Moses’s Cushite Wife
Who was the Ethiopian (Cushite) wife that Moses took (Numbers 12:1)? Is she the same wife as Jethro’s daughter Zipporah whom Moses earlier married (Exodus 2:21), and later came back to him in the desert (Exodus 18)? Also, why were Miriam and Aaron upset at Moses for taking a Cushite wife? Did they not like her simply because she was black?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The story of Moses’s Cushite wife is actually quite cryptic. As you observed, we hear earlier of Moses marrying the daughter of Jethro the Midianite. Yet in the Book of Numbers Moses’s sister Miriam is upset about his having taken a “Cushite” wife. Cush is generally translated as Ethiopia (probably the entire region south of Egypt – see Shemot Rabbah 10:2), a place inhabited by blacks. (See e.g. Jeremiah 13:23: “Can a Cushite change his skin, or a leopard its spots?”) Is this a different wife? And where did she come from?
An important introductory point is that the Midrash states that when Moses fled Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15), before arriving in Midian, Moses escaped south to the land of Cush. (Note that Moses was presumably a young man when he fled Egypt, in Midian he married and had two small children, and he was 80 on his return to Egypt at the start of the story of the Exodus. Thus, apparently, many of his early adult years are unrecorded in the Torah.) Moses first served the king of Cush and then upon his death became king himself, ruling for 40 years. He was given the former king’s widow as a wife but he refused to live with her or worship the Cushite god (Yalkut Shimoni Shemot 168).
With that introduction, I will present some of the explanations given of Moses’s Cushite wife. Most commentators do not follow the Midrash above and assume the woman Miriam was referring to was his Midianite wife, Zipporah. Some explain she was referred to as a Cushite because the nomadic, desert-dwelling Midianites somewhat resembled the Cushites, or that Zipporah herself was unusually dark-skinned or homely (Radak, R. Bechaye, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni). Others explain it was a type of contrary nickname (Targum, Sifri quoted in Rashi). She was actually strikingly beautiful, and it was customary to give a superior person a less-becoming nickname, so as not to arouse jealousy. The Talmud explains differently, that “Just as a Cushite is distinct in her skin [color], so too was Zipporah distinct in her [good] deeds” (Mo’ed Katan 16b, see also Targum Yerushalmi).
Others explain, based on the Midrash, that the wife under discussion was not Zipporah but the Cushite princess, whom Moses had never lived with (Targum Yonatan, Ibn Ezra alternate explanation, Rashbam, Chizkuni alternate explanation). No doubt unlike his righteous wife Zipporah, the Cushite never embraced the faith and became worthy of joining the nation.
Either way, according to almost all interpretations, the issue was not that Moses took such a wife, but that he had separated from her. (The Midrash gives different explanations how Miriam happened to find out they weren’t living together.) Many of the commentators who understood that his wife was dark or homely explain that Miriam suspected he separated from her because he found her unattractive. In any event, the Torah records Miriam complaining about something else – claiming that they too are prophets. The implication was that she suspected Moses separated from his wife because he believed a prophet is too holy for married life – as the Midrash puts it, “The elders, fortunate are they but woe to their wives!” She objected to this, but God explained that Moses was an exceptional prophet who had to maintain especially high standards.