For much of modern history, many conservatives and racists combed through the Scriptures for things such as the “curse of Ham” and Ezra’s banning of intermarriage as justification against miscegenation. While hardly anyone ascribes to this today, the vestiges of the modern conservative’s distaste for interracial marriage has in a large way clouded our understanding of an interesting episode in Scripture.
The passage in question is Num 12:1-13–
While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); 2 and they said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. 3 Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. 4 Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them came out. 5 Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. 6 And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the Lord make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
7 Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
8 With him I speak face to face— clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the Lord.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”9 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.
10 When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. 11 Then Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed. 12 Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.” 13 And Moses cried to the Lord, “O God, please heal her.”
The flow of the story is pretty simple if we do not get bogged down in presuppositions such as Zipporah supposedly being Moses’ only wife (and the fact that she was a Midian) and the obscure meaning of what on Earth a Cushite is. Thankfully, we can unpack the meaning quickly if we recognize that what is recorded here is Moses marrying another woman and that the Cushites are black Africans (see Jer 13:23).
In short, Moses, perhaps reluctantly but due to the command of God, marries a black woman. This made him very humble, as it was evidently scandalous. Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses in this, using as justification their status as prophets. Their opposition was understandable, as God had just commanded the Jews to separate themselves from and not marry foreigners (see Ex 34:15-16). So, they responded, “Has He not spoken through us also?”
God’s response is telling. He both defend’s Moses’ role as the preeminent prophet and he gives Miriam a skin disease that turns her “as white as snow.” This is obviously poetic justice, as Miriam’s criticism of Moses of taking an alien as a wife, a black alien at that, results in her being turned pure white.
What is the significance of this event? The actions of the prophet purposely served as a type of Christ and the Church. Irenaeus explains in Against Heresies:
Paul declares that the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the believing husband (1 Cor 7:14). Then again, the prophet names his children, Not having obtained mercy, and Not a people, Hosea 1:6-9 in order that, as says the apostle, what was not a people may become a people; and she who did not obtain mercy may obtain mercy. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said, This is not a people, there shall they be called the children of the living God. Romans 9:25-26 That which had been done typically through his actions by the prophet, the apostle proves to have been done truly by Christ in the Church. Thus, too, did Moses also take to wife an Ethiopian woman, whom he thus made an Israelitish one, showing by anticipation that the wild olive tree is grafted into the cultivated olive, and made to partake of its fatness….for this reason, by means of the marriage of Moses, was shown forth the marriage of the Word; and by means of the Ethiopian bride, the Church taken from among the Gentiles was made manifest; and those who do detract from, accuse, and deride it, shall not be pure. For they shall be full of leprosy, and expelled from the camp of the righteous (Chapter 20, Par 12).
In light of all of this, we can see how God throughout the Scriptures uses marriages between the man of God and the outsider (Hosea’s wife of whoredom, the Cushite bride of Moses) as pictures of the Church and Christ. After all, the Church is the opposite of Christ, as the Cushite bride’s skin color and Homer’s lack of virtue are the exact opposite of what we would find in their husbands. The Church does not bring righteousness to the table, rather ,Christ brings His and brings us into union with Him so that we share this righteousness. Moses’ insight into the Gospel and the nature of prophecy versus his siblings is an important lesson among many on how God has made righteous those who, by nature, are not.