If Biblical Law Forbid Israel to Marry Foreigners,

How Could Moses Marry an Ethiopian Woman?

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Marriage With Foreigners

         In Deuteronomy 7, the Israelites were warned about taking wives of the people in the lands that God would give to them because the foreigners’ pagan ways and idols would turn the Israelites away from the proper worship of Jehovah.  Note that the reason to avoid foreign wives was not because of race, but because of religion:


Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.  For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.  (Deut. 7: 1-4) 


You shall tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they play the harlot after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and one invites you, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods.  (Ex. 34: 12-16)


             In Numbers 12, however, we find Moses’ brother Aaron and his sister Miriam upset and complaining because Moses had married a “Cushite,” or Ethiopian . . . a black woman!  This seems, on the surface, to violate God's instruction in the law.  But when Moses' brother Aaron and sister Miriam complained about it God became so angry at them (not Moses) that He abruptly turned and departed the scene to let His anger cool down!  If Israelite men were not to marry foreign women, how can this confusing situation be understood?

             The answer lies in the second half of Deut. 7 where the reason for the law was enunciated: because they (foreign wives or husbands) will turn you away from the Lord your God with idolatry.  So the term “heathen”¾applied so often to non-Israelites¾referred not to their

race, or nationality, but to their religious beliefs and practices.  They were heathens because they did not worship the God of Israel nor did they live by His laws.  Apparently the black woman Moses married did worship the God of Israel, because this inter-racial marriage didn't present a problem.  This Ethiopian woman probably came out of Egypt with the Israelites and knew the law as well as they did (please refer to the inset on the following three pages).  In any case, we should remember that God is not a respecter of race, but rather of righteousness.  The New Testament confirms this view by stating that there are no foreigners among those who earnestly seek His ways: all who worship God properly are His family, regardless of race or skin color:


For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.  (Gal. 3: 26-29)


The majority of commentators on the “Cushite” incident try to explain that the term Cushite here is interchangeable with “Midianite,” and therefore is referring to Moses’ Midianite wife Zipporah . . . a descendant of Abraham who was descended from Noah’s son Shem, not from Noah’s son Ham through whom the Cushites descended.  But this attempt to make Zipporah the woman referred to in Numbers 12 is a stretch, as the following evidence shows.  The best commentary on this incident, in my view, is Richard Friedman’s:


Cush is usually understood to be Ethiopia.  Its people are identified as descendants of Noah’s son Ham (Gen. 10:6-7).  On this understanding, Moses had taken an Ethiopian wife in addition to his first, Midianite wife, Zipporah.  This has been confused somewhat by the fact that the prophet Habakkuk refers to a place called Cushan in parallel with Midian (Hab. 3:7).  Some scholars, therefore, have concluded that the Cushite wife is Zipporah herself (so Ibn Ezra).  But this latter view does not explain why the text should suddenly refer to her here as a Cushite.  Also, the words “because he had taken a Cushite wife” certainly appear to be here in the verse in order to inform us of an essential new fact, but we already knew that he was married to Zipporah (so Rashbam).  This story, therefore, is about a second, probably Ethiopian wife.  (Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, (New York: HarperOne, 2001)




Many commentators claim Moses’ sister Miriam and his brother Aaron were offended at Moses choice of Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro and hence a descendant of Abraham and his later wife Keturah.  If the verse had mentioned Zipporah, of if it had said they were offended that Moses had married a Midianite, that would be the end of it.  But that’s not what the scriptures say.  They seem to imply, for the following reasons, that Moses had very recently married an Ethiopian woman:

1.)  It is unlikely that resentment toward Zipporah would have occurred after she had already been known by all of Israel for over a year.  Zipporah and Moses’ two sons were brought from his father-in-laws’ home in Midian to join the camp of Israel while they were encamped at Riphidim, about 3 months into their sojourn (Ex. 18).  The murmuring indicident concerning the Ethipian woman Moses had married happened in Hazeroth.  In between Riphidim and Hazeroth the Israelites spent 10 months in Sinai (Num. 11:12) and an unspecified time in Kibrothhattaavah before coming to Hazeroth.  So Zipporah had been introduced and was well known among the Camp of Israel for at least a year prior to this incident taking place. 

2.)  Moses had married a “Cushite” woman; Zipporah was not a “Cushite,” or descendant of Ham, she was a “Midianite,” a descendant of Abraham and his later wife Keturah.  The Hebrew word translated “Ethiopian” in Numbers 12 is also translated “Ethiopian” everywhere else in the Old Testament . . . when it is not used as a name for a specific person.  But no one seems to want to allow it to actually mean Ethiopian in Numbers 12.

3.)  Zipporah was not a “Cushite” geographically as Ethiopia and Midian were clearly separate areas comprising distinctly different nationalities and races.  The idea that “Cushite” and “Midianite” are used interchangeably in the Bible (Hab. 3:7), in a geographical sense, seems unreasonable.  (Please refer to the accompanying map.)

4.)  According to ancient temple records, Abraham’s wife Keturah was not a descendant of Ham’s son Cush, but rather a descendant of one of Noah’s other sons, Japheth.  Even if Keturah was, in fact, a descendant of Cush, Biblical lineage is seldom traced back through the mother’s line.

5.)  As a clear descendant of Abraham, it is unlikely that Zipporah would have been resented by Miriam and Aaron to the extent  recorded in Numbers 12 no matter what her mother’s nationality was.

6.)  There were likely many righteous and God-fearing Nubians in the camp of Israel . . . a group from among whom Moses happened to choose a wife. 

Abraham had at least 318 servants (Gen. 14:14), many of whom were likely Nubians, and they were—as was the custom—past down to Isaac and then to Jacob.  Buy the time Jacob and the tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt to escape famine some 100 years later, the number of Nubians included in the people of Israel and traveling with them was probably quite large!  Moreover, we learn that “a mixed multitude” of people exited Egypt (430 years after their arrival) with the 600,000 Israelite men and their families.  There were no doubt many Cushites within this group whose families had been devoted worshippers of Israel’s God for many generations.  It is from these righteous and God-fearing Gentiles that Moses probably selected his Nubian (Ethiopian) bride that so shocked Miriam and Aaron, and indeed all of Israel. 

7.)  Moses did not transgress God’s Law by marrying a Gentile.  The rule against marrying Gentiles of certain nationalities was because of their perverse religion.  Remember, “heathens” are labeled so not because of race or nationality, but because of false and abominable religious beliefs and practices.  Moses’ marriage to the Ethiopian woman anticipates the NT, where we find there is no Jew or Gentile in Christ, but all are as one if they are baptized into the Church . . . all the various branches are seamlessly grafted into the one vine constituting God’s people!

 Text Box: Distance, race, nationalities, and bodies of water separated Ethiopia, or Cush (descendants of Ham) from Median (descendants of Shem).  It is unlikely that they are referred to interchangeably in the Bible.  
Source: Coleman, Historical Textbook and Atlas of Biblical Geography, 1854.  (Arrow added)


     The Christian faith today, which includes Gentiles of all nations, requires that one abstain from marrying a “spiritual foreigner,” or one who worships a different God.  What many Christians today don’t realize, however, is that worshipping a different God includes worshipping the Lord in name, while keeping the feasts and holidays of Baal.  In other words, it isn’t “okay” as long as one simply professes Christ: you must marry someone who worships properly “in spirit and in truth,” the same as you do!  The spirit of this law is that both husband and wife should be of one spiritual mind, even if they are not of the same nationality or race.  If you doubt this interpretation, consider again the example of Moses and his Ethiopian wife.  That this Ethiopian woman did not worship "other gods" should be clear by the very fact that Moses married her . . . and by the fact that God did not seem displeased by it.

         Paul suggests this  when he admonishes the Corinthians to be separate from non-believers . . . this would certainly apply to marrying a non-believer:


Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?  And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? (2 Cor 6:14-15)


An ox and a donkey are said to be “unequally yoked” when they are yoked together to pull a load; the ox is unfairly strained because the donkey can’t pull his share of the weight and the donkey struggles because he can’t keep up with the ox!  To marry a non-believer—like an Israelite marrying a Canaanite—invites numerous problems that one is better off avoiding!

         The law concerning war brides emphasizes the importance of “equally yoking” in marriage with a believer.  A foreign woman taken captive in war was removed from her country and given a full month to mourn for her mother and father before she became a wife.  She was also to forsake her old country and gods and accept life as an Israelite during this month, a process which clearly included accepting the worship of Israel’s God.  Her husband-to-be was not to marry her or have sexual relations with her until after this month-long process.  If after he did marry her he decided he wasn’t pleased with her (that is, if she was not acclimated to Israel and her God and remained a spiritual “foreigner”) the marriage was annulled and he must let her go: he could not sell her since he had humbled her.  (Deut. 21:10-14) 




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