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Divine Justice and Skin-Color Discrimination (Numbers 12)

The Hebrew Midah Keneged Midah (Measure for measure) expresses a basic tenet of the Jewish faith (and others) that there is universal Divine Justice prevailing in the world (“..Would not the Judge of all the earth do Justice?”, Gen. 18:25). For each mal-behavior there is Divine reaction, and acts of grace, kindness and righteousness are divinely rewarded. Furthermore, Heavenly Judgement is delivered in same coin as earthly action (expressed also in divine commandment for quantitative equivalence while exercising human judgement — “..an eye for an eye..”; Leviticus 24:20). This equivalency, between earthly action and heavenly reaction, allows earth-bound human beings to create a link between the two, thereby gaining opportunity for Tikkun (“Correction/Repair” to one’s own spiritual virtues). A similar concept in non-monotheistic faiths is Karma (or Cause and Effect Law).

Numerous verses in Scripture relate to the link between one’s action and the experiences that follow:

  • “Sow for yourselves by righteousness, reap the fruit of grace…; But you have ploughed wickedness, you have reaped iniquity.” (Hoshea 10:12-13);
  • “Does God pervert judgement? and does the Almighty pervert justice?” (Job 8:3).

In this post, I address an offense and its Divine punishment, as they appear in an extremely short chapter in the Torah, Numbers 12 (verses 1-16). This chapter describes a single episode of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aharon, leveling unfounded accusations at Moses, and the immediate divine response to their slander. All in all, this chapter is a lesson on how Divine Justice is operating. However, the nature of the sin is not at all clear-cut from the text. And here my interpretation of Numbers 12, although relying on commonly accepted traditional interpretations, still departs considerably from the “Bottom Line” delivered therein. Furthermore, in this post I will also address the reasons why I believe Jewish interpreters in the past were blind to “Elephants in the Room” (two, not one!) — obvious lessons that Numbers 12 conveys, which past generations chose to ignore, either purposefully or out of unfortunate sheer blindness to the true nature of the sin, with which this chapter begins:

“And Miriam and Aharon spoke harshly to Moses about the Kushite woman that he had taken, for he had taken a Kushite woman” (Numbers 12:1).

As I will show in this post, this verse may be differently read (in the original Hebrew), which grants this verse a completely different meaning (relative to traditional interpretations and translations). This gives the whole chapter, Numbers 12, a completely new perspective, which is reflected in the title of this post.

The post is divided into four parts:

  1. Displaying major verses from Numbers 12 and related questions;
  2. Explanation of two central terms that appear in the text (Kushite and Pitom);
  3. Traditional Jewish commentary on Numbers 12;
  4. The new interpretation.

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  1. Major verses from Numbers 12 and related questions:

  • The Sin (skin-color issue?): “And Miriam and Aharon spoke harshly to Moses about the Kushite woman that he had taken, for (Ki) he had taken a Kushite woman” (Numbers 12:1; Explanation of Kushite follows);
  • Jehovah say suddenly (?!): “And Jehovah said suddenly (Pitom) to Moses, to Aharon and to Miriam “Come out you three to the Tent of Meeting”, and the three of them came out” (Numbers 12:4; About the difference between “say” and “speak” in biblical Hebrew read here; Explanation of Pitom follows);
  • The Punishment (skin disease): “And the cloud was removed from the Tent and, behold (Hineh) , Miriam is leprous like snow; and Aharon turned to Miriam and, behold (Hineh), leprous” (Numbers 12:10);
  • The Prayer (Moses Prays to God for Miriam healing): “And Moses cried out to Jehovah, saying: El Na Refa Na Lah (O God, heal her, I pray thee)” (Numbers 12:13).

Several questions arise from this obscure text:

  • What was Miriam and Aharon reproaching Moses about? (no explanation given!);
  • Why did God say suddenly? (a bizarre way to describe God initiating a monologue targeted at a certain group of people, Moses’ siblings);
  • What is so important telling us that “Aharon turned to Miriam”, realizing she was sick??
  • Why was only Miriam punished with leprosy, while Aharon, an accomplice to the supposed sin, seems to be spared?

While detailing our new interpretation to this bizarre chapter (Numbers 12), we will attempt some answers to these questions. However, our focus in this interpretation will always be, as suggested by the title, Divine Justice.

  1. Explanation of two central terms that appear in the text (Kushite; Pitom and Hineh)

Kushite

Kushite literally means, in biblical Hebrew, a female of Kush descent. Kush was Noah’s grandson, one of Ham’s sons (“The sons of Ham: Kush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan”, Genesis 10:6). After Kush is named the land of Kush, “an ancient kingdom in Nubia, located at the Sudanese and southern Egyptian Nile Valley” (Wikipedia, Kingdom of Kush). Descendants of Kush were idol worshippers, probably bearing the curse of Noah to become slaves (a curse originally extended to Kush’s brother, Canaan; Genesis 9:25). Apparently, the Kushites (descendants of Kush) had an external signature (dark skin), which set them apart from other ancient residents of the Land of Israel. This is why the Bible often refers to Kushites addressing their skin color, for example: “Can a Kushite change his skin, or the leopard his spots? so may you do good, you evil-practitioners” (Jeremiah 13:23).

Scripture also refers to the fact that the Kushites were slaves, or, alternatively, to the fact that, being dark-skinned, they would not intermingle with other residents in the ancient Land of Israel. According to Jewish prophets, both are desirable characteristics for God’s people:

* Be dedicated servants to God (this idea is realized in various Hebrew names, like Obadiah (“Slave to God”), and Arabic names, like Abdullah or Abdallah);

* Be separate from other peoples.

Prophet Amos expresses this explicitly:

“Are not you, Israelites, the same to me as the sons of Kushites? declares Jehovah…” (Amos 9:7).

In modern-day Hebrew, the term Kushi (male), or Kushit (female), has gained a status similar to Negro (in the US), namely, a derogatory term for black-skinned people of African descent, whose ancestors were slaves (in the US). Numbers 12 seemingly addresses the same issue, unfolding with the associated Divine Judgement, as the new interpretation, expounded below, attests to.

Two good sources about Moses wife, Zippora, and interpretations about whether the Kushite woman was Moses second wife, or the text indeed refers to Zipporah, first and possibly only wife, may be found in Wikipedia (entry Zipporah) and in site: thetorah.com (Moses and the Kushite woman).

Pitom (suddenly) and Hineh (behold)

Of all twenty-five verses in the Bible, where Pitom appears — with variations — nowhere else does God suddenly “say”!! However, there are two other verses, both pronounced by prophets, where Jehovah acts suddenly (Pitom) — Isaiah (48:3) and Malachi (3:1): “I send my messenger, and he shall clear the way before me; and suddenly shall come to his temple the Lord, whom you seek; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you yearn for, behold (Hineh), he has come, says the Lord of hosts”, Malachi (3:1). This verse apparently refers to the ultimate Divine Judgement at end times, as described by the prophet. Note, that as in Numbers 12 (see verses displayed earlier, Section 1), where “suddenly” (Pitom) is accompanied by “behold” (Hinei), so are the two linked together here (in this verse).

We will elaborate later on the significance of Pitom, and show that God acts suddenly in this chapter not once (as may be deduced from the single appearance of Pitom), but twice, as may be deduced from the additional related word, Ve-Hineh (“and behold”), which appears twice in the chapter to express surprise at the sudden and unexpected immediate appearance of Divine punishment.

After God suddenly summons Moses, Miriam and Aharon to get to the Tent of Meeting, the rest of the chapter (verses 5-16) delivers:

  • God’s description of the unique status of Moses as a prophet (unparalleled by any other Jewish prophet);
  • Punishment of Aharon and Miriam: According to Jewish interpreters, both were punished with leprosy, however Aharon immediately recovered: “..and Aharon turned to Miriam and, behold (Hineh), leprous” (Numbers 12:10); This explanation relies on the understanding that Aharon was reluctantly “dragged” into this incidence by Miriam because in the original Hebrew text: “And Miriam and Aharon spoke harshly to Moses..” (Numbers 12:1), the word “spoke” is bizarrely in the singular feminine, implying that Miriam played major role in this incident;
  • Aharon apology to Moses, asking for forgiveness;
  • Moses prayer and Miriam’s seven days recovery (out of Israel camp), whereupon the people of Israel moved from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.
  1. Traditional Jewish Commentary on Numbers 12

Major Jewish interpreters of the Bible, among them Rashi (1040-1105) and Malbim (1809-1879), relate to the whole chapter (Numbers 12) as a single continuous story. They agree that the Kushite woman was Zipporah, Moses’ wife, daughter of Jethro (Exodus 2:21), of Midian descent (Midian was one of six sons of Abraham and Keturah, Genesis 25:2). Since Midian was a tribe of the desert, Rashi assumes that descendants of Midian were also dark-skinned and he states about “Kushite woman” (referring to Zipporah): “The written states that all acknowledge her beauty, just as all acknowledge the blackness of a Kushi” (in biblical Hebrew Kushi is for male, Kushite for female). Thus, Rashi acknowledge that there is a skin-color issue here; however, he interprets the reproach to Moses entirely favorably to Miriam, who supposedly is attempting to defend a basic right of the Kushite woman in her marriage life with Moses (as we will soon learn).

And what was Miriam’s reproach to her brother (according to Rashi, based on a quote from Rabbi Nathan)? That Moses abstained from his wife Zipporah (not fulfilling his duties as a husband) so as to be available to God’s word (namely, after being in God’s presence for forty days on Mount Sinai, Moses has become a Godly person, not engaged in regular earthly activities). Miriam and Aharon are not convinced (that Moses should abstain) — they were also receiving God’s word, yet not ever forbidden from having sexual relationship with their spouses: “And they said: “Has Jehovah indeed spoken only with Moses? He has spoken also with us! And Jehovah heard.” (Numbers 12:2).

Jehovah then suddenly intervenes (“and Jehovah suddenly said to Moses, to Aharon and to Miriam…”). Rashi explains that the latter two were both engaged with their spouses at the time, thus learning first-hand what it means when Jehovah suddenly talk and you are unavailable to hear his word. And what is God’s response to Miriam and Aharon claiming that they are also prophets, namely, receiving the word of God? Here is a present-day variation of God’s response, articulated somewhat sarcastically: “Kids, calm down ¾ you, or anyone else, are nowhere near the status of Moses, my faithful servant prophet; How dare you compare and not being fearful to reproach my servant?!!”.

Or, with the exact wording from Scripture:

“Not so with my servant Moses, for he is the entrusted one in all of my household” (Numbers 12:7)…”Why then were you not fearful to speak harshly to my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:7).

  1. The New Interpretation (my Commentary)

4.1 Two elephants in the room

There are two elephants that traditional interpretations somehow failed to notice, which require some exploration. We describe these by two intriguing questions:

  • Question 1: Numbers 12 begins with a verse that seems to be related to skin color (the Kushite woman), and ends with skin-related verses (Miriam’s leprosy). How is it that no link had ever been observed/established, by Jewish faith-bound Bible interpreters, between the two “stories”? (only link addressed in Jewish scholarship is the claim that Miriam exercised slander and punished for slander; No reference to the bizarre link to skin, of both the sin and its punishment, as displayed in Numbers 12);
  • Question 2: If we accept that Kushite woman was indeed Moses second wife (the most reasonable interpretation to Numbers 12:1), and that the reproach to Moses, by his siblings, was that Moses had sexually abandoned her (becoming a Godly man, after being on Mount Sinai for forty days to receive the Torah), how is it that Aharon and Miriam ignored the other wife, Zipporah? And if, to the contrary, Zipporah is the Kushite woman (as interpreted by Rashi and others), why the use of a misleading and possibly derogatory term (Kushite woman) instead of the known name, Zipporah?
4.2 Four basic facts

We start this needed re-exploration of Numbers 12 by first establishing some basic facts. Based on these facts and a new mode of reading of Numbers 12:1, we articulate two claims regarding the real meaning of Numbers 12, and then expound four principles underlying Divine Justice (as we understand them from Scripture, in Numbers 12 and elsewhere):

  • Basic fact 1: The Kushite woman is not Zipporah: There is no way that Zipporah, of Shem descent, would be denoted in the Bible a Kushite woman, namely, a descendant of Kush, namely, of Ham descent (both Shem and Ham are children of Noah); Furthermore, Zipporah has already been introduced as Moses wife. The claim that the Kushite woman is not Zipporah is supported by a known Jewish interpreter, rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir (Rashbam, 1085-1158), a leading French Tosafist and grandson of Rashi. He also mentions an ancient Hebrew tradition that Moses was king of Kush for forty years and that he had taken a queen. Note that this interpretation is contrary to Rashi’s, addressed earlier. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, or simply Ibn Ezra (1089–1167), a contemporary of Rashbam, repeats this story.
  • Basic fact 2: Aharon and Miriam reproach to Moses was not about absenteeism: If it was so, and accepting Basic Fact 1 (see above), then the reproach to Moses would extend to Zipporah, but it did not;
  • Basic fact 3: The sin and the punishment are both skin-related: Given the emphasis in Jewish faith on sin and punishment being of same sort (in quality and in quantity, as we elaborated on earlier), one can hardly ignore the link between the sin (reproach to Moses, not specified in the text) and the punishment (very explicitly specified!!);
  • Basic fact 4: Jehovah reproaches Aharon and Miriam for reproaching Moses. What is the essence of the Divine reproach? Moses is my entrusted servant and he knows good and evil better than anyone else (“Not so with my servant Moses for he is the entrusted one in all of my household”); Why do you think that you know better than him right and wrong so that you can reproach him?? (“Why then were you not fearful to speak harshly to my servant Moses?”); Note that the Divine reproach does not address at all the essence of Aharon and Miriam reproach to Moses; This remains mysterious and unknown, that is, unless we depart from traditional reading of the key verse Numbers 12:1.
4.3 Principles of Divine Justice

Several principles, supported by biblical verses, underlie our commentary:

  • There is Divine Justice: “..Would not the Judge of all the earth do Justice?” (Gen. 18:25);
  • Divine Justice may be delayed: Since Divine Justice is comprehensive, it is often not immediate (like violating law of nature) — sin, or, conversely, acts of grace and righteousness, may be belatedly responded by Divine justice: “..Jehovah’s Judgments are true, they are righteous altogether” (Psalms 19:10). In other words, Divine Justice should not be perceived individually, regarding that act or another, in which case Jehovah’s judgments may occasionally seem unjust (“Why bad things happen good people?”); Rather, it is the “sub-total” of Divine Justice that is just because “Jehovah’s Judgments…are righteous altogether;
  • Divine Justice aims to teach; and learn you may only when “Action and Reaction” are linked in our mind, namely, being comparable: This basic principle of Karma (law of cause and effect) is pursued by the Jewish faith. It is articulated by the fundamental biblical commandment: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot; Burning for burning, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:24-25). Oral Torah, believed to be delivered to Moses with written Torah, translates this commandment into human terms, namely, offender pays the offended the money-equivalent of the offense suffered. As demonstrated earlier (in opening paragraph of this post), numerous verses in the Bible relate to the link between one’s decisions (resulting in feel, speak or action) and one’s own experiences in life.
  • Divine Justice, unlike law of nature, is not automatic — It is often mitigated by Hashgacha Pratit (Divine Providence), which may be humanly unexplainable: “..I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and show mercy on whom I will show mercy. And He said, thou cannot see my face for no man shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:18-20).

Given these basic facts (4.2), and these Divine Justice principles (4.3) we may now address the opening questions (4.1) and detail our new interpretation of Numbers 12.

4.4 The detailed Commentary

We start by making two claims:

  • Claim 1: Based on a common interpretation of the key word Ki, the first verse of Numbers 12 should be differently read and translated:

Traditional interpretation (one mode of reading the text in its original Hebrew):

“And Miriam and Aharon spoke harshly to Moses about the Kushite woman that he had taken, for (Ki) he had taken a Kushite woman” (Numbers 12:1).

With this interpretation, the last part of the verse, starting with Ki, is told by the narrator as a statement of fact;

New interpretation (another, as justifiable, mode of reading the text in its original Hebrew):

“And Miriam and Aharon spoke harshly to Moses (about the Kushite woman that he had taken) that (Ki) he had taken a Kushite woman” (Numbers 12:1).

With this interpretation, the last part of the verse, starting with Ki, delivers the contents of the reproach by Miriam and Aharon. In other words, the Ki word does not mean “for” (thus preceding statement of fact by the narrator), but rather “that” (preceding detailing of the reproach, as pronounced by Miriam and Aharon). Such interpretation of Ki is not at all rare in the Hebrew Jewish Bible, for example: “..why did you not tell me that (Ki) she was your wife?” (Genesis 12:18).

This interpretation sheds new light about the nature of the reproach. No longer is this a mysterious non-explainable one, which requires guessing as to its true nature (as Rashi and others did). Rather, there is an explicit statement: “Our dear brother Moses, why have you married a Kushite woman?”.

  • Claim 2: Numbers 12 is a demonstrative tale of how Divine Justice is exercised in world affairs:

The reproach to Moses by his siblings should now be put in a wider context. It was common practice among ancient Israelites, the monotheists (believers in one God), not to inter-marry pagan worshippers. This is often addressed in the Torah, for example:

  • When Abraham desires a wife for his son, Isaak, he makes his loyal servant swear to him that he (the servant) “not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live” (Genesis 24:3);
  • Esau takes two wives of the Hittites (local people), “and they brought grief to Isaak and Rebekah” (Genesis 26:34-35);
  • “And Isaak called Jacob… and said to him:” You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise go to Padan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and from there take to yourself a wife from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:1-2).

Obviously, the common practice was marrying within the tribes of Israel. Moses deviated from this practice, obviously marrying two — Zipporah (of Midian descent, Exodus 2:21), and later, as made clear in this chapter (Numbers 12) also a Kushite woman (of Kush descent). Thus, the reproach for marrying the Kushite woman (outside of the tribes of Israel) aimed at a current event. This straightforwardly explains why Zipporah is not mentioned — marriage to Zipporah had occurred many years earlier, and therefore was not anymore presently relevant.

However, Miriam does not refer to the Kushite woman by name, but calling her by descent, obviously aware of her skin color (as we have learned from other verses in the Bible, where Kushite people are addressed). This should be contrasted with how the Bible refers to Zipporah, Moses’ first wife — always by name (Examples are Exodus 2:21, 4:25, 18:2).

Thus, Miriam was offensive both to the Kushite woman, referring to her by her skin color rather than by name; and to Moses, thinking she knows better whether Moses should have married the Kushite woman. The Divine response to Miriam is two-fold:

  • First: God clarifies — Moses knows good and evil better than any, including Miriam and Aharon; How dare you preach to him? (Numbers 12: 7-8);
  • Second: You, Miriam, referred to the Kushite woman by her skin-color, rather than by name; Same will be done to you — the people of the Tribes of Israel would refer to you not by name but by the condition of your skin, namely, referring to you as the leprous woman; and this unexpectedly (“behold”, Hineh) starts with your closest, your brother Aharon: “…and Aharon turned to Miriam and, behold (Hineh), leprous” (Numbers 12:10). The reader might be aware that the verse could be differently articulated, mentioning Miriam by name, like:  “…and Aharon turned to Miriam and, behold (Hineh), Miriam was leprous”. But this is not what the text says — “Miriam” is eradicated: the narrator no more relates to her by name, just by “the leprous woman” (Metzuraat). Divine Justice promptly applies, unexpectedly (behold, Hineh), and it is delivered in the same coin as the sin.

Finally, given the new interpretation, based on the above two claims, why Pitom and Hineh?

The Divine talks to us in all manners of “talk”, sometimes with words only, often otherwise, with calamities and mishaps (like wars and diseases) that befall human beings (Sons-of-Adam, Bnei Adam): “I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me so that when he twists his ways, I will reproach him with the rod of men and with such plagues as befall Bnei Adam” (2 Samuel 7:14).

And Divine “talk” to us, we humans, is more often than not — SUDDEN!

This lesson is true whether mode of Divine talk to us is words (“And Jehovah suddenly said…”, Numbers 12:4), or when Divine “talk” is implemented via other modes of communication, “as befall human beings”. This universal lesson is taught to us in Numbers 12 not once but twice:

* First time: Jehovah suddenly says to all three, Moses, Aharon and Miriam, to get to the Tent of Meeting, where He calls the latter two to separate from Moses (Numbers 12:5) so that they listen to him  speaking about Moses’ unique status as a servant of God (Numbers 12:6-8);

* Second time: Miriam suddenly catches leprosy; So sudden and unexpected this incident is that Miriam and Aharon both are in a state of shock. By double use of the word Hineh, the biblical narrator excels in describing the unexpected nature of this “sudden” event, to Miriam as well as and to Aharon (the reader may recall from earlier quotes that Scripture often combines Hineh, behold, with Pitom, suddenly):

“And the cloud withdrew from over the Tent, and, behold (Hineh), Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; And Aharon turned to Miriam, and, behold, leprous” (Numbers 12:10).

With this new interpretation in mind, relying basically on a different read of Numbers 12:1, and perceiving Numbers 12 as basically a display of Divine Justice in action, the last remaining difficulty is this:

Jewish scholars have attempted, throughput history, to beautify the story about the Kushite woman (as demonstrated in the summary of current commentary). However, they ignored the two elephants in the room, thereby reducing considerably the validity of their interpretation.

Why was that?

We believe that the fundamental motive was not to taint “too much” the images of Aharon and Miriam, siblings of Moses, with whom Jehovah spoke too (“Has Jehovah singly spoken only with Moses? Has He not spoken also to us?…”, Numbers 12: 2).

However biblical text, here as always, spares no effort to present reality as it is, without camouflage.

The story of the Kushite woman, where the Bible is shown to spare no effort in exposing blemishes of character to some of the most cherished heroes of the Jewish faith, thereby demonstrating to us what Divine Justice is —

This story should serve as inspiration to us all‼

We, who aspire to equality and dignity for all human beings, should relate to each not by number, by skin color, or by any other visible characteristic that one may happen to possess or be associated with!

ALWAYS RELATE TO HUMAN BEINGS BY NAME ONLY.

2 replies on “Divine Justice and Skin-Color Discrimination (Numbers 12)”

I have just come across this. Like so many others, including the authors of some later parts of the Bible, you are conflating Cush, a son of Ham, with Kish, a descendant of Shem. Cush is an ancient region in Africa, south of Egypt. Kish is the name of an ancient city in Mesopotamia that flourished before Babylon and was contemporary with Ur. It may be the source of the designation Ur Kasdim from where Abraham is said to have migrated to Canaan. The name may be a reference to a Kassite city, the Kassites being a known people of Mesopotamia. A descendant of Kish is Nimrod whose name is that of a major city and one-time capital of Assyria.

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Nowhere Kish is mentioned in this post. Sincerely I have no idea what your message refers to.

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