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In Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses marrying a Cushite. But in Exodus 2, after he ran away to Midian, he married Reuel's daughter Zippora. That makes Zippora a Midianite, right? Are these the same woman or differnet ones? Does the bible say anything more about the Cushite?

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Moshe married a cushite woman because he wanted to spread the idea of one GOD amongst the black people of Africa. She could have been either a wandering family who left Ethiopia and wandered into Midian domain who, Yisro adopted. – user4295 Jun 11 '14 at 21:23
up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is a question that has caused problems with commentators and interpreters for centuries. Speaking most strictly, Cush and Midia are not the same place. Midia was on the Arabian peninsula (in the region of Jordan and Saudi Arabia today) while Cush proper was in the Sudan and Ethiopia region. In fact, the Septuagint uniformly translates Cush with Ethiopia.

In light of this, Rashbam (ca. 1085 - ca. 1158) taught that this verse was referring to a prior wife. He drew this teaching from a tradition called Yalkut Shemoni. It says that Moses fled from Egypt first to Cush (where he married and became king) then to Midia where he married Zipporah.

On the other hand, Rashi interprets this verse as Zipporah and the Cushite woman were the same. He argues that Zipporah was called "the Cushite" because of her undeniable beauty. Drawing from the question in Jeremiah 13:23 ("Can the Cushite change his skin color?"), it is understood that the Cushites have a markedly different skin color from the Israelites. And he argues that Miriam and Aaron were upset at Moses because he had separated from her for this time.

However, even though some argue the two places do not overlap, there are actually ancient traditions that the Cushites were not restricted to the Sudan.

  • In the Exagoge, a play retelling the Exodus and surviving only in fragments, the Alexandrian Jewish playwright Ezekiel the Tragedian says that Zipporah and her family are recent arrivals to the land of Midian and originally came from Libya in North Africa (Exagoge 60-65). She further states that Libyans are made of many tribes of people, of whom Ethiopians and dark men are a large part. This play is dated to the second century BCE, though it is difficult to be certain.

  • Inhabitants of the Himyarite Kingdom of Southern Arabia were described by Syrian writers of the fifth century as Cushites and Ethiopians.

  • In the tenth century, a Persian scholar named Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari recounted the tradition that the wife of Cush bore him "Abyssinians, Sindis and Indians" (Prophets and Patriarchs).

  • The Beja people who inhabit the Sahara and Sudan claim descent from Cush and speak a Cushitic language.

  • Eighteenth century scholar Johann David Michaelis stated that the name Cush was applied to many regions on both sides of the Red Sea, in the Arabian Peninsula, and in Northeast Africa. Michaelis was an expert in history, geography, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

In short, there is ample evidence that the Cushites spread beyond Ethiopia into Arabia and that Zipporah could be both Midian and Cushite.

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Zipporah was not the "Ethiopian woman" herself. Zipporah was of the tribe of Midian. Genesis 25:1-3 shows that Midian was one of the six sons born unto Abraham by his third wife, Keturah. Thus, Zipporah was "Abrahamic", who was "Shemitic" (i.e., descended of Noah's son Shem, per Genesis 10:1; 11:11-27). But the "Ethiopian woman" ("Cushite woman" in the Hebrew) descended of Cush, who was "Hamitic" (i.e., descended of Noah's son Ham, per Genesis 10:1,6). Indeed, Zipporah, being of Noah's son, Shem, could not be the "Ethiopian woman" who was of Ham (Shem's brother). – Thomas Dohling May 13 at 10:07

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