Numbers Chapter 12: This Week In God's Word
Moses, a Jew, apparently married a black
African and was approved by God. We learn in Numbers that,
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite
woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.”
(Num. 12:1). A Cushite is from Cush, a region south of Ethiopia,
where the people are known for their black skin. We know this
because of Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian [the same Hebrew
word translated ‘Cushite’ in Numbers 12:1] change his skin or
the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are
accustomed to do evil.” Attention is drawn to the difference of
the skin of the Cushite people.
Editor’s note: our modern-day racism may also find its biblical foundation in Jeremiah 13:23’s correlation between skin color and good versus evil.
God says not a critical word against Moses for marrying a black Cushite woman. But when Miriam criticizes God’s chosen leader for this marriage God strikes her skin with white leprosy. If you ever thought black was a biblical symbol for uncleanness, be careful; a worse white uncleanness could come upon you.
The "First" Lady
Moses had three wives who were referenced in the bible. We know
from scripture that Moses had a father-in-law who was a
Midianite, a father-in-law who was a Cushite, and a
father-in-law who was a Kenite. Three father-in-laws equal three
wives, and there may have been more.
After crossing the Red Sea, Moses' sister Miriam assumed the role or prophetess, leading the women in song and dance [Ex 15:20-21]. Of all the women in the Bible, Miriam is one of very few who is explicitly referred to as a prophetess. There are two interesting things about this: (1) there is no mention of her being anointed “prophetess” by Moses or anyone else and, (2) there is no record of Miriam ever actually prophesying. It is not unreasonable to conclude that this may have been a title she took on herself or that it may have been ceremonial in nature.
The main beef Miriam had against Moses’ black wife—an unnamed Cushite Woman historian Flavius Josephus refers to in Antiquities of the Jews as Tharbis, a Cushite princess Moses marries as part of a deal to end the war (see sidebar) —seems to be some insecurity on Miriam’s part about the role Moses’ wives (which included Zipporah the Midianite) played in his life and in the leadership of Israel. Matthew Henry opines further that Miriam was likely unhappy that she was not consulted during the selection process of the 70 Elders chosen as Moses’ lieutenants. This, to me, sounds like many a pastor’s wife I’ve known, given the unbiblical office of “first” lady to feed her ego and empower her to interject herself wherever she pleases. As Moses’ sister, I’m sure the Israelites offered Miriam enormous respect, much more than their patriarchal religious system—which routinely oppressed women—allowed. It’s possible Miriam saw herself as Moses’ equal. After all, if it weren’t for her watching over her infant brother Moses, set adrift on the Nile River in a wicker basket by his mother, Yocheved, Moses might not have survived. We can rightly assume God honored Miriam and Miriam was a loyal servant of her brother. Still, the Exodus story tells a compelling drama of human greatness and human weakness, and Miriam was subject to both.
For whatever reason, Miriam was running her mouth, complaining about the black girl and stirring up resentment toward her. God becomes insulted not on Tharbis’ behalf—the Cushite Woman is little more than a plot device in this story—but on behalf of His servant Moses, and jacks up Miriam with the quickness, afflicting her with leprosy. What is most interesting in this passage of scripture is the overt racism of Miriam’s grumbling, complaining about Tharbis *because she was a Cushite.* Not because she’d done anything wrong or because she was somehow honored more than Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah, but, the bible says, “because she was a Cushite.”
And, this is how racism works: stripping human lives of their humanity. In the bible, Tharbis didn’t even warrant having a name. Miriam, likely dealing with her bruised ego at Moses’ selection of the 70 Elders without her input, takes it out on the black girl who has, in the biblical record, no other footprint and has no record of doing anything against Miriam. This is like the good ‘ole boys of the segregated south going out and getting drunk and, finding some lone Negro walking by the side of the road, brutalize or even lynch him, taking out their angst over their lousy jobs or bad marriages on someone they deem less than human.
It is also interesting that God does not defend Tharbis. Despite this episode, Miriam is honored by God through His prophet Micah [Micah 6:4], but “the Cushite Woman” is not mentioned in the bible again.
African Princess: She wasn't even given the dignity of a name.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Gossip is just as often as not a misdirect from what’s really
bothering us. Matthew Henry suggests Miriam was the instigator
of this murmuring against Moses, though her other brother,
Aaron, committed an equally grievous skin: he listened.
Listening to garbage is just as bad as spreading garbage. Gossip
infests the soul. It damages our trust and our resolve. Had Adam
not stood there listening to Eve, none of us would be in this
mess to begin with.
I’m guessing Miriam saw herself as part of the royal family, an equal partner in leadership over Israel. With 70 selections to make, surely she could have been (or expected to be) consulted somewhere along the process. Moses, of course, was following God’s instructions:
“And The Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto The Tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the Spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.” —Numbers 11:16-17
He did not say, “Run these names past Miriam and see what she thinks…” Thus, Miriam’s grousing against her brother exhibited a lack of faith and trust in God Himself. And, while Moses chose to ignore their grumbling and never said anything to God about it, God was insulted on Moses’ behalf. Matthew Henry: “The more silent we are in our own cause, the more is God engaged to plead it.”
Obviously, racism is as old as the bible itself. It is and has always been irrational and evil.