Miryam's Critique of Moshe in Art

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Bemidbar 12 revolves around Miryam and Aharon's critique of Moshe and his Cushite marriage and Hashem's subsequent reprimand and punishment. Each of the images shown here illustrates a different phase of the story. Jacob Jordaens1 depicts only the married couple, Moshe and his Cushite wife, while the engraving2 focuses on the central part of the story, the slander. The third image, a stained glass,3 moves to the story's conclusion, the punishment of Miryam and request for mercy. The artists differ in both whom they decide to portray and how they depict each of the characters, highlighting the central questions emerging from the text itself: Who was Moshe's Cushite wife?  About what were Miryam and Aharon upset? Is this a story about racism, sibling rivalry, or something else entirely?

Contrasting Images

Moses and his Ethiopian Wife Sephora

Jordaen's painting is, in essence, a dual portrait of Moshe and his wife. Though painted as a couple, there is no hint of intimacy between the two and nothing that draws them together. Moshe stands in front, looking forward at the viewer rather than at his wife. He is richly clothed in blue and red, holding what appears to be the tablet of the law in his left hand.  His facial emotions and the gesturing of his open hand are difficult to interpret.  His wife, a black woman, stands behind him, her darkness contrasting with his whiteness.  She, too, is richly garbed, wearing a gold cloak and hat. She is positioned at an angle to her husband, and like Moshe, gazes at the viewer rather than her spouse. Her right hand is raised and points to her heart.

Miriam and Aaron Complain Against Moses

The engraving is a much busier composition, with all four of the story's central figures depicted in the foreground. The artist positions them into two distinct groups. Miryam and Aharon (identifiable due to his priestly garb) face Moshe and his wife, each gesticulating at the other.  Moshe's wife is white-skinned, and stands with her husband as a united team.  The second scene of the story is depicted to the viewer's right, where the three leaders stand by the Tent of Meeting and a very anthropomorphic king-like God speaks to them from within.  The final scene is lightly illustrated in the background of the work, where the siblings plead before Moshe and Miryam is cast out of the camp.

Miryam is Cursed with Leprosy

The last image focuses only on the three siblings, with Moshe's wife absent from the composition. All three, somewhat surprisingly, are brown-skinned, though the artist plays with the image to reveal white legs at the left edge of the scene. Miryam kneels on the ground in front of Moshe, her arms crisscrossed against her chest in a gesture of submission and apology. Aharon puts his hand on top of her head, perhaps in solidarity, perhaps to declare her impure.  He is dressed in everyday garb rather than priestly clothing. Moshe stands next to him, their backs almost touching, as he looks down at his sister.  In the background, the tents of the camp stand tall, one of which might be the Ohel Moed.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

Who Is the Cushite?

While Jordaens paints the Cushite as a black woman, the engraving depicts her in the same light shades as the other figures.  Though the third, stained glass image does not include the Cushite at all, it depicts all the other characters in brownish tones.  The various choices highlight one of the key questions of the chapter: Who was Moshe's Cushite wife?  Was she a black woman from Cush,4 as might be implied by the simple sense of the verses, or might she be Zipporah, Moshe's Midianite wife known to us from earlier chapters?5  Moreover, even if she were black, would her skin color have marked her as different than everyone else or were all the Israelites dark in color? Would her appearance have labeled her as an "other", ripe for ridicule?6  See the discussion in Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage.

Focus of the Complaint

While the Cushite woman is included in both the engraving and in Jordaens' portrait, she is entirely absent from the third artwork.7 This reflects a question that arises from the text itself.  To what extent was the Cushite marriage central to the complaint of Miryam and Aharon?  Though many readers think of the story as revolving around the Cushite, she is not mentioned after the first verse.8  Moreover, Hashem's reply to the siblings ignores the marriage critique and focuses solely on the second half of the siblings' words ("הֲרַק אַךְ בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר י״י הֲלֹא גַּם בָּנוּ דִבֵּר"), as Hashem defends the uniqueness of Moshe's prophecy.  As such, commentators debate the relationship between the grievances of verses 1-2 and whether Miryam and Aharon were mainly concerned with Moshe's marriage or their competing prophetic statuses.  Compare RashiBemidbar 12:1About R. Shelomo Yitzchaki, R"Y Bekhor ShorBemidbar 12:1-2Bemidbar 12:3About R. Yosef Bekhor ShorIbn KaspiBemidbar 12:1About R. Yosef ibn Kaspi and modern readings of the story9 at Miryam's Critique of Moshe .

Did Moshe Know?

In the engraving, Miryam and Aharon appear to challenge Moshe to his face, rather than speaking about him behind his back. Does this reading have any support in the Biblical text?  Was Moshe even aware of the slander against him?  Verse two states only, "וַיִּשְׁמַע י״י", perhaps implying that Hashem alone, and not Moshe, heard the siblings' words.  On the other hand, verse 3 mentions Moshe's humility, perhaps to suggest that though Moshe was aware of the defamation, he felt no need to stand up for his honor.  See Sifre Bemidbar 12:2 which presents both possibilities.

Moshe's Marital Relationship

While the artist of the woodcut chooses to present Moshe and his wife as a united couple, Jordaens is much more ambiguous about their relationship. Is the Cushite's gesture towards her heart an expression that she feels loved or that she is lacking and desiring it?  Do the independent stances of the two indicate a lack of connection or is their posturing insignificant? 

Commentators raise similar questions about Moshe's relationship as portrayed in the Biblical text.  Were Miryam and Aharon upset about the fact of marriage or about the dynamics thereof? Rashi suggests that, due to Moshe's prophetic responsibilities, he had separated himself from his wife and it was this about which Miryam complained. One wonders, too, how the earlier mention of Moshe and Zipporah's separation ("אחר שילוחיה"), plays into the story of Bemidbar.  Did Moshe take another wife because there was something lacking in the earlier relationship? Had his prophetic duties always made married life a challenge? See Miryam's Critique of Moshe and אחר שלוחיה.

What is Tzara'at?

Of the three images, only the third focuses on Miryam's punishment, and even here it is difficult to see how the artist envisioned the affliction of tzara'at. Miryam looks physically normal, with the possible exception of the blackened edges of her fingers. What exactly is tzara'at?  Is it a supernatural Divine punishment, not to be identified with any known malady, or is it a natural disease, only sometimes used by Hashem to rebuke those who have sinned?  Is it associated specifically with slander or with other sins as well?  For discussion, see Tzara'at.