|"Moses and his Nubian wife" by Jacob Jordaens ((1593-1678)|
This woman married Moses, the prophet who led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. She is called an Ethiopian, which can also be translated as Kushite, meaning she was from the ancient African kingdom of "Kush", which is where modern day Sudan now is. In Bible times this was a powerful kingdom, sometimes rivaling Egypt in technology and power, and one in which women often held the highest roles in government. It is mentioned several times in the Bible and can be referred to by several names including: Ethiopia, Kush or Cush, and sometimes Nubia. These people were known to have very dark black skin and Jeremiah even alluded to this when he wrote:
"Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil." (Jer. 13:23).
We know very little about this woman except that she, at some point was married to Moses, and that there was something about her, and the circumstances of her marriage to Moses, that upset Miriam and Aaron. It was this situation that caused them to question Moses' prophetic role and ability to receive revelation from the Lord. Eventually this opposition to Moses resulted in Miriam being stricken with leprosy. Yet, she repented of her mistake and after seven days outside of the camp she was healed and returned to travel with the children of Israel.
Speculations about Her:
- According to Josephus (
|Cecil B. DeMille included a snippet of this story in his famous "Ten Commandments" movie!|
- Hays, Biblical Perspective, p.9). the Egyptians carried out numerous military campaigns into these regions and brought back thousands of conquered peoples to Egypt as slaves and laborers. It is highly likely that these people constituted the ‘mixed crowd’ of Exodus 12:38″ (
Though this Ethiopian woman's identity is largely a mystery, there are several possibilities about who she could have been that add depth and understanding to this story. Whoever she was, and however she ended up being married to Moses, it appears that her situation was highly usual and prompted hard feelings between Moses and his siblings.
Still, it is important to remember that while her marriage to Moses may have been that catalyst that prompted Miriam and Aaron to speak out against Moses, she wasn't the real problem. Miriam and Aaron had a bad case of spiritual ego that was incubating way before this event happened.
Like I said, this woman's identity is a mystery, but I think there are three different situations in which she could have become Moses' wife (if you happen to think of any more let me know!):
Possibility #1: Zipporah died.
It is possible that Zipporah, Moses' wife, could have died by this point in the Exodus story and that Moses married another woman who happened to be of Ethiopian heritage. This is a highly plausible explanation, and if this is the case we can see that Miriam and Aaron's problem with Moses' marriage may have been that he married a non-Israelite. The one hang up with this explanation is that I have a hard time believing that Moses would marry a woman outside of the covenant, when he had just spent the majority of his time teaching the people's God's laws, among which was the command to not intermarry with other nations who do not share the same covenants (Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Exodus 34:12-17). Still, it is always possible that this woman converted to the faith and chose to follow the God of Abraham, which if she did is impressive on her part!
Possibility #2: She is the same woman as Zipporah.
There is always the possibility that this Ethiopian wife is the same woman as Zipporah. Some scholars speculate that if Zipporah's people, the Midianites and Kenites, had migrated from Northern Africa ( or a place that also happened to be called Kush) that she might be referred to as Ethiopian (Kushite). If this is the case then Miriam and Aaron's objections to her may have had to do something with her priestly lineage as her father, Jethro, was a "priest" among the Midianites. The Midianites descended from Midian, the son of Abraham through his wife Keturah (Gen. 25:1-2) and while it is possible that the Midianites worshiped idols and false Gods, it does seem like Jethro (and perhaps Zipporah as well) had a sound understanding and testimony of the God of Abraham because in Exodus 18: 9-11 it states,
"And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them."Even though Zipporah may have been married to Moses for almost 40 years by this point, Miriam and Aaron may have just recently met her. Perhaps they doubted her commitment to the faith or had questions about her heritage or her suitability as the wife of the prophet. Some scholars even argue that Miriam and Aaron were sticking up for Zipporah because they felt that Moses was neglecting her because of his role as prophet.
Still, it is strange to me that if the author had known that the Ethiopian woman was Zipporah that he didn't use her name. In all the other passages where she is mentioned she is called by her name. Personally, it makes me think that we are dealing with two different women.
Possibility #3: Moses had multiple wives.
Another possible scenario for this Ethiopian wife is that Moses took multiple wives, and that he married this woman at the same time he was married to Zipporah. in which, while speaking of those ancient prophets who had multiple wives and concubines, the Lord says,
"David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants...and in nothing did they sin."Even though the Old Testament account doesn't make it clear that Moses had multiple wives I think that this Ethiopian woman's presence is a good indicator of what D&C 132:38 teaches us is true--that Moses had more than one wife.
In fact, given the scripture in D&C 132:38 I am inclined to believe that Josephus's account of Moses marrying an Ethiopian woman while he was an Egyptian prince (before his marriage to Zipporah) is true. I could see how Moses after fleeing Egypt, and knowing he could never return, might marry Zipporah and have children. Then, when he was commanded to return to Egypt, I could see how that might put him in a hard place, knowing that he already had a wife there as well.
This possibility might explain why Moses "sent back" Zipporah to her father's house instead of taking her with him to Egypt (Exodus 18:2- 3). I've never really understood why Moses would have sent Zipporah away, apparently with no intention of going to get her as it was her father, Jethro, who finally brought her and her sons back to Moses when he was the wilderness. It is a very strange story. And yet, I can see how if Moses had been married before to the Ethiopian woman, that he might feel honor bound to cancel his second marriage. In the end though it appears that Moses was able to keep both of his wives, Zipporah and the Ethiopian wife, and perhaps others.
Given this view of things, I can see how this whole situation would have rubbed Miriam and Aaron the wrong way and could have promoted them to question Moses and his authority. While it was not uncommon for men to have multiple wives in this time period they may have viewed Moses' marriage to the Ethiopian woman as inappropriate because she was a non-Israelite, they may have been opposed to the idea of polygamy, or they may have just found the whole situation a bit too unconventional... which it certainly may have been.
Regardless of who this woman was, and what the situation of her marriage to Moses was, she has a fascinating story. I think that one of the most important things that we can learn from her story is that God is no respecter of persons, and that he loves and is aware of women no matter what color their skin. If this woman was indeed Moses' first wife, before Zipporah, then it is beautiful to me that God intervened on her behalf and recognized the validity of her claim upon Moses as her husband. In this case He honors the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, which is what Christ would teach centuries later. Demonstrating to us in a powerful way that what matters to God is not the color of a person's skin, but rather the condition of their heart.
I think that this Ethiopian woman's presence among the children of Israel tells us that she had joined them, and that she had accepted the God of Abraham as her own. She, and her marriage to Moses, a prophet of the Lord, is a beautiful testament to the truth taught in 2 Nephi 2:26, "and he[the Lord] denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."
Questions to Think About:
- How might this story be especially meaningful to men and women of color? How might this story be meaningful to men and women NOT of color?
- What does this story teach us about inter-racial marriages?
- Given that this story involves a woman with black skin, do you see any possible significance in the fact that Miriam is cursed with leprosy and becomes as "white as snow" (Numbers 12:10)?