Christians who justify interracial marriage often claim that Moses married a black woman, so therefore interracial unions are acceptable. This essay will demonstrate that their conclusion does not follow from the Scripture they quote, and that the writings of Moses himself testify against their position.
The Scripture in question is Numbers 12:1-16, which describes how Miriam and Aaron plotted against the leadership of Moses. The passage begins:
1And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
2And they said, Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it.
The verse goes on to describe how the Lord rebuked them, stating that Moses had status above all prophets, because He (the Lord) had spoken directly to him. “[W]herefore then,” asked the Lord, “were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” Then the Lord in his anger turned Miriam “leprous, white as snow.” At that point Aaron repented of their rebellion, and the Lord promised to heal her.
Those who condone miscegenation point out that the word translated “Ethiopian” is Cushite, which can (but does not necessarily) indicate a black or dark person, as in Jeremiah 13:23. Then they state that the Lord condemned Aaron and Miriam because of their “racist” objection to Moses’s marriage. Some even maintain that God specifically mocked Miriam’s “racism” by afflicting her with leprosy, a disease that made her whiter than she was already. The latter interpretation, however, is pure speculation—and indeed a very fanciful speculation which seems to derive more from modern racial sensitivities and dogmas than sound biblical exegesis. But far more significantly, the main point of those who justify racially-mixed marriages is equally flimsy and speculative, namely, that the attitude of Miriam and Aaron toward Moses’s marriage was the source of the Lord’s wrath.
Simply put, the text doesn’t say this. As Reformed scholar Francis Nigel Lee observed, “[A] careful reading of the whole passage . . . reveals that they were punished because they resisted Moses’ leadership, and not because they disapproved of the [marriage].”1 Their disapproval of the marriage, whether it was proper or improper, was simply a pretext or excuse for attacking the authority that God had granted to Moses.
So we might ask, is it possible that this pretext Miriam and Aaron used against Moses’s character was legitimate, even if their motives and goals were not? Or putting it another way, could Moses have retained God’s anointing even if he committed a significant sin? The answer certainly is yes, for we read of several instances where the actions of Moses seriously displeased God, as when he neglected to circumcise one of his sons (Ex. 4:18-31). The text states that God’s anger was so great that He even sought to kill Moses. Nevertheless, he still retained the favor of God to lead the children of Israel to the Promised Land.
Indeed, there are many instances where highly flawed leaders retain the Lord’s favor, through His mercy, despite their many transgressions. One example was King Saul. The first book of Samuel relates how Saul in his jealousy and hatred attempted to track down David with his troops and murder him. Surely, in human terms, this would have been a proper pretext or justification for David to kill Saul in self-defense. And indeed, David had that opportunity when Saul entered a cave alone where David and his men were hiding. The men urged David to kill him, but he refused. Unlike the self-serving schemers Miriam and Aaron, David respected the leadership of God’s appointed leader—regardless of the justification he had to remove him from power. In fact, David was stricken in conscience merely because he had cut off a part of Saul’s garment when Saul stood near to him in the cave. Said David, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord” (1 Sam. 24:6).
Thus it is possible that Miriam and Aaron were right to challenge Moses’s marriage, but not his anointing, just as David would have been right to denounce Saul’s sinful behavior, but not his right to rule. So, the question arises, in the discussion of interracial marriage, was the pretext raised by Miriam and Aaron in fact legitimate, assuming that the woman in fact was a racial alien? To answer, it is necessary to inquire what the law of God was, as expressed in the Old Testament. And given the question of Moses’s character and intentions, particular attention should be on the first five books of the Old Testament, which were authored by Moses through the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Those who justify racial mixing maintain that any seeming prohibitions on such unions in the Old Testament were only in fact prohibitions against interfaith marriage, i.e., Israelites marrying pagans. To bolster their case, they cite alleged examples of Israelites marrying non-Israelites who worshiped Israel’s God. Nevertheless, we have it on the testimony of the Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus that this is not how ancient Israelites viewed the issue of intermarriage. In his acclaimed history, Antiquities of the Jews, he offers the following commentary on the marriages of King Solomon.
But although Solomon was become the most glorious of kings, and the best beloved by God. . . . [h]e grew mad in his love of women, and laid no restraint on himself in his lusts; nor was he satisfied with the women of his country alone, but he married many wives out of foreign nations; Sidontans, and Tyrians, and Ammonites, and Edomites; and he transgressed the laws of Moses, which forbade Jews to marry any but those that were of their own people.2
Josephus further observes that marrying foreign women led Solomon to blend his faith with theirs. Nevertheless, the issue is ethnic and racial as well as religious. Again, the commandment to Israel was marrying “one’s own people.”
Starting in the book of Genesis, Moses relates that “kind after kind” is the order of life. The Hebrew word miyn, translated “kind” in Genesis 1:24-25, specifically refers to species, i.e., a subgroup of a general type in the animal kingdom. By analogy, miyn would be a subgroup of the human category. Also, we read where the patriarch Abraham commanded that a wife be found for his son Isaac from among his kindred (Gen. 24:4).
Isaac’s other son, Esau, chose, however, to rebel and married women of the Hittites, a group not kindred to Israel. Genesis records that these marriages brought “grief of mind” to Isaac and his wife Rebecca (Gen. 26:34-35). The offspring of Esau and the Hittite women became the Edomites, a people who became the enemies of Israel and the object of God’s wrath as expressed in the book of Obadiah. Most significantly, the New Testament makes reference to Esau, and uses his example as a warning to Christians. The book of Hebrews (12:12-17) states that there should not be among the faithful “any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau.” Fornication in the New Testament was a word covering all illicit sexual unions. All we know of Esau’s sexual behavior was his marriages to alien women, and the evil those marriages brought about. Those unions were not ones of differing faiths, because Esau, as a “profane person,” was just as much of an infidel as his pagan wives. This reference must be to his unlawful exogamy.
In the book of Exodus, Moses enumerates the Ten Commandments. Among them is “Honor thy father and mother,” a commandment clearly broken by Esau by disregarding his lineage. Another commandment is, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The word derives from “adulterate,” which means to debase by improper mixture. Generally in Scripture, adultery refers to a spouse having sexual relations with someone other than his or her spouse. If a child results, its family lineage is debased and confused. In some cases, however, the Old Testament broadens the definition of adultery to mean the mixture of peoples. One example is Hosea (5:4-7), where God condemns Israel of practicing “whoredom” by begetting “strange” children. Whoredom is the Hebrew word zanah, which also translates as “adultery.” “Strange,” from the word zuwr, translates as “foreigner.” When He denounced adultery in the New Testament, Christ gave no indication that its meaning had changed from the Old Testament.
The book of Leviticus, authored by Moses, sets forth rules for the (Aaronic) priests of Israel, so that they might be holy and undefiled. One commandment (Lev. 21:14) was that a priest “take a virgin of his own people to wife.” Would purity require less for Israelite commoners? Or would it require less for a man in the priestly station of Moses? Psalm 99:6 specifically describes Aaron and Moses as priests. Perhaps this commandment in Leviticus was what prompted Aaron himself to raise the issue of Moses’s marriage.
The next Mosaic book, Numbers—which raises the issue of Moses’s marriage—also recounts that God condemned Israelites for the “whoredom,” i.e., their adultery in marrying Moabite women (Num. 25:1). The last book of Moses, Deuteronomy, states that Moabites and their descendants were never to enter the Israelite congregation, even to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:23). It also states that neither a “bastard” nor his descendants are to enter therein either. The Hebrew word “bastard,” mamzer, translates as “mongrel,” according to Strong’s Concordance. In Zechariah 9:6, where mamzer also appears, the New American Standard version translates it as “mongrel race.”
Thus Deuteronomy makes clear that mixed marriages and their offspring are a liability in terms of the Israelite nation. Those who condone interracial marriages, however, often cite the case of Ruth, a woman of Moab, who married the Israelite Boaz and became an ancestor of David, who entered the congregation of Israel. But if Boaz married a racial Moabite, then how could David have legitimately joined the congregation without violating the commandments of Deuteronomy 23:2-3? One possibility which some have suggested is that Ruth was a Moabite in terms of her residence, while being of Israelite stock ethnically. In such a case, the supposed exception of Ruth to the prohibition against intermarriage would not be an exception at all.
Now, getting back to Moses’s wife: was she in fact a racial alien, someone Moses should not have married? Indeed, just who was she? The fact of the matter is that no one can really say for sure, because the truth is concealed in the mists of time. One common viewpoint is that the woman referenced was Zipporah, the woman Moses married in Midian. At that time the land in southwest Asia bordering Midian bore the name Cush as well as the area south of Egypt, where people of black African lineage lived.
The Midianites were related to Israel through Abraham, which may have permitted marriage between the two groups. In that case, the objection by Miriam and Aaron evidently was to misrepresent and defame the background of Zipporah as their excuse for attacking Moses. If, however, the marriage was inappropriate, it is perhaps significant, according to Jewish tradition in the Midrash, that God forbade Moses to have sexual relations with Zipporah after he received the Ten Commandments. In that situation, Miriam and Aaron were criticizing a marriage that, in a very essential way, no longer existed. Zipporah, in any case, was not a black African woman.
Nevertheless, not all agree that the wife in question was Zipporah. Two historical accounts tell of Moses traveling to Cush (south of Egypt) prior to his stay in Midian. The accounts disagree in a number of significant details, but they do agree that for the sake of securing rulership in that land, Moses married a Cushite woman of royal lineage. (Her identity differs in the stories.) One of the accounts, by Josephus, states that Moses “consummated” the marriage before returning to Egypt.3 The other account is from the Book of Jasher, a chronicle of Israelite history mentioned twice in the Old Testament with apparent endorsement (Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18). Jasher 73:32-34 states that the marriage was not consummated because: “Moses feared the Lord God of his fathers, so that he came not to her, nor did he turn his eyes to her [his wife]. For Moses remembered how Abraham made his servant Eliezar swear, saying unto him, Thou shalt not take a woman from the daughters of Canaan for my son Isaac. Also what Isaac did when Jacob had fled from his brother, when he commanded him saying, Thou shalt not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan, not make any alliance with the children of Ham.”
If the account of Jasher is true, it explains what happened in Numbers 12:1-16 in a very consistent and compelling way. It would show that while Miriam and Aaron were technically correct in denouncing Moses’s marriage, their motive in advancing this pretext was as malicious as their desire to remove Moses from power, namely, because that union was a marriage in name only.
In any case, the story of Moses’s Cushite wife offers no support for racial mixing. As the laws of Moses demonstrate, God’s proper order for marriage is to reproduce kind after kind.
- “Nationality, Race and Intermarriage,” Rev. Professor Dr. Francis Nigel Lee, Chairman of Philosophy, Shelton College, Cape May, N.J., U.S.A., 1967. ↩
- Antiquities of the Jews, Book 8, Chapter 7, Section 5 ↩
- Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Chapter 10, Section 2 ↩