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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Did Moses Marry a Black Woman?

Moses, a Jew, apparently married a black African and was approved by God.

We learn in Numbers that "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman" (Num. 12:1). A Cushite is from Cush, a region south of Ethiopia, where the people are known for their black skin. We know this because of Jeremiah 13:23: "Can the Ethiopian [the same Hebrew word translated "Cushite" in Numbers 12:1] change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil." Attention is drawn to the difference of the skin of the Cushite people.

In his book From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, Daniel Hays writes that Cush "is used regularly to refer to the area south of Egypt, and above the cataracts on the Nile, where a Black African civilization flourished for over two thousand years. Thus it is quite clear that Moses marries a Black African woman" (71).

In response to Miriam’s criticism, God does not get angry at Moses; he gets angry at Miriam. The criticism has to do with Moses’ marriage and Moses’ authority. The most explicit statement relates to the marriage: "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman." Then God strikes Miriam with leprosy. Why? Consider this possibility. In God’s anger at Miriam, Moses’ sister, God says in effect, "You like being light-skinned Miriam? I’ll make you light-skinned." So we read, "When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow" (Num. 12:10)

God says not a critical word against Moses for marrying a black Cushite woman. But when Miriam criticizes God’s chosen leader for this marriage God strikes her skin with white leprosy. If you ever thought black was a biblical symbol for uncleanness, be careful; a worse white uncleanness could come upon you.

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

To the opposing views on interracial marriage, I would add my own experience. I was a southern teenage racist (by almost any definition). Since I am a sinner still, I do not doubt that elements of it remain in me—to my dismay. For these lingering attitudes and actions I repent.

Racism is a very difficult reality to define. Our pastoral staff has been working on it for years. Presently, we are most closely committed to the definition given several summers ago at the Presbyterian Church in America annual meeting: "Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over other races." That is what I mean when I say I was a racist growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. My attitudes and actions were demeaning and disrespectful toward non-whites. And right at the heart of those attitudes was opposition to interracial marriage.

My mother, who washed my mouth out with soap once for saying, "Shut up!" to my sister, would have washed my mouth out with gasoline if she knew how foul my mouth was racially. She was, under God, the seed of my salvation in more ways than one. When our church voted in 1963 not to admit blacks, when I was seventeen, my mother ushered the black guests at my sister’s wedding right into the main sanctuary herself because the ushers wouldn’t do it. I was on my way to redemption.

In 1967, Noël and I attended the Urbana Missions Conference. I was a senior at Wheaton. There we heard Warren Webster, a former missionary to Pakistan, answer a student’s question: what if your daughter falls in love with a Pakistani while you’re on the mission field and wants to marry him? With great forcefulness he said, "The Bible would say, Better a Christian Pakistani than a godless white American!" The impact on us was profound.

Four years later, I wrote a paper for Lewis Smedes in an ethics class at seminary called "The Ethics of Interracial Marriage." For me that was a biblical settling of the matter, and I have not gone back from what I saw there. The Bible does not oppose or forbid interracial marriages. And there are circumstances which, together with biblical principles, make interracial marriage in many cases a positive good.

Now I am a pastor. One quick walk through my church’s pictorial directory gives me a rough count of over two hundred non-Anglos. I am sure I missed some. And I am sure the definition of Anglo is so vague that someone will be bothered that I even tried to count. But the point is this: dozens and dozens of them are children and teenagers and single young men and women. This means very simply that my church needs a clear place to stand on interracial marriage. Church is the most natural and proper place to find a spouse. And they will find each other across racial lines.

THE CHALLENGES AND BLESSINGS OF INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE

Opposition to interracial marriage is one of the deepest roots of racial distance, disrespect, and hostility. Show me one place in the world where interracial or interethnic marriage is frowned upon and yet the two groups still have equal respect and honor and opportunity. I don’t think it exists. It won’t happen. Why? Because the supposed specter of interracial marriage demands that barrier after barrier must be put up to keep young people from knowing each other and falling in love. They can’t fellowship in church youth groups. They can’t go to the same schools. They can’t belong to the same clubs. They can't live in the same neighborhoods. Everybody knows deep down what is at stake here. Intermarriage is at stake.

And as long as we disapprove of it, we will be pushing our children, and therefore ourselves, away from each other. The effect of that is not harmony, not respect, and not equality of opportunity. Where racial intermarriage is disapproved, the culture with money and power will always dominate and always oppress. They will see to it that those who will not make desirable spouses stay in their place and do not have access to what they have access to. If your kids don’t make desirable spouses, you don’t make desirable neighbors.

And here is a great and sad irony. The very situation of separation and suspicion and distrust and dislike that is brought about (among other things) by the fear of intermarriage, is used to justify the opposition to intermarriage. "It will make life hard for the couple and hard for the kids." "They’ll be called half-breeds." It’s a catch 22. It’s like the army being defeated because there aren’t enough troops, and the troops won’t sign up because the army’s being defeated. Oppose interracial marriage, and you will help create a situation of racial disrespect. And then, since there is a situation of disrespect, it will be prudent to oppose interracial marriage.

Here is where Christ makes the difference. Christ does not call us to a prudent life, but to a God-centered, Christ-exalting, justice-advancing, counter-cultural, risk-taking life of love and courage. Will it be harder to be married to another race, and will it be harder for the kids? Maybe. Maybe not. But since when is that the way a Christian thinks? Life is hard. And the more you love the harder it gets.

It’s hard to take a child to the mission field. The risks are huge. It’s hard to take a child and move into a mixed neighborhood where he may be teased or ridiculed. It’s hard to help a child be a Christian in a secular world where his beliefs are mocked. It’s hard to bring children up with standards: "you will not dress like that, and you will not be out that late." It’s hard to raise children when dad or mom dies or divorces. And that’s a real risk in any marriage. Whoever said that marrying and having children was to be trouble free? It’s one of the hardest things in the world. It just happens to be right and rewarding.

Christians are people who move toward need and truth and justice, not toward comfort and security. Life is hard. But God is good. And Christ is strong to help.

There is so much more to say about the challenges and blessings of interracial marriage. Suffice it to say now by way of practical conclusion: At my church, we will not underestimate the challenges of interracial marriage or transracial adoption (they go closely together). We will celebrate the beauty, and we will embrace the burden. Both will be good for us and good for the world and good for the glory of God.

John Piper is the pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the author of many books. Go to www.desiringgod.org to learn more.

 

September 2007
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