Why Do Miriam and Aaron Criticize Moses for Marrying a Kushite Woman?
Racism against black-skinned Africans developed long after the Bible. Nevertheless, it has been read back into several biblical passages. One example is the story of how Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses marrying a Kushite woman:
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: “He married a Kushite woman.”
Interpreters have long understood Kush to be a reference to Nubia, and the complaint to be about her ethnicity or her color. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) mentions both possibilities:
יש אומרים: כי משה מלך על כוש ולקח אשה כושית.... והישר בעיני: שזו הכושית היא צפורה, כי היא מדינית, ומדינים הם ישמעאלים, והם דרים באהליהם.... ובעבור חום השמש אין בהם לבן כלל, וצפורה היתה שחורה דומה לכושית.
Some say that Moses became the king of Kush and married a Kushite woman… But what seems correct to me is that the Kushite woman is Zipporah, for she is a Midianite, and Midianites are Ishmaelites (=Arabs), and they dwell in tents… And because of the sun’s heat, their skin isn’t light at all, and Zipporah was black like a Nubian.
Edward Ullendorff, a scholar of Ethiopic languages and literature, delivered a lecture in 1967 in which he argued that the criticism of Moses’ siblings was not only to the woman’s ethnicity or color, but to her being a slave:
Jewish commentators, since the days of the Targum, have been embarrassed by the obvious interpretation that Moses had married an Ethiopian slave-girl. Some have argued (and so have some modern exegetes) that ‘Ethiopian, Cushite’ is a blanket term that might well have applied to Zipporah, the Midianite (i.e. North Arabian), but it seems very unlikely that this explanation would satisfactorily account for the indignation expressed by Miriam and Aaron.
To Ullendorf, Miriam and Aaron’s complaint makes most sense if the woman were clearly inferior to Moses, in status and race. This reading goes back to an 1898 encyclopedia entry in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, written by David Samuel Margoliouth (1858–1940) of Oxford University. After discussing the possibility that the Kushite woman is Zipporah, Margoliouth writes:
But besides the improbability of this usage being found in the Bible, the text implies (though it does not expressly assert) that the marriage was of recent occurrence. It is therefore more likely that a black slave-girl is meant, and that the fault found by Miriam and Aaron was with the indignity of such a union; and this accords with the statement (v.3) that Moses was the 'meekest' of mankind. The employment of Nubians as slaves dates back to the early dynasties of Egypt.
The last point should not be understood to mean that the Egyptians held only Nubian slaves: The Egyptians, like all kingdoms at the time, took slaves from whatever peoples they fought, including Levantines, and even Israelites.
Moreover, for part of the biblical period, Kush was not only a powerful kingdom, but for almost a century they ruled over Egypt itself (the 25th dynasty, ca. 744–656 B.C.E.). In fact, the Kushite king Taharqa (ca. 690–633 B.C.E.) frightens off the Assyrian army during Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah:
מלכים ב יט:ט [=ישעיה לז:ט] וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶל תִּרְהָקָה מֶלֶך כּוּשׁ לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה יָצָא לְהִלָּחֵם אִתָּךְ...
2Kgs 19:9 [=Isa 37:9] But [the king of Assyria] learned that Tirhakah, King of Kush had come out to fight him…
Thus, the knee-jerk connection between Nubian and slave would not have existed in the biblical period. Instead, Margoliouth, Ullendorf, and all who read the beginning of Numbers 12 this way are projecting latter-day assumptions onto the past.
This interpretation of Margoliouth and Ullendorf contrasts sharply with some late Second Temple period interpretations, in which Hellenistic Jewish interpreters imagined Moses’ Nubian wife here not as a slave but as a princess. Thus, Josephus (37–ca.100 C.E.) writes:
Ant 2:252 Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians. Observing Moses leading his army near the walls and fighting courageously… 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. 2:253 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…
This story is not supported by the biblical text, but it highlights how authors from different times project onto the text realities that are familiar to them. Josephus imagines an Ethiopian kingdom while 19th—and even 20th!—century scholars imagine slaves. As for the Bible itself, we don’t find that Kushites are cast in a negative light in any of the many passages that mention them.
The Contrast with Snow
One argument that has been marshalled to show that color is a factor in the story is the punishment of leprosy God inflicts on Miriam for speaking against Moses:
במדבר יב:ט וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה בָּם וַיֵּלַךְ. יב:י וְהֶעָנָן סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל מִרְיָם וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת.
Num 12:9 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed. 12:10 When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous.
The snow-white description of the leprosy given above is that of NRSV and is found in almost all Bible translations including that of the NJPS, and it is seen as an apt response to a racist slur about a black African. This is a common interpretation of Miriam’s affliction, which is found in writings by both Blacks and non-Blacks, whether theologically or scholarly based, over many years.
Snow naturally suggests color. Indeed, in the Bible snow is used a few times to illustrate the color white (Isa 1:18, Ps 51:9, Dan 7:9; see also Lam 4:7). However, the Hebrew text here simply reads “like snow.” The adjective “white” in the translations is not in the Hebrew text. Nor is it in the Qumran fragments or the ancient translation of the Septuagint (LXX) or the Old Latin translation, the Vetus Latina.
It appears for the first time in the Vulgate “white as snow with a leprosy” (candens lepra quasi nix) at the end of the 4th century. Similarly, Targum Onkelos translates חורא כתלגא “white as snow,” and the Sifrei and Sifrei Zuta also assume a white color.
Even if the term were to be understood as “snow-white,” it is not clear why a punishment of tzaraʿat would be meant as a response to a slur against people with black skin. In the Bible, the disease is found as God’s punishment for various and sundry sins, none of which have anything to do with skin color:
- Joab and his descendants are cursed with it for the crime of murder (2 Sam 3:29);
- Gehazi is afflicted with it for acting deceitfully (2 Kgs 5:27);
- King Azariah, for not removing the high places (2 Kgs 15:5);
- King Uzziah, for improperly offering incense in the Temple (2 Chr 26:16–21).
Instead, I suggest that it may not be the whiteness of the snow that the Torah is calling our attention to, but to its texture. Much depends on how we understand tzaraʿat, what NRSV translates as “leprous.”
What Is Tzaraʿat?
Biblicists generally agree that the Hebrew term tzaraʿat used to describe the punishment of Moses’ sister is not leprosy, nor is it a category of skin diseases that includes leprosy. It is doubtful that leprosy even existed in the ancient Near East at the time of the Hebrew Bible.
Rather, tzaraʿat seems to be a group of skin diseases that exhibit a flaking or exfoliation of the skin (e.g., psoriasis, eczema, seborrhea). For this reason, many Bible translations have discarded “leprosy” and replaced it with “scales” or “diseased” or something similar.
Moreover, the description of Miriam’s appearance in Aaron’s entreaty to Moses implies that her skin is not white:
במדבר יב:יב אַל נָא תְהִי כַּמֵּת אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרוֹ.
Num 12:12 Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.
The color of a fetus that has died in the womb is reddish, which turns brown-gray after a few days out of the womb. Thus, the biblical description of the disease in our passage and in others (Exod 4:6, 2 Kgs 5:27) as “like snow” does not refer to the color of the disease but to its characteristic flakiness, which is typical of the stillborn fetus, which sheds its skin in large sheets.
In sum, the punishment of Miriam makes no reference to her having white skin, and cannot be used to support understanding her complaint as related to the woman’s black skin. What, then, was Miriam and Aaron’s issue with Moses marrying a Kushite woman?
Marrying a Non-Israelite
The point of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint seems to be that Moses had taken a non-Israelite wife. As R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.) wrote:
לפי הפשט: שהיו אומרים: וכי לא מצא משה אשה מבנות ישראל שיקח לו לאשה, שהלך לקחת לו מבנות הכושים שהם ערלים. וכי בשביל שהקב״ה מדבר עמו מתגאה, שאינו רוצה לישא אשה מבנות ישראל שבקש אשה במרחק.
According to the simple meaning, they said: “Was Moses unable to find a woman from the daughters of Israel to marry that he went and married the daughters of the uncircumcised Kushites? Is it because the Holy One, blessed be He speaks with him that he has become proud, and he doesn’t want to marry an Israelite woman that he had to go marry a woman from far away?!
The complaint against Moses by Miriam and Aaron, then, has nothing to do with the Kushite’s skin color. The point, rather, is that the woman is not an Israelite. In having God punish Miriam for arguing against the marriage, this text implicitly acknowledges the acceptability of foreign marriage.
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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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