Moses Separated from His Wife: Between Greek Philosophy and Rabbinic Exegesis
Moses marries Zipporah, daughter of Reuel, in Midian and together they have two sons (Exod 2:15–22; 18:2–6). Later, in the wilderness, Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ wife, who is described as Cushite (Num 12:1). Whether this is a reference to Zipporah or to a second wife, it is clear from these passages that Moses was married. Texts from late antiquity claim that at some point Moses withdrew from sexual relations with his wife. How did this tradition develop?
Philo: Moses’ Role as Prophet and Priest
Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher, is the first known scholar to make explicit the perspective that Moses’ pursuit of divine wisdom and inspiration was incompatible with an active sex life. Philo depicts Moses as pure Mind, paying no attention to all things sensory and sexual.
On the Life of Moses (Mos.) 1:28 For on his belly he bestowed no more than the necessary tributes which nature has appointed, and as for the pleasures that have their seat below, save for the lawful begetting of children, they passed altogether even out of his memory.
He also highlights Moses’ and God’s extremely close relationship:
Mos. 2.67 Thus he came to love God and be loved by Him as have been few others. A heaven-sent rapture inspired him, so markedly did he honour the Ruler of the All and was honoured in return by Him. An honour well-becoming the wise is to serve the Being Who truly is, and the service of God is ever the business of the priesthood.
To prepare for the sacred tasks of the priesthood, Moses had to become clean, both in soul and body, including avoiding intercourse with women:
Mos. 2.68 But first he had to be clean, as in soul so also in body, to have no dealings with any passion, purifying himself from every appeal of mortal nature, food and drink and intercourse with women.
This is because he wanted to always be ready for and receptive to God’s word:
Mos. 2.68 This last he scorned for many days, almost from the time that he was inspired by the spirit, and entered his work as a prophet, because he thought it suitable to always be prepared to receive the oracular messages.
Philo thus associates sexual relations with lack of readiness to hear God’s voice.
Philo Influenced by Platonic Philosophy
Philo was influenced by his Platonic dualistic worldview, which contrasted the divinely inspired, rational, and immortal soul with the passions, senses, and mortality of the body. Elsewhere, he emphasizes how the needs of the flesh can distract from the pursuits of the mind:
Allegorical Interpretation 2.50 For when that which is superior, namely Mind, becomes one with that which is inferior, namely Sense-perception, it resolves itself into the order of flesh which is inferior, into sense-perception, the moving cause of the passions. But if Sense the inferior follow Mind the superior, there will be flesh no more, but both of them will be Mind.
Indeed, Philo’s first man, created in the image of God, is asexual and represents man’s higher nature (Questions and Answers on Genesis 2.12). The term male itself represents the asexual realm, the sphere of Logos and God.
Alongside this belief in the “masculine” pursuits of the mind are Philo’s fundamental assumptions about female inferiority and the incompatibility of the “feminine” with the attainment to knowledge of the divine. Philo consistently indicts sexuality and women, both literally and symbolically.
In On the Creation he indicates that woman was responsible for the first sin of man, choosing the fleeting mortal life, which was the result of sexual desire (151–152). And in Questions and Answers on Exodus (QE), he argues that the achievement of divine inspiration can overcome the “womanly corruptions” of the flesh, a process that he describes metaphorically as becoming a virgin, i.e., male souls are transformed into pure, virginal vessels for God after their contact with God:
QE 2.3 When souls become divinely inspired, from women they become virgins, throwing off the womanly corruptions that are in sense-perception and passion.
In contrast to Philo’s reasoning that reflects his Platonic dualism, later rabbinic texts appeal directly to scripture to substantiate Moses’ sexual renunciation.
Purification Prior to Divine Revelation
In preparation for the theophany at Sinai, YHWH instructs Moses to consecrate the people and have them wash their clothes:
שׁמות יט:י וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵךְ אֶל הָעָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר וְכִבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם. יט:יא וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי כִּי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי יֵרֵד יְ־הוָה לְעֵינֵי כָל הָעָם עַל הַר סִינָי.
Exod 19:10 And YHWH said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready by the third day”; 19:11 for on the third day YHWH will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people....
Moses descends, consecrates the people and they wash their garments:
שׁמות יט:יד וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה מִן הָהָר אֶל הָעָם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת הָעָם וַיְכַבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם.
Exod 19:14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people and they washed their garments.
After they have been consecrated, Moses adds a new instruction to the people not to approach women:
שׁמות יט:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעָם הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים אַל תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל אִשָּׁה.
Exod 19:15 And he said to the people, “Be ready by the third day; do not go near a woman.”
Moses seemingly interprets YHWH’s command that the people “be ready” (v. 10) to include avoiding sexual intercourse.
A variety of rabbinic texts build on Moses’ own interpretation to argue that Moses himself chose to separate from his wife to always be ready to receive God’s word. For example, Avot of Rabbi Nathan (version A) presents Moses’ celibacy as a decision that he made of his own accord in order to put a fence around Torah:
אבות דרבי נתן א פרק ב איזו סייג שעשה משה לדבריו הרי.... פירש מן האשה והסכימה דעתו לדעת המקום כיצד אמר מה אם ישראל שלא נתקדשו אלא לפי שעה ולא נזדמנו אלא כדי לקבל עליהם עשרת הדברות מהר סיני אמר לי הקדוש ברוך הוא לך אל העם וקדשתם היום ומחר.
ARN A ch. 2 What fence did Moses make to his words?... He separated from his wife, and God agreed with his logic. How was this? He said, “[Consider] Israel, who was but sanctified for but a brief moment and not prepared except to receive the Ten Words at Mt. Sinai. The Holy One, blessed be He, told me to go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow” (Exod 19:10).
ואני שאני מזומן לכך בכל יום ויום ובכל שעה ואיני יודע אימתי מדבר עמי או ביום או בלילה על אחת כמה וכמה שאפרוש מן האשה והסכימה דעתו לדעת המקום.
“But I, who am always prepared every moment and every day so that I do not know when he will speak to me, day or night, how much more should I separate from my wife?” And God agreed with his reasoning.
Rabbi Judah argues that the initiative for Moses’ decision to choose chastity came directly from God:
אבות דרבי נתן א פרק ב רבי יהודה בן בתירא אומר לא פירש משה מן האשה אלא שנאמרה לו מפי הגבורה שנאמר (במדבר י״ב:ח׳) פה אל פה אדבר בו פה אל פה אמרתי לו פרוש מן האשה ופירש.
ARN A ch. 2 Rabbi Judah b. Batriya said: Moses would not have separated from his wife except that he was commanded from the mouth of the Almighty. As Scripture says, “Mouth to mouth I will speak to him” (Num 12:8). Mouth to mouth I told him to separate from his wife, and he separated.
The biblical text does not claim that God ordered Moses to avoid sex, but Rabbi Judah imagines that when God says that he spoke to Moses פה אל פה, “mouth to mouth,” that means that He told him to separate from his wife.
A more direct connection draws on the account of the Sinai theophany in Deuteronomy:
אבות דרבי נתן א פרק ב יש אומרים לא פירש משה מן האשה עד שנאמר לו מפי הגבורה שנאמר (דברים ה׳:כ״ח) לך אמור להם שובו לכם לאהליכם וכתיב בתריה ואתה פה עמוד עמדי
ARN A ch. 2 Others say Moses did not separate from his wife until he was commanded by the mouth of the Almighty. As Scripture says, “Go tell them to return to their tents” (Deut 5:27), but it is written next, “But you stand fast here with me” (Deut 5:28).
In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, after the Ten Words have been given, the people urge Moses to mediate between them and God, lest they die. YHWH agrees with this plan, but in Deuteronomy, the narrative continues with YHWH telling Moses to order the “people” to their tents while he remains with YHWH to hear further commands:
דברים ה:ל לֵךְ אֱמֹר לָהֶם שׁוּבוּ לָכֶם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶם. ה:לא וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תְּלַמְּדֵם וְעָשׂוּ בָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לָהֶם לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 5:30 Go say to them, “Return to your tents.” 5:31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you all the commandments, the statutes and the ordinances, that you shall teach them, so that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.
The rabbis interpret Deuteronomy’s command that the people return to their tents as a euphemism for returning to having sex, thus ending the command in Exodus not to go near a woman. Although God’s demand that Moses remain with him on the mountain is not a command to renounce sex, Moses interprets that demand as a reason for him to do so, and God then agrees with his interpretation:
אבות דרבי נתן א פרק ב חזר לאחוריו ופירש והסכימה דעתו לדעת המקום.
ARN A ch. 2 Moses then returned and changed [his ways] and became celibate (literally “separated”). And God agreed with his decision.
One Idea Arrived at from Two Different Directions
Did the traditions in Philo influence these rabbinic texts? These rabbinic exegeses make no direct reference to Greek philosophy, and could have formed among any community reflecting upon the Torah passages in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We also have no evidence that biblical exegesis of the type found in the rabbinic traditions was used by Philo in regards to Moses’ decision to abstain from sex: Philo’s asexual Moses’ derived from a Platonic dualistic worldview, which required this practice for Moses as chief prophet and priest. Thus, here we have a case of the same conclusion deriving from two very different systems of biblical interpretation.
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Prof. Karen Strand Winslow is professor emeritus of Biblical and Theological Studies at Azusa Pacific Seminary/Azusa Pacific University. She received her Ph.D. in Near and Middle Eastern Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Washington in 2003. Her research interests include biblical interpretation, the formation of Scripture, early Judaism, women in religion, the science and religion, and ethnicity and identity formation, especially as reflected in texts and traditions of Judaism and Christianity. She is the author of Exogamist Marriage and Ethnic Identity: Early Jewish and Christian Memories of Moses’ Wives (2005) and Imagining Equity: The Gifts of Christian Feminist Theology (2021). She has also written commentaries on 1–2 Kings (2017), Esther, and Isaiah (2018–2020), and she co-edited the Wesley Study Bible (2009), Relational Theology: Issues and Implications (2013), and the Global Wesleyan Theological Dictionary (2013).
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