Bible Study: Moses’ Two Marriages and Two Fathers-in-Law?

After Moses fled Egypt, he fled to Midian (Ex 2:15).  There, he married Zipporah (v 21).  The Midianites were a people descended from Keturah and Abraham.

They were almost certainly a Semitic people, however that is not entirely provable, as Keturah’s heritage or nationality is not identified.  Midian was one of her sons that Abraham sent to the east before his death.  Evidently, the Midianites and Ishmaelites intermarried and intermingled a great deal (Ge 37:28), making it less easy to trace the various lineages.

The Cushite Zipporah Theory

However, there are some that maintain that Zipporah is the Cushite woman mentioned in Numbers 12 (“Ethiopian woman” in KJV).   Their reasoning is that given the timing of Numbers 12, right after the appearance of manna in Numbers 11, Aaron and Miriam did not know what Zipporah looked like up to that point.

Remember, after the incident of the “bloody husband”, it appears that Moses sent Zipporah and their sons back to Midian while he went on to Egypt (Ex 18:2-5).  Jethro brought Zipporah and their sons when he met Moses at Mt Sinai.  Since this would have been soon after the manna started falling (Ex 16:15), this lends support to the theory that Zipporah and Moses’ Cushite wife are one and the same.  Aaron met Moses on the way to Egypt (Ex 4:14) after the “bloody husband” incident (v27), so if Moses sent Zipporah back to Midian before meeting Aaron, it is likely neither he nor Miriam would have known much, if anything, about Zipporah.

Daughter of Jethro and wife of Moses. According to the Bible,Moses met the daughters of Jethro when they were being driven away from a well by shepherds; he assisted them, and was invited into the house of Jethro, who gave him Zipporah to be his wife (Ex. ii. 21). On his return to Egypt, Moses was accompanied by his wife, who saved him from great danger during their journey (ib. iv. 24-26). She appears to have returned with her children to her father’s house; for after the exodus from Egypt, Jethro brought Zipporah and her children out to Moses in the wilderness (ib. xviii. 2-5). Zipporah is mentioned only once more in the Bible; namely, in Numbers xii. 1, where she is referred to as “the Ethiopian woman,” for having married whom Moses is upbraided by Miriam and Aaron.

~, “Zipporah

Frankly, none of this makes sense.  In fact, the entire notion that Zipporah and the Ethiopian/Cushite woman were the same contradicts the Bible.  However, you have to read it carefully to extract this out.

When Did Events in Numbers Occur?

First of all, we have to noticed the timing, which proves it to be impossible.  Second, there is a small but important passage sandwiched in-between events that shed a ray of light on this topic.

The Book of Numbers takes up where the Book of Exodus leaves off.

40 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

2 On the first day of the first month shalt thou set up the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation.

~ Ex 40:1-2

The Tabernacle went up the first day of the new year after leaving Egypt.

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,

~ Nu 1:1

Therefore, Numbers picks up in the beginning of the second year of their travels, right after Exodus leaves off.  We then see a whole bunch of numbering going on (where the title “Numbers” comes from, BTW).

7 And it came to pass on the day that Moses had fully set up the tabernacle, and had anointed it, and sanctified it, and all the instruments thereof, both the altar and all the vessels thereof, and had anointed them, and sanctified them;

2 That the princes of Israel, heads of the house of their fathers, who were the princes of the tribes, and were over them that were numbered, offered:

~ Nu 7:1-2

The consecration and subsequent offerings are described.

There is a gap in time from which the Passover was kept that second year, but Moses circles back with an inset chapter to take care of that.

9 And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,

2 Let the children of Israel also keep the passover at his appointed season.

~ Nu 9:1-2

Then, instructions were given for how to use trumpets in the celebrations, sound for meetings and sound for war.  The trumpets seem to be the tie-in, as they probably were used during the Passover and burnt offerings for the new Tabernacle.  Then, they were instructed to move out, which would have meant trumpet blasts.

11 And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of the testimony.

12 And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran.

~ Nu 10:11-12

Notice we’ve come back to the second month now, so the inset is done.  This is after the manna, where they had manna and quail, but only the manna continued.  This is after the Ten Commandments, where Moses received instructions for the Tabernacle.  This is after the Tabernacle was built.  This means they had not yet left Mount Sinai, but long after receiving the Ten Commandments.

Who Was Moses’ Father-In-Law?

Some people get tripped up by the two names for Moses’ father-in-law.

29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Raguel the Midianite, Moses’ father in law, We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said, I will give it you: come thou with us, and we will do thee good: for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.

30 And he said unto him, I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.

31 And he said, Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes.

32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what goodness the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.

33 And they departed from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey: and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them in the three days’ journey, to search out a resting place for them.

~ Nu 10:29-33

There are some interesting things to notice here:

  1. Hobab was Moses’ brother-in-law.
  2. Hobab was the son of Raguel the Midianite.
  3. Earlier, we saw that Jethro, a priest in Midian, was Moses’ father-in-law.
  4. Moses wants Hobab to go with Israel.
  5. Hobab is reluctant to go with Moses for some reason.
  6. We don’t see Hobab himself again, but we are told that the descendants of Moses’ father-in-law were Kenites (Jdg 1:16), and that Heber, a Kenite descendant of Moses’ father-in-law, broke away and was apparently an ally of some type with Sisera, enemy of Israel (Jdg 4:11-12).

We can speculate a lot about Hobab’s reluctance.  It appears, however, that there must have been some resentment that carried down and the relationship for at least one clan deteriorated to the point that they acted as scouts for the Canaanite army.

We see that Hobab’s father, Raguel, was a Midianite, as we saw that Jethro was a priest of Midian.  There is no reason to believe these are separate people.  It wasn’t that unusual for people to be known by two names.  In fact, it isn’t that far fetched for people to be known by various nicknames today.  Most of us even are given three or even four legal names on our birth certificates!

However, we do have indication of some sort of interpersonal stress going on.  What is interesting is that we haven’t seen Zipporah since the time Jethro left.

Second Quail Incident

Now, we come to the crux of the matter.  This is after the Tabernacle was put together.

11 And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.

2 And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the Lord, the fire was quenched.

3 And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the Lord burnt among them.

4 And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?

5 We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:

6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.

~ Nu 11:1-6

People confuse this with the previous episode in Ex 16.  However, notice the timeframe:

16 And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt.

~ Ex 16:1

This is one year before that incident!  We see in the Numbers account that they already were sick of manna!  They’ve already been eating it for one year!

Notice the difference in the quail as well.  The first incident says nothing about quail being available for one month (Ex 16:8 indicates it was only for one day), being 36” deep or of anything regarding a plague from God afterwards.  These are two separate incidents.  Yes, the incident where Aaron and Miriam murmured against Moses was after the manna, but it was one year afterwards.

Sudden Surprise After One Full Year at Moses’ Wife Being an Ethiopian/Cushite?

Therefore, the argument that one year afterwards that Aaron and Miriam would not have known the heredity of Moses’ wife is pretty silly, and it is the result of not carefully reading the text and the timeline of events.  There obviously were two incidents with the quail, and it is just as obvious that they were already sick of the manna one year later.

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Moses remarried.  In fact, it is with a great deal of certainty that they were two different women of two different heritages.  It is certain that an Ethiopian/Cushite would refer to a descendant of Ham, and attempts to argue otherwise is nothing less than twisting Scripture in order to justify a bias against mixed marriages.

The most likely scenario, IMO, is that Zipporah died shortly after rejoining her husband.  Moses decided to remarry, but he married a Cushite.  Obviously, Aaron and Miriam did not approve.  Perhaps they had been educated at the Egyptian branch of Bob Jones University.  Maybe Hobab felt insulted as well, especially since Zipporah was his sister, and perhaps he felt that replacing her with a Cushite, or any woman at all even, was an insult to Zipporah’s memory (people have such notions today, after all).  OTOH, it could just as well have been that he was stressed at his sister’s death, and perhaps he now felt there was no need for him to stick around.

A less likely scenario was that Moses took a second wife.  Again, this could have rubbed Hobab the wrong way.  Polygamy, while not the ideal, was not forbidden by the OT Law.  Since Moses penned the words that Jesus later quoted to show that marriage was intended for one man and one woman, it’s less likely he would have practiced polygamy, but that would require that he understood it that way.  Since none of his ancestors did, perhaps he did not, however, so it isn’t completely unlikely.

All we know for sure is that he married again, and he married a Cushite.  It was without a doubt a mixed marriage, and it is only by an unfaithful handling of the Word of God that one can come up with a different conclusion.

12 thoughts on “Bible Study: Moses’ Two Marriages and Two Fathers-in-Law?

  • Profile photo of Andrew

    John, there is another likelihood you seem to have passed over here, although the details of this aren’t exactly found in the Bible but through the writings and traditions of Josephus.

    Moses’ Ethiopian wife was his first wife, was actually an Ethiopian princess by the name of Tharbis that he essentially won as a “prize” while fighting in the Egyptian army. Quoting below:

    “However, while Moses was uneasy at the army’s lying idle, (for the enemies durst not come to a battle,) this accident happened: – Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians: she happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage; and admiring the subtility of his undertakings, and believing him to be the author of the Egyptians’ success, when they had before despaired of recovering their liberty, and to be the occasion of the great danger the Ethiopians were in, when they had before boasted of their great achievements, she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevalency of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage. He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition she would procure the delivering up of the city; and gave her the assurance of an oath to take her to his wife; and that when he had once taken possession of the city, he would not break his oath to her. No sooner was the agreement made, but it took effect immediately; and when Moses had cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to God, and consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 2, chapter 10, paragraph 2)

    (source of copy:'_wife_was_Ethiopian_or_Cush_so_was_she_black_or_semitic_white )

  • Profile photo of Andrew

    I should follow up and say that since this is tradition, I don’t take it as completely accurate or what happened. But it is a possibility of how this all occurred and something left out of your analysis in either case.

    • Profile photo of
      John D

      @Andrew: Actually, it was “left out” intentionally, and I freely admit doing so because I just don’t buy it. However, it is still more likely than Zipporah also being the Ethiopian, which still involves a lot of word play (i.e., twisting).

      The problem I have with Josephus’ account is that it requires the Ethiopian woman to have been left abandoned in Egypt after he left. That would have counted as a divorce by abandonment, and she most likely would have been returned to her father’s house and country.

      40 years is a long time. I cannot see her sitting in either place pining away and not remarrying.

      • Profile photo of
        John D

        Oh, and I forgot that it would still be a mixed marriage even if that were true. :) Yet, God never said anything against Moses, yet again, still. :)

  • Profile photo of Andrew

    He decidedly didn’t. And yet I’ve heard people cite the grumbling and situation that came about there as proof you shouldn’t. And yet they are usually surprised when they find out that Moses actually didn’t get in trouble. Only Miriam and Aaron for their grumbling against him.

    But people get really hung up on the mixed marriages thing. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “Noah was ‘pure’ in his generations in that he came from pure genetic stock and no mixing of races” as a reason to say that mixed marriages were sinful.

    • Profile photo of
      John D

      It was extra-biblical nonsense like Noah’s supposed lineage that helped drive me away from WCG as a teen. In fact, that was so puzzling to me that I knew on the day that I first heard it that I didn’t want to be there any longer.

      I found it especially hypocritical because even if it was true, it still means that two of his sons had mixed marriages, and God used them to repopulate the world. If it were a sin, surely He would have found another way.

  • Big Red
    Big Red

    Ah, the old conundrum about Noah being perfect in his generations. The Hebrew can be taken figuratively or literally. Some have a problem with the figurative interpretation, because Jesus Christ was only person who was ever “perfect” (without spot). Others have a problem with the literal interpretation of it referring to racial purity, however, because there are examples of interracial marriage in the Bible.

    I read an alternative explanation for this verse. It runs something like this: “Perfect in his generations” does refer to physical lineage or pedigree, but it has nothing to do with ‘racial purity.’ Instead, it refers to genetic disorders or conditions that can be passed down through the generations – such as spinal bifuda, or what have you.

    The skeptic in me says, “yeah, but we have genetic disorders today.” The alternative explanation replies, “you start engaging in weird stuff that God forbids, of course genetic disorders will return.”

    I’m not sure what position to take about this alternative explanation, but I do find it intriguing, so I thought that I would pass it along.

    • Profile photo of
      John D

      @Big Red: Actually, it does not mean perfect in lineage. There are two words for “generations” used in Ge 6:9. The first definitely means lineage or better “genealogy”. The second means contemporaries or at that period of time. Therefore, Noah was perfect among his peers. S. Church of the Great God article “‘Perfect In His Generations’“.

  • Profile photo of Andrew

    Also the word for perfect can simply mean upright, among many other things according to Strong’s. So perfect is not the literal word intended there I would say.

    • Profile photo of
      John D

      @Andrew: True. I would expect that if it were physical, it would say “without blemish”, much as is in used in the sacrifices.

  • Big Red
    Big Red

    Okay guys, I wasn’t trying to promote the alternative explanation; I was just throwing it out there, because I did find it a interesting take. (By the way, I think that Strong’s concordance does include the meaning “without spot” in its definition of the Hebrew word for “perfect” in this verse. I’ll double check).

    Anyway, the subject is one of those twig arguments that people get too hung up on.

    • Profile photo of
      John D

      Yeah, a twig, but it’s one that certain “Christian” groups nurture and allow it to grow bigger than the trunk. It’s one of the main excuses for opponents of the Church to dismiss a very valuable key to prophecy. It gives the appearance of God being a respecter of persons.

      Most of all, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to step back and ask, “Yeah, but a twig of which tree?”

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