Moses and that Ethiopian Woman


Moses and that Ethiopian Woman

November 30th, 1958 @ 8:15 AM

Exodus 4:24-26

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Numbers 12:1-16

11-30-58    8:15 a.m.



You are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas; and this is the pastor bringing the early morning message entitled Moses and That Ethiopian Woman.  Last Sunday morning, in following the life of Moses in the Book of Exodus, we were in the fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus and read in Exodus 4:24-26 these words:  "And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah," who was Moses’ wife, "then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.  So He, the Lord, let him go:  then she cried, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision." 

And in my expatiation upon this unusual pericope, taken out of the Book of Exodus in the life of Moses, I remarked upon Zipporah and the kind of a woman she was and incidentally remarked that it was this wife of Moses, so uncongenial, so incompatible, so altogether out of sympathy with her husband that occasioned the terrible incident that brought upon Miriam her curse of leprosy and upon Aaron a disgrace [Numbers 12:1-9].  After the service was over, why, some of my discerning people in the congregation said to me, "Pastor, you are certainly in error there because it was not Zipporah that caused that leprosy and disgrace to fall upon the Mosaic family; but it was occasioned by the Ethiopian woman whom Moses married, which is described in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Numbers."

Now the twelfth chapter of the Book of Numbers describes that incident in these words:

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.

(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)

And the Lord spake suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam, Come out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation.  And they three came out.

And the Lord came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam:  and they both came forth.

And He said, Hear now My words:  If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make Myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.

My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all Mine house.

With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold:  wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?

And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them; and God the Lord departed.

And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow:  and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.

And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned.

Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb.

And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.

And the Lord said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days?  let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again.

And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days:  and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.

Then afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the Wilderness of Paran.

[Numbers 12:1-16]


Now that’s the story.

Now, every once in a while, somebody will come up to me and will say, "Now you say a thing in your sermon and in your message, and then you go right on, and then you just leave us up in the air.  You don’t explain, you don’t say why, and you just go on."  Well, the reason for that is I have been thirteen years and more going through this Bible, and I want to get through with it before I die.  And I sometimes have my doubts about it.  Now, I have apparently started again, though I’ve tried to turn this in an altogether different way; I have apparently started again in these eight-fifteen o’clock morning services.  And, consequently, there is a host of things, there are hosts of things that incidentally I mention, and I don’t take time to explain.  "Why is it that you think so and so, and why do you say thus and so?  And not taking time to explain why, it sounds so unusual and so strange."  I never thought much about that last Sunday morning, but I can see it was discussed and brought to my attention, I can see why there should have been a wonderment at it.  Now, I shall do my best to tell you why I think that the Ethiopian woman that Moses married is Zipporah.

Now, I have to confess that there is a great deal on the other side; there are many, many commentators and many, many scholars, and many, many interpreters who think that Zipporah is one woman and that she died, and that Moses married again, and that when he married the second time, he married an Ethiopian woman.  There are many scholars and many commentators and many interpreters who follow that explanation.  It was so much so that Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, felt compelled to recount a legend about Moses regarding his marrying an Ethiopian woman.  I have copied out of Josephus what Josephus says in the second book of the Antiquities of the Jews, the tenth chapter and the second paragraph.  Now I am quoting from Josephus:  "So Moses, at the persuasion of Thermusis," that was the princess who adopted him, the daughter of Pharaoh:


So Moses at the persuasion of Thermusis and the Pharaoh himself undertook the conquest of the Ethiopians, who were overrunning Egypt.  Moses came upon the Ethiopians before they expected him; and joining battle with them, he beat them and went on in overthrowing their cities.  At length, the Ethiopians retired to the royal city of Saba, which Cambyses afterwards named Meroe, after the name of his own sister.  Then this incident happened:  Thorbas was the daughter of the king of Ethiopia.  She happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls and fought with great courage.  And 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.  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.  She gave up the city to Moses.  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.


Now that’s the recounting of Josephus, of how it came about that Moses married an Ethiopian woman.  That of course, is just legend; that’s a myth, that’s a story that Josephus picked up somewhere in the ancient rabbinical literature, and he recounts it, writes it in his Antiquities.

Now, I have several things to say about this to begin with; things that are problematical when it is assumed that Zipporah is the first wife of Moses and that the Ethiopian woman was still another wife.  There are several things about it that, on the surface, that immediately raise great problems.  All right, let’s take the first one.  It is very unusual that, if Moses had two wives and doubtless two families, but certainly, if Moses had two wives that the thing is never mentioned; it is never referred to in any of the genealogical tables.  And when you read this Old Testament, you’ll find those tables again and again and again.  The life of our Lord begins with two genealogies:  one of them in Matthew and one of them in Luke.  And these ancient Hebrews, according to the Word of God, take great attention to those genealogical tables.  Now, it is a strange thing that if Moses had two wives, two families, it is never referred to, it is never mentioned.

For example, in the life of Abraham, you have Abraham and Sarah and her child, you have Abraham and Keturah and her children, and they’re followed very faithfully.  In the life of Jacob, you have Jacob and Leah and her children, you have Jacob and Rachel and her children.  In the life of David, you will have David, Abigail and their children; you will have David, Bathsheba and their children. But you won’t find anything like that in the life of Moses.  It is never mentioned, it is never hinted at, it is never referred to that Moses had any other than that one family:  Moses, Zipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer [Exodus 18:2-4; 1 Chronicles 23:15-16].  That’s one thing.

The second thing is this:  it is an unusual thing that Moses should have married in the event of Zipporah’s death within a matter of weeks.  You don’t have a long space in there when this thing is supposed to have happened.  After Moses led the Exodus and they had come into the desert.  Jethro, Zipporah’s father, to whom Moses had sent his wife after this incident I read in the fourth chapter of Exodus [Exodus 4:24-26] – in the first year that the children of Israel are in the desert, Jethro brings to Moses, Moses’ family, Zipporah and those two sons [Exodus 18:1-6].  Now, when you enter the second year, you have this story in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Numbers where Miriam and Aaron reproach Moses on account of his wife [Numbers 12:1]. Now, you have to assume that Zipporah died, and that, within a few days, a few weeks thereafter, that Moses married again.  Then if you can get that in your acceptance, if you can believe that that happened, then you have this also to have to believe:  you have to believe that Moses for the second time married a foreign woman; which would have been an affront to the nation and especially an affront to his own family.  And you have to assume that he did that without any reasonable necessity or any known cause.  Now, another thing:  you have to think that Moses married the second time this strange and foreign woman, when he had just got through pronouncing the prohibition from God that Israel was not to marry foreign wives [Exodus 34:16].

Now you put all that together.  You have to suppose that Zipporah died a little while after Jethro presented her to her husband.  You have to assume that, within a very short time, Moses married again.  You have to assume that, for the second time, he married a foreign wife without any reason, without any cause, an affront to the nation, and an affront to his own family.  And you have to assume that he found reason to do it in the face of the prohibition he had just delivered Israel from God that Israel was not to form marriages with foreign wives.  Now, I have said those things just to start off with.  On the face of it, there are problems when you think that these two women are different women; that they do not refer, that these two passages do not refer to the same woman.

Now, I’m going to tell you why it is that I think the two passages refer to the same woman; that the Ethiopian woman is Zipporah, the wife of Moses.  All right, first, the first reason is on account of the kind of a woman Zipporah was; and the second reason is on account of the kind of a woman Miriam was.  Now you’re going to have a wonderful insight into a family when we look at these two women:  a wife and a sister-in-law.  All right, the kind of a woman Zipporah was.  "And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him.  Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, A bloody husband, verily, art thou to me" [Exodus 4:24-25].  That strange and mysterious little episode is so eloquent of the kind of a household that Moses had.  Moses is God’s man; and as God’s man, he is to be obedient in the Lord, to the Lord, in all things.  He is chargeable unto God.  Now, Moses had neglected the rite of circumcision for his own children.  And the Lord God might overlook that in other people, in other tribes, in other families; but the Lord God was not going to overlook a disobedience to that rite in Moses himself.

Now, the apparent reason for the neglect of Moses in keeping that rite was because of the Midianitish prejudices of his wife, Zipporah.  Moses was listening to his wife and not to God.  He was obeying his wife and not the Lord.  It was not what God wanted, it was what Zipporah wanted.  So he let the rite of circumcision go by the board because of the objections of Zipporah.  Now when he started out on that mission, the Lord sought to slay him [Exodus 4:24].  I do not know how; I would suppose by a terrible illness, but, in any event, the threat of death and the fear of death came upon Moses and upon his family.  It was only to avert that terrible judgment of God that Zipporah finally circumcised – I presume Moses was too ill and too near death to do it – that Zipporah finally circumcised that son.  And when she did it, she did it in anger and in reluctance.  And casting the foreskin at the feet of her husband, she said, "Verily, a bloody husband art thou to me" [Exodus 4:25-26].

Well, the incident showed Moses that he could not even take his wife down there into the land of Egypt to brave all the perils and storms of the Exodus.  So when he recovered and was able, he sent her back to her father, to Jethro.  You know that because in the eighteenth chapter of Exodus, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he [Moses] had sent her back, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer [Exodus 18:1-6].  So after that, Moses sent her back to her father while he went down into the land of Egypt in order to deliver, to emancipate the Israelites [Exodus 4:27-51].  Now that’s the kind of a woman that Zipporah was.  She was a hard-headed, she was a self-willed, she was an obstreperous, and I would suppose a most incompatible wife.  And Moses sent her back, while he went on down into the land of Egypt.

All right, my second reason why I think they are the same women, they are the same woman, is on account of the kind of a woman Miriam was.  Now we’re going to look at the Hebrew text here, for it will reveal many things.  "And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married" [Numbers 12:1].  Now here is the Hebrew, you listen to it; we’re going to take it piece at a time.  You are going to find in this thing who that woman was, and what happened, and what kind of a woman Miriam was.  Aharon tedabber ; dabar  is the word for "speak," tedaber is the feminine form of it. "And they spake," feminine, Miryam andAharon, Aaron, be, against, ·Mosheh, Moses, al odoth on account of," you’d say in English, ha ishah, the woman, ha kushi, the Cushite, asher, which, laqach he had married, he had taken."  Now you look at that.  You have it translated, "And Miriam and Aaron spake" [Numbers 12:1], form is in the feminine; it’s Miriam who is doing the talking, it’s Miriam who’s doing the speaking.  All right, do you see another thing in that Hebrew text and in the English too?  Miryam ve Ahron, Aaron, Miriam is first, not Aaron, Miriam is first, "Miriam and Aaron," in the feminine [Numbers 12:1].   So you have "Miriam," first, the verb is in the feminine, and when you have the judgment of God, it falls upon Miriam, not upon Aaron.  "And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow:  and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous" [Numbers 12:10].  In other words, Aaron was doing the same thing that he had done when Israel had made the golden calf:  he just listened to Israel and followed what Israel wanted to do [Exodus 32:1-2, 21-24].  He’s doing the same thing here:  he’s following Miriam; and what Miriam says, Aaron says.  So the verb is in the feminine, and Miriam is first of the two when they’re named [Numbers 12:1], and she’s the one upon whom the judgment of God falls; she’s the one that becomes a leper [Numbers 12:10].  So Miriam is the one who leads in this.  And there you have another illustration of a family relationship that has been true since the beginning of the ages:  all sisters, practically all of them, all sisters meddle in the love affairs of their brothers; and when those brothers marry, all sisters have a propensity to meddle in the marriage affairs of their brothers.  Now that’s just universal and has been ever since time began.

Now, Miriam, the sister of Moses, is looking at this marriage.  She never saw this woman until in the Exodus they were brought out of Egypt and Jethro brought her to Moses [Exodus 18:1-2].  And Miriam herself is some woman.  And Zipporah herself is some woman, self-willed, hard-headed; you could almost say incorrigible.  Now I want you to notice here that, when it describes Moses as the meekest of all the men on the face of the earth, it does it in connection with his family circle.  "(Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)"  [Numbers 12:3].  And Miriam was just not of a humor to put up with Zipporah, as the meekest of all the men on the face of the earth; it is an interesting thing to look at this Hebrew word, translated "meek," anav, anav, its cognate word is used with it interchangeably, aniy,  and that cognate word means "oppressed, bowed down."  Moses’ wife beat him down; she got him down.  He was bowed down.  He was cowed.  Zipporah was a strong-willed woman; and to have peace in the family, Moses is described as being the meekest, the bowed downest, the oppressed, the most oppressed of all the men which were upon the face of the earth [Numbers 12:3].  Now that is said in connection with this family circle here!  Well, Miriam, Moses’ sister, was not as meek as her brother; and she was not as disposed to put up with Zipporah as was her brother.  So when this thing arose and Miriam is introduced into the family, the fur flies, and the sparks fly, and words are said, and the family feud is on, and when Miriam speaks about Zipporah, she doesn’t say "Moses’ wife," she doesn’t say "Zipporah," but when Miriam talks about her, she calls her "that Cushite woman" [Numbers 12:1].

Now Calvin, and a host of others of which I am now one, all of us think that when Miriam refers to "that Cushite woman," Miriam is being sarcastic, and she is being abusive, and she is being half-historically correct in referring to Zipporah as "that Cushite woman."  Now, I have just one thing left to do.  Can I substantiate that a Cushite woman could also be a Midianitess because Zipporah was certainly a Midianitish woman.  Her father was the priest of Midian, Jethro [Exodus 19:1-2].  Now, can you use the word "Cushite" to refer to a Midianite?  All right, let’s look at it.

You have the word "Cushite" here translated "Ethiopian" [Numbers 12:1].  Now let’s look at it.  Just exactly where is the country of Cush?  When the Bible refers to Cush, Cush, C-u-s-h, where is Cush, Cush?  Well, back here in the second chapter of Genesis, for example, you will have the naming of the four rivers in Eden.  You have Pison that runs through Havilah; you have Gihon, that runs through Ethiopia; you have Hiddekel, which runs through Assyria; then you have the Euphrates [Genesis 2:10-14].  Now all those rivers arise in Eden and from thence part into four heads.  Now, how in the world you could ever get one of those rivers starting in Eden, in Mesopotamia where the fountain head of Euphrates runs, how you could ever get that river down across the Red Sea and into the central eastern part of Africa would be a mystery to me; you’d just have a very difficult time doing it.  So this land of Cush, this land of Cush does not refer then just to what you know today as Ethiopia; but it refers to an Asiatic country.  Now, you will find as you begin studying that word "C-u-s-h," "Cush," which is translated "Ethiopia," you will find that it is a very indeterminate geographical area, very indeterminate.  Sometimes it refers to this place and sometimes that place.  Now Cush is the eldest son of Ham [Genesis 10:6]; and his son is named Nimrod [Genesis 10:8]; and Nimrod was the builder of Babylonia and Babylon [Genesis 10:9-10].  And he built the first great Babylonian empire.  So, the land of Cush, here almost certainly refers to an Asiatic country somewhere around the Mesopotamian part of that part of Asia.

Now, when you come to the study of these tribes and these nations in that ancient time, you will find that because of the migrations of those ancient peoples that here will be called a land and a city after a people, and here will be called a land and a city after a people, and there will be called a land and a city after a people as they migrated.  Now these Asiatic Cushites, and they were translated into the Greek "Ethiopian," Herodotus uses that word "Ethiopia," translating this word "Cushite," and he refers the word "Ethiopia" to all of the Asiatic peoples, all the nations of Asia.  Herodotus calls them all Ethiopians.  The word in Greek for "burn," to burn is aitho, and the word in Greek for "face" is ops so aitho ops – sunburned – they were brown-skinned people.  So far as we know, the Hebrews never knew of a Negro race; not until late, late times.  So far as we know, all of these people were brown-skinned.  They are described as brown-skinned, and the word "Ethiopia" referred to these Asiatic nationals as "brown-skinned."

Now, in that Asiatic Cushite tribe, of which the Babylonian Empire was one, and of which you have records of those people migrating, finally coming on down below Egypt, into Upper Egypt, as you go by the river, settling there, you have those tribes ethnically mentioned together, "Midian" and Cushan, or "Ethiopia."  For example, in Habakkuk 3:7, in the song of Habakkuk, he says, "I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble."  There they are together – "The tents of Cushan, the curtains of the land of Midian."  That’s just the Hebrew way, "the tents of Chushan in affliction, the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble"; the Midianites and the Cushites, they are referred to there as being the same family, the same ethnological group.  Now I have another instance of that same thing.  In 2 Chronicles 21:16, it says, "Moreover the Lord stirred up against Jehoram the spirit of the Philistines, and of the Arabians, the Ethiopians, the Cushites, that were near."  And it refers here in the Hebrew, "The Lord stirred up against Jehoram the spirit of the Philistines and of the near Arabians, the Cushites."  That’s the way it is in Hebrew; "of the near Arabians, the Cushites."  So you have there in these instances the Midianites, the Arabians, and the Cushites as all belonging to the same ethnological group.  And that could have been easily true because of the migration of those ancient tribes.

Now what happened here in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Numbers is this:  Miriam was taking advantage of everything that she could think of.  She was throwing the dishpan, she was throwing the crockery, she was throwing the rolling pin, she was doing everything she could to lay out Moses’ wife.  And the hardest thing that Miriam could say about Zipporah was that she was a Cushite [Numbers 12:1]; and she had a basis for calling her a Cushite because of the ethnological identification of Midian and Cushan.  So when you have it here that Moses is being abraded by Miriam on account of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married that was just Miriam’s way of laying out Zipporah and calling her every abusive thing that she could think of.  And the most abusive to Miriam was to call her a Cushite, which you have translated "an Ethiopian" [Numbers 12:1].

Now the only moral that I can get from that are a few things like this.  One:  be mighty careful whom you marry, mighty careful.  Moses surely did have a wife who was not in sympathy with him and his work.  Be very careful whom you marry.  A second moral:  after that brother of yours has married, all of the rest of the in-laws, leave them alone, leave them alone, stay out of it, stay out of it.  If you go to see them, and that wife your boy has married is beating your boy over the head, you just smile and bid them Godspeed, and close the door and go on back home; leave them alone, leave them alone.  For the Lord was greatly displeased with Miriam, greatly displeased.  And the Lord sent leprosy upon her because of what she was saying against Moses’ wife [Numbers 12:10].  Now, I would take Miriam’s part.  I would think what Miriam said about Zipporah was true.  I’d think everything that Miriam thought about Zipporah was just the Lord’s facts.  But that doesn’t matter.  After they are married, all we’ve got to do is to stand on the sideline, bid them Godspeed, throw rice on them, send them bouquets, boxes of candy, pat them on the back, pray for them because it’s too late then.  I’m not saying anything about trying to break it up before the marriage.  If there’s any good sisters that see a brother just about to marry the wrong girl, well, do everything you can to keep him out of it.  But, if he does it anyway, from then on, just be sugar and spice and everything nice, and bid them Godspeed.

Now, the last thing in the world I ever intended to do was to go through this this morning.  Not in my fondest imagination did I ever think that I’d ever be going through this; but I just wanted you to know why it is that incidentally I remarked last Sunday morning that it was Zipporah that created this family ruckus, and that caused Miriam to say what she said, and that Moses’ wife was Zipporah [Numbers 12:1]; and so far as I can find out in the Holy Scriptures, he never had any other wife.  He married Zipporah.  And when it says here, "that Cushite woman, for he had married a Cushite woman, a Midianite woman," an ethnological group, that Miriam was just taking advantage of the situation to the best of her ability, and disparagingly remarking about Moses’ wife [Numbers 12:1].

Now I almost feel like asking, "Are there any more questions?"  These things I tell you the truth, these things are marvelously interesting to me.  I’d rather, I’d rather take the Bible and to look at it and study it and find out about it than anything in this world.  I’ll tell you one thing it does to you:  you will find when you study the Bible closely, minutely, you will find that Paul’s word is correct, "All of these things are men of like passions with you and me" [Acts 14:15].  They were just folks.  They had their weakness, their tears, their cares, their troubles.  They had bad tonsils and ingrown toenails.  They had stomach troubles and ulcers.  They had heartache, headache, liver ache, backache, pleurisy.  They had in-law troubles, financial troubles, matrimonial troubles, ecclesiastical troubles.  They were folks just like we were and like we are.  "They were men of like passions with us" [Acts 14:15].  But God helped them, and God is able to help us, and will.

Now while we stand and sing our song, somebody give his heart to the Lord, confess his faith in Christ, or come into the church, that’s right, stand up:  on the first note of this stanza, you come and stand by me.

Dr. W. A. Criswell

Numbers 12:1-16



Circumcision incident

Zipporah and Ethiopian woman are the same person

Some scholars believe Zipporah is not the Ethiopian woman

Problems if Zipporah and Ethiopian woman are not the same person

Miriam vs Zipporah – Miriam used derogatory names against Zipporah

Stay out of in-laws’ business