Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage

Exegetical Approaches


There is a spectrum of approaches to understanding the actions and motivations of Miryam and Aharon. Nearly all classical and medieval exegetes (and many modern ones as well), attempt to minimize the infraction and its implications by viewing it as simply idle chatter or poor judgment. The Sifre and related Midrashim are perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this position, as they view Miryam as simply trying to encourage the resumption of normal marital life between Moshe and Zipporah and having no spiteful intent whatsoever.

A middle ground staked out by R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ibn Kaspi view Moshe's siblings' critique of him as stemming from their objection to his taking either a foreign or second wife, but they also view the story as a private familial spat with mistaken (and even understandable) errors of judgment. Finally, several modern exegetes view Miryam and Aharon's statements as a questioning of Moshe's worthiness to lead. According to them, the book of Bemidbar tells the tale of a Moshe besieged by serious challenges to his authority from both within his own family and without.

Defamatory Gossip (לשון הרע)

Miryam and Aharon sinned in speaking negatively about Moshe and criticizing his behavior. The commentators who adopt this approach differ in their understandings of both the specifics of the slander and why it was unjustified:


Miryam and Aharon disparage Moshe for marrying someone who was not an Israelite.

Identifying the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית" – According to this approach, the "Cushite woman" cannot be Zipporah who hailed from Midyan, but is rather a heretofore unknown wife of Moshe who came from the land of Cush.
Meaning of "לָקָח" – The word is understood in its simple sense, as meaning to take in marriage.1
Doubling of "כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח" – This approach views this as a parenthetical statement of the narrator, needed to tell the reader that Moshe had indeed married a Cushite woman, since this fact had not been previously mentioned.
When did the marriage take place, and why is the issue raised now?
  • In Moshe's youth, before he married Zipporah – Rashbam, basing himself on an obscure Midrashic work, Divrei HaYamim LeMoshe Rabbenu,2 claims that after Moshe fled from Egypt, he became the king of Cush for forty years,3 and it was during this period that he married the queen of Cush.4 For Rashbam, it is difficult to understand why Moshe's siblings are suddenly dredging up an event which occurred many decades before.
  • During the Israelite's trek through the wilderness – R"Y Bekhor Shor5 and Shadal, on the other hand, assume that the marriage took place after Moshe was already the leader of the nation,6 and they attribute no royal status to the Cushite woman. According to them, Miryam and Aharon's complaint logically follows this recent event.
What bothered Miryam and Aharon?
  • Intermarriage itself – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor maintains that the siblings are bothered by the fact that Moshe married a foreign woman of an uncircumcised nation. The Cushites, in particular, were descendants of Cham, which might be viewed as even more problematic.7
  • Hubris – Both R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Shadal suggest that Miryam and Aharon criticized Moshe for being vain and thinking that the women of Israel were not good enough for him.8
  • Jealousy – In his HaMishtadel, Shadal raises the possibility that the siblings were hoping that Moshe would marry one of their children,9 and were thus upset when he opted instead for a foreigner.
Relationship between the complaints – R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that the claim of Moshe's hubris is the common thread between the two statements of Miryam and Aharon. They assume that Moshe's prophetic powers were at the root of his feelings of his superiority and this, in turn, caused him to marry a foreigner. Thus, they point out that despite the fact that they themselves also possessed prophetic status, they still married within the nation. In contrast, according to Rashbam and Shadal, there is no direct connection between the two gripes of Miryam and Aharon regarding Moshe.10
Was intermarriage permitted after the giving of the Torah?
  • Yes – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor and Shadal, there appears to be no Biblical prohibition. Even according to them, though, it would not seem to be a recommended course of action, and no justification is provided for Moshe's taking of a foreign wife given he had the opportunity to marry within his own nation. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor leaves this question unanswered, saying merely: "ואעפ"י שלא נודע למה היתה סיבה זאת של משה, אין גלויין לנו כל הסודות".‎11
  • No – This appears to motivate Rashbam's position (following the Midrash) that Moshe's marriage to the Cushite woman took place long before the Exodus, and that, in addition, Moshe never consummated the marriage.
Why no critique regarding Zipporah?
  • No alternative – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Shadal explain that the siblings were not bothered by Moshe's marriage to Zipporah, even though she was also a foreigner, since while he was in Midyan, fleeing from Egypt, there were no Israelites to marry.12
  • Descendant of Avraham – Rashbam distinguishes between Zipporah, a descendant of Keturah and Avraham, and the Cushite woman who was a descendant of the accursed Cham.
"וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד" – According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and Shadal, this response of the narrator serves as the direct rebuttal to the criticism of Moshe and clarifies to the reader that the siblings' evaluation of Moshe's motives was completely erroneous. Moshe was not motivated by haughtiness, and in fact, is the most modest of men.13
Hashem's response and understanding His verdict – For R"Y Bekhor Shor and Shadal, it is not clear why Hashem's response focuses on Moshe's lofty level of prophecy, rather than (like the narrator's response) on Moshe's humility. Additionally, as the text provides no explanation for why Moshe married a foreigner, the reader is left to wonder if Miryam and Aharon's criticism was completely without merit.
Punishment of leprosy – This approach would likely adopt the Rabbinic view below that leprosy is the designated punishment for slander.


Miryam and Aharon criticize Moshe for abstaining from marital relations with his wife.

Identifying the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית"
  • Zipporah – Almost all of these commentators identify the Cushite with Moshe's known wife, Zipporah. However, as the Torah clearly states that Zipporah came from Midyan,14 and not Cush, these commentators are forced15 to render the "Cushite" appellation as a figurative term:16
    • Beautiful – Most of the sources maintain that the designation is an attestation to Zipporah's beauty.17
    • Dark – Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel assert that Zipporah was called a "Cushite" due to her dark complexion.18
  • A woman from Cush – Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) asserts that the verse is referring to the Queen of Cush.19
Meaning of "לָקָח" – The word "לָקָח" (took) is difficult for this approach as the verse seems to record Moshe's siblings' objection to his taking of a Cushite woman, rather than his separation from her.20 Thus, most of these commentators21 read the verse as if it is abbreviated, with an understood ending: "the Cushite woman whom he married [and then separated from]".22
Relationship between the complaints – According to this approach, the statements of Miryam and Aharon in verses 1-2 are integrally connected. The siblings assert their prophetic status to prove that such a role does not require abstinence,23 and thus, that Moshe's prophesying cannot justify his treatment of his wife.
Why now? This position relates this episode to the immediately preceding one regarding the appointment of the seventy elders to aid Moshe.
  • According to most of these commentators,24 it was only after the appointment of the elders that the details of Moshe's married life became known to Miryam. When Zipporah lamented the fate of the spouses of the new prophets, she inadvertently revealed her own situation to her sister-in-law.
  • Ran, instead, asserts that until this point the siblings had justified Moshe's neglect of his wife, thinking that his all consuming leadership responsibilities left no time for family life. With the appointment of assistants, this excuse was no longer valid.
  • Alternatively, it was only recently that Yitro had returned Zipporah to Moshe.25
"וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד" – These exegetes offer several explanations as to why the Torah chose to emphasize Moshe's modesty at this juncture:
  • Explaining God's intervention – According to Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan) and R. Hirsch the statement is clarifying that Moshe himself was not bothered by his siblings' criticism. Since he would never defend himself, Hashem intervened on his behalf.
  • Clarifying the complaint – Abarbanel asserts that this statement is not a parenthetical statement made by the text, but is rather a rhetorical question posed by Miryam and Aharon.26 They raise, and reject, the possibility that it is Moshe's extreme humility that led him to abstain from relations.
  • Defense of Moshe – R. Hirsch suggests that this statement proves that Moshe's actions could not have been motivated by any feelings of pride or gloating.27
  • Defense of Miryam and Aharon – R. Hirsch further proposes that Moshe's extreme modesty is what led the siblings to their error. Due to Moshe's humility, they never knew that there was a difference in the level of Moshe's prophetic status and that he, thus, had a good reason for his separation from Zipporah.
Hashem's response and understanding His verdict – Hashem's words revolve around Moshe's unique prophetic status, as this is the source of his siblings' error in their evaluation of his actions. Hashem explains that Moshe is indeed on a different level,28 and therefore his abstinence is necessary.29 However, according to this approach, the harshness of Hashem's reaction is difficult to comprehend, as Miryam and Aharon were well-intentioned.
Punishment of leprosy – These sources view leprosy as the standard punishment for slander or gossip.30
Doubling of "כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח" – The doubling of the fact that Moshe had married a Cushite is troubling for all, but even more so for those who maintain that the Cushite is Zipporah, for the reader already knows of this marriage and it is superfluous to share the fact as if it is new.31
  • Double beauty – Sifre and Rashi suggest that the doubling comes to teach that Zipporah was beautiful (their understanding of "Cushite") both inside and out.
  • Miryam's speech – Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel propose that this is not the narrator's words, but rather the content of Miryam's speech.32
Evaluating Miryam and Aharon – This approach tries to mitigate the wrongdoing of Miryam and Aharon by attributing to them the best of motivations. Their speech stems not from a desire to hurt Moshe, but to help his wife.33
Celibacy in Judaism – This approach views celibacy as a necessary precondition for reaching the highest level of spirituality and communication with Hashem.


Moshe's siblings are upset that he veered from the monogamous ideal by taking an additional wife.

Identifying the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית" – Ibn Kaspi maintains that at some point after marrying Zipporah, either during the nation's travels or beforehand, Moshe had taken a second wife, a woman from Cush.34
Meaning of "Cushite" – The word is understood literally to refer to a person from Cush.35
Meaning of "לָקָח" – This, too, is understood literally to mean "took in marriage".36
Doubling of "כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח" – Ibn Kaspi views this as the voice of the narrator explaining to the reader that Moshe had, in fact, married a second wife.37
Relationship between the complaints – According to Ibn Kaspi, the siblings' words "‏הֲרַק אַךְ בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר ה'‏" is an expression of their right to question Moshe's conduct. Since they felt that they were on similar prophetic levels, they thought they were in a position to discern Moshe's errors and judge his behavior.
Why now? Presumably, Moshe's siblings voice their complaint now because the marriage had recently occurred.
Moshe's modesty – The narrator is explaining why Moshe did not respond to the murmurings of Miryam and Aharon. He was humble enough not to reply, but Hashem, in his love of Moshe, could not remain silent.
Hashem's response and understanding His verdict – Hashem points out to Miryam and Aharon that they are not equal in status to Moshe, and thus they are not in a position to understand his motives or question his actions. However, as the siblings were not acting with malice, it is difficult to understand the severity of their punishment.
Evaluating Miryam and Aharon – According to Ibn Kaspi, the siblings truly believe that their brother is acting incorrectly in living in a polygamous marriage.
Celibacy and polygamy in Judaism – Ibn Kaspi denigrates celibacy as being unnatural, and he says that the Torah could never hold it as an ideal since the Torah is in consonance with nature. Moreover, he suggests that the more perfect one's deeds and intellect are, the stronger are one's desires so it is no wonder that Avraham, Yaakov, David, and Shelomo all had multiple wives.38 His position is an explicit reaction to the Christian ideals of abstinence and their accompanying expectations of clerical celibacy.

Challenge to Moshe's Authority

Miryam and Aharon's fault lies in their contesting of Moshe's leadership and viewing themselves as his equals.

Sources: Numerous modern commentators39
Identifying the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית" – This approach is not overly concerned with the specific identity of the Cushite woman. She could be either Zipporah or a woman from Cush.
Meaning of "לָקָח" – The siblings had a problem with the taking of this wife, not with a separation from her.
Relationship between the complaints
  • Pretext to challenge leadership – It is possible that the main issue is stated in verse 2, where the siblings question Moshe's unique status and suggest that they should be his equal in leadership. The complaint about his wife is merely a pretext to find fault with Moshe's character.
  • A question of succession – Alternatively, the two remarks are part of the same issue. The siblings question not Moshe's leadership per se, but the potential succession of his children.40 They highlight his marriage to a foreigner to show that his children are tainted and not suitable to be leaders.
Why now? This approach views this story as an outgrowth of the preceding incident in which the seventy elders receive a share of Moshe's prophecy and leadership. Moshe's need for assistance and the sharing of prophecy paved the way to challenge both his capacity for leadership and the uniqueness of his prophetic status.
The context – According to this position, Miryam and Aharon's challenge of Moshe's authority is related not only to the the story which immediately preceded it,41 but also to the narratives which follow it (the Spies and the rebellion of Korach) as they all share the common theme of rebellion against Moshe's leadership.
Moshe's modesty – This explains why Moshe did not deign to respond to the words of his siblings and why Hashem defends him instead.
Hashem's response and understanding His verdict – Hashem's response focuses on Moshe's uniqueness and higher prophetic status in order to combat his siblings' challenge. Hashem announces unequivocally that Moshe is superior to all other prophets and that he is the most loyal of God's servants, thus quelling any doubts as to God's choice of leader. Hashem's anger and the harsh punishment meted out to Miryam are also more readily understood given that there was malicious intent in their complaints against Moshe.
Evaluating Miryam and Aharon – This approach casts Miryam and Aharon in a much worse light than the above. The two are not looking after the interests of their sister-in-law, nor are they simply involved in derogatory chatter, but are rather actively challenging their brother's authority. It is likely that the more traditional commentators hesitate to take this approach (despite its contextual advantages) for this very reason, preferring to view Miryam and Aharon as positively as possible.
Punishment of leprosy – Elsewhere in Tanakh, others who similarly attempt to usurp or challenge authority also receive a punishment of leprosy (צרעת).‎42 According to this approach, were it not for Moshe's intercession on Miryam's behalf, it is possible that her leprosy would have been permanent.