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In Numbers 12: Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses marrying a Cushite woman

Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman);

But in Exodus 2, after he ran away to Midian, he married Reuel's daughter Zipporah. That makes Zipporah a Midianite, right? Are these the same woman or different 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
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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). May 13 '16 at 10:07
  • @Frank Luke: huge massive golden nuggets of info I wouldn't've known to even look for! Magnifique, & thank you!
    – Adinkra
    Sep 1 '16 at 11:35
  • What's the conclusion related to the question, I must be missing it; do you say that Moses was polygamous, that he wasn't, or that you are not certain? Sep 21 '18 at 12:45
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It is possible that Moses had in fact three wives, but the Bible only tells of two.

Josephus recorded an account of Moses serving as a commander in the Egyptian military, and leading a campaign to repel an Ethiopian invasion. During this campaign, Moses married an Ethiopian princess, identified as Tharbis. The Bible is silent of this period of Moses' life, as it picks up at the time of Moses killing of the Egyptian overseer and fleeing into exile. If the account of Tharbis is indeed historical, the logical assumption would be that she did not follow Moses into his desert exile. In any case, there is no support for this account except that of Josephus, which was written hundreds of year later.

Attempts to make Zipporah and "the Cushite woman" the same person are forced and seem like rationalization. Additionally, why would Miriam wait until the time recorded in Numbers to raise the issue? The majority of adults who began the journey in the wilderness died during that 40 year period. The simplest explanation is that Zipporah died in the journey, and widower Moses later remarried a Cushite woman, which Miriam objected to, presumably due to racism. God punished Miriam, thereby blessing Moses' new marriage, and making it clear that God does not support racist hatred.

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  • Welcome to BH.SE! Please take the tour to get a feel for how the site functions. You need to cite the source of your information from Josephus.
    – enegue
    Oct 15 '17 at 23:08
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Did Moses have a second wife?

No, Moses did not have a second wife. There is no mention of Moses being married a second time or any mention of Zipporah's death in the scriptures. Zipporah was not a descentant of Cush, the son of Ham,Cush was the forefather of the Ethiopians. In Exodus 18:1:4 we read that Moses father in law Jethro, was a Midian and so was his daughter Zipporah.

Exodus 18:1-4

Jethro, Moses’ Father-in-law

1 "Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Moses’ wife Zipporah, after he had sent her away."

3 "And her two sons, of whom [a]one was named Gershom, for Moses said, “I have been a [b]sojourner in a foreign land.” 4 [c]The other was named [d]Eliezer, for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

Paralleling - Cushan and Midia

In Habakkuk 3:7 we read : "I saw the tents of Cushan under distress,The tent curtains of the land of Midian." The paralleling of Cushan with the land of Midian indicates that Midian was possibly also known as Cushan, hence it is most likely that it is in that sense that Zipporah is referred to as a "Cushite".

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In Genesis Chapter 25 we understand Abraham married Keturah who was described as a Cushite. With her they gave birth to 6 children among them was Midian.

This clearly establishes linkage between Cush and Midian Meaning Midian's mother was a Cushite. I

Therefore it is not strange to me if the Midianites are also referred to as Cushites. Hence Zipporah who is a midianites also being referred to as a Cushite.