Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Moses Married a Non-Jew

Was it the color of his wife's skin that so disturbed Moses' sister?
The story of Miriam's leprosy has been bungled by many commentators. This is truly unfortunate, because the true meaning of the story holds a great lesson (hint: it has nothing to do with Africa).

Let's take a look at what the Bible actually says (Numbers 12):
א  וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה, עַל-אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח:  כִּי-אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית, לָקָח.1 And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.
ב  וַיֹּאמְרוּ, הֲרַק אַךְ-בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְהוָה--הֲלֹא, גַּם-בָּנוּ דִבֵּר; וַיִּשְׁמַע, יְהוָה...2 And they said: 'Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? hath He not spoken also with us?' And the LORD heard it...
ט  ...וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה בָּם, וַיֵּלַךְ.9 ... And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them; and He departed.
י  וְהֶעָנָן, סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל, וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם, מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג; וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל-מִרְיָם, וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת.10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.

Clearly, Miriam says something negative about Moses, questioning why he should be put on a pedestal. She is stricken by leprosy, and only healed after Moses prays for her (v. 13). The only tricky part of the story is understanding what Miriam's criticism of Moses actually was. All it says is, He married a Cushite woman. What was wrong with that?

One idea is that Moses' wife was black, but the word for that is שְׁחוֹרָה, and besides why would her skin color be such a big deal? Another idea is that Moses separated from his wife, but this is not implied anywhere in the verse.

The correct interpretation hit me years later. It wasn't that Miriam was Cushite per se - it's that she wasn't Israelite. Moses had married a non-Jew. To Miriam, this was a problem.

God's response towards Miriam is swift and rather unforgiving. If not for Moses' intervention, Miriam would likely have died from the illness. This should be a lesson to Jews who lament and disparage intermarriage. Intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews is nowhere forbidden in the Hebrew Bible, except with very specific nations. Being obnoxious, however, can put you in danger - particularly if you are assaulting someone close to God.

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