְהָעַרְבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל יַד כּוּשִׁים.
2 Chron 21:16 YHWH stirred up the spirit of the Philistines and the Arabs who were neighbors of the Kushites against Jehoram.
The most important such reference for our purposes comes from the psalm at the end of Habakkuk, which describes how YHWH leaves his home in the south and heads north. On his way, he passes through the area of Midian:
חבקוק ג:ז תַּחַת אָוֶן רָאִיתִי אָהֳלֵי כוּשָׁן יִרְגְּזוּן יְרִיעוֹת אֶרֶץ מִדְיָן.
Hab 3:7 As a scene of havoc I behold the tents of Kushan; shaken are the pavilions of the land of Midian!
Midian and Kushan here are parallel. The name Kushan is a lengthened form of Kush. Such lengthening is found with other Biblical Hebrew place-names; note the Naʿaman/Naʿami parallel in Numbers 26:40, the Salmah/Salmon parallel in Ruth 4:20–21, and Yehudan or Yudan for Yehuda, found in inscriptions and in the Dead Sea material.
Since Midian is located in the same general area as these Negev/north-Arabian Kushu, that is northwest Arabia, and since the name Kushan is a lengthened form of Kush, scholars have therefore concluded that there is some historical connection between Kush(an) and Midian. It is generally thought that the Arabian Kushu assimilated among the Midianites, just as the Midianites later assimilated among the Ishmaelites, and the Ishmaelites among the Arabs (note the alternation of Midianites and Ishmaelites in Gen 37:36).
Thus, Kush(an) is the ancient name of Midian or the name of a tribe that had close ties to Midian, and the report in Numbers 12 is a description of Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, the Midianite.
Zipporah the Kushite/Midianite
The identification of Kushites as Midianites goes back at least to the Judeo-Arabic commentator Tanchum Ha-Yerushalmi (13th century) in his commentary to Habakkuk 3:7 where he quotes an anonymous opinion that the Kushites are another name for the Midianites or are a Midianite tribe and therefore Zipporah is the Kushite.
This may have been unclear to later biblical scribes, who added in Num 12:1b the parenthetical “for he had indeed married a Kushite woman.” The scribe wished to explain that the claim Miriam and Aaron make about Moses was true, even if unknown to the reader before this verse.
Midian Is Ethiopia: A Hellenistic Reading
Some earlier sources make the connection between Midian and Kush as well. Thus, the Hellenistic-Jewish author Demetrius the Chronographer (3rd cent. B.C.E.) explains the marriage of Moses to Zipporah with:
And they lived in the city of Midian, which was named from one of the sons of Abraham… And for this reason also, Aaron and Miriam said at Hazeroth (Num 12:1) that Moses had married an Ethiopian woman.
Similarly, Demetrius’ contemporary, Ezekiel the Tragedian (3rd/2nd cent. B.C.E.), has Moses asking about the seven girls he saves at the well in Midian, and Zipporah responds by explaining where they are (§60–65):
Stranger, this land is called Libya. It is inhabited by tribes of various peoples, Ethiopians, black men. One man is the ruler of the land: he is both king and general. He rules the state, judges the people, and is priest. This man is my father and theirs.
Similarly, the church father Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), not only identifies Moses’ Ethiopian wife with Zipporah, but also employs the same reasoning to explain why a Midianite is called a Kushite, even if by “Kushite” he presumably meant the African and not the Bedouin Kushu: “Almost no one now calls them [the Midianites] Ethiopians, as names of places and peoples often undergo a change of name in time.”
Zipporah Is a “Kushite”: Rabbinic Midrash
Rabbinic tradition interprets the word “Kushite” in the verse metaphorically, implicitly understanding that Moses married only one woman, Zipporah the Midianite. For example, in the Tannaitic midrash, Sifrei Zuta (ad loc.):
על אדות האשה הכושית, וכי כושית היתה והלא מדינית היתה אלא מה כושי ניכר במראיו מכל הבריות כך היתה צפורה ניכרת במראיה ובמעשיה מכל הנשים.
About the Kushite woman? Was she really a Kushite? Was she not a Midianite? Rather just as Kushites are distinct from other people because of their skin, so too was Zipporah distinct in her appearance and her behavior from all other women.
This interpretation is part of a larger exegesis that viewed a number of references to Kush in the Bible as metaphors for that which is different or distinctive, usually in appearance or good character. In addition to Zipporah, this interpretation is applied to King Saul (“Kush the Benjaminite” in Ps 7:1), the people of Israel (Amos 9:7, “Are you not like Kushites to me, O Israel?”), and Ebed-melech the Kushite (Jer 38:7). 
In these cases biblical Kush is not taken literally but metaphorically, as that which is different in a positive way. In addition, rabbinic sources preserve another explanation of the Kushite in Num 12:1: that it means “beautiful.” Thus we see that the rabbinic interpretation of Kushite in Numbers 12:1, whether as a metaphor for distinctiveness or beauty, implicitly understood that Moses’ wife was Zipporah the Midianite.
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Prof. David M. Goldenberg (retired) taught Bible and Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Cape Town, and Dropsie College, where he served as Dean and President in the 1980s. He served as the Editor of The Jewish Quarterly Review from 1982 to 2003. He holds a Ph.D. from Dropsie College in Post-Biblical Literature, with a dissertation titled, Halakhah in Josephus and in Tannaitic Literature: A Comparative Study. Goldenberg is the author of The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, 2003) and Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham (De Gruyter, 2017).
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