“Miryam and Aharon began criticizing Moshe on account of the Ethiopian woman he had married, for he had in fact married an Ethiopian woman. They said, “Is it true that Adonai has spoken only with Moshe? Hasn’t he spoken with us too?” Adonai heard them. Now this man Moshe was very humble, more so than anyone on earth. Suddenly Adonai told Moshe, Aharon and Miryam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” The three of them went out.”-Numbers 12:1-4
Numbers chapter 12 starts off fast with Miriam and Aaron challenging Moses’ authority by picking a bone with the “Ethiopian woman” he had married.
Some Bible versions will say the “Ethiopian woman” and others will say “the Cushite woman“.
What’s the difference and why the disagreement?
The disagreement arises from two differing opinions concerning exactly where Cush’s territory was located.
Some will say that the present day Ethiopia located in North Africa was the area where Cush settled.
And others will say that Cush territory was actually an area that included Midian.
The actual Hebrew here is KUWSHITH which does literally mean “Cushite“.
The ancient Jewish Sages have had heated debates concerning what exactly KUWSHITH meant in this verse.
One thing for sure is that the Cushites were a dark-skinned people whose lineage came from the cursed line of Ham.
And the general scholarly consensus is that the Cushites were the original people who formed what we now know to be Ethiopia.
Now the confusion arises because back in the Book of Exodus we’re told that Moses was married to a woman named Tzippora and we’re told she was a Midianite woman.
In addition, the Midianites were NOT a black-raced people and they were a separate tribe from the Cushites.
So what gives?
In order to resolve this apparent conundrum, the following three theories have been proposed.
At this point in history, the Cushites occupied Midian but not Ethiopia yet.
The woman spoken of here is a second wife of Moses. This is totally plausible as the Torah does not outlaw polygamy or polygyny to use a more technically accurate term.
The woman being spoken of here is actually Tzippora (the one who is described as being Moses’ wife back in Exodus). The reasoning to support this idea is that Tzippora was a very dark-skinned person who was racially categorized as a Cushite but tribally as a Midianite.
So which theory is the most plausible?
Honestly, I’m not sure.
They all seem plausible to some degree or another I would say.
Personally though, I do find Theory Three to be kind of fishy.
Simply because although the Midianites were a dark-skinned people, their physical characteristics were different enough that from an anthropological perspective, they would NOT be categorized as a tribe of black people (racially speaking that is).
And again, I reiterate that I could be wrong here.
However, I do personally think that people come up with Theory Three because they just can’t stomach the idea that Torah doesn’t outlaw polygyny.
To me, theory two is highly plausible (but I could be wrong) because in the Biblical era it was not uncommon for a Hebrew man to have many, many wives.
So Moses having another woman as his wife would not have been unusual at all.
Let’s move on to the next key question.
Why are Aaron and Miriam all of a sudden expressing such severe disapproval over Moses’ Cushite wife?
One possible reason is to consider the death and destruction due to the plague the Lord sent in response to the grumbling of the people as described in Numbers 11.
Recall, that it was the resident aliens (the non-Hebrews) who instigated this particular bout of grumbling.
So given the context of what had just occurred, Moses’ both non-Hebrew and non-Semitic wife would have not been viewed in a positive manner at this point in time, especially considering he was the leader of Israel at this time.