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Articles Re: The Two Wives of Moses



When reading the Old Testament record of the life of Moses, it appears that Moses was married to two women. The following articles provide insight into the subject.



Essay: Moses: A Tale of Two Wives

Written by:    - Richard T. Ritenbaugh

The Website Where This Article is Found
http://cgg.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.CGGWeekly/ID/255/Moses-Tale-of-Two-Wives.htm


Moses is such an interesting subject that his life demands at least one more essay! He lived a long, full life during an exciting and eventful period of history. Besides that, his experiences run the gamut from prince to shepherd to servant of God, so there is a great deal to tell. A strange chapter of his life deals with his two wives, a situation that sparked the events of Numbers 12.

The story begins sometime during the first forty-year period of his life, during the time before he fled to Midian. Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, II.10.1-2) records that, as a general of Egypt, Moses was sent with an army to turn back an Ethiopian incursion into Egypt. Having done that in a decisive battle, he took the offensive, gaining victory after victory. Finally, he laid siege to their royal city, Saba. Because Saba was highly fortified and situated on an island, it was nearly impregnable, and this worried Moses. However, before a long siege could reduce both morale and his army's strength, the Ethiopians offered him a deal. Josephus writes:

Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians: she happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage; and admiring the subtlety of his undertakings, and believing him to be the author of the Egyptians' success, . . . she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevalence of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage. He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city; and gave her the assurance of an oath to take her to his wife; and that when he had once taken possession of the city, he would not break his oath to her. No sooner was the agreement made, but it took effect immediately; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land. (2:252-253)

Several years later, Moses fled from Egypt after killing the Egyptian. He was a fugitive, a wanted man. His Ethiopian wife, no longer in favor among the Egyptians, likely returned to her native land. Forty years passed while Moses led Jethro's flocks, during which he took Zipporah as his wife and fathered two sons. Then, after the Pharaoh's death, God called Moses to be His prophet and sent him back to Egypt.

The subsequent events—Moses' demands of Pharaoh, the plagues, the Exodus, and the Red Sea crossing—did not occur in a vacuum. Word of Egypt's devastation and humiliation raced through the surrounding countries. News would quickly reach Ethiopia that their conqueror, Moses, was alive and leading a new army of Israelites. It is not improbable that his Ethiopian wife, now upwards of her mid-fifties, returned to Egypt to rejoin her husband. Evidently, arriving after the Israelites had already entered the wilderness, she followed their trail until she finally caught up with them at Hazeroth, and proclaimed herself to be Moses' wife.

What a furor that caused! We see in Numbers 12 that it got Aaron and Miriam into deep trouble with God because they criticized Moses for a sin he committed long before he was converted. God had obviously forgiven him of it, an act of political strategy done before Moses' calling. His siblings had a superior, judgmental attitude that God did not like at all, because it was His prerogative to judge His servant Moses.

As for Zipporah, she, too, would not have been happy to find out Moses had an Ethiopian wife (unless Moses had told her of his life in Egypt). The Bible does not give her reaction. Exodus 18:1-3 shows that Zipporah, though she did not participate in the Exodus from Egypt, rejoined Moses at Sinai, so she was probably there when all the events occurred in Numbers 12. It probably made for interesting mealtimes!

These are intriguing stories, pieced together from the sparse historical evidence that remains of those times. Much of them is historical conjecture, but they are engaging nonetheless. They show, however, that God works to prepare His servants as is necessary to bring about His purpose. Moses was a great man, but only because God Himself forged him in the royal household of Pharaoh and in the deserts of Sinai and Midian to lead Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.

And if He prepared Moses for his job, will He not do the same for His Son's bride (Revelation 19:7-9)?

- Richard T. Ritenbaugh

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How Moses Made War With The Ethiopians

The Website Where This Article is Found
http://www.interhack.net/projects/library/antiquities-jews/b2c10.html


1. MOSES, therefore, when he was born, and brought up in the foregoing manner, and came to the age of maturity, made his virtue manifest to the Egyptians; and showed that he was born for the bringing them down, and raising the Israelites. And the occasion he laid hold of was this: - The Ethiopians, who are next neighbors to the Egyptians, made an inroad into their country, which they seized upon, and carried off the effects of the Egyptians, who, in their rage, fought against them, and revenged the affronts they had received from them; but being overcome in battle, some of them were slain, and the rest ran away in a shameful manner, and by that means saved themselves; whereupon the Ethiopians followed after them in the pursuit, and thinking that it would be a mark of cowardice if they did not subdue all Egypt, they went on to subdue the rest with greater vehemence; and when they had tasted the sweets of the country, they never left off the prosecution of the war: and as the nearest parts had not courage enough at first to fight with them, they proceeded as far as Memphis, and the sea itself, while not one of the cities was able to oppose them. The Egyptians, under this sad oppression, betook themselves to their oracles and prophecies; and when God had given them this counsel, to make use of Moses the Hebrew, and take his assistance, the king commanded his daughter to produce him, that he might be the general (22) of their army. Upon which, when she had made him swear he would do him no harm, she delivered him to the king, and supposed his assistance would be of great advantage to them. She withal reproached the priest, who, when they had before admonished the Egyptians to kill him, was not ashamed now to own their want of his help.

2. So Moses, at the persuasion both of Thermuthis and the king himself, cheerfully undertook the business: and the sacred scribes of both nations were glad; those of the Egyptians, that they should at once overcome their enemies by his valor, and that by the same piece of management Moses would be slain; but those of the Hebrews, that they should escape from the Egyptians, because Moses was to be their general. But Moses prevented the enemies, and took and led his army before those enemies were apprized of his attacking them; for he did not march by the river, but by land, where he gave a wonderful demonstration of his sagacity; for when the ground was difficult to be passed over, because of the multitude of serpents, (which it produces in vast numbers, and, indeed, is singular in some of those productions, which other countries do not breed, and yet such as are worse than others in power and mischief, and an unusual fierceness of sight, some of which ascend out of the ground unseen, and also fly in the air, and so come upon men at unawares, and do them a mischief,) Moses invented a wonderful stratagem to preserve the army safe, and without hurt; for he made baskets, like unto arks, of sedge, and filled them with ibes, (23) and carried them along with them; which animal is the greatest enemy to serpents imaginable, for they fly from them when they come near them; and as they fly they are caught and devoured by them, as if it were done by the harts; but the ibes are tame creatures, and only enemies to the serpentine kind: but about these ibes I say no more at present, since the Greeks themselves are not unacquainted with this sort of bird. As soon, therefore, as Moses was come to the land which was the breeder of these serpents, he let loose the ibes, and by their means repelled the serpentine kind, and used them for his assistants before the army came upon that ground. When he had therefore proceeded thus on his journey, he came upon the Ethiopians before they expected him; and, joining battle with them, he beat them, and deprived them of the hopes they had of success against the Egyptians, and went on in overthrowing their cities, and indeed made a great slaughter of these Ethiopians. Now when the Egyptian army had once tasted of this prosperous success, by the means of Moses, they did not slacken their diligence, insomuch that the Ethiopians were in danger of being reduced to slavery, and all sorts of destruction; and at length they retired to Saba, which was a royal city of Ethiopia, which Cambyses afterwards named Mero, after the name of his own sister. The place was to be besieged with very great difficulty, since it was both encompassed by the Nile quite round, and the other rivers, Astapus and Astaboras, made it a very difficult thing for such as attempted to pass over them; for the city was situate in a retired place, and was inhabited after the manner of an island, being encompassed with a strong wall, and having the rivers to guard them from their enemies, and having great ramparts between the wall and the rivers, insomuch, that when the waters come with the greatest violence, it can never be drowned; which ramparts make it next to impossible for even such as are gotten over the rivers to take the city. However, while Moses was uneasy at the army's lying idle, (for the enemies durst not come to a battle,) this accident happened: - Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians: she happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage; and admiring the subtility of his undertakings, and believing him to be the author of the Egyptians' success, when they had before despaired of recovering their liberty, and to be the occasion of the great danger the Ethiopians were in, when they had before boasted of their great achievements, she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevalency of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage. He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city; and gave her the assurance of an oath to take her to his wife; and that when he had once taken possession of the city, he would not break his oath to her. No sooner was the agreement made, but it took effect immediately; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.

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Was Moses A Polygamist

The Website Where This Article is Found
http://www.samchapman.f2s.com/pMoses.htm
 

The Bible rarely mentions a man's marital status. We are sometimes told plenty of details about individuals and events in which they were involved, only to remain unaware of whether they were married.

Occasionally we come across a single statement at the end of the Biblical account which gives us a clue to the answer, such as that of Gideon.

"And Gideon had threescore and ten sons of his body begotten: for he had many wives. And his concubine that was in Shechem, she also bare him a son, whose name he called Abimelech." Judges
8 vv 30-31

Put simply, the Bible doesn't often consider it important to tell us whether a man was married, and if he was, to how many women he was married. This has led to many men being claimed as "monogamist", because only one wife is recorded, or because the Bible doesn't specifically pick them out as polygamists.

It has often been noted that the example of many godly men in the Bible who were polygamists is, to say the least, a little inconvenient for those who claim that the Bible preaches monogamy. The polygamists definitely have Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon as their predecessors. The monogamy-only crowd can only argue from silence or from limited records, and they don't really like it. Hence it becomes very important to claim major Bible characters as monogamous, if only to try to counterbalance the blatant polygamy of so many of God's finest. And if you are looking for great Bible characters then Moses is certainly up there with the best of them. The man who wrote the five books of the Torah, who first recorded that marriage made a man and his wife "one flesh", who first gave the law to the people of God, is an impressive person to have on your side of the argument. In fact, if he turned out to be a polygamist this would make life difficult for those who suggest that his writings contain material incompatible with polygamy. And as a bonus to those obsessed with monogamy, we only know the name of one wife of Moses!

For these reasons Moses is sometimes claimed to be monogamous, and those of us who dare to suggest otherwise are often "put right" in no uncertain terms by those who make those claims, usually with some sort of side-swipe to suggest that this proves we do not know our Bibles very well. Moses they say, was married to Zipporah, and no other wife is recorded, and so we ought not to defame him by claiming he was engaged in such a notorious practice as polygamy.

So what do we know about Zipporah? Well we know she was a Midianite and that Midian was the son of Keturah, one of Abraham's wives, and that she was brought back to Moses by her father, as soon as Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt. We then find that Aaron and Miriam complain about a wife of Moses in Numbers 12. The Bible says that Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses "because of the Ethiopian woman he had married." - or if you are old-fashioned like me, because of his 'Cushite' wife (as Cush is how the word was translated before the translators began using "Ethiopia". In fact it may be more accurate to use the term "Sudan").

The question is - "Is Moses Ethiopian wife of Numbers 12 the same as Zipporah, his Midianite wife?"

Well, Zipporah was descended from Midian, and therefore Abraham and ultimately from Noah's son Shem (Gen. 25 vv 1-4). Cush, however was descended from Noah's son Ham, not Shem (1 Chr. 1 vv 8-10). So the titles of Cushite (Ethiopian) and Midianite refer to entirely different nations from different descendants of Noah, and it may be considered unlikely that Zipporah descended from both Cush and Midian, because of the tradition of endogamy mentioned in the Bible, where people married their own kind, and normally went to some trouble to do so.

Some have suggested that Zipporah was "an Ethiopian subject" - because it is clear that, as a Midianite, she was not an ethnic Ethiopian. But where does the Bible say this? Nowhere. In fact, does it talk of anyone in such terms - did the Jews become Babylonians when they were in the captivity? No. Were they called Egyptians when they were in Egypt? No. The idea of some being called after a certain nation because they were subject to that nation does not appear to be found in scripture. And, in any event, it is clear that Zipporah is in no way subject to Ethiopia - she is married to the man leading Israel. It is hard to imagine how she could be less subject to any other nation.

Also, there is no scriptural evidence that the Midianites were subject to Ethiopia, and no separate historical evidence has been provided. Take a look at a Bible atlas - they are not even close - Cush (Ethiopia) is to the South of Egypt - To get to Midian from Egypt you go East across the Gulf of Suez, East across Sinai, East across the Gulf of Aqaba and, congratulations, you have arrived. It is not a very credible suggestion that Cush ruled Midian, and that because of this Midianites were called Cushites.

The explanation then begins to look a bit contrived - as if trying to get round a difficulty. The Bible is happy to talk of Zipporah as a Midianite. Her name and ethnic origin are not hidden - we even know the name of her brother (Numbers 10 v 29) and the name of her father (Reuel in Exodus 2v18 and Numbers 10 v29) and of Jethro, another male relation, in Exodus 3 v 1. The point is that she is not Mrs. Anonymous, and there is no reason for skirting round her identity. But suddenly in Numbers 12 we are talking of "the Ethiopian woman he had married" - no name or details other than that she is a Cushite (Ethiopian).

And this is strange, because only two chapters earlier (Numbers 10v29), Zipporah's family are being referred to as Midianites. Midianite is the term that Numbers used for her people - so when it uses Cushite, there is every reason to suspect that it is referring to someone else.

To believe that this woman is Zipporah is to believe that God happily referred to these people as Midianites, then called them Cushites in Numbers 12, and then went back to calling them Midianites, that he was happy to call Zipporah by name, and then changed his mind in Chapter 12 and instead called her something she had never been called before, relating her to a nation that she didn't come from but that she might, just might, have been subject to, although there is no evidence or reason to believe that is the case.

A little far-fetched?

So what is the deal with Moses and the Cushite wife?

Well, there are two things. Firstly we know that Moses was married to Zipporah, and that he is married to this Cushite. If you check the first verses of Exodus 16, 18 and 19 you will see that Zipporah returned to Moses sometime in the second or third month after the exodus from Egypt. If you check Numbers 10 vv 11 and 29 you will find that one year later her Father is still Moses Father-in-law (i.e. Zipporah is still with us) and if you follow the action into Numbers 12 you will see that hardly any time passes before Aaron and Miriam get all hot and bothered about the Cushite wife. There is very little time available for Zipporah conveniently to die in order to maintain Moses as a monogamist.

This means essentially, that it appears that Moses was still married to Zipporah when he was married to the Cushite, i.e. Moses didn't just remarry when she died - Moses was a polygamist.

Secondly, the one thing we know of this other wife is that she is a Cushite, a descendant of Ham. What do we know of the Cushites? That Jeremiah 13 v 23 records a prophecy asking, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots?", that Cush means "black" or "burnt face" and these nations populated Africa, which is still where you will find Ethiopia. In other words, Moses married a black woman as well as Zipporah, and his family didn't like it.

So it seems that Aaron and Miriam didn't like the Cushite - possibly because she was black, or possibly because it made Moses polygamous, or possibly because of both reasons - and God punished them for it. Ironically, Miriam's punishment turns her white as snow, which may be another clue to the nature of the dispute.

Perhaps those who today preach racism or mandatory monogamy would do well to remember this story.

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Since this article was written it has become apparent that there is further academic research available on the issue of Moses and his wives. Dr J. Daniel Hays, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at Ouachita Baptist University, has written a number of articles, including the following online:-

Moses: The Private Man Behind the Public Leader - examining the scriptural evidence in detail.

Did Moses Marry a Cushite? Early Traditions Suggest He Did. - showing that ancient stories about Moses' Cushite wife (which may or may not be true in themselves) include assumptions that Cush is not the same as Midian and therefore that the Cushite wife is different from Zipporah.

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Essay: Moses: A Tale of Two Wives

The Website Where This Article is Found
http://cgg.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.CGGWeekly/ID/255/Moses-Tale-of-Two-Wives.htm


Moses is such an interesting subject that his life demands at least one more essay! He lived a long, full life during an exciting and eventful period of history. Besides that, his experiences run the gamut from prince to shepherd to servant of God, so there is a great deal to tell. A strange chapter of his life deals with his two wives, a situation that sparked the events of Numbers 12.

The story begins sometime during the first forty-year period of his life, during the time before he fled to Midian. Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, II.10.1-2) records that, as a general of Egypt, Moses was sent with an army to turn back an Ethiopian incursion into Egypt. Having done that in a decisive battle, he took the offensive, gaining victory after victory. Finally, he laid siege to their royal city, Saba. Because Saba was highly fortified and situated on an island, it was nearly impregnable, and this worried Moses. However, before a long siege could reduce both morale and his army's strength, the Ethiopians offered him a deal. Josephus writes:

Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians: she happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage; and admiring the subtlety of his undertakings, and believing him to be the author of the Egyptians' success, . . . she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevalence of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage. He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city; and gave her the assurance of an oath to take her to his wife; and that when he had once taken possession of the city, he would not break his oath to her. No sooner was the agreement made, but it took effect immediately; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land. (2:252-253)

Several years later, Moses fled from Egypt after killing the Egyptian. He was a fugitive, a wanted man. His Ethiopian wife, no longer in favor among the Egyptians, likely returned to her native land. Forty years passed while Moses led Jethro's flocks, during which he took Zipporah as his wife and fathered two sons. Then, after the Pharaoh's death, God called Moses to be His prophet and sent him back to Egypt.

The subsequent events—Moses' demands of Pharaoh, the plagues, the Exodus, and the Red Sea crossing—did not occur in a vacuum. Word of Egypt's devastation and humiliation raced through the surrounding countries. News would quickly reach Ethiopia that their conqueror, Moses, was alive and leading a new army of Israelites. It is not improbable that his Ethiopian wife, now upwards of her mid-fifties, returned to Egypt to rejoin her husband. Evidently, arriving after the Israelites had already entered the wilderness, she followed their trail until she finally caught up with them at Hazeroth, and proclaimed herself to be Moses' wife.

What a furor that caused! We see in Numbers 12 that it got Aaron and Miriam into deep trouble with God because they criticized Moses for a sin he committed long before he was converted. God had obviously forgiven him of it, an act of political strategy done before Moses' calling. His siblings had a superior, judgmental attitude that God did not like at all, because it was His prerogative to judge His servant Moses.

As for Zipporah, she, too, would not have been happy to find out Moses had an Ethiopian wife (unless Moses had told her of his life in Egypt). The Bible does not give her reaction. Exodus 18:1-3 shows that Zipporah, though she did not participate in the Exodus from Egypt, rejoined Moses at Sinai, so she was probably there when all the events occurred in Numbers 12. It probably made for interesting mealtimes!

These are intriguing stories, pieced together from the sparse historical evidence that remains of those times. Much of them is historical conjecture, but they are engaging nonetheless. They show, however, that God works to prepare His servants as is necessary to bring about His purpose. Moses was a great man, but only because God Himself forged him in the royal household of Pharaoh and in the deserts of Sinai and Midian to lead Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.

And if He prepared Moses for his job, will He not do the same for His Son's bride (Revelation 19:7-9)?

- Richard T. Ritenbaugh

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Did Moses Marry a Cushite?
Early Traditions Suggest He Did

Written by:    J. Daniel Hays

The Website Where This Article is Found
http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/did_moses_marry_a_cushite.htm


Although some modern interpreters seem to prefer to conflate Cush with Midian, the earliest biblical translators and interpreters clearly understood Cush to be a region in Africa. The Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint (produced for the Greek-speaking Jewish community in the third to second century B.C.E.) and the Latin Vulgate (late fourth century C.E.) both translate the term "Cushite" in Numbers 12:1 as "Ethiopian," the term used by the Greeks and Romans to refer to the region south of Egypt inhabited by people with black skin.

The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relates an incredible story in which Moses, in his first act as an adult, leads an army of Egyptians and Hebrews against the Ethiopians, or Cushites, and ends up marrying an Ethiopian princess named Tharbis (Jewish Antiquities 2.10-11). For Josephus, this was Moses' first marriage; only later did he travel to Midian and meet Zipporah.

According to Josephus, the Ethiopians had invaded Egypt, conquering the Egyptian cities in their path as they swept across the country to the Mediterranean Sea. The Egyptians sought guidance from their oracles: "And when counsel came to them from God to take the Hebrew for their ally, [Pharaoh] bade his daughter give up Moses to serve as his general." Moses, Josephus recounts, "gladly accepted the task." In order to surprise the Ethiopian army, Moses traveled south through the serpent-ridden desert rather than along the Nile. His sneak attack was successful: "[Moses] came wholly unexpected upon the Ethiopians, joined battle with them and defeated them, crushing their cherished hopes of mastering the Egyptians, and then [he] proceeded to attack and overthrow their cities, great carnage of the Ethiopians ensuing."

Moses' military prowess had an unusual effect on the Ethiopian princess Tharbis, who watched the battle from inside the capital city's walls: "Tharbis, the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians, watching Moses bringing his troops close beneath the city ramparts and fighting valiantly, marveled at the ingenuity of his maneuvers and, understanding that it was to him that the Egyptians, who until now despaired of their independence, owed all their success, and through him that the Ethiopians, so boastful of their feats against them, were reduced to the last straits, fell madly in love with him."

Tharbis made a proposal of marriage to Moses, and he accepted—on condition that Tharbis surrender her hometown. The princess agreed. "Moses rendered thanks to God, celebrated the nuptials, and led the Egyptians back to their own land," Josephus relates.

Moses' success scared the Egyptians, however, who feared that he would turn against them. Pharaoh surreptitiously prepared to have him killed, but Moses escaped to Midian—and thus begins the more familiar biblical tale of Moses' marriage to Zipporah.

The account of the marriage of Moses and Tharbis is one of the most extensive additions to the biblical text by Josephus.(1)

Writing even earlier than Josephus was Artapanus, thought to have been an Alexandrian Jew writing in the second century B.C.E., who also describes the military expedition by Moses to Cush. But Artapanus does not mention any marriage.(2) Later Jewish legends, however, did expound on Moses' escapades in Cush. In several of these accounts, too, Moses marries an Ethiopian (Cushite) princess, here named Adoniah.(3)

According to these later midrashic tales, when Moses was a young man, one King Kikanos ruled over Ethiopia. War broke out between Ethiopia and the East, and Kikanos led his army into battle. He left an official named Balaam in charge of the capital city. But in the king's absence, Balaam won the people over to his side and usurped the throne. To prevent Kikanos's return, Balaam and his sons blockaded the city by building high walls and thick ramparts and digging canals. They also introduced swarms of venomous snakes that made it perilous to approach the city. Kikanos besieged the city but failed to breach the walls. For nine years, Kikanos camped outside his capital.

When Moses fled Pharaoh, he happened upon Kikanos's camp, was invited to join his troops and eventually rose to the position of commander in chief: Moses, the legend goes, "exercised an attraction upon all that saw him, for he was slender like a palm-tree, his countenance shone as the morning sun and his strength was equal to a lion's." Eventually, Kikanos died, still in exile. The army "could find none except Moses fit to be their king." They crowned the Hebrew slave and offered him Kikanos's widow, Adoniah, as his bride. So at age 27 Moses became king of Ethiopia. After recapturing the city from Balaam, he reigned for 40 years.

But in his 40th year of rule, the midrash recounts, Adoniah publicly addressed her people: "What is this thing that you, the people of Ethiopia, have done these many days? Surely you know that during the forty years this man has reigned over you, he has not approached me, nor has he worshiped the gods of Ethiopia. Now, therefore, let this man reign over you no more, for he is not of our flesh. Behold, Monarchos my son [by Kikanos] is grown up, let him reign over you. It is better for you to serve the son of your lord than a stranger, a slave of the king of Egypt."

Moses was dismissed. Fearing to return to Pharaoh, he fled to Midian, where he would, of course, meet Zipporah.

The earliest biblical readers invented these elaborate tales to explain this enigmatic passage in Numbers: "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman)." Clearly, they understood that Moses' wife in Numbers 12:1 came from the Cush south of Egypt.

1 Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 2.10-11. Donna Runnalls, "Moses' Ethiopian Campaign," Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Periods 14 (1983), p. 148. William Whiston (in Flavius Josephus, Complete Works, trans. William Whiston [1867; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1960, p. 58) notes that Irenaeus cites this story from Josephus. Whiston also suggest that this episode might be behind the statement of Stephen in Acts 7:22. Stephen is quoted as referring to Moses as "powerful in speech and action" before God called him to deliver the Israelites. (Back)

Numerous scholarly discussions on Josephus's probable sources have been written. See Runnalls, "Moses' Ethiopian Campaign," pp. 135-156; Avigdor Shinan, "Moses and the Ethiopian Woman: Sources of a Story in the Chronicle of Moses," Scripta Hierosolymitana 27 (1978), p. 68; Isidore Lévy, "Moïse en Ethiopie," Revue des études juives 53 (1907), pp. 201-211; and Solomon Rappaport, Agada und Exegese bei Flavius Josephus (Vienna: Alexander Kohut Memorial Foundation, 1930).

2 This account is cited by Eusebius (Praeparatio Evangelica 2.27), who copied the story from Alexander Polyhistor, who apparently obtained the account by Artapanus. The differences between Artapanus and Josephus are puzzling. (Back)

3 This version is presented in the spurious Book of Jasher, 23.5-25.5. See also Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1956), pp. 299-302; and Dewey M. Beegle, "Moses," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 4, p. 917. (Back)

 

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Moses: The Private Man Behind the Public Leader

Written by:    J. Daniel Hays
Bible Review. August, 2000

The Website Where This Article is Found
http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/mosesprivate.htm



Solemnly ascending Mt. Sinai, angrily smashing the Tablets of the Law, boldly parting the waters of the Red Sea—these are the images of Moses we know best. But what about the personal life of the man who led Israel from Egypt to Canaan?

A person's private life can be as telling as the public—if not more so. This is as true in the Bible as in the modern world: Both the personal and the public are inseparable from the theology of the biblical narrative. Strangely, the personal life of Moses has received little attention in Old Testament studies, perhaps because his public life was so dramatic and significant that it overshadowed everything else. Or perhaps because scholars tend to focus on the patchwork of sources behind the Moses narrative rather than on the entire story stretching from Exodus to Deuteronomy.

Looking at Moses' story as a narrative whole, we can trace his emergence as a public leader and his changing relationship with God and the Israelites.

As we read about Moses' private life, however, especially his married life, we must sort through several perplexing issues: Did he have one wife or two? Where did his wife—or wives—come from? Who was his father-in-law—Reuel or Jethro or Hobab?

Moses' private life begins with the birth and subsequent discovery of the babe among the reeds in the Nile River. The narrative moves quickly. The next we hear of Moses, he has "grown up" (Exodus 2:11). The adult Moses happens upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Enraged, Moses kills the Egyptian and hides the body. When Pharaoh discovers Moses' crime, Moses flees to Midian. "He arrived in the land of Midian," the Bible records, "and sat down beside a well" (Exodus 2:15).

It is in Midian—a region in northwestern Arabia*—that Moses meets the woman I will call wife number one, a Midianite woman named Zipporah. While Moses rests beside the well, the seven daughters of the local Midianite priest Reuel arrive to draw water for their sheep. When several rowdy shepherds harass the young women, Moses comes to their rescue, driving off the troublemakers and then watering the flocks of the Midianite girls. Back home, the young women inform their father, "An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock" (Exodus 2:19). Reuel then invites Moses to break bread. And "Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as wife" (Exodus 2:21). Things do seem to move quickly for Moses!

Reading this romantic episode theologically, however, raises numerous red flags. The events at the well are part of a sequence that really begins back in Exodus 2:11, with Moses slaying the Egyptian and then fleeing Egypt. Nowhere does the text say that the Israelite God, YHWH,** sent Moses to Midian. Moses has not yet encountered YHWH. He appears to be acting on his own initiative. In contrast to Moses' actions later in life, these early decisions (to leave Egypt, to water the sheep) appear to be his personal decisions rather than YHWH's.

A good Hebrew boy should perhaps have gone to Canaan, the land promised to Abraham. However, the Egyptians were in nominal control of Canaan at that time, and it might not have been wise for Moses to try to hide there. The Midianites were a seminomadic people, and their remote pastures were probably beyond the usual reach of Egyptian authority. Midian was a good place to hide, and Moses was definitely hiding.

Moses' choice of in-laws, however, is ironic, for the Midianites will become one of the major enemies of the people Moses leads out of Egypt. More to the point, the Midianite women, who worship Baal, will be judged and punished for having led the sons of Israel into idolatry (Numbers 25:1-16, 31:1-20). Ultimately, Moses—in his last public act—will annihilate them. From Moses' lips will come the command "Kill every (Midianite) woman who has slept with a man" (Numbers 31:17). Does this include his wife? His in-laws?(1)

To make matters worse, Zipporah's family is not just any Midianite family. Reuel is a priest of Midian, a worshiper of Baal. Is it not curious that the Exodus story begins with Moses marrying the daughter of a Midianite priest?

Another red flag: In the scene at the well, Moses is mistaken for an Egyptian. There is no mention of his Hebrew blood ties. Nor is there any mention of the God of his fathers. Having been raised by the Egyptians, Moses dresses and speaks like an Egyptian. He might as well be one, as far as Reuel's daughters are concerned. Moses "the Egyptian" has fled from the plight of his blood relatives, the Israelites, and now, through marriage, he has attached himself to another group of pagans, the Midianites, thus abandoning his ancestral connection with the descendants of Abraham. He has moved directly from the house of Pharaoh to the house of Reuel.(2)

The incorporation of Moses into this family is further illustrated by the opening phrase of Exodus 3, "Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian." (I will return to this identification of Jethro as Moses' father-in-law. For now, let's just say that Jethro, like Reuel, is a patriarch and priest in Zipporah's family.)

In this passage, the narrator emphasizes that the flock does not belong to Moses. Moses is not building his own household while working for the Midianites. He is part of this extended Midianite family.

Throughout the Old Testament (and the New) shepherding is a metaphor for leadership, whether political or spiritual. When we first meet David, for example, in 1 Samuel, he is shepherding the flock of his father, Jesse. In the course of the story, David changes roles, from tending the sheep of his human father to shepherding the flock of his divine father: "Thus said the Lord of Hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be ruler of My people Israel" (2 Samuel 7:8). Furthermore, ancient Near Eastern kings used the shepherd motif to describe their relationship with their people. The seventh-century B.C.E. Assyrian king Esarhaddon, for example, identified himself as "the true shepherd."(3) Later in Moses' story, his shepherd's staff will become a sign of his leadership. It is this shepherd's staff that turns into a serpent as proof that he is God's messenger (Exodus 4:3), and it is with this shepherd's staff that Moses (with Aaron) brings the plagues upon Egypt (Exodus 7:19, 8:5,16, 9:23, 10:13) and splits the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16).

But for now, the irony of Moses tending Jethro's flock is evident. Moses, the great future leader, or "shepherd," of Israel, is not figuratively shepherding the sons of Israel. He is not even literally shepherding the sheep belonging to Israel. Rather, he is shepherding the sheep of a Baal worshiper from Midian. He has, in essence, become part of Reuel's Midianite family. In the following chapters, we will see how Moses becomes detached from the influence of Zipporah's family.

Let's return now to the question of who, exactly, is the leader of this Midianite family: Reuel, Jethro or Hobab? In Exodus 2:18 the father (Hebrew, av) of Zipporah is called Reuel, but eight lines later, in Exodus 3:1, the family patriarch is identified as Jethro, the "father-in-law" (Hebrew, hoten) of Moses. Further confusing the matter is the appearance of yet another man identified as Moses' "father-in-law" (hoten): Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite (Numbers 10:29). Most commentators conclude that Jethro and Reuel are the same person. Why the text would call this man Reuel in Exodus 2, Jethro in Exodus 3 and Hobab in Numbers 10 is either left unexplained or explained by source criticism, which supposes that the passages come from different sources. Hobab, the theory goes, is the name of the father in the J source; Jethro, in the E source.* Reuel is explained as a "misreading" of Numbers 10:29.(4)

The entire problem, however, really revolves around the meaning of the Hebrew word hoten, or, in consonantal Hebrew, htn. Modern-day translators have a tendency to assume (incorrectly, I believe) that the sociological family structure of the ancient world was defined by the same range of relationships that we refer to in English (husband, wife, aunt, uncle, cousin, father-in-law, mother-in-law, etc.). Those who are familiar with non-Western languages (Arabic, for example) recognize that non-Western peoples often use a different set of relational terms. Therefore, the assumption that the ancient Hebrew language even had a word that equates to the English "father-in-law" may be incorrect. To understand what hoten meant, we must examine how it is used. Even though hoten is rendered as "father-in-law" in most English translations, a close study of the actual usage of the word suggests that the word refers more generally to close relationships outside a blood relationship. Usually it refers to a marriage relationship.(5) The form hoten is apparently applied to the relationship between a woman's husband and every male member of her family. Thus Terence C. Mitchell, the former keeper of Western Asiatic antiquities at the British Museum, concludes his study of this word by writing, "Indeed, I would here suggest that htn in the Old Testament, instead of carrying only particular meanings such as 'father-in-law' or 'son-in-law,' which vary according to context, has some such general meaning as 'relation-by-marriage,' which it bears in every context in relation to a male ego."(6) The closest concept to this in English is "in-law," but this Western term does not convey the strong family alliance of hoten.

If hoten is understood as "in-law," then the problem with Reuel and Jethro disappears. Reuel is clearly identified as the father of Zipporah; thus he is Moses' actual father-in-law. The reference to Jethro as hoten in Exodus 3:1 simply means that he belongs to this same Midianite family. Since he is also called a priest and since the flock belongs to him, the implication is that he has become the new family patriarch. Probably he has inherited this position as the oldest son of Reuel. Thus, Jethro would be the brother-in-law of Moses. Hobab, another hoten of Moses, is also called the son of Reuel (Numbers 10:29) and thus is probably a younger brother-in-law. However, Jethro could also be a cousin, an uncle or a nephew. The term hoten is simply not specific enough for us to know for certain.

This term (hoten of Moses) is used to refer to Jethro no fewer than 16 times. The point of using the term, however, is not to stress who Jethro is, but rather to stress who Moses is and what his relationship is with these Midianites. They are now his kinfolk. He has a formal alliance with them, sealed by marriage.

In Exodus 3 to 4 Moses encounters YHWH for the first time, while tending Jethro's sheep in the wilderness near the mountain of Horeb: "An angel of the Lord (YHWH) appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a bush" (Exodus 3:2). God calls to him from the ever-burning bush: "Moses! Moses! ... I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Exodus 3:4-6). YHWH orders the reluctant Moses to go to Egypt to deliver YHWH's people: "I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt" (Exodus 3:10). God begins by reminding Moses of his heritage.

Moses agrees to return to Egypt, but then he does something odd. He asks Jethro, his hoten, for permission: "Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring" (Exodus 4:18). How ironic. YHWH has ordered Moses to confront the pharaoh of Egypt, the most powerful man in the ancient world, but first Moses has to seek permission from a Midianite priest.

With Jethro's blessing, Moses departs for Egypt with his wife Zipporah and his sons. But although he leaves Midianite territory, he is still tied to this Midianite family, as evidenced by the necessity of obtaining Jethro's permission and by the presence of Zipporah.

Along the way, at a night encampment, YHWH confronts Moses and Zipporah. What ensues is one of the most puzzling events in the Old Testament. The text reads: "On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, 'Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!' So he let him alone. It was then she said, 'A bridegroom of blood by circumcision'" (Exodus 4:24-26). Clearly, YHWH is about to kill someone, but who? The text is unclear as to whether "him" refers to Moses or his son. In any case, Zipporah appeases God by circumcising her son.

Scholars have struggled for years with this text, and this article does not propose to provide all the answers. I would only emphasize the importance of the hoten relationship in this passage. After throwing down the foreskin of her son, Zipporah exclaims that Moses is now a "bridegroom of blood" to her. The word for bridegroom is hatan, a close derivative of hoten. In this context, the term hatan is probably intended to emphasize that Moses is not just Zipporah's husband, but is related to her entire family; he is hoten. Of course, the weakness of the hoten relationship is that it is not a blood relationship. So when Zipporah sheds her son's blood, she may be trying to seal with blood the relationship between Moses and her family.

From YHWH's perspective, however, Zipporah's actions have the opposite effect. For YHWH, this event is necessary to extract Moses from the priestly Midianite family so that he may fully serve God and his extended Israelite "family." Apparently Moses had not circumcised his son. Therefore the boy, and Moses' immediate family, was still Midianite, not Israelite. YHWH is insisting that the family bonds with the Midianites be broken—and the Israelite connection reestablished—before Moses begins his new role.

Highlighting the significance of the Israelite family connection in this episode is the immediate appearance of Aaron, in person for the first time, in the biblical narrative: "The Lord said to Aaron: 'Go to meet Moses in the wilderness.' He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him. Moses told Aaron about all the things that the Lord had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him" (Exodus 4:27-28). Aaron is not hoten, but the true blood relative of Moses, and he welcomes Moses back into the family with open arms. With this scene, Moses has made the transition from the Midianite family back into the Hebrew family into which he was born.

Only now, with his personal life settled, is Moses ready to focus on his public role to free the Israelites. Immediately after greeting each other, the two brothers assemble the Israelite elders: Aaron, as Moses' spokesman, "repeated the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, and the people were convinced" (Exodus 4:29-30).

The next 14 chapters of Exodus will focus exclusively on Moses the public leader rather than Moses the family man. At some point, Moses sends Zipporah and her sons back home to Jethro. But Moses' life is so dominated by his role as leader that we do not find this out until well after the fact, in Exodus 18, when Jethro brings Zipporah back to Moses. With Jethro's reappearance, we can measure just how much Moses' relations with the Midianite family have altered.

According to Exodus 18, Jethro, having "heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people," decides to bring Moses' sons and wife to him. Jethro finds Moses encamped in the wilderness at the foot of the mountain of God. "Moses went out to meet him, his hoten; he bowed low and kissed him ... Moses then recounted to his hoten everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them" (Exodus 18:7-9).

"'Blessed be the Lord,' Jethro said, 'who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh ... Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people].' And Jethro, Moses' hoten, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses' hoten" (Exodus 18:10-12).

The account of the meeting between Jethro and Moses in Exodus 18:1-12 is strongly reminiscent of the encounter between Aaron and Moses in Exodus 4:27-30: (1) Both Jethro and Aaron are priests and represent priestly families; (2) Jethro and Aaron both go to meet Moses (3) in the desert (4) at the mountain of God; (5) each greets Moses with a kiss; (6) Moses tells them both everything YHWH has said or done; and (7) all of the elders of Israel are involved in each story.

If the meeting between Aaron and Moses in Exodus 4:27-30 reintroduces Moses back into his natural family, what is the meaning of Jethro's reappearance in Exodus 18? And why does Zipporah also reappear?

More than any other passage, Exodus 18 stresses the hoten relationship between Moses and Jethro. Thirteen times in this chapter, Jethro is identified as Moses' hoten. As hoten, the purpose of his visit to Moses is to return Zipporah and her two sons to Moses. Exodus 18:2 states that after Moses had sent Zipporah away, Jethro received her. Although the text does not say when Moses sent Zipporah away, it probably occurred shortly after the bridegroom of blood encounter with YHWH in Exodus 4.(7) The Hebrew word translated as "sent away" (salah) frequently refers to divorce (cf. Deuteronomy 22:19,29, 24:1,3; Jeremiah 3:1; Malachi 2:16).(8) Apparently, when Moses assumed his role as leader of Israel, he sent Zipporah back to her family. This was probably to make the final break with the Midianite family. Without Zipporah as his wife, he was no longer related to the Midianites.

Yet if Moses has broken with the Midianite family, why does he accept Jethro and, by implication, Zipporah back as relatives—in a scene that parallels the meeting between Moses and Aaron?

The answer lies in the fact that the situation between Moses and Jethro has utterly changed. Earlier, Moses went to Midian and became part of Jethro's Midianite family. Now Jethro comes to the Israelite camp, gives praise and worship to YHWH, and becomes, in essence, hoten to the Israelites. Earlier Moses ate bread at Jethro's table. Now Jethro shares bread with the elders of Israel in the presence of YHWH. Zipporah apparently stays with Moses after this event, although she is never mentioned again.

This may surprise readers who recall that Moses' wife is mentioned one more time, in Numbers 12:1, while the Hebrews are encamped at Hazeroth. But I believe that that final reference in Numbers is to a different wife—primarily because that's what the Bible tells us!

According to Numbers 12:1: "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman)." Moses' siblings also complain that Moses has put himself above them: "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" they ask. "Has He not spoken through us as well?" (Numbers 12:2). Incensed, the Lord strikes Miriam with a disease, often identified as leprosy,** that covers her skin with "snow-white scales," and she is shut out of the camp for seven days (Numbers 12:10,15).

All we know about this wife is that she is a Cushite and that this fact angers Miriam and Aaron. We learn nothing else. Not even her name. Again, Moses' personal life has been overshadowed by his public role.

But perhaps we can discover more about this wife by understanding who the Cushites are. Zipporah's homeland, Midian, is a region in northern Arabia. Cush, however, is south of Egypt, above the cataracts on the Nile (in modern Sudan), where a black African civilization flourished for more than 2,000 years.(9)

Many commentators, trying to conflate Zipporah and the Cushite woman, argue that this woman was not a black Cushite, but rather an Arabic-looking Midianite. This is just another reference to Zipporah, they claim. The German biblical scholar Martin Noth presents the standard argument by citing Habakkuk 3:7, where "Cushan" is used in parallel with "Midian" ("I saw the tents of Cushan under affliction; the tent curtains of the land of Midian trembled"). From this reference in Habakkuk, Noth, as well as others, argues that there was a group in Arabia known as Cushites who were related to or identical to the Midianites.(10) Based on this, he concludes that the Cushite woman in question must be Zipporah. Noth criticizes Martin Luther's translation of "Cushite" as "negress," stating that this usage of "Cushite" cannot possibly refer to the region south of Egypt because that area is too far removed from Moses' activity.(11)

However, the reference to Cushan in Habakkuk 3:7 does nothing to alter the meaning of the term "Cush," for "Cush" and "Cushan" are not the same word. Cush occurs more than 50 times in the Old Testament, clearly as a reference to the civilization south of Egypt. (It is also fairly common in Egyptian literature and is attested in Assyrian texts.) Throughout the entire time period suggested for the composition of the Hebrew Bible, the term "Cush" would have been understood to refer to the black inhabitants of the civilization south of Egypt. "Cushan," however, occurs only in Habakkuk, and the reference is somewhat enigmatic.(12) In a story relating to the Exodus from Egypt, why should one turn to the unique usage of "Cushan" in Habakkuk to understand the common usage of "Cush" in Numbers?

During the 18th, 19th and 20th Egyptian dynasties (1552-1069 B.C.E.), Cush was under direct Egyptian control and was practically part of Egypt. There were thousands of Cushites in Egypt, and they permeated all levels of society. If Moses was born and raised in Egypt in this period (many scholars set the Exodus account in the 13th century B.C.E.), he surely would have known numerous Cushites. Noth's statement that Cush was far removed from Moses' activity reflects a serious misunderstanding of ancient Egyptian society during this time period.(13)

Given that Moses would have known Cushites, the case is very strong that Moses married a black Cushite woman from the Cushite civilization south of Egypt. This understanding not only fits the historical picture of Cushites in Egypt at that time, but also agrees with the way the text was translated and understood by the ancient writers.

The Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint (produced for the Greek-speaking Jewish community in the third to second century B.C.E.) and the Latin Vulgate (late fourth century C.E.) both translate the term "Cushite" in Numbers 12:1 as "Ethiopian," the term used by the Greeks and Romans to refer to the region south of Egypt inhabited by people with black skin. The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relates an incredible story in which Moses, in his first act as an adult, leads an army of Egyptians and Hebrews against the Ethiopians, or Cushites, and ends up marrying an Ethiopian princess named Tharbis (Jewish Antiquities 2.10-11).

The biblical text simply makes better narrative sense if we accept that the Cushite wife is not the same woman as Zipporah. For example, Reuel, the father-in-law of Moses from his Midianite wife, Zipporah, is mentioned two chapters earlier, in Numbers 10:29-32, where he is specifically called a Midianite. If the reference in Numbers 12:1 is to Zipporah, why is her father called a Midianite in Numbers 10, while she is called a Cushite in Numbers 12? Furthermore, the Numbers text implies that Moses' marriage to a Cushite woman is a recent one (why else would Miriam be complaining at this point?) and thus cannot refer to his marriage to Zipporah, which took place years before and had already produced two children.

The text indicates that this interracial marriage is the source of Miriam and Aaron's hostility.(14) The term "Cushite" is repeated twice in Numbers 12:1, probably for stress. Throughout the ancient world, this term carried strong connotations of black ethnicity. Jeremiah, for example, refers to the unique skin of the Cushites without any explanation of who they were or where they lived (Jeremiah 13:23). This implies that the prophet and his audience were familiar with the term "Cushite" and the uniqueness of the Cushites' skin color. In Numbers, the ethnicity of Moses' new wife is emphasized and then opposition arises within his family. The most logical explanation is to associate these two occurrences as cause and effect.(15) But while Aaron and Miriam disapprove of Moses' interracial marriage, YHWH approves. YHWH strikes Miriam with a skin disease, and she becomes white as snow. Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University has suggested that the punishment of white, leprous skin was an intentional, appropriate response to Miriam's prejudice against the black wife.(16) As further punishment, Miriam is temporarily expelled from the camp, from her family and from her people. While the Cushite woman becomes family through marriage, Miriam, through her opposition to Moses, is separated from the family.

Clearly the fact that Moses' second wife is a Cushite is of great significance to the biblical writers: It is all they tell us about her. The implications of the marriage are great, for Moses is not a minor, backwater biblical character. He is one of the central servants of God in the Bible, and this event happens while he is walking closely with YHWH, who apparently approves of the marriage.

Perhaps the Cushite nationality of Moses' wife should be viewed in light of the fact that the Egyptians were oppressing the Cushites as well as the Israelites. They had conquered Cush by military might, and they retained control only through periodic campaigns into Cush. Many Cushites were slaves in Egypt. Perhaps this marriage is a union of two oppressed peoples.*

But what, then, has become of Zipporah? Perhaps she has died and the passage in Numbers refers to a subsequent marriage. This is unlikely, however, because only a short time elapses in the story between the reappearance of Zipporah in Exodus 18 and the mention of the Cushite wife in Numbers 12. Of course, at this time in the ancient world, it would not be unreasonable for Moses to have more than one wife. The Cushite woman may be a second wife. More likely is the possibility that Moses married the Cushite woman after he sent Zipporah away but before Jethro brought her back.

For both marriages, the critical element is how the marriage affects the relationship between Moses and Israel, the people of YHWH. The Midianite marriage pulls Moses away from the people of Israel and into the family of a Midianite priest. Moses is forced to annul this marriage by sending his wife away until Jethro acknowledges YHWH and brings Zipporah to the camp of the Israelites. In essence, she becomes one of them. The destruction of the Midianites at the end of Numbers highlights the fact that Moses no longer has a valid marriage/treaty relationship with this people.

The Cushite woman, on the other hand, appears to be already in the Israelite camp, in essence, already part of Israel. If we read Numbers and Exodus as a continuous narrative, we might view the Cushite wife as one of the "many other peoples," "the mixed multitude," who left Egypt with Israel (Exodus 12:38). Moses does not become a Cushite by marrying this woman. Rather, she gains a stronger attachment to the Israelites by marrying him. To YHWH this makes all the difference.

The peoples of Moses' two wives will cross paths again toward the end of the Book of Numbers, in the account of the slaughter of the Midianites.

According to Numbers, the priest Phinehas—the grandson of Aaron and a blood relative (grandnephew) of Moses—is called to lead an attack on the Midianites because the Midianite women have led the Israelite men into idolatry (Numbers 25, 31). Moses' marriage to a woman from a priestly Midianite family is not mentioned.

The name "Phinehas" is an Egyptian loanword. The Egyptians called the region along the Nile south of Egypt by the name "Cush," but they referred to the inhabitants by the ethnic term nehsiu.(17) The ph prefix on the name "Phinehas" is a definite article, so his name means "the nehsiu," or "the negro," and refers to the black people who inhabit the land of Cush.(18)

How does the grandson of Aaron the high priest end up with a name that means "the negro"?(19) Perhaps Moses' marriage to a Cushite woman resulted in other marriages between the two peoples. In any case, it is Phinehas who comes to represent Moses' priestly connections as well as his Cushite relationship. And it is Phinehas "the negro" who destroys the Midianites, the tribe of Moses' first wife. The significance of this violent public act is only revealed as we examine the personal life of Moses from its beginnings in Exodus through the Book of Numbers.

Our story opened with Moses shepherding the flock of Jethro, the Midianite priest and non-blood relative of Moses. It ends with the destruction of the Midianites at Moses' command. Listed first among the items captured from the defeated Midianites are sheep—675,000 of them. Moses is once again shepherding the flock of Jethro, but the sheep now belong to Israel.

1 Furthermore, the name "Zipporah," which means "bird," or "sparrow," is the feminine form of the name "Zippor." This, too, seems to link the marriage with the more violent public events at the end of Moses' life. At the end of the Book of Numbers, as the Israelites approach the promised land, they lead a series of attacks on the peoples whose lands they pass through—the Midianites, Edomites, Moabites and so on. The Moabite king Balak "son of Zippor" is one of Israel's major adversaries. The text refers to Balak as "son of Zippor" five times in Numbers 22-23 and twice in Judges, thus stressing his connection to his father. Balak is the one who invites the seer Balaam to come and put a curse on the Israelites. Balaam refuses, of course, following the famous episode with his donkey, and ends up blessing the Israelites instead. However, Balaam remains with Balak, and he is the one who advises the Midianites to use their women to entice the Israelite men into idolatry (Numbers 31:8,16). Thus the story of Balak son of Zippor is closely interrelated with the Midianite women crisis. It may be that the author has recorded the name "Zipporah" specifically to make the subtle connection between Moses' marriage and the violent events that take place later in his life due to the "son of Zippor." (Back)

2 George W. Coats, "Moses in Midian," Journal of Biblical Literature 92 (1973), p. 5; Rita J. Burns, "Zipporah," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 6, p. 1105. (Back)

3 The Assyrian text reads, "Esarhaddon, great king, legitimate king, king of the world, king of Assyria, regent of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four rims (of the earth), the true shepherd," in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), p. 289. (Back)

4 R.F. Johnson, "Jethro," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), pp. 896-897. For a brief discussion of various other options see John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1987), p. 22. Note also that one Septuagint manuscript adds "Jethro" to Exodus 2:16 and replaces "Reuel" with "Jethro" in 2:18, in an apparent attempt at harmonization. This leads Brevard S. Childs to use the name Jethro throughout his discussion of the Midianite priest in Exodus 2 (The Book of Exodus [Philadephia: Westminster, 1974], pp. 28-33). Note also that the name "Jether" appears in Exodus 4:18. However, almost all scholars view this as a variant reading of Jethro. (Back)

5 Ernst Kutsch notes that the root refers to relationships of affinity rather than blood relationships. He writes, "This relationship is brought into being by marriage between one spouse (or by extension the spouse's family) and the blood relatives (cognates) of the other spouse" ("Htn," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G.J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, trans. J.T. Willis, G.W. Bromiley and D.E. Green [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], vol. 5, p. 270). Robert O'Connell notes that the form hoten refers to the husband's male relative by marriage (i.e., father-in-law or brother-in-law). See O'Connell, "Htn," in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDOTTE), ed. W.A. VanGemeren, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), vol. 2, p. 325. (Back)

6 Terence C. Mitchell, "The Meaning of the Noun htn in the Old Testament," Vetus Testamentum 19 (1969), p. 105. (Back)

7 This is suggested in Durham, Exodus, p. 55; and Ronald B. Allen, "The 'Bloody Bridegroom' in Exodus 4:24-26," Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (1996), p. 269. (Back)

8 See also George Mendenhall, "Midian," Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, p. 816; and C. John Collins, "Salah," in NIDOTTE, vol. 4, p. 120. (Back)

9 See J. Daniel Hays, "The Cushites: A Black Nation in Ancient History," Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (1996), pp. 270-280. (Back)

10 Martin Noth, Numbers: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), p. 98. Outside of the supposed connection in Habakkuk 3:7, however, there is little evidence in ancient Near Eastern literature of any Midianite-related group referred to as Cushites. The best documented defense for such a group is perhaps Robert D. Haak, "'Cush' in Zephaniah," in The Pitcher Is Broken: Memorial Essays for Gösta W. Ahlström, ed. Steven W. Holloway and Lewell K. Handy, JSOT Supplement Series 190 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995). (Back)

11 Noth, Numbers: A Commentary, p. 98. (Back)

12 The term "Cushan" does occur in a compound form as the name "Cushan-Rishathaim" (Judges 3:8). This usage appears to be unrelated to the term in Habakkuk 3:7. See David W. Baker, "Cushan," Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, p. 1220. (Back)

13 For a discussion of the relationship between Egypt and Cush, see Hays, "Cushites," pp. 275-277. (Back)

14 See the excellent discussion of this text in David T. Adamo, "The African Wife of Moses: An Examination of Numbers 12:1-9," African Theology Journal 18 (1989), pp. 230-237. (Back)

15 Frank M. Snowden, Jr., however, argues that interracial marriage between blacks and other ethnic groups, especially Egyptians, was not all that unusual. In Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1970), pp. 192-193, he cites Herodotus (2.30) and Plutarch (De exilio 601 E), who refer to an event in the reign of the Egyptian king Psammetichus I when 240,000 rebellious Egyptian men moved south, settled and intermarried with the Cushites (called Ethiopians by these Greek writers). In Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), p. 95, Snowden states that there was an unknown prince of a royal family in Egypt with a Negro wife. Snowden cites B.G. Haycock, "Landmarks in Cushite History," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 53 (1972), pp. 230, 237. Snowden also argues that the physical features of queen Tiy, the wife of Amenophis III, indicate that she was a Cushite (Snowden calls her Nubian). Snowden cites Steffen Wenig, The Woman in Egyptian Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), p. 50. Donna Runnalls ("Moses' Ethiopian Campaign," Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 14 [1983], pp. 135-156) states that the Egyptian pharaohs frequently took Cushite (Nubian) wives to provide legitimacy for ruling Cush (Nubia). (Back)

16 Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), p. 204; cited by Philip J. Budd, Numbers, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), p. 137. Also suggesting this view is Cain Hope Felder, Troubling Biblical Waters (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), p. 42. Note also the narrative context of Numbers 11, where the nation is grumbling against Moses. Perhaps Moses turned to this Cushite woman for support and consolation in the midst of this difficult time. It is noteworthy, however, that at a time when the nation as a whole is hostile to the man of God, it is a Cushite that appears to be sympathetic. This theme will recur again (Jeremiah 38:1-13). (Back)

17 John A. Wilson, The Culture of Ancient Egypt (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 136; E.A. Wallis Budge, A History of Egypt, vol. 3, Egypt under the Amenemhats and Hyksos (Oosterhout, Netherlands: Anthropological Publications, 1968), p. 104. (Back)

18 Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 133; Pierre Montet, Egypt and the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), p. 32. (Back)

19 Note that the wife of Eleazar and the mother of Phinehas is the daughter of Putiel (Exodus 6:25). The name "Putiel" is also probably an Egyptian loanword with the Hebrew el added as a suffix, meaning "the one whom El has given." See Edwin C. Hostetter, "Putiel," Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 5, p. 561. (Back)