3.35 Numbers -- The Mystery of the Cushite Woman
Numbers 12 is one of the great chapters of the Old Testament. It acts like a submerged glacier ripping the bottom out of the bad ship Racism. But its significance is hidden beneath a family power struggle. The triggering event was minor:
Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite (Num 12:1).
But it is apparent that the real issue was something other than this marriage:
"Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" (Num 12:2).
Let us take their accusation seriously, as if the wife were at fault. Who was this Cushite woman? Some sources believe she was Zipporah, others that she was a second wife. If this was referring to Zipporah, why was she called a Cushite? We know that Zipporah was Midianite, not Cushite. This leads to just 4 possibilities as to the woman's identity:
a. Zipporah was a non-Negro Cushite from Arabia (majority of scholars)
b. Zipporah was a Negro Cushite from Ethiopia (minority)
c. Second wife was a non-Negro Cushite from Arabia (minority)
d. Second wife was a Negro Cushite from Ethiopia (minority)
Josephus (in Antiquities of the Jews) and the Talmud propose option 'd,' yet base this on a fanciful apocryphal tale of Moses the Prince of Egypt conquering a city in Ethiopia and marrying its princess. Their reasoning isn't credible.
If we trace the background of Cush, he was the oldest son of Ham, and settled Ethiopia, plus part of Arabia. The term "Cushite," however, may sometimes be figurative and not literal -- a beautiful woman but foreign, an outsider. In this view, calling Zipporah a Cushite was an insult (NIV p. 208 footnote).
The Midianites were not descendants of Cush, but of Shem. After Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah, and one of her sons was Midian (Gen 25:1-2) . Thus Midian was half-brother to Isaac. He settled on the coast of Aqaba in Arabia, close to the non-African Cushites.
Now let's consider the timeline of Moses' early life. We do not know the age at which he killed the Egyptian and fled to Midian. But soon after his arrival, he married Zipporah, daughter of Jethro (Ex 2:21-22). According to the sermon of Stephen in the New Testament, God did not appear to Moses in the burning bush until he had been in Midian 40 years (Acts 7:30). Stephen's date must have been based on contemporary Jewish traditions. In fact, the wording in the New Testament seems to indicate that those 40 years start from the birth of Moses' sons, not from his flight to Midian. According to the Old Testament, he was 80 when he stood before Pharaoh (Ex 7:7). This means that the events of Num 12 happened 40 years (or more) after Moses' marriage to Zipporah.
This gives us two strikes against identifying the Cushite woman of Num 12 with Zipporah.
a. Why would Aaron and Miriam raise a fuss over a forty-year old marriage? It's true they weren't invited to the original nuptials because they were in Egypt, but still -- this is old business. Zipporah has lived with Moses half his life. If they were going to reject her, it should have been when they first met her, upon Moses' return from Midian in Ex 4, before the Exodus began. Furthermore, there is no record of any objections from his family when Jethro visited or Hobab joined the camp earlier. So Moses' marriage to Zipporah could not have been the issue here.
b. Every other Scriptural reference to Jethro or Zipporah calls them Midianite, not Cushite (Ex 2:16, Ex 3:1, Ex 18:1, Num 10:29). There is no warrant for saying that the use of the word "Cushite" in Nu 12:1 is figurative, and is really only a derogatory reference to Midian. The Bible is not quoting Aaron, as if he were speaking insultingly -- "she is a Cushite." It is speaking factually, descriptively: "he had married a Cushite woman." Where word usage in Scripture is plain, we are obligated to take the literal meaning, otherwise we introduce all sorts of speculations and prejudices.
The textual evidence leads us to the probability that the Cushite woman was a second wife who was genuinely Cushite. Zipporah probably was still alive, since she had recently just returned from a visit to her father (Ex 18:1-5). If anyone should have been upset with Moses marrying another woman, it was she, not Aaron and Miriam.
This means that:
a. contrary to contemporary Afrocentrists, Zipporah was not a black woman. Moses' children were not bi-racial in a black/white sense, though they were a mix of Hebrew-Midianite.
b. the unnamed Cushite second wife might have been African. We have narrowed down the list of 4 possibilities above to two choices -- #c or #d. But there is no textual evidence in favor of either one of these alternatives. It is possible that an African Cushite woman would have been part of the mixed multitude who joined Israel in leaving Egypt. However, the geographical factor supports the Arabian identification, not the African, since the Israelites were traveling close to Arabian Cushite territory.