According to Num 12 Moses’ marriage (lit. “taking” l–q–ḥ) of a Cushite woman is the cause (ʿal-ʾōdôt) for Miriam and Aaron to speak against (dibbēr bĕ) their brother and question whether YHWH speaks exclusively through (dibbēr bĕ) him. (On the different meanings of dibbēr bĕ see Levine: 328–29). YHWH responds “suddenly” (pitʾom), summoning Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to the tent of meeting, where he descends in a pillar of cloud and summons Aaron and Miriam to step forward. He then affirms to them that he speaks “mouth to mouth” with Moses, in contrast to visions and dreams used for (other) prophets, and he angrily rebukes them for daring to speak against Moses. The encounter leaves Miriam with a skin disorder that renders her “white as snow.” At Aaron’s behest Moses intercedes for Miriam, and the disorder lasts only seven days, during which time she is shut out of the camp.
The story evokes multiple questions: What is meant by the designation “Cushite”? Is this woman to be identified with Zipporah, who is named as Moses’ wife in Exod 2:21; 4:25; 18:2? If not, had Zipporah died previously or was Moses a bigamist? Why would the marriage cause Miriam and Aaron to question Moses’ leadership? Why was Miriam alone punished and why was she afflicted with a temporary skin disorder? Above all, what was the point or purpose of this story? While these questions remain open, the following responses are ventured as reasonable ways of answering them that have emerged in scholarly discussion.
The story is composite (Römer). In one tradition, Miriam was the sole complainant, as indicated by the feminine singular verb form in v. 1 (wattĕdabbēr, “she spoke”) and by the punishment upon Miriam alone (v. 10). The exact reason behind Miriam’s complaint is no longer clear, but it seems to be personal. According to some authors it is impossible to isolate this tradition from the rest of the present narrative (Coats: 261; Noth: 92–93), which changes it into a story about a challenge to Moses’ leadership. One may however observe that the story combines a question about Moses’ status in comparison to the prophets and a question about “mixed” marriages. As the story stands, Miriam is still the leading complainant; her name precedes Aaron’s in 12:1, though elsewhere Aaron’s comes first (12:4–5). As a woman, Miriam has more in common with Moses’ wife and can be read as the one from whom greater empathy should have been forthcoming.
Cush is the name in the HB/OT for Nubia, the area south of Egypt (Jer 13:23; 2 Chr 12:3). The LXX translates it as Αἰθίοψ (“Ethiopian,” so also KJV). If she was from Nubia, this woman would have been black, “rendering the whitened skin of Miriam a singularly fit punishment for her objections to the Cushite wife” (Cross: 204). She would also have been a different person than Zipporah, who was from Midian in northern Arabia. In this case, the Cushite was Moses’ second wife, whether after Zipporah or simultaneously is not clear.
However, Cush was also a designation for part of Midian (Albright: 205, n. 49). In Hab 3:7 Cushan, a biform, occurs in parallel with Midian. According to 2 Chr 21:16, the Cushites are located next to the Arabs. Hence, the Cushite wife might still have been Zipporah. The story about the Cushite may once have been connected with that of Zipporah being brought by her father from Midian to join Moses in Exod 18:5–6, as the two texts are separated by the collection of legal material set at Sinai that dominates Exod 19–Num 10 and that might have intervened in the development of the literature (Wright: 203–4). Perhaps Num 12 avoids Zipporah’s name because of its stress on her non-Israelite ethnicity, which is the concern of Miriam’s and Aaron’s complaint about Moses’ fitness for leadership. A woman from Midian, though not Nubian, would have been dark-skinned, so that Miriam’s punishment of being made “white as snow” remains appropriate. The translation “leprous” in some English versions for the skin disorder (mĕṣoraʿat) is misleading, since whiteness is not a symptom of the disease known today as leprosy (Hansen’s disease).
The story’s present purpose is related to its inclusion of Aaron. It affirms Moses’ leadership and seems to promote Moses’ line of Levitical priesthood over that of Aaron, perhaps against claims that the Mushite line was compromised by non-Israelite blood (Cross: 204). YHWH’s declaration that he speaks mouth to mouth to Moses also contrasts with the means used to communicate with prophets, although it no doubt came to be interpreted to mean that Moses was the preeminent prophet, along the lines espoused by Deut 34:10.