Miryam's Critique of Moshe's Marriage

Miryam's Critique of Moshe's Marriage

Bemidbar 12

An Interactive Learning Module by Rivka Kahan

Moses and his Ethiopian Wife / Jordaens

1. Introduction

  • Parashat Behaalotekha concludes with the story of Miryam and Aharon's critique of Moshe. However, the verses are ambiguous about the nature of their critique and what they found problematic about Moshe's actions.
  • This module will explore how commentators have understood this narrative and the message it imparts.
  • An in-depth analysis of this issue can be found at Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. The Verses

  • Let's begin by examining the narrative in Bemidbar 12:1-10.
  • How is Moshe's wife identified in 12:1? Does it seem that the verse is referring to Zipporah? Why or why not?
  • What is the content of the critique in Bemidbar 12:1 and in Bemidbar 12:2? In your opinion, how are these two verses connected?
  • How does Hashem's response in 12:4-10, which focuses on the uniquely exalted nature of Moshe's prophecy, relate to the critique?
  • What other questions do you have about the narrative?

3. Background

  • Let's consider the background that the Torah provides us about Moshe and Zipporah's marriage by reading Shemot 18:2.
  • This verse refers to some form of separation between Moshe and Zipporah.
  • To understand the nature of this separation, read Rashi on Shemot 18:2. How does Rashi understand the nature of the separation and its reason?
  • Compare Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael (accessible by clicking on the "Show Additional Commentators" button at the bottom of the verse and choosing Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael). How does R. Yehoshua understand Moshe and Zipporah's separation?
  • How might the background information from Shemot 18:2, and its two possible interpretations, inform how you understand the narrative about Moshe's marriage to the "אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית" in Bemidbar 12?
  • [For further discussion of this verse, see אחר שלוחיה.]

4. Commentators: Rashi

  • Let's return to Bemidbar 12 to see how our commentators have understood the narrative.
  • Read Rashi on Bemidbar 12:1-4.
  • In Rashi's view, who is "הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית" and why is she called a "כֻשִׁית"?
  • What is Miryam and Aharon's criticism of Moshe's marriage to the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית"?
  • What is the connection between 1:1 and 1:2, and between the critique and Hashem's response in 12:4-10?
  • How is Rashi's interpretation of Shemot 18:2 consistent with his understanding of Moshe and Zipporah's relationship as described in Bemidbar 12?
  • Which textual questions are resolved by Rashi's interpretation? Which words or verses seem difficult to reconcile with Rashi's interpretation?

5. Rashi: Analysis

  • We have seen that Rashi identifies the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית" as Zipporah, and understands the appellation "כֻשִׁית" figuratively. [To better appreciate Rashi's approach in identifying these two characters with each other, see Character Consolidation I and Character Consolidation II.
  • In Rashi's view, Miryam and Aharon are bothered not by Moshe's marriage but by his separation from Zipporah. He suggests, though, that Moshe's separation was similar to the separation described in Shemot 19:5 in advance of divine revelation, necessary for his prophetic interactions with Hashem.
  • Rashi's interpretation, thus, seamlessly connects the critique of Moshe's marriage with the verses about the unique nature of his prophecy.
  • However, it seems difficult to reconcile with the simple meaning of 12:1, particularly given Zipporah's background as a Midyanite (see Shemot 2:15-22)

6. R. Yosef ibn Kaspi

  • Let's now turn to a second approach, one which strongly objects to Rashi's reading.
  • See R. Yosef Ibn Kaspi on 12:1-2 and 12:3 (from "ואוסיף בזה" until "הוא ידע מה יעשה").
  • What is the textual basis on which Ibn Kaspi disagrees with Rashi's interpretation? How compelling do you find this argument?
  • What is the philosophical basis on which Ibn Kaspi disagrees with Rashi's interpretation? Do you agree with Ibn Kaspi's contention that Rashi's view contradicts a basic philosophical tenet of Judaism?

7. Ibn Kaspi Continued

  • Ibn Kaspi disagrees with Rashi both because Rashi needs to reinterpret words to mean the opposite of what they appear, and due to his very different understanding of Judaism's evaluation of abstinence and celibacy.
  • What alternative reading of Miryam's and Aharon's critique of Moshe's marriage does Ibn Kaspi suggest?
  • What is the connection between Miryam's and Aharon's criticism of Moshe's marriage and their opinion about his level of prophecy?
  • Which textual questions are resolved by Ibn Kaspi's approach?
  • Which words or verses seem difficult to reconcile with Ibn Kaspi's interpretation? What conceptual difficulties exist for Ibn Kaspi's approach?

8. R"Y Bekhor Shor

  • Ibn Kaspi identifies the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית" as a second wife, who was from Cush, and claims that Miryam and Aharon were bothered by Moshe's polygamy.
  • For another approach that shares some common ground with Ibn Kaspi, read R. Yosef Bekhor Shor on Bemidbar 12:1-2 (from: "על דבר [ה]אשה [ה]כושית אשר לקח")
  • In the view of R"Y Bekhor Shor, who was the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית"?
  • What was Miryam's and Aharon's critique of Moshe's marriage?
  • What is the connection between 12:1 and 12:2?

9. R"Y Bekhor Shor Continued

  • Given R"Y Bekhor Shor's understanding of the critique, why did Miryam and Aharon not criticize Moshe's marriage to Zipporah?
  • Which textual questions are resolved by R"Y Bekhor Shor's approach?
  • Which words or verses seem difficult to reconcile with R"Y Bekhor Shor's interpretation?
  • Based on the interpretation of R"Y Bekhor Shor, does Miryam's and Aharon's critique seem justified or unjustified? Does this raise any questions in understanding the narrative?

10. Summary

  • We have seen that commentators identify the "אִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית" either as Zipporah or as a second, Cushite wife whom Moshe married. There are textual supports and challenges in Bemidbar 12 for each of these approaches.
  • Commentators understand that Miryam and Aharon criticized Moshe for: separating from Zipporah to receive prophecy, taking a second wife, or marrying a non-Jewish woman.
  • All of the commentators understand the verses to mean that Miryam's and Aharon's critique was rooted in their lack of understanding of Moshe's relationship with Hashem and unique status as a prophet.

11. Questions to Consider

  • According to each of the three approaches discussed above, what is/are the fundamental message(s) of this narrative? What beliefs or values does it impart?
  • How might the background information from Shemot 18:2, about Moshe and Zipporah's separation or divorce, fit into each of the three interpretations?
  • Is this narrative connected to the stories of Bemidbar Chapters 11 and 13, in which Moshe's authority is rejected and undermined, or must it be considered separately due to the unique relationships among and identities of the protagonists?

12. Additional Reading