Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

A Nubian/Cushite woman, c1900. Photograph by Jean Pascal Sébah, image in the creative commons

And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it.
Numbers 12:1-2

The general mood of dissatisfaction among the Israelites affects Moses' brother and sister too. Using Moses' marriage as the source of their resentment, the two complain aloud, perhaps to friends, perhaps to the general populace, perhaps to God. Either way, God hears.

This is an intriguing passage as it implies Moses had a second wife—who, coming from Ethiopia, would have been black.1 Was the complaint rooted in racism or was it bigamy? The latter seems unlikely as it was not uncommon for a man to have many wives, but possibly a man of Moses' standing was considered above such an arrangement. Zipporah, Moses' first wife, was also from a different ethic group, i.e. not an Israelite. It's curious that the man selected to lead the "chosen people" had not one, but two wives taken from amongst the "unchosen". It adds a layer of complexity to Moses, indeed, taken alongside the previously mentioned mixt multitudes2, to the entire story, with the concept of a racially pure "chosen people" being now twice undermined.

The identity of Moses' wife aside, looking to be merely the presenting reason for Aaron and Miriam's mutiny, one wonders what the real motive was. I rather suspect it was that the two siblings were overcome by the spirit of the mob.3 The congregation was turning against Moses, and his sister and brother became caught up in the current of disgruntlement; naturally conflicted they deal with it by claiming equal status with Moses, thus justifying their personal turning. Neither has any strength of conviction however, and the immediate overturning of this grab at power shows that the reasoning is paper thin. How often, I wonder, is our own resistance and rebellion fuelled by a mob, rather than by measured discernment. We've been seeing this syndrome play out on social media over many years now, culminating in some truly venomous mob-led attacks during these lockdown years. Just as Miriam was struck by God with a physical ailment, Miriam became leprous, white as snow4 so too perhaps do we find ourselves getting physically unwell when indulging in self-righteous anger. Mind and body are intrinsically connected.

There is a particular interesting fact to note concerning Miriam being struck white as snow. Robert Alter notes,

"If the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman is actually black, this sudden draining of pigmentation would be mordant poetic justice for Miriam's slander." 5

The book of Numbers is a book of great complexity and depth of insight, a catalogue of human folly, offering myriad opportunities for us to reflect on our own values and behaviours.

1 "When Moses and the Egyptian army besieged the capital city of the Ethiopians, Meroe (Saba), the daughter of the king of Ethiopia, Tharbis, fell in love with Moses. She asked Moses to marry her. Moses agreed on the condition that she delivered the Ethiopians into his hand."A silent unheard voice in the Old Testament: The Cushite woman whom Moses married in Numbers 12:1-10
2 Numbers 11:4 (referenced in reflection 46, Bondage)
3 The idea of a spirit, or angel/demon of the mob is explored by Walter Wink in the second of his "Powers" trilogy, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, Fortress Press, 1986
4 Numbers 12:10
5 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, Norton, 2004, p743