The Bible is not always explicit on social issues except when it is. In Numbers chapter 12, the scripture is very explicit on the sin of racism. God doesn’t take it lightly, especially when it’s used to thwart His sovereign grace. Miriam and Aaron learned that lesson the hard way.
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12: 1-2)
It’s possible that the Cushite woman mentioned here in Numbers 12 was Zipporah, the Midianite woman that Moses married in Exodus 12:21. Since the prophet Habakkuk (3:7) links Midian and Cush together, some scholars contend that she is the wife mentioned here.
Other scholars, however, believe that it’s unlikely the woman is Zipporah because she is described as a Cushite, not a Midianite. They theorize that the woman was from the region of Cush. This area was located to the south of Egypt, approximately where Sudan and Ethiopia are today.
The name of the land derived its name from Cush who was the eldest son of Ham, one of the sons of Noah.
In the book Antiquities of the Jews (written circa AD 93), the Jewish historian Josephus connects Cush with Ethiopia,
For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites.
Since the passage in Numbers emphasizes that the woman was a Cushite and not a Midianite, I tend to believe she was not Zipporah.
The Double Meaning Of Cush
The word cush has a double meaning in the Hebrew language. It not only refers to the land of Cush, but it also conveys the meaning of blackness. Thus, the Cushites were thought to be a dark-skinned people.
The prophet Jeremiah also alludes to the Cushites’ skin color when he rhetorically asks, “Can the Cushite change his skin?” (Jeremiah 13:23).
So in all likelihood, Moses’ Cushite wife would have had a complexion quite a few shades darker than Miriam’s or Aaron’s.
The Blackness Of Contention
The text tells us that Miriam and Aaron used Moses’ marriage to the dark-skinned Cushite woman as a reason to disqualify him as God’s pre-eminent prophet in Israel.
They didn’t bring up Moses’ violent past (remember that slave he killed in Egypt) or his short temper (Exodus 32:19) or that he wasn’t a great orator. Miriam and Aaron questioned Moses’ leadership status because of his black wife.
The obvious question is why?
It seems they weren’t offended by the Cushite because she was a gossip or that she never invited them over for quail on manna sandwiches.
The scripture clearly emphasizes the fact that Miriam and Aaron spoke against her because she was a Cushite. Regardless if it was Zipporah or not, the woman was obviously dark skinned. And her dark skin was a problem for them.
Wow! Were Miriam and Aaron blatant racists? Maybe, I don’t know their hearts, but let’s look a little deeper.
Were Miriam And Aaron Revolutionaries?
What if Miriam and Aaron weren’t racists but were using the Cushite’s skin color as an attempt to usurp Moses’ leadership position? What if they were they simply using a Saul Alinsky-like tactic to question Moses’ moral authority in order to gain power?
If so, then they were trying to engineer a coup in Israel.
I find this doubtful since they had already seen how God dealt with those who revolted against his authority. Let’s dig deeper.
Questioning Moses’ Choice
In their private discussions on the matter, Aaron and Miriam must have come to the conclusion that a dark-skinned wife disqualified Moses from being the exclusive leader of Israel.
The argument could’ve gone something like this.
Miriam: Moses has chosen a dark-skinned wife. This is not proper for the leader of Israel.
Aaron: True, Miriam. If Moses can’t be trusted with proper decision making when choosing a wife, how could he be trusted to run a country?
Or something like this.
Miriam: Moses’ choice of a Cushite as his second wife shows the stress of leadership has gotten to him.
Aaron: Yes, perhaps he’s not mentally fit to serve in such a high office alone.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that Miriam and Aaron brought a serious accusation against Moses based on the skin color of his wife.
Whether Miriam had racists thoughts against Moses’ wife is debatable. We do know, however, that the Lord struck Miriam with leprosy for her slander against Moses (Numbers 12:10). The scripture tells us that her skin was turned as white as snow.
Miriam who had a problem with black skin was going to feel what it was like to be really white.
Moses Doesn’t Retaliate
Remarkably, Moses didn’t rage at Miriam and Aaron’s insult. Unlike ragers today who are quick to vent their anger at the slightest perceived insult, he kept his temper in check.
The passage in Numbers describes Moses as the meekest man in the world. That’s not to assume he was a Caspar Milquetoast. After all, we know that in the past he could use violence to settle an injustice, and recently he had engaged the most powerful ruler in the world in warfare.
But he had come to learn that true vindication came not from his own anger or retaliation but from Him whose eyes see what is right. The Lord would decide if Moses’ taking of a Cushite wife violated his office of the prophet of Israel.
I believe however that there’s a lot more going on here than an argument over skin color. Let’s go deeper.
Prohibition Against Foreign Wives
On more than one occasion, Moses had warned the Israelites to be wary of allowing their sons and daughters to marry the inhabitants of the land they were to possess.
Take care… lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land… and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. (Exodus 34:16)
Technically, Israelites were supposed to marry Israelites. They were to marry within the covenant of Israel. The Cushite woman wasn’t an Israelite. She wasn’t even a Shemite. She was from the line of Ham.
If the woman actually was Zipporah, then she would also not be an Israelite because she was not from the line of Jacob.
Therefore, Miriam and Aaron could have been accusing Moses of something much more serious than marrying a black woman. By marrying someone outside the nation of Israel, Moses had violated his own commandment. Not only had Moses married a black woman, but this woman was not an Israelite.
This certainly would make Moses unfit to lead Israel.
Perhaps Miriam and Aaron were hearing whispers amongst the people. Maybe they went something like this. Is Moses the best choice for our leader? His wife is black, and she’s not one of us. What could he be thinking?
If this was Miriam and Aaron’s complaint, then they could have been traveling down a dangerous path.
It’s highly doubtful that Moses would have married outside of the faith. It seems a bit far fetched that the meekest man in the world would arrogantly violate his own commandment, a commandment he got directly from God.
In all likelihood, the Cushite woman was a believer in the God of Israel.
If the woman was a Cushite and not Zipporah, it’s also quite possible that Moses didn’t go to Cush to get her. It’s more likely that she had been amongst the people who had come out of Egypt with Israel. It’s even possible that she had lived with the community of faith since birth.
The Converted Gentiles
Gary North in Authority And Dominion: An Economic Commentary On Exodus Volume 1 makes the point that the number of people who came out of Egypt was far greater than could be accounted for by direct descendants of Jacob (p.26). The only way to account for this phenomena is by postulating that large numbers of gentiles were converted to the faith while still in Egypt.
Since Miriam and Aaron did not accuse the woman of being an unbeliever, I believe they knew she was a believer. If so, then Miriam and Aaron would have been guilty of implying that a non-Jew, even though a believer, couldn’t be part of God’s people.
In other words, Moses had intentionally married a second class citizen.
Wow, can you hear the accusations? Yes, she may believe in our God, but she’s not one of us! And you know how those foreign women can turn you away from God. Besides she can’t be circumcised so how do we really know she’s a believer.
Again, this would seemingly call Moses’ judgment into question.
Who Is The True Jew?
The Apostle Paul dealt with this question in Romans chapter 2,
So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2: 26,29)
The true believer today doesn’t have to undergo circumcision in order to be considered a believer. True belief is a matter of the heart.
Who Is The True Child Of Abraham?
Yes, a gentile male in Israel during the time of Moses would have to undergo circumcision in order to have been considered part of the covenant, but not the Cushite woman. The right condition of her heart was all that was required for her to be accepted into the covenant.
Paul gets more specific in Romans chapter 4,
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. (Romans 4:3,16)
If the Cushite woman had the same faith as Abraham, then she had the right to call Abraham her father just as much as his blood descendants do.
Paul again makes this abundantly clear in Galatians 3:28,
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Allow me to add, there is neither Cushite, nor white, nor brown, nor yellow, nor red, nor whatever color. Salvation is available to every woman or man regardless of their person because all people are made in the image of God.
One Requirement For Salvation
Oh, there is a requirement to salvation. God only accepts individuals who see themselves as sinners. He doesn’t accept the righteous. Jesus was clear on that,
“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)
Self-righteousness disqualifies you from heaven.
So if Miriam and Aaron believed that somehow Moses’ Cushite wife was a liability for him, they were sorely mistaken. No, the Cushite woman was a valuable asset to Moses in his ministry.
Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. (Proverbs 31:10)
Why Did God Get So Mad?
It would be an understatement to say the Lord was upset with Miriam.
And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” (Numbers 12:11-10)
Why was the Lord so angry with Miriam that he turned her into a hideous piece of white flesh?
Was it because she had racist tendencies in her heart? Or was it because she considered a Cushite unworthy to be welcomed into the covenant of Israel? Or was it because she didn’t understand that God’s power, grace, and love could give a woman, regardless of her gender, race, and social status, a heart completely devoted unto Himself?
If Miriam did indeed harbor these sins, they would have been enough to evoke the Lord’s anger.
However, I think the sin of Miriam and Aaron was much more severe.
The Ever Faithful Moses
Moses did not sin by marrying the Cushite woman. He hadn’t yoked himself to an unbeliever. He was faithful in all God’s house. In other words, when it came to fulfilling his vocation before God, he was blameless.
Remember that rocky situation at Meribah hadn’t happened yet (Numbers 20:11).
Listen to what God says about Moses,
Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. (Numbers 12:7-9)
If prophets can be called ordinary, Moses was no ordinary prophet. He was the Lord’s divinely chosen servant to proclaim the future coming of Jesus Christ.
Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. (Hebrews 3:5)
He was the Lord’s divinely chosen servant who would also foreshadow the future coming of Jesus Christ.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. (Deuteronomy 18:15)
He was completely faithful to God’s command to construct the foundations that would testify to the coming of God’s Son, the Messiah Jesus Christ. God, through Moses, was preparing not only Israel but the entire world for the coming Messiah.
The Wickedness of Miriam And Aaron
Moses’ siblings attempted to use an innocent Cushite woman to thwart the work of Moses and God. Their accusations against Moses and the Cushite were indeed wicked.
Moses had not angered God with his marriage to the Cushite. He had in fact shown that God is not a respecter of persons, but his grace is available to all.
Of course, Miriam and Aaron weren’t successful. No one can thwart the plans of God. He is sovereign over all the affairs of men. Jesus came at the appointed time, and as the writer of Hebrews says, He like Moses was faithful over God’s house, but as a Son and not a servant (Hebrews 3:6).
His death on the cross paid the price for Aaron and Miriam’s sin and for all those who put their trust in Him.