Moses’ Cushite Wife

Moses and His Cushite Wife
by Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678)
Wikimedia Commons

















In a previous post, I discussed Lamech’s bigamy and named some of the people in the Bible who were married to more than one wife. One issue I did not raise in that post was about Moses’ marital status. The issue I will seek to address in this post is whether Moses also was a bigamist, that is, whether Moses had more than one wife.

The problem of whether or not Moses was a bigamist comes because of the conflict that arose between Aaron and Miriam against their brother Moses. The rebellion of Aaron and Miriam against Moses was over the issue of leadership. Moses’ leadership over the people was questioned because he had married a “Cushite woman.” Below are two translations of the text which refers to the Cushite woman:

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1 ESV).

“And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman” (Numbers 12:1 KJV).

Numbers 12:1 is the only passage in the Old Testament where Moses’ wife is identified as a “Cushite.” Throughout the Pentateuch, Moses’s wife is identified as Zipporah, a Midianite woman and the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:21; 3:1).

The expression “Cushite woman” is used disparagingly against Moses because he had married a non-Israelite woman. The text in question raises several issues: was Zipporah the Cushite woman? Does Cush in this context refers to Ethiopia or to another place? Thus, the most important question related to our discussion is: Did Moses have one wife, Zipporah or did Moses have two wives, Zipporah and the Cushite woman?

In his book, Antiquity of Jews, Book 2, Chapter 10, Josephus wrote that while Moses lived in Egypt, he commanded the Egyptian army in a war against Ethiopia and that he married an Ethiopian woman. The following are a few excerpts from Josephus’s narrative about Moses in Ethiopia:

(239) The Ethiopians, who are next neighbors to the Egyptians, made an inroad into their country, which they seized upon, and carried off the effects of the Egyptians, who, in their rage, fought against them, and revenged the affronts they had received from them; but, being overcome in battle, some of them were slain, and the rest ran away in a shameful manner, and by that means saved themselves;

(240) whereupon the Ethiopians followed after them in the pursuit, and thinking that it would be a mark of cowardice if they did not subdue all Egypt, they went on to subdue the rest with greater vehemence; and when they had tasted the sweets of the country, they never left off the prosecution of the war; and as the nearest parts had not courage enough at first to fight with them, they proceeded as far as Memphis and the sea itself; while not one of the cities was able to oppose them.

(241) The Egyptians under this sad oppression, betook themselves to their oracles and prophecies, and when God had given them this counsel, to make use of Moses the Hebrew, and take his assistance, the king commanded his daughter to produce him, that he might be the general of their army.

(247) When he had therefore proceeded thus on his journey, he came upon the Ethiopians
before they had expected him;

(248) and joining battle with them he beat them, and deprived them of the hopes they had of success against the Egyptians, and went on in overthrowing their cities, and indeed made a great slaughter of these Ethiopians. Now when the Egyptian army had once tasted of this prosperous success, by the means of Moses, they did not slacken their diligence, insomuch that the Ethiopians were in danger of being reduced to slavery, and all sorts of destruction;

(252) Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians: she happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage; and admiring the subtility of his undertakings, and believing him to be the author of the Egyptians’ success, when they had before despaired of recovering their liberty, and to be the occasion of the great danger the Ethiopians were in, when they had before boasted of their great achievements, she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevalency of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage.

(253) He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city; and gave her the assurance of an oath to take her to his wife; and that when he had once taken possession of the city, he would not break his oath to her. No sooner was the agreement made, but it took effect immediately; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.

This narrative about Moses fighting in Ethiopia as the commander of an Egyptian army and his marriage to an Ethiopian princess is not in the Bible. It is difficult to believe that Josephus would create a fictitious narrative about Moses’ marriage to an Ethiopian woman, even though some scholars say that this narrative is fictitious. However, the source for Josephus’s information about Moses’ action in Ethiopia and his marriage to an Ethiopian woman is unknown.

Zipporah, Moses’ wife, was a Midianite woman. The Midianites were descendants of Abraham through his wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-4). The Midianites lived in the Sinai region and in northern Arabia. Since the word “Cushites” or “Ethiopians” refers to black-skinned people, it is possible that the word was also applied to the Midianites to describe them as nomads with dark skin. Some scholars have identified Midian with Cushan. The synonymous parallelism between Cushan and Midian in Habakkuk 3:7 suggests that the words Cushite and Midianite are identical. Both views above try to affirm that Zipporah was the Cushite woman and that Moses had only one wife.

When Moses returned to Egypt from Midian, Moses brought Zipporah and his sons with him (Exodus 4:19-20). But, for unknown reasons, Moses sent Zipporah and his two sons back to Midian with Jethro (Exodus 18:2-3). Some scholars believe that Zipporah died in Midian and that after her death, Moses married the Cushite woman. Others believe that while Zipporah was away in Midian, Moses married a second woman, the Cushite woman mentioned in Numbers 12:1. These two views are attempts at saying that Moses had two wives.

Thus, the derogatory use of “Cushite woman” in Numbers 12:1 by Miriam is either an expression of contempt against Zipporah because she was not an Israelite woman or a racial slur used by Miriam to demean Moses’ Ethiopian wife.

The identification of the Cushite woman in Numbers 12:1 is difficult to ascertain. In Egyptian literature and in the Old Testament, the word “Cushites” refers to Ethiopians or Nubians: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23 NIV). In Jeremiah 13:23, the NIV has the following note: “23 Hebrew Cushite (probably a person from the upper Nile region).”

On the basis of the statement by Josephus and on the basis of the use of the word Cush in the Old Testament, it is quite possible that the Cushite woman mentioned as Moses’ wife in Numbers 12:1 was not Zipporah, but another woman. However, whether Moses married this second woman while Zipporah was alive or after she died, it is impossible to know for sure.


Many readers have asked me where I stand on this issue since my post ends without an affirmation of my position. I believe that the Cushite woman mentioned in Numbers 12:1 is Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Median. Let me explain.

The text in Exodus 4:20 says that “Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey and went back to the land of Egypt.” Then in Exodus 4:25 Moses’ wife is identified as Zipporah. At a later time Moses sent Zipporah back to the house of her father, but when Jethro came to visit Moses in the wilderness, Jethro brought Zipporah back with him: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons” (Exodus 18:6).

In Habakkuk 3:7, Cushan is identified with a tribe in Midian: “I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish.” In 2 Chronicles 14:12, Asa, king of Judah fought against his enemies at Gerar and “the LORD routed the Cushites before Asa and Judah, and the Cushites fled” (2 Chronicles 14:11). Gerar is a town in the Negeb (Genesis 10:19), not in Ethiopia. 2 Chronicles 21:16 mentions that the Arabs were neighbors of the Cushites. These texts indicate that these Cushites did not live in Ethiopia, but in an area that was near to the land of Israel.

From the texts above it is clear that the word “Cushite” does not mean Ethiopia. Rather, the word Cushite is applied to the Midianites or to the tribe from which Jethro and Zipporah belonged. Therefore, I believe that the Cushite wife mentioned in Numbers 12:1 was Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and Moses’ wife.

NOTE: For other studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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This entry was posted in Aaron, Book of Numbers, Cush, Cushites, Miriam, Moses, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Moses’ Cushite Wife

  1. Keen Reader says:

    Fascinating. It’s a sorry state of affairs that I’ve been a Christian for forty years and don’t know this stuff. I’d love to read more about it. Are there any good historio-critical biographies of Moses around?


    • Dear Friend,

      You are not the only one who may not know this fact. Many Christians know very little about the Old Testament.

      A book on Moses that I enjoyed reading was “Moses” by Martin Buber. You may find the book in a good library.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. masiza says:

    I am black and as such am very passionate about the histotry of black people in general.
    I am quite suprised of the non racist/unbiased approach you used to address Moses’ Cushite wife. I would like hear your take on Ham’s sin against Noah his father,in particular on why many even well meaning Christians believe the curse of Noah to Canaan applies to the black nations born of Cush and not to Canaan?

    Thank you.


    • Masiza,

      Thank you for your comment and for visiting my blog.

      The answer to your question is complicated. First, people misinterpret Noah’s curse. Some people believe that Noah’s curse against Ham means that he became black. Since Ham was the father of Canaan, this means the the Canaanites became slaves. And since Cush was the son of Ham and since Cush is associated with Ethiopia, then the Cushites are associated with black people.

      However, let me say that none of this finds any support in the Bible. This kind of thinking was developed by people who tried to find justification for slavery.

      Claude Mariottini

      Liked by 2 people

    • Peter says:

      I am also and proud


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  4. Dieter says:

    What’s interesting is God’s punishment of Miriam–turning her skin white as snow. After relenting to Moses’ entreaties, God reduced her punishment to something that God said was equivalent to her father spitting in her face.

    Seems like God is not too happy with racism.


  5. Muhammad says:

    hi Professor,

    Really appreciate your efforts.

    By faith I am Muslim.but really disappointed with their present activities. I gone through some studies about the Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What i understand is that Judaism and Islam is much similar and all the 3 religions teach about peace and humanity. Especially The Christianity.

    To put my part in the peaceful society, i would to play my part. But still not get the right path.

    I would like if you can help and advise me in this matter.

    Yours sincere




    • Muhammad,

      Thank you for your comment. You are right: all 3 religions teach peace but in all religions there are people who do not love peace.

      I am glad that you want to do your part in promoting peace. What you need is to find someone who loves peace as much as you do and together try to work in doing things and saying things that promote peace.

      May the Almighty bless you.

      Claude Mariottini


    • Dear Friend,

      Thank you for sending me the link. I have downloaded the paper and will read it shortly. If you want me to send my comments to you, send me an email at my email address listed on my blog.

      Once again, thank you for the link.

      Claude Mariottini


  6. Daniel Gitau says:

    This is very well put ! Amazing work sir .. Blessed to have some expert opinion on this


  7. Marty Wyatt says:

    Right before the giving of the ten commandments, in Exodus 18:1-5, Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law) met him with Moses’ family. This was after he had sent them back to Jethro in verse 2. It appears to me he sent them back after the incident with God’s angel and Zipporah’s circumcision of a son in Exodus 4: 24-26. In verse 27 only Aaron & Moses met. In chapter 18 verse 27 it states Jethro departed but nothing about his family departing. I always assumed Moses’ family went with Jethro. In Numbers 10: 29-32, Hobab, Moses brother-in-law, made a visit to him. Moses tried to persuade Hobab to go with them to Canaan. Of course he refused. Nothing is said about Moses’ family on this visit. Jesus said because of the hardness of their hearts (hard headedness) Moses allowed them to divorce but now He said the only reason for divorce was for fornication or adultery would be committed (Matthew chapter 19). I believe Moses divorced Zipporah’s and because of it if he didn’t allow it, the Israelite men would throw his situation in his face. Then we have the dilemma of his Ethiopian wife in Numbers 12:1. It would seem to me that he would have had to put her away as well in order to be in compliance of his own law, Deuteronomy chapter 7 and Ezra chapters 9 & 10, or this would have been thrown in his face by all the Israelites and not just by Miriam and Aaron.


    • Marty,

      Thank you for your comments and for your attempt to solve this difficult issue. I do not believe that Moses divorced Zipporah. There is nothing in the text that supports this view. Also, there is nothing in the text that supports the view that Moses also divorced his Cushite wife. Even though I did not want to offer a definite solution to the issue, it is possible that Zipporah had died and that Moses married the Cushite woman. Maybe I will need to come back and discuss this issue in more detail in a future post.

      Once again, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      Claude Mariottini


  8. beza says:

    Hello Professor

    I’m currently reading a book by Professor Fikire Tolosa. He mentions that Jethro is also Ethiopian and Mosses married his daughter which means the Cushite women and Zipporah are one and the same in this case. If you have time may be you could contact him since he also implied he have/saw document.


    • Beza,

      Thank you for your comment. After reading your comment, I reread my post on Moses’ Cushite Wife and realized that my conclusion was vague because I did not say very clearly where I stand on this issue. I have updated my post to clarify my position. I believe that the Cushite women mentioned in Numbers 12:1 was Zipporah. In my update I explain the reasons I believe Zipporah was the woman Miriam called the Cushite woman.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini


  9. rwestbury says:

    Professor Mariottini,

    Thank you for your perspective on the matter of Moses and his wife, or possibly wives. I also believe that Moses had only one wife. There arose a debate on this topic between myself and a brother in Christ. We came to the conclusion that it is very difficult to ascertain an absolute conclusion on whether there was one wife, or two wives. I truly appreciate your thoughts on the subject, even though it does not clear it up completely, it is fruit for thought.

    Thank you,


    • Rosemarie,

      As I mentioned in my post, it is difficult to know whether Moses’ Cushite wife was Zipporah or another woman. The text is not clear and we cannot make a definite decision on this issue because the Bible does not help us with the kind of information we need to make a definite decision.

      Claude Mariottini


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  12. Edwin Mbugua says:

    Why are Theologians so disturbed by polygamy. As a matter of fact the word polygamy and bigamy does not appear anywhere in the Bible. All we have is marriage and there is no where we read God speaking against marrying many wives. What we read is God giving guidance on the same. Exodus 21:10-11, Deuteronomy 21:15-17. If God is the same yesterday today and tomorrow, let’s not try to explain the Bible to fit our culture. I am a product of polygamy and am not a sin and I feel bad when Christians criminalise “polygamy” but are comfortable with divorce which the Bible day clearly He hates.


    • Edwin,

      Thank you for your comment. The Christian view of marriage is based on Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Christians also follow the admonition of Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 where Paul compares the relationship between husband and wife with the relationship between Christ and the church. Paul’s admonition only makes sense with monogamy-Jesus will not have multiple brides. Paul also said: “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).

      Again, Paul said in 1 Timothy 3:2: “Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.” Thus, if the church leader has more than one wife, he is not above reproach. Thus, it is clear that the Bible teaches monogamy.

      Claude F. Mariottini


  13. Lawrence says:

    Are you aware of Gene’s work? I believe it is most accurate & complete available. Appreciate your commentary.


  14. Lucia says:

    Thanks, Dr. Mariottini, for this very helpful post! I wonder if you have any posts on Ex. 4:25 regarding Zipporah’s “bloody bridegroom” comment and actions?


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  16. David blunt says:

    I have always had an admiration for the beauty of east african women


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