Moses' marriage, and why racism is like leprosy

A modern-day Ethiopian woman selling vegetables in Tigray province.Reuters

The home lives of our Old Testament heroes weren't always models to which we should aspire today. Neither David nor Solomon were exactly inspirational, and as for Abraham: well!

What about Moses, though? On one occasion his marriage provides a devastating rebuke to one of the most grievous sins of this or any age.

Numbers 12 tells the story of the opposition of his brother Aaron and sister Miriam to Moses on the grounds that he had married a Cushite wife. Miriam, who judging by her punishment seems to have been the ringleader, is struck with leprosy. Aaron pleads to Moses for her healing and Moses prays to the Lord, "O God, please heal her!" God replies: "If her father had spat in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back." The implication is that after that she was healed.

Our lesson derives from geography. Ancient Cush was the region of Ethiopia and Sudan. The Cushite woman was black. Aaron and Miriam objected to Moses marrying a black woman.

Now, it's fair to say that scholars have argued over this interpretation. Some say that "Cush" is a mistake for "Cushan", another word for Midian; Moses' named wife, Zipporah, was from Midian and the argument is that this was the same person. There are other ingenious arguments for supposing that Zipporah is meant, but they all involve finessing the text to make it avoid the plain meaning, in an attempt to give Moses only one wife.

If we're being honest with the text, we needn't go there. In those early days of the people of God, whether we like it or not, polygamy was common enough. At its best, it could be a practical solution to the problem of how to accommodate in society a woman who might have few resources or little status of her own. That's just how it was.

So Moses married a Cushite woman. Who was she, and what was she doing so far away from home? We can only speculate, but perhaps she was a slave. Egypt's empire extended far to the south, and she might have been trafficked from her home down the Nile. Or perhaps she had joined the Hebrews with her family and a previous husband had died. Whatever the case, judging by the reaction of Aaron and Miriam, her status was low and the family relationship was unwelcome.

Moses didn't care. It looks as though, whether out of love, or kindness toward a stranger with no resources of her own, he made what in the context of the time was an extravagantly generous gesture. Marriage to the leader of the tribe would have sent the Cushite woman soaring up the social scale.

And God's response to Miriam's sin tells us all we need to know about his attitude to racism: he gives the racist leprosy. The horror of the condition is expressed by Aaron's plea: "Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away."

God's revulsion for the sin of judging someone by the colour of their skin is as profound as that.

When he says to Moses, "If her father had spat in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days?" we're meant to feel his utter contempt for what she and Aaron have done.

I hope they learned their lesson, and that Moses and the Cushite woman were happy.

At a time when politicians and demagogues are stoking fears of this country being overwhelmed by a swarm of marauding migrants, with different skin colours, different religions and speaking different languages, I hope we all learn it.

"Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us?" (Malachi 2:10).

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