Alinari/Art Resource, NY

The strength of Miriam, Moses’ sister, is apparent in this 13th-century sculpture by Italian artist Giovanni Pisano. Miriam watched over her younger brother when their mother placed him in a basket in the Nile (Exodus 2:4). And she rejoiced with him when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20). But she is less understanding when he marries a Cushite woman. The Bible records, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married” (Numbers 12:1). Miriam is severely punished for speaking out against her brother: God inflicts her with a disease (often identified as leprosy) that makes her skin turn snow white, and she is banned from the Hebrew camp for seven days. But why? Who is this Cushite wife?

Many scholars have tried to conflate the Cushite woman with Zipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife and the mother of his two sons. But, Hays argues, why would the Bible use the common term “Cushite,” which almost always refers to the black civilization south of Egypt, to identify a Midianite from western Arabia? Moses must have had a second, Cushite wife, Hays concludes. Thus, Miriam’s punishment, turning white with leprosy, is just retribution for the stance she takes against the black woman.