Much has been made of the sibling challenge to Moses in this week’s parashah: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Kushite woman!’” (Num. 12:1) Various commentators have proposed to explain this strange verse, saying that either 1) Miriam was jealous of Tsipporah’s beauty, or 2) Miriam and Aharon objected to Moses not power-sharing, or 3) Miriam was rebuking Moses for remaining celibate and depriving Tsipporah of sex. In all three of these cases, our Sages ignore the basic meaning of the text, which is obviously emphasising the fact that the objection lay in the fact of the woman in question being from Kush! All three of the above approaches explain away the reference to Kush and affirm that the woman in question is Tsipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife who we met in Exodus, despite the fact that the verse names Kush, twice.
Our Sages were often pretty poor at geography, but it doesn’t take a great deal of research to identify that Kush and Midian were two very different places. Kush was a kingdom of ancient Nubia, existing in the land that is now Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Midian was a kingdom stretching across the desert from southern Jordan to northern Saudi Arabia. So if we can’t explain away the topographical anomaly of Moses’s wife being from Kush, then we have to assume that the woman in question is not, in fact, Tsipporah. So– who is she?
Amazingly, there’s another version of Moses’s life which, while perhaps an inconvenient truth for the rabbinic narrative, has several surprising attestations in the space between legend and history. According to this version (Yalkut Shimoni 1:168 & Josephus, Antiquities 2:10:2) Moses spent much longer outside of Egypt than we normally assume. Many of us probably imagine it like The Prince of Egypt: teenage Moses flees Egypt, wanders the desert, discovers Tsipporah at a well, is adopted by Jethro, and spends the next 5-10 years with Jethro in Midian before the encounter with the burning bush. This other version of Moses holds that he fled Egypt as a teenager, and then had a series of bizarre and magical adventures. In these legends, a young Moses finds himself in Kush, where he marries the princess and helps stage a rebellion against a wicked king. In time (and with some sorcery thrown in for good measure) Moses helps the people defeat the king and they then crown him king, where he rules for years!
After reigning as king of Kush, Moses travels around to other kingdoms and other lands, only eventually making his way back to Midian when he was 70, now a seasoned and professional revolutionary, where he meets Tsipporah and is met at the burning bush. What passes in the space between two sentences, ‘Moses fled before Pharaoh,’ and ‘he stayed in the land of Midian and sat by a well’ (Ex. 2:15) becomes an entire lifetime through this Midrash. In the middle of a single verse, an entire adventurous, magical, fantastic life takes place– all of which is omitted by the Torah.
If we’re to take this legend seriously, then the Kushite woman is no mystery at all. She is the remnant of Moses’ earlier life, the life where he ruled the kingdom of Kush and fought for foreign people’s freedom. She is part of Moses’ story before he encounters God and takes on the impossible task of leading the people from Egypt. If the woman in question is in fact this other woman, then perhaps we can understand Miriam and Aharon’s challenge in a whole new light. Perhaps the objection they voiced was not jealousy at the Kushite woman’s beauty, or petty drives for power– it was a fear, and a misunderstanding of Moses’ earlier life and the importance of it.
Many of us live many lives over the course of our almost-century on Earth. We can learn from the rebuke of Miriam and Aharon that ignoring those many lives is not an option. We must integrate our personal histories and stories in every incarnation of ourselves.
*an abridged version of this week’s column also appears in Reflections