Moses and that Ethiopian Woman
June 20th, 1990 @ 7:30 PM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
6-20-90 7:30 p.m.
Welcome the throngs of you who share this hour on radio. You are now a part of our dear First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message. In our speaking and preaching through the Book of Exodus, I have come across one of the most unusual of all the things I have ever read in the Bible. The title of the sermon can be either one – either Moses and That Ethiopian Woman or "A Furious Family Fight;" and I thought the second one might be more pertinent and descriptive: "A Furious Family Fight."
Now I have to read the background texts which are two. One is in Exodus 4 beginning at verse 24: "And it came to pass by the way in the inn" as Moses was returning to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, "that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah," his wife, "took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son" – that’s the younger one, Eliezer – "and cast it at his feet and said, ‘Surely a bloody husband art thou to me!’ So God let him go" [Exodus 4:24-26]. God didn’t kill Moses. "Then she said, ‘A bloody husband thou art!’–because of the circumcision" [Exodus 4:26].
Now the other passage is in the Book of Numbers, chapter 12. Numbers, chapter 12:
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 ye out, the three of you, under the tabernacle of the congregation!" And they three came out.
And the Lord came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both came out.
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.
But My servant Moses is not so.
With him will I speak mouth to mouth and not in dark speeches; And the similitude of the Lord shall behold. Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?
And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and He departed – God 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.
And 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 then she was healed and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.
Who is that Ethiopian woman? "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]. Who in the earth is that critter? Well, whenever you look at the endless encyclopedias, and references, and all of those commentaries, you will find a mixture of responses that, beyond anything you would ever think for in your life, seemingly nobody anywhere agrees with anybody else about that Ethiopian woman.
Well, Josephus met it – that’s the ancient historian – and in his Antiquities of the Jews he writes – he felt compelled to try to explain that Ethiopian wife – so he writes:
So Moses, at the persuasion of Thermuthis and the king himself, undertook the conquest of the Ethiopians . . . He 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.
["How Moses Made War with the Ethiopians," Chapter 10, Antiquities of the Jews – Book II, by Flavius Josephus, 93 C.E.]
Then this incident happened. Now, I’m – all of this is reading from Josephus:
Tharbis 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 prevalencey of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with Moses about marriage.
He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up to the city; and gave her the assurance of an oath to take her to be 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 Ethiopians back to their own land.
["How Moses Made War with the Ethiopians," Chapter 10, Antiquities of the Jews – Book II, by Flavius Josephus, 93 C.E.]
Now that’s what Josephus says about the Ethiopian woman that the Bible here says Moses married. Well, as I said there are all kinds of scholars, and writers, and commentators who write all kinds of things about that Ethiopian wife that Moses is supposed to have married.
All right, I have a very distinct thing to point out to you that happened here in these passages that I have just read, and why it is that this woman is called "an Ethiopian," and how it came about. "That Ethiopian," so described here in the King James Version, is none other than Zipporah, the Midian daughter of Jethro, whom Moses married [Exodus 2:16-21]. The only family we know of as belonging to Moses is Zipporah and her two sons Gershom and Eliezer [Exodus 2:22; Exodus 18:1-4]. When you have the genealogy of Moses, it always is through that Zipporah, that Midian daughter of Jethro, whom he married when he was taking care of his sheep on the backside of the desert [Exodus 2:14-22, 2:18-26; 18:1-12].
Now you look at those genealogies. Abraham will have Sarah and then the children, then Keturah and the children [Genesis 21:1-3; 25:1]. Same thing about Jacob: it’ll be Leah and her children. It’ll be Rachel and her children [Genesis 35:22b-26a]. Same thing about David: Abigail and her children, Bathsheba and her children [1 Chronicles 3:1-9]. But there’s no such suggestion of anything in the life of Moses. Absolutely not. He had one wife according to the genealogicals in the book of the Bible, and that’s Zipporah.
All right, again: if Moses married twice and that Ethiopian was the second wife, it’s the most unusual and astonishing thing that you could imagine in all the Word of God. Zipporah is brought back to Moses during the first year’s sojourn in the desert. He left Zipporah with her father, Jethro, and their two boys, and went down into Egypt. Then when he came back out of Egypt, Jethro met him at Rephidim and delivered back to him his wife and the two boys [Genesis 18:1-7]. That’s in the first year.
Now the reproaches of Miriam and Aaron on account of Moses’ wife were made at the beginning of that sojourn that came out of Egypt [Numbers 12:1-16]. It is improbable, most so, that Moses – a widower they say – remarried just like that an Ethiopian woman. And if that were possible, it violates his own order and commandment that he had just given to his people Israel. He had just prohibited the Israelites against marrying a foreign woman [Exodus 34:14-16; Deuteronomy 7:3]. And here, they say, he’s done it immediately. It’s unthinkable.
The obvious, simple answer is found in the family fight – the feud. It is found in the kind of a woman Zipporah was, and I read it to you out of Exodus 4. That thing concerning Zipporah and the circumcision of Eliezer, their younger boy, is an abrupt account in the Bible. Moses neglected the circumcision of his boy in deference to Zipporah’s prejudice, his wife. God threatened him with death, and Zipporah did the right only to save her husband from death. Then when she did it, she did it in reluctance and anger. Her passionate exclamation "A bloody husband thou art!" [Exodus 4:24-26] The event induced Moses to send his wife back to her father [Exodus 18:2], and he was convinced not to take her with him down into Egypt to face Pharaoh. And this meeting in Rephidim, coming out of Egypt, delivered his wife back to his own arms from Jethro [Exodus 18:1-12]. And thereafter, she is not mentioned again. Now put that down: Zipporah was a harsh kind of a woman. She was opinionated and was hard to live with.
All right, we’re going to look at the other woman now, the kind of a woman Miriam was, his sister. When we look at the Hebrew text that I’ve just read in English, in Numbers 12, Miriam is the leader. Her name is mentioned first, "and Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses" [Numbers 12:1]; and in the Hebrew that word "spake" is in the feminine. It shows that she was the spokesman and Aaron just went along with her. The judgment fell upon Miriam, not upon Aaron who seems to have yielded to the suggestion of Miriam as he had previously done in listening to the Israelites in making the golden calf [Exodus 32:1-6]. So he listens to Miriam. And from time immemorial, sisters have been inclined to meddle in the marriage affairs of their brothers. They just turn that way.
Miriam was less able to bear with the obstreperous disposition of Zipporah than was the "meekest of all men" [Numbers 12:3]. Now, that’s the beatenest thing you ever saw in your life! Right here when Miriam is in that diatribe against Zipporah, then there’s a little parenthesis there: "now Moses was very meek, above all the men on the face of the earth" [Number 12:3]. Moses was the kind of a husband that whatever Zipporah wanted, let her have it. If Zipporah objected to God’s commandment to circumcise Eliezer, then Eliezer’s not circumcised because Zipporah is agin it.
Of no small significance, and most noteworthy of notice, is the extreme meekness of Moses pointed out here right in connection with what Zipporah created in his family situation. The Hebrew word "meek," ‘ānāw, ‘ānāw, frequently interchanged with its cognate word `anah; and the meaning may be "bowed down and oppressed." Moses was a critter underneath the foot of his wife, and that’s why he’s described here as the meekest man in all the [world] [Numbers 12:3]. She just stepped all over him, and she caused him no end of trouble – so much so that the Lord was going to kill him [Exodus 4:24]. The meaning of his two sons – Gershom means "to cast out" and Eliezer "God is my help" – this affords some insight into the burden of his heart. He had a hard time at home. He was desolate, and he had in Zipporah a woman who was no congenial to the kind of a ministry to which he felt God had called him.
Well, Miriam saw all of that. Moses is her brother [Exodus 2:1-10]. She’s the girl that told about finding him, you know, there in the bulrushes on the Nile – Miriam. And she’s the one that got a hold of that daughter of Pharaoh and brought her down there to river, and all the rest of it you know. Well, that’s Miriam. So Miriam burst out against Zipporah and called her "that Cushite woman" [Numbers 12:1]. Now you have it translated here, "that Ethiopian woman." The Hebrew is "Cushite." She, Miriam, burst out and said "that Cushite woman." Miriam made it sound as bad as possible. In the view of Calvin and many others, according to the propensity of all ages to exaggerate and to caricature and to abuse, she speaks disdainfully, and sarcastically, and condemnatory of the woman she so disliked and despised, namely Moses’ wife Zipporah.
All right, one other thing about this family fight: could Zipporah be called a Cushite? Could the term possibly refer to her? Translated here, "Ethiopian," "a Cushite," Miriam calls her in the Hebrew – a "Cushite." Well, could that possibly refer to her? Now Cush is a country frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, but apparently with such latitude that its geographical determination is most difficult [Isaiah 11:11].
The eldest son of Ham was named Cush [Genesis 10:6]; and Nimrod, the son of Cush, founded Babylon and built a great Mesopotamian empire [Genesis 10:8-10]. Now, Ethiopia, in itself, has many varied significances in ancient writers. Herodotus, for example, the first historian, extended the term to all Asiatic nations. The Greek word is, and comes from, aitho which means "to burn" and opsis which means "the face." So Ethiopia refers to sunburned people, and in earlier times it was represented as being brown in color. Negroes, now you look at this: Negroes came only to the knowledge of the Hebrews as a race in much later time. In ancient times, they did not know of the Negro race as such. They never saw an Ethiopian or all of those people down south in the African continent. So Cush and Midian – where Moses got his wife Zipporah – Midian; Cush and Midian are linked together as an ethnic group. They are called Cushites, and the frequent migrations of those people brought many customs and places and names from all the different sections of the Middle East. So Midian is a part of that ancient ethnic group of Babylonia, the Asiatic division of the Cushites; and Zipporah belonged to that Midian group. Therefore, she calls her "a Cushite" which is in contempt from her heart and translated here "an Ethiopian."
Well, there are one or two or three things about that that just came to my mind. One is this: the saints of the Bible, or what the Bible terms as "men of like passion with us," just like us – and that includes Moses and David and all the rest of them – they had bad tonsils; they had ingrown toenails; they had heart ailments; they had financial troubles; they had matrimonial troubles; they had domestic problems. They were just like us; and when you think about Moses, he is just so exalted, you know, up there, up there. Man, he had a house, and a home, and a wife that was like fury. Can you imagine going home to Zipporah? Ooh, ooh – just hurts me to think about it. It does. Yet God used them with all the problems that they faced and all the things that characterized their lives. They were wonderfully used of the Lord just as God can use us no matter how.
All right, I have another crazy observation: don’t meddle in domestic relations of your in-laws. Miriam did that and came out a leper [Numbers 12:1, 9-10]. Don’t do it. If you see your in-laws throw pots and pans and all the objects in the kitchen at one another, just smile and let them fight it out. Just pass it by. Oh, dear! The things that can happen to God’s people. I have to close.
John Wesley, the most saintly man that you could ever read about in your life; John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist communion: John Wesley was an incomparable servant of God – a preacher out there on the commons. Outside – never was allowed to preach in a church; all the work of his life was outside. He was a marvelous man. Well, in his last days as an old man, he married a woman. Of course she was a woman, he married a female. And did you know that one of his best friends – been close to him for the years and years of his life – not thinking, he never knocked at the door when he came to see John Wesley? He’d been just walking in for years and years and years, so he never thought anything about just walking in the door without knocking. Well, John Wesley was a little man. I can tell you how little he was. John Wesley, had he been here in this pulpit, you would have seen him like this. He was a shrimp; he was a pigmy! Well, anyway, this fellow, the old-time friend, not thinking, just walked in the door, and there was John Wesley’s wife holding on to him by the hair of his head and dragging him all over the house – that wife that he married. Oh! What can happen to God’s saints, endlessly; but the Lord uses them, and the Lord uses us.
And if you may have, I won’t say fights and troubles in your home, but whatever it is, all of us have got them. Don’t you think, "Well, I’m afflicted, and he isn’t." Brother, we’ve all got our problems, and we’ve all got our troubles, and we’ve all got our disappointments, and we’ve all got our weaknesses, and we’ve all got things that God has to help us overcome. All of us do; and it doesn’t keep you from being a servant of Christ and a true follower of Jesus whatever the problems that you face.
Even Paul – and I don’t think there was ever a saint of God in the earth so given to the service of God as the Apostle Paul – but he had a thorn in the flesh and pled with God to take it away [2 Corinthians 12:7-8]. I presume we are never told what it was so that we all identify with him. He had a thorn in the flesh, and the Lord said, "ʽMy grace is sufficient.’ Therefore, I [Paul] take pleasure in reproaches, and in weaknesses, and in all kinds of problems and troubles for when I’m weak," – when I’m beat down – "then am I strong" [2 Corinthians 12:9-10]. And that must have been also about the meekness of Moses in his family life with Zipporah.
Now do you think this has been crazy for me to speak of such a thing? But when you read the Bible and see these things in the Bible, I just can’t help but be impressed. It is so different from what usually you think of in following through with the Word of God.
Now, Fred, if you are of a humor, let’s sing us a song of appeal. To give your heart to the blessed Lord Jesus, to take all the weaknesses of life and let Him turn them into strengths, to give your heart in faith to the blessed Savior, a family you to come into the fellowship of our dear church, we would love to have you. Jesus died to save you, and for you to accept His atoning grace is the most precious thing you could ever do and the most marvelous blessing that comes from God as a reward: eternal life. As the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, I’ll be right here; you come and stand by me while all of us stand and sing.
MOSES AND THAT ETHIOPIAN WOMAN
I. Circumcision incident
II. Zipporah and Ethiopian woman are the same person
III. Some scholars believe Zipporah is not the Ethiopian woman
IV. Problems if Zipporah and Ethiopian woman are not the same person
V. Miriam vs Zipporah – Miriam used derogatory names against Zipporah
VI. Stay out of in-laws’ business