The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

YHWH`s Defense of Moses in Numbers 12


Marvin A. Sweeney

Claremont School of Theology


The account of YHWH’s defense of Moses in Numbers 12 raises some key questions concerning Moses status as YHWH’s spokesman in the Wilderness narratives. The narrative states that Moses had taken a Cushite wife and that his Levite siblings, Miriam and Aaron, objected to his presumed intermarriage. Although some interpreters have argued that Moses had taken a new wife after having allegedly divorced Zipporah, such a contention does not stand up to scrutiny, insofar as Zipporah bat Jethro, as the daughter of a Midianite priest, would have been considered a Cushite in ancient Israel and Judah. The key issue in the narrative is Zipporah’s non-Israelite identity, particularly because Moses is a Levite who would presumably be forbidden to marry a foreign woman as stipulated in Leviticus 21:10-15, esp. vv. 14-15. YHWH’s defense of Moses in this instance is surprising. But consideration of several dimensions of the narrative in context aid in explaining YHWH’s decision. The first is that Moses’ wife is a foreigner and that she must be identified as Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian, as indicated by consideration of Habakkuk 3:7. The second is that Numbers 25 presents a clear polemic against Israelite relations with Midianite women who would lead Israelite men away to the worship of their foreign gods. The third is that Zipporah’s circumcision of her son, presumably Gershom, and her husband, Moses, in Exodus 4:24-26, identifies her a righteous gērâ. “resident alien,” in biblical parlance and convert to Judaism in rabbinic parlance. Moses’ marriage to Zipporah is therefore acceptable to YHWH, and YHWH thereby justifies a close relationship with Moses. The analysis has implications for recognizing early concepts of conversion to Israelite religion or Judaism in Numbers.