Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage


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Dual Grievance

Bemidbar 12 opens with Miryam and Aharon voicing a double complaint regarding Moshe:


(א) וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח.
(ב) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֲרַק אַךְ בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר ה' הֲלֹא גַּם בָּנוּ דִבֵּר וַיִּשְׁמַע ה'.

(1) And Miryam and Aharon spoke against Moshe, regarding the Cushite woman whom he had taken; for he had taken a Cushite woman.
(2) And they said, "Has Hashem spoken only through Moshe, has he not spoken also through us", and Hashem heard.

These verses raise several questions:

  • Who is this "Cushite woman" whom Moshe married1, and when did he do so? Why would Moshe have taken a second wife in addition to his aforementioned wife, Zipporah, and why a woman from Cush rather than one from his own nation?
  • On what grounds did Miryam and Aharon object to Moshe's marriage?
  • How did Miryam and Aharon's initial critique about the Cushite woman (v.1) relate to their second utterance questioning the uniqueness of Moshe's relationship with Hashem (v.2)?
  • Was all of this merely idle gossip or did their conversation have a more sinister intent?

Viewed in Context

This episode fits well within the broader context of Chapters 11–17 of Bemidbar which presents a series of incidents in which either the entire Israelite nation or selected individuals from it defy Moshe's authority. This could indicate that Miryam and Aharon's actions were part of a larger behavioral pattern plaguing the nation as a whole.

However, there are also a number of elements in our story which distinguish it from the surrounding narratives. Significantly, Miryam and Aharon's criticism relates to Moshe's personal conduct rather than his public leadership role. Additionally, the Divine punishment meted out to them is much less severe than in the other cases. Finally, all three individuals involved here are generally viewed as paragons of virtue and leaders of our people. Thus, in attempting to comprehend our story, many exegetes attempt to present both sides of the conflict as reasonable and to portray the actions of all of the characters in as positive a light as possible.

Hashem's Response

Hashem's defense of Moshe is immediate and forceful:


(ד) וַיֹּאמֶר ה' פִּתְאֹם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל מִרְיָם צְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתְּכֶם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתָּם. (ה) וַיֵּרֶד ה' בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם. (ו) וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְעוּ נָא דְבָרָי אִם יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם ה' בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ. (ז) לֹא כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא. (ח) פֶּה אֶל פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת וּתְמֻנַת ה' יַבִּיט וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה. (ט) וַיִּחַר אַף ה' בָּם וַיֵּלַךְ. (י) וְהֶעָנָן סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל מִרְיָם וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת.

(4) And Hashem said suddenly to Moshe, to Aharon, and to Miryam, "Come out you three to the Tent of Meeting, and the three of them came out. (5) And Hashem came down in a pillar of cloud, and he stood by the opening of the tent, and he called Aharon and Miryam, and they both came out. (6) And he said, "Hear my words: if your prophet, Hashem, I will appear to him by a vision and I will speak to him in a dream. (7) My servant, Moshe is not so, he is faithful in all my house. (8) Mouth to mouth I speak to him, by an appearance and not in riddles, and the form of Hashem he will see; and why were you not afraid to speak against my servant, Moshe. (9) And Hashem was angry with them and he went away. (10) And the cloud left the tent, and Miryam became leprous as snow, and Aharon turned towards Miryam and she was leprous.

Yet, while Hashem's words directly address the issue of Moshe having no equals in the level of his communication with the Divine, they do not make explicit mention of the Cushite woman. Why was this matter omitted, or was it somehow subsumed in Hashem's response? Is it possible that Miryam and Aharon's concerns were justified on this point? Furthermore, if all Miryam and Aharon did was engage in inappropriate prattle between themselves, why did this warrant such a public humiliation for Miryam and the Torah's indelible recording of their actions for posterity?

In Approaches, we will examine how exegetes throughout the ages have grappled with this enigmatic text and attempted to weave together a coherent narrative. While doing so, they present a fascinating array of views regarding Moshe's marital status and family life, the nature of his siblings' criticism, and the significance of the punishment of leprosy.2