In the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Richards and O’Brien warn us not to read the ethnic prejudices of our culture into the ancient world. One such passage is Numbers 12 where Miriam and Aaron complain about the Cushite wife of Moses. Several questions can be raised in this passage. Does Cushite mean Midianite? Is this woman Zipporah, or is this a second wife? Cushite normally means Ethiopian. Are Miriam and Aaron complaining that Moses married a black African? Unfortunately, commentators have sometimes read modern ethnic prejudices into this text.
Richards and O’Brien examine Cushites from an ancient world perspective and come away with quite a different, possible take on the passage.
The Cushites were not demeaned as a slave race in the ancient world; they were respected as highly skilled soldiers.’ It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. That makes sense of the tone of the passage. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they whined. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2). In other words: Moses is not the only prophet here. Who does he think he is?*
Although I would view this as a possible reading of the text, it is at least informed by the ancient world. It avoids reading the text through modern ethnic prejudices.
Certainly, ethnic prejudices existed in the ancient world. A careful reading with cultural awareness can spot some of these. Greeks looked at everyone else as barbarians, their term for non-Greek speakers. It is an onomatopoeic word. To the Greeks, non-Greek speaking people sounded like they were going around saying “bar … bar.” Jews looked down on Gentiles. Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Jews could neglect the Greek speaking Jewish widows (Acts 6).
Although prejudices exist in the ancient world as well as the modern, scripture is consistently against such prejudices. We are called to see every human being from God’s point of view. All are created in the image of God. God loves the whole world and wishes that none should be lost. With Paul, we must exclaim: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11, ESV). We must sing like the heavenly scene found in Revelation: “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9–10, ESV). We must check our cultural blinders, and behave as God would have us treat one another.
*E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Kindle Locations 602-605). Kindle Edition.