Cipher women

Noticing characteristics should not lead to disadvantaging their bearers.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
“AND MIRIAM and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.” (Numbers 12:1) She is the ultimate object, critical to the narrative but without voice or name.
She exists only in passivity – the woman that Moses had taken. The Cushite woman, black and female, her presence in the text is enough to irritate Miriam and Aaron, but not enough to make any statement of her own.
Only her femaleness and her blackness are remarkable, and both are cause to keep her powerless. The unseen narrator sets her up against Miriam, the powerful sister of the man to whom she is married, a woman earlier described as a prophetess – yet Miriam too is demeaned and diminished in this interaction.
Framed between the story of the unauthorized prophesying of Eldad and Medad, and the divine statement that only Moses’ prophecy is entirely trusted, this is a story about real and illusory power, and the two women are ciphers, literally seen in black and white, silenced.
Miriam is described as challenging Moses “on account of the Cushite woman he has taken as wife,” even while the speech reported to us is about the equal prophetic status of the triumvirate of siblings: “Has the Eternal indeed spoken only with Moses? Has God not spoken also with us?’ And Miriam alone is punished, even though Aaron had joined her in asserting their status in relation to Moses. Why does the narrator divert our attention toward race and gender when the issue is about the leadership of Moses and the relative status of his sibling co-leaders? We never learn more about the Cushite woman, about when Moses married her, about her story and how she came to be with the Israelites and the mixed multitude leaving Egypt. We know that ancient civilisations were racially diverse, and there is a buried history of black Egyptians, which only now is being recognized by scholars, but our modern categories of race are not those of the ancient world. Her description as Cushite signifies only that this is not Zipporah, Moses’ Midia nite wife.
It is sometimes said that the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman proves that God has a sense of humor, that Miriam who complained about this black interloper is given her comeuppance by God when her skin is turned white as snow with the impurity of leprosy. And her anger at her relative loss of leadership status leads to her exclusion from the community, put outside of the camp until her skin heals once more.
But there is a less comic side to this tale. For now both women are silenced, both passive recipients of the narrator’s attention.
Aaron, who confesses their joint sin, is not only unpunished for his part in challenging Moses’ authority but joins together with him in prayer for her healing, leading the people who are anxiously awaiting her return to camp. Both women are now out of action, their skin color and their gender apparently rendering them unsuitable for a role in the public space.
The power of the men is enhanced.
A Jewish friend of mine, married to a black woman, once told me that their fights usually ended up with her telling him he could always take off his kippa and ‘pass’ in society, but she could never take off her skin, echoing Jeremiah who asks, “Can an Ethiopian [Cushite] change his skin, or a leopard its spots?” Some things about us are the first thing that people see, and sometimes those people never get past that attribute, never notice the person inhabiting that skin. Sometimes they dismiss the person because of the characteristic, ignoring them or silencing them, putting them “outside the camp,” not hearing their voice or recognizing their cause.
Whatever we might wish, society is neither color nor gender blind.
But noticing characteristics should not lead to disadvantaging their bearers.
The prophet Amos had God ask, “Are you not like the Children of the Ethiopians to me, O Children of Israel?” The Bible reminds us that our common humanity is recognized by God, who sees beneath the surface. But it also reminds us that we often fail to see that shared humanity for ourselves, that we categorize and judge by gender and by race, and those who are so judged can find themselves trapped without voice or power to change the perception.
We never find out the fate of the unnamed woman from Ethiopia, but we do have one shaft of light at the end of this story. The people wait for Miriam to be healed and brought back to the camp before they move on. She may be chastened, but Miriam is back in the public space, and one day she may yet sing with her unnamed black sister, their voices raised up and heard – and responded to – by all. 
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in the United Kingdom for 28 years and blogs at