The Mystery of the Cushite Woman

Parshat Behaalotcha 5772

This week’s parsha concludes with the incident of Miriam and Aaron speaking against Moses.

What Miriam and Aaron Said

Numbers Chapter 12

1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.
2 They said, “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” And the Lord heard.
3 Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.

As usual, the above translation is from the Judaica Press Tanach.

Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.


1. Who is the woman that is described here as “the Cushite woman he had married”?

The Torah only tells us about Moses marrying one woman.

Shemot – Exodus Chapter 2

15 Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he sought to slay Moses; so Moses fled from before Pharaoh. He stayed in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well.
16 Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters…

21 Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses.

As these verses make clear, Moses married Zipporah who is from Midian.

Just to be clear, Cush and Midian are very different places. Cush is in Africa, in the area of present day Sudan and Ethiopia.

Update: I’ve written a new article that takes a close look at identifying the Land of Cush based on Bible verses.

Midian is in the area of present day Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Ethiopia is Cush
Ethiopian father and son. Ethiopia is called Cush in the Torah.

2. What is it about this Cushite woman that is bothering Miriam and Aaron?

This question becomes more significant when we recall that this incident happened over a year after the Jewish people left Egypt.

Miriam and Aaron have known about this Cushite woman for at least two years. Why are they now talking about her?

3. How does the fact that Miriam and Aaron are also prophets (verse 12:2) fit into this story?

I will now describe two approaches to answer these questions.

Rashbam’s Approach

The Torah does not tell us much about Moses’s early life.

We know that he fled Egypt as a young man. We also know that he was 80 years old when the Jewish people left Egypt. That leaves a gap of about 60 years.

The verses I quoted from Shemot / Exodus Chapter 2 seem to imply that he went directly from Egypt to Midian.

However, there are midrashim that tell a different story. In particular, Yalkut Shemoni says that Moses did not go straight to Midian. He first fled to Cush. Through a series of events recorded in the midrash, he actually became the king of Cush and reigned for 40 years.

Rashbam uses this midrash to explain that the Cushite woman in our verses is not Zipporah. Rather, she is an earlier wife of Moses that he married when the people of Cush crowned him king.

Also, according to the midrash, Moses never had relations with his Cushite queen. According to Rashbam, Miriam and Aaron knew about the Cushite wife, but did not know that Moses had never had relations with her.

Summary Per Rashbam

Here are the quickie answers to my questions according to Rashbam:

1. Who is the Cushite woman?

The woman that Moses married when he was king of Cush.

2. What about this woman is bothering Miriam and Aaron?

Apparently, they thought that she was not a suitable woman for Moses to be intimate with.

3. How does the fact of Miriam and Aaron being prophets fit into the story?

Rashbam does not link it to “the Cushite woman”, but treats it as a separate issue (see his comment on verse 12:2).

Rashi’s Approach

Rashi tells us that the Cushite woman is Zipporah. What is bothering Miriam and Aaron is the fact that Moses has separated from his wife.

Here is his comment:

Miriam and Aaron spoke – She spoke first therefore, Scripture mentions her first. How did she know that Moses had separated from his wife? R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. [See Numbers 11:26-27] When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.” From this, Miriam knew and told Aaron.

Here is how Rashi deals with the fact that Zipporah, who is from Midian, is being called “the Cushite woman”:

the Cushite woman – Scripture teaches that everyone acknowledged her beauty just as everyone acknowledges a Cushite’s blackness.

Cushite – Its numerical value [gematria] is “beautiful in appearance.”

for he had married a Cushite woman – What does this mean to say? You find a woman who is beautiful in appearance, but unpleasant in deed; in deed, but not of beautiful appearance. This one, however, was pleasant in every respect.

Cushite woman – She was called “the Cushite” on account of her beauty, as a man would call his handsome son “Cushite” to negate the power of the evil eye.

According to Rashi, Miriam and Aaron have the highest respect for Zipporah. They consider her beautiful in appearance and in deed.

They are bothered that Moses has separated from her and think that he has made a mistake. They are also prophets, but they have not separated from their spouses. Therefore, they conclude that it is unnecessary for Moses to separate from his spouse. See verses 12:6-8 with Rashi for God’s answer to Miriam and Aaron.

Summary Per Rashi

Here are the quickie answers to my questions according to Rashi:

1. Who is the Cushite woman?


2. What about this woman is bothering Miriam and Aaron?

Moses has separated from her.

3. How does the fact of Miriam and Aaron being prophets fit into the story?

They don’t think that any prophet is required to separate from their spouse.

Rabbi Sorotzkin’s Explanation

In Oznaim L’Torah Rabbi Sorotzkin totally rejects Rashbam’s approach.

His most significant objection is based on timing.

What happened shortly before Miriam and Aaron raised their complaint about the Cushite woman?

Moses complained to God that the burdens of leading the Jewish people were overwhelming him (Numbers 11:15).

The first Sanhedrin (Jewish high court) was appointed (Numbers 11:24-27).

The people who complained were smitten (Numbers 11:31-34).

Why at this time do Miriam and Aaron bring up the issue of who Moses married? Since according to Rashbam they’ve known about her for some time, why now make an issue of it?

But Rashi’s explanation of the use of the word Cushite to refer to Zipporah still seems a bit forced.

Rabbi Sorotzkin points out two places where the word Cushite is used in a similar way.

In Psalms 7:1 King Saul is called “Cush ben Yemini.” The Gemara (Moed Katan 16b) explains that “just as a Cushite is distinguishable by his skin, so was Saul distinguished by his deeds.”

Similarly, in Amos 9:7 the Jewish people are called “sons of Cush.” The same gemara explains “just as a Cushite is distinguishable by his skin, so are the Jewish people distinguished by their ways from all other nations.”

Your Turn

Please share your suggested answers in the comments.

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Picture Credit: from Flickr.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.

6 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Cushite Woman”

  1. A cushiy is a cushiy not any other definition.
    G-d is not interested to separate Israel from the goyim by denomination of “color” but by faith, love and holiness. Moshe’s marrying a cushiy yes could have been by military or political expediency, or by moral necessity, or by direct dictate from Hashem (peh el peh adaber bo -v. 12:8); but one thing clear to stand out after our speculations is this: Moshe married a cushiy –that is clear from Torah.
    Where the rabbis Rashi, Sorotzkin & Rashbam vary from each other, we are ever admonished to return to Torah.
    Shabbat shalom.

  2. It was not color or race. It was simply jealousy, family feud, fight for sharing the Power over Israel. Not only in religious sense, but political as well. Miriam as a prophetess could not swallow the fact that Zipporah took an active role in choosing the First Sanhedrin – 70 elders. Moses respectfully listen to her advises. She perfectly followed Moses and God of Israel. “Your God is my God’, was her attitude. “Surely, a bloody husband Thou Art to me, because of the circumcision”. She saved Moses live (Exodus4:24-26). Moses married her many years prior the accident of Numbers 12:1 and it was not against the Law.

  3. I think it was not only because of color, obviously a black women, that will definitely depict the intermarriage , which is prohibited in Judaism . How do you expect your fellow Jews to stay away from intermarriage when he is actually leaving in a fruitful one? Moses was their leader, role model, and Miriam thought it was absurd. Considering that God ordained them to not to intermarry in order to avoid turning to other gods and religion. But God is God and when He makes a choice, who is the human being to object? So Miriam was so harshly punished because she dishonored God by questioning or judging His choice. It was a lesson not only for her, but for the rest of the community, considering that Miriam and Aharon, were prophets as well, just imagine that influence in front of the rest of the community . God had to stop it before it went too far. God called Moshe after he was married to Zipporah and have children . She was black beautiful African woman and Moshe loved her. God was aware of her, but that didn’t stopped God to assign the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt and leader of the Jews to Moshe . If Miriam was that perfect, why didn’t God called her or Aharon instead ? Deut 7:1-3 still prohibit the Jews to intermarriage . The law was for the future and not the past.

    • Hi Lilly. Thanks for you comment. You make several important points. It’s certainly important for each of us to consider our own imperfections before we criticize someone else.

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