A Sign in the Dark: Moses’s Cushite Wife and Boundary Setting in the Book of Numbers

In: Biblical Interpretation
Author: Ron M. Serino1
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Sitting at a primary intersection of gender and ethnicity in the book of Numbers is the figure of the Cushite woman in Numbers 12. Who is this Cushite, and why does she materialize seemingly out of nowhere, only to disappear as fast as she appeared? In order to explore ways that gender and ethnicity were used to define boundaries and construct identity in post-exilic Judah, this paper investigates the role that this Cushite plays in the narrative of Numbers and the ideology behind her enigmatic portrayal.

Employing Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection as the primary framework, I propose that a recasting of the character of Zipporah as the Cushite woman is the pivot point that the post-exilic, priestly authors of Numbers utilize to accomplish three of their primary goals in rewriting Exodus: alienate the Midianites, constrain women, and appropriate the role of Moses. Who better to accomplish these goals than the Midianite wife of Moses?

Drawing upon the work of Claudia Camp, this paper argues that all foreign women in Numbers are not created equally. Just as Camp finds circles drawn increasingly tighter around those authorized to be priests, I explore ways that Numbers constructs degrees of difference for foreign women. Foreigners are welcome but are not to come too close. Just how close is too close, and who is excluded at what times and why? The Cushite woman holds a key to unlocking this mystery in Numbers. She is a sign in the dark.

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