The narrative of Moses meeting and ultimately wedding Tziporah, daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro, is very well-known. However, Numbers 12:1 speaks of Moses’ wife not as a Midianite, but rather as a Cushite.
The text reads: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, because of the Cushite woman he had married.”
It continues by detailing the divine curse through the form of tzaraat (a scale-like disease) given to Miriam for engaging in this slander. But what was slanderous about their speech?
Throughout our biblical text, Cush refers to a land in Northern Africa, not close to the land of the Midianite tribe. Was the Cushite wife, referred to in Number 12:1 Tziporah? Or did Moses have a second wife, who was
Ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus attempts to answer this question in his book, Antiquities of the Jews. According to this account, while Moses was living as an Egyptian, he led that nation’s army in a war against Ethiopia, and during the siege he married an Ethiopian. Josephus concludes this wife is the ‘Cushite woman’ Miriam and Aaron speak about.
However, the works of Josephus are not trusted as historically accurate and it is most probable that ‘Cush’ was simply being used in a pejorative way when speaking about Tziporah. Most commentators agree that the Cushite woman of Numbers 12:1 is Tziporah and that Aaron and Miriam were using racist language.
As a Midianite, Tziporah probably had darker skin than the Israelites. Perhaps Miriam was punished with tzaraat because she spoke about Tziporah’s ethnicity in a derogatory way. This interpretation encourages
us to be mindful of the words we use and the potential damage of using hateful speech towards others.
- Rabbi Elana Dellal is a member of the rabbinic team at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue