Although some modern interpreters seem to prefer to conflate Cush with Midian, the earliest biblical translators and interpreters clearly understood Cush to be a region in Africa. The Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint (produced for the Greek-speaking Jewish community in the third to second century B.C.E.) and the Latin Vulgate (late fourth century C.E.) both translate the term "Cushite" in Numbers 12:1 as "Ethiopian," the term used by the Greeks and Romans to refer to the region south of Egypt inhabited by people with black skin.
The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relates an incredible story in which Moses, in his first act as an adult, leads an army of Egyptians and Hebrews against the Ethiopians, or Cushites, and ends up marrying an Ethiopian princess named Tharbis (Jewish Antiquities 2.10-11). For Josephus, this was Moses' first marriage; only later did he travel to Midian and meet Zipporah.
According to Josephus, the Ethiopians had invaded Egypt, conquering the Egyptian cities in their path as they swept across the country to the Mediterranean Sea. The Egyptians sought guidance from their oracles: "And when counsel came to them from God to take the Hebrew for their ally, [Pharaoh] bade his daughter give up Moses to serve as his general." Moses, Josephus recounts, "gladly accepted the task." In order to surprise the Ethiopian army, Moses traveled south through the serpent-ridden desert rather than along the Nile. His sneak attack was successful: "[Moses] came wholly unexpected upon the Ethiopians, joined battle with them and defeated them, crushing their cherished hopes of mastering the Egyptians, and then [he] proceeded to attack and overthrow their cities, great carnage of the Ethiopians ensuing."
Moses' military prowess had an unusual effect on the Ethiopian princess Tharbis, who watched the battle from inside the capital city's walls: "Tharbis, the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians, watching Moses bringing his troops close beneath the city ramparts and fighting valiantly, marveled at the ingenuity of his maneuvers and, understanding that it was to him that the Egyptians, who until now despaired of their independence, owed all their success, and through him that the Ethiopians, so boastful of their feats against them, were reduced to the last straits, fell madly in love with him."
Tharbis made a proposal of marriage to Moses, and he accepted—on condition that Tharbis surrender her hometown. The princess agreed. "Moses rendered thanks to God, celebrated the nuptials, and led the Egyptians back to their own land," Josephus relates.
Moses' success scared the Egyptians, however, who feared that he would turn against them. Pharaoh surreptitiously prepared to have him killed, but Moses escaped to Midian—and thus begins the more familiar biblical tale of Moses' marriage to Zipporah.
The account of the marriage of Moses and Tharbis is one of the most extensive additions to the biblical text by Josephus.(1)
Writing even earlier than Josephus was Artapanus, thought to have been an Alexandrian Jew writing in the second century B.C.E., who also describes the military expedition by Moses to Cush. But Artapanus does not mention any marriage.(2) Later Jewish legends, however, did expound on Moses' escapades in Cush. In several of these accounts, too, Moses marries an Ethiopian (Cushite) princess, here named Adoniah.(3)
According to these later midrashic tales, when Moses was a young man, one King Kikanos ruled over Ethiopia. War broke out between Ethiopia and the East, and Kikanos led his army into battle. He left an official named Balaam in charge of the capital city. But in the king's absence, Balaam won the people over to his side and usurped the throne. To prevent Kikanos's return, Balaam and his sons blockaded the city by building high walls and thick ramparts and digging canals. They also introduced swarms of venomous snakes that made it perilous to approach the city. Kikanos besieged the city but failed to breach the walls. For nine years, Kikanos camped outside his capital.
When Moses fled Pharaoh, he happened upon Kikanos's camp, was invited to join his troops and eventually rose to the position of commander in chief: Moses, the legend goes, "exercised an attraction upon all that saw him, for he was slender like a palm-tree, his countenance shone as the morning sun and his strength was equal to a lion's." Eventually, Kikanos died, still in exile. The army "could find none except Moses fit to be their king." They crowned the Hebrew slave and offered him Kikanos's widow, Adoniah, as his bride. So at age 27 Moses became king of Ethiopia. After recapturing the city from Balaam, he reigned for 40 years.
But in his 40th year of rule, the midrash recounts, Adoniah publicly addressed her people: "What is this thing that you, the people of Ethiopia, have done these many days? Surely you know that during the forty years this man has reigned over you, he has not approached me, nor has he worshiped the gods of Ethiopia. Now, therefore, let this man reign over you no more, for he is not of our flesh. Behold, Monarchos my son [by Kikanos] is grown up, let him reign over you. It is better for you to serve the son of your lord than a stranger, a slave of the king of Egypt."
Moses was dismissed. Fearing to return to Pharaoh, he fled to Midian, where he would, of course, meet Zipporah.
The earliest biblical readers invented these elaborate tales to explain this enigmatic passage in Numbers: "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman)." Clearly, they understood that Moses' wife in Numbers 12:1 came from the Cush south of Egypt.
1 Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 2.10-11. Donna Runnalls, "Moses' Ethiopian Campaign," Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Periods 14 (1983), p. 148. William Whiston (in Flavius Josephus, Complete Works, trans. William Whiston [1867; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1960, p. 58) notes that Irenaeus cites this story from Josephus. Whiston also suggest that this episode might be behind the statement of Stephen in Acts 7:22. Stephen is quoted as referring to Moses as "powerful in speech and action" before God called him to deliver the Israelites. (Back)
Numerous scholarly discussions on Josephus's probable sources have been written. See Runnalls, "Moses' Ethiopian Campaign," pp. 135-156; Avigdor Shinan, "Moses and the Ethiopian Woman: Sources of a Story in the Chronicle of Moses," Scripta Hierosolymitana 27 (1978), p. 68; Isidore Lévy, "Moïse en Ethiopie," Revue des études juives 53 (1907), pp. 201-211; and Solomon Rappaport, Agada und Exegese bei Flavius Josephus (Vienna: Alexander Kohut Memorial Foundation, 1930).
2 This account is cited by Eusebius (Praeparatio Evangelica 2.27), who copied the story from Alexander Polyhistor, who apparently obtained the account by Artapanus. The differences between Artapanus and Josephus are puzzling. (Back)
3 This version is presented in the spurious Book of Jasher, 23.5-25.5. See also Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1956), pp. 299-302; and Dewey M. Beegle, "Moses," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 4, p. 917. (Back)