Who was Moses' wife?

A Midianite, a Cushite, or both?

Most focus on the clear teaching that Moses married Zipporah, a Midianite, during his 40 years in the wilderness (having fled from the presence of Pharaoh).  Zipporah was rejoined with Moses early on the Exodus (see Exodus 2:16-22; 18:2-6).

In Numbers 12:1, Moses wife became the apparent reason for Miriam and Aaron's rebellion against Moses.

Numbers 12:1   Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.  (NIV)

Here Moses is said to have a wife that is Cushite.  This sets the stage for much speculation, including the idea that Moses had two wives.  Let's examine the possibilities and factors which weight into any determination.

Midianites predominately came from the eastern side of the Gulf of Aqabah (in the modern area of Saudi Arabia).  Midianites are referred to as shepherds and traders or merchants in the Old Testament (See Genesis 37:28; Exodus 2:16-17).  Midian and Moab, to its north, were allied (Numbers 22:4, 7).  The Midianites were part of Moab's attempts to corrupt Israel (Numbers 25:1-9).  The Midianites were subsequently treated as enemies of Israel (Numbers 31:1-8).

Cushites were from the area of the kingdom of Kush, directly to the south of Egypt, also known as the Nubian kingdom of Napata (or the Napatan Kingdom) in the Egyptian New Kingdom period, present day Sudan.  Cushites, or Nubians, are perhaps best known for the beautiful exceedingly black skin color.  (Many translators wrongly associate the Cushites with Ethiopia.  See also www.notjustanotherbook.com/queencandace.htm).

Three possibilities for consideration:

#1. Moses had two wives (simultaneously)

Some articles on polygamy actual presuppose this to be fact (For example statements such as "Many important figures had more than one wife, such as... Moses..." and "Polygamists in the Bible: Moses").

While this is a possibility and one that was shown to occur in Israel's history (consider Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Gideon, David, Solomon), it is the least likely scenario for consideration in regards to Moses.  The Law certainly allowed for this and provided legal protections for all involved (see Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15-17; even Deuteronomy 17:17).  And yet, by positive example, from the very beginning God showed that His plan for marriage was to be one man with one woman. This is why examples of polygamist marriage normally showed the problems that arose from this less than perfect practice.  Had Moses had multiple wives it would be out of character to the Bible's portrayal of such marriages that the problems stemming from such would not be highlighted or in view at all.  And, since the Law and earlier practice of Israeli patriarchs allowed for multiple marriages, this cannot be construed as the reason Miriam and Aaron were upset with Moses.

The ancient historian Josephus, writing in the first century A.D., tells us a fanciful story regarding Moses in an apparent attempt to give reason for Moses' Cushite wife.  Some feel that Josephus drew on the work of one Artapanus of Alexandria, a man of Jewish origin, who lived circa the 2nd century B.C., who composed history for a public audience in Egypt.  In other words, he too crafted his history for the masses and, from what excerpt we have, he most certainly manipulated it to impress his pagan audience. 

In summary, in Josephus' account, in Moses' early adult life, he had led the Egyptians in a campaign against invading Ethiopians and defeated them. While Moses was besieging the city of Meru, princess Tharbis watched him lead the Egyptian army from within the city walls, and fell in love with him. He agreed to marry her if she would engineer the deliverance of the city into his power. She did so immediately and Moses promptly married her.  After the war, she returned to Egypt with Moses. End Note (FYI, the early church father Irenaeus, who lived 130-202 A.D., was familiar with this story regarding Moses.  Hollywood carried the legend of Tharbis into recent times through Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic The Ten Commandments.)

Josephus, and likely his source, got the history wrong in this crafted story.  The Ethiopians were not the kingdom of Cush.  In fact, naming the city "Meru" was likely taking more recent Egyptian history, using the capital of the then extant capital city of the later Kingdom of Cush, namely Meroe, and ascribing it to Ethiopia.  In Moses' day, Napata was the capital city of the Kingdom of Cush.

Interestingly, anyone who accepted this account held that Moses was already married to Tharbis, his Cushite wife, before Moses fled to Midian and later married Zipporah.  The account presupposes a polygamist marriage with Zipporah being the second wife.  At the same time, it gives no reasonable reason for my Aaron and Miriam would have been upset with Moses for marrying "the Cushite" and why it would become an issue later in the Exodus.

#2. Moses' Midianite wife was of Cushite ethnicity

Some have tried to speculate that the later reference to Moses' wife as being a Cushite was still in reference to Zipporah.  They sometimes refer to the parallel of this minor prophet:

Habakkuk 3:7  I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish.  (NIV)

While the word Cushan is similar in Hebrew, perhaps having common root, it is a different word and likely references a place in the Arabian Peninsula near or part of Midian.  Clearly Zipporah is portrayed as being from the Midianite family of Jethro (Exodus 3:1; 18:5) or Reuel (Exodus 2:18; Numbers 10:29).

Others hypothesize that Zipporah's family may have been Cushite immigrants to the Midian region, but it would be highly improbable that a foreigner would have been "priest of Midian (Exodus 3:1).  Midian and Kush are quite separated geographically and there is no historical evidence suggesting any close relationship that would have provided a setting for such immigration.

Still others suppose that the Cushite reference was only a (perhaps derogatory) reference to her dark skin color, suggesting the people of the Arabian Peninsula perhaps had darker skins.  This is improbable as many Egyptians would have had darker skins as well (shown by artifacts and paintings from the New Kingdom) and both the Egyptians and Midianites never had skin colors approaching the incredibly beautiful dark ebony of the Nubian peoples of Kush. 

And, if this reference was to Zipporah, whether in regards to her skin color or ethnicity, it is somewhat remarkable that Aaron and Miriam's displeasure would begin so late.  They certainly would have lots of time to have expressed it previously on the Exodus.

A poet/playwright from perhaps the second century B.C., who lived in Alexandria Egypt, called Ezekiel the Tragedian, wrote a drama retelling the biblical story of the Exodus.  Parts of his narrative were clearly altered to suit the needs of his play.  In his poetic retelling, he has Zipporah describing herself as a stranger in Midian with her people's ancestral lands being in North Africa.  This ancient work shows that such speculations regarding Zipporah have existed for some time and that people should not base their belief in ancient dramatic poets any more than modern Hollywood (as evidenced by the 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings).

#3. Moses had two wives (successively)

As Zipporah is never again mentioned (chronologically) in the text, it is quite logical to assume Moses' Midianite wife had died and Moses had now, shortly after, married another woman who was Cushite.

Miriam and Aaron's reason for being upset with Moses may have hinged on two factors:

    A.The minimal timeframe after Zipporah's death (the fact she was Cushite being a detail twice provided to show that she was a new wife who was not Midianite).  And yes, it is an assumption that Zipporah died.  It is also possible that Moses divorced her - divorce too was permitted under the Law (though, again, not part of God's perfect design).  If divorce was in view, Moses and Aaron may have been upset of Moses soon remarriage after the divorce.  I find this latter speculation, concerning a possible divorce, improbable.  Divorce, though permitted (Matthew 19:8), was normally portrayed in a negative light throughout the Old Testament and it would be out of character for the text to not display this.  God's subsequent vindication of Moses, in the face of Miriam and Aaron's displeasure, implies that Moses had done not wrong in the circumstances leading to their actions. As can be seen throughout the Old Testament, God is normally quite willing to call out leaders for the wrong actions, either directly or through those around them.  Zipporah's death can be reasonably assumed.

    B.The new wife was Cushite. This detail appears to be the primary factor as it was twice repeated.  Consider that during the Egyptian New Kingdom (16th century B.C. onward), Egypt had conquered and was ruling over Kush (governed by an Egyptian Viceroy).   As a subservient minority (and possibility even a co-captive), she would have departed on the Exodus with the Israelites.  Certainly she would have felt more affinity for this enslaved people than the conqueror and master of her own people. The Bible is clear that other peoples departed with the Israelites:

    Exodus 12:37-38  The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. 38 Many other people went up with them... (NIV)

    The issue, for Miriam and Aaron would have been that she was associated with the Egyptians or, most probably, that she was other than an Israelite.  Miriam and Aaron may not have liked that Moses was initially married to a Midianite but they would have understood the extenuating circumstances that led to that union.  Now, here goes Moses marrying outside of the Israelites again!  For the record, the Law only banned Israelites from taking wives of "those who live in the land," namely the peoples/nations who were under God's judgment in the land of Canaan (Exodus 34:15-16; cf. Genesis 15:16).  Moses would have done no wrong in taking a subsequent wife who was a Cushite.

Occam's razor (commonly described as 'the simplest answer is most often correct') leads me to believe that solution 3 and sub-solution B are the correct answer as they minimize the number of "what ifs" that are necessary to arrive at the other possibilities.  Certainly, it is completely unwarranted to make any absolute claim that Moses is an example of an Old Testament polygamist marriage.


End Note:

Josephus' full account of Moses and Tharbis:

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 apprised 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 ibis,  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 ibis are tame creatures, and only enemies to the serpentine kind: but about these ibis 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 ibis, 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 subtlety 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 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.  (Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 10 [2.49])

Article by Brent MacDonald, (c) 2015
CC Discipleship Training Institute/Lion Tracks Ministries
As posted on www.NotJustAnotherBook.com
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