3 Reasons Why Zipporah, Moses’ Wife, Was Not African

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I’ve written earlier that Jesus was not a black man, and that Zipporah, one of Moses’ wives in Scripture (this is quite a controversial statement), isn’t black either. I even preached a sermon on it. However, I found a recent statement made in the news a reason to revisit the issue once again.

Pastor Keion Henderson of the Lighthouse Church & Ministries in Houston, Texas is back in the spotlight in this post because of his statement regarding not only that “Moses’ mama was black” but also his statement that Zipporah “was a black woman. The Bible says in Numbers Chapter 12, she was a Cushite. And the area Kush is between Sudan and those places, Somalia in Africa, and the Bible even says that her skin was made black by the sun.”

In my most recent post (see the Moses mama link above), I’ve discarded the notion that Moses’ mother was anything other than Jewish, and that being born in Egypt didn’t make her African. She was Jewish because of her “ancestor story” (ancestry), not because of her own particular geographic circumstances. She may have been a citizen of Egypt, but she wasn’t Egyptian (as in, she didn’t have Egyptian ancestry because her father, Levi, was Jewish). You can take a Jew born in Italy, a Jew born in Ethiopia, and a Jew born in Mexico, and it doesn’t change the fact that all three are Jewish, despite where they are born. I, for example, am American, but “American” is not an ethnicity/race, but a country, a geographic location. Even the term “Native American” is historic in that it refers to the earliest Americans (whom Christopher Columbus believed to be from India), but the ethnicity of the earliest Americans was Asian, from Asia, more specifically, East India, to be exact. Asian, African, and European are different racial designations that do matter. The distinctions are valid and important.

In this post, we are going to look at the claim by Pastor Keion Henderson that says 1) Zipporah was black and 2) Zipporah was the woman mentioned in Numbers chapter 12.

Zipporah’s Father, Jethro, was Midianite

Zipporah was not black because first, her father, Jethro, was priest of Midian, and thus, a Midianite. The Midianites originated from the Arabian Desert, which is in southwestern Asia according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Southwestern Asia, not southwestern Africa. So, Zipporah’s ancestry would be based on her parents because “ancestry” is “ancestor story.” Zipporah, according to Scripture, was a daughter of Jethro whom Jethro gave to Moses as his wife (Exodus 2:21).

Midian is not considered to be African, but Asian. I will elaborate more on this in the next section.

Numbers 12 refers to an African; Zipporah was Asian and a Midianite

Numbers Chapter 12 refers to an African; in that, Pastor Keion Henderson is right. However, he is wrong about his understanding of Numbers 12 for two reasons. First, he simply refers to the person of Numbers 12 as a mere Cushite, a mere African person. However, the Bible is more specific than this: not only does it give the race of the individual, but it also tells us that this particular wife mentioned in Numbers 12 is not only African but also Ethiopian: that is, of a particular country in Africa. The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, says that the wife of Numbers 12 was, in the Greek, “an Ethiopian woman.” See the Septuagint verse for Numbers 12:1 below:

ΚΑΙ ἐλάλησε Μαριὰμ καὶ ᾿Ααρὼν κατὰ Μωυσῆ, ἕνεκεν τῆς γυναικὸς τῆς Αἰθιοπίσσης ἣν ἔλαβε Μωυσῆς, ὅτι γυναῖκα Αἰθιόπισσαν ἔλαβε

Numbers 12:1, Septuagint (or LXX)

Μαριὰμ refers to Miriam, ᾿Ααρὼν refers to Aaron, and Μωυσῆ to Moses. Miriam spoke (Greek ἐλάλησε) with Aaron against Moses, because the woman (Greek γυναικὸς) he received (or took to be his wife, married) was Ethiopian (Greek Αἰθιοπίσσης) because she was an Ethiopian woman. The Greek word Αἰθιοπίσσης, transliterated “AithiopissEs,” refers to “Ethiopian.” Moses’ wife was Ethiopian, and this was the one thing Miriam had against Moses’ wife: she was Ethiopian, she was African.

Now, this is a problem because Zipporah, according to what was said above, was not Ethiopian; she was Midianite, daughter of Jethro, priest of Midian. How could she be from Midian, in southwest Asia, yet be Ethiopian at the same time? She wasn’t from Ethiopia. The woman who became Moses’ wife in Numbers 12 was from Ethiopia. Remember the Egyptians? They were African and they had enslaved the Jews.

Why would Miriam have spoken against an Ethiopian woman? I’ve preached in a sermon before that Miriam was racist (and perhaps she was), but I’ve thought since that sermon that there could have been other reasons she opposed Moses marrying an Ethiopian: perhaps 1) she didn’t want Moses marrying outside of his Jewish roots; perhaps 2) she had an issue with the woman’s Ethiopian identity and African race because the Africans (Egyptians) had enslaved the Jews. She didn’t want Moses marrying into the race that had enslaved them, because for her, that was tantamount to falling in love with the oppressor.

There are some African-American families that teach their children to “marry within their race,” that is, just as they are African, to marry African. I say this from personal experience. And so, perhaps Miriam wanted Moses to find another wife who would suit him from within his Jewish roots. Zipporah was from Midian, and Midian was a cousin of the Jews, since Midian, the head of her people, was a son of Abraham with his wife Keturah as Isaac was his son through Sarah (Genesis 25:2). Miriam wouldn’t have been opposed to Moses marrying Zipporah because, first, Moses married Zipporah before Moses returned to Egypt; secondly, Moses and Zipporah had been married for years before he and Miriam reunited. Why would she have had anything to say against the wife he’d built a life with before being used by God in Egypt to free His people?

Next, Zipporah was a cousin of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron because Midian was a son of Abraham, just as they were descendants of Abraham. If Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:12), why would Miriam be opposed to Moses marrying their mutual cousin (Zipporah)?

Miriam wouldn’t oppose the wife of his children. She would however, oppose a new wife if Zipporah was deceased because she knew nothing of the new wife, and the new wife was likely in the camp of believers that had fled Egypt due to the death of the firstborn. This new Ethiopian woman, this African woman, would have been a God-fearer herself, and that, plus mourning the loss of Zipporah, would have moved him to marry her.

Also, perhaps (if we can imagine it) she may have told Moses something along the lines of “Remember our father Abraham, how he disobeyed the voice of God when he went in to Hagar, his maid, instead of listening to the voice of the Lord and waiting for the birth our father Isaac through his wife, Sarah? Don’t you think you’re rushing things a bit?” This makes sense when you consider that Hagar was an Egyptian. An Ethiopian isn’t that far off from an Egyptian.

There could be other reasons, but the point is that the woman was Ethiopian. Now, this isn’t just someone who is a Cushite, but someone who is specifically from the land of Ethiopia: that is, East Africa. She was African, and that was a problem for Miriam who was a proud Hebrew. I use the term “Jew” today out of respect for my people, and to acknowledge the secular, academic sphere, though the biblical term for my people is Hebrew. Yes, I also proudly bear Jewish ancestry.

There was no mistake in the word “Ethiopian,” for Ethiopia existed long before it became an independent country in 1942. Ethiopia existed as far back as 3-5 million years ago, long before the Bible was created. Even Herodotus, born in the 5th Century BC, mentions Ethiopia in his writing, according to Stockton University:

Of Ethiopia, west of Arabia, Herodotus gives a compact description: “this country produces great
quantities of gold, has an abundance of elephants and all the woodland trees, and ebony; and its
men are the tallest, the most handsome, and the longest lived.”


Ethiopia existed long before it is mentioned in Numbers 12. And so, when Moses writes that Miriam had an issue with him because he married an Ethiopian woman, he meant what he wrote: his second wife was from Ethiopia, an African country in East Africa. She was not just African. She was not just Cushite, but from a specific African country.

I want to reiterate: Moses’ second wife, after the death of Zipporah (she had to be dead because Moses wouldn’t have angered God by marrying a second woman while his first wife lived), was from Ethiopia. This would have been a new wife Moses married, and this woman, being Ethiopian (and not Midian, as Zipporah was), would have angered Miriam because this second wife was an African woman and not a Jewish woman, perhaps. Perhaps she thought Moses should marry from his own people that had been freed instead of a “foreign” God-fearer. That was her own preference, perhaps, but in any case, God was not pleased with how she spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1-15).

Ethiopia existed long before Numbers 12, and Miriam’s issue was against the Ethiopian woman. Perhaps she bristled up against Moses and his prophetic gift because she thought that, since she was one of God’s prophets, He spoke to her the way He spoke to Moses. Not so, God said.

The extension of Zipporah’s life in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956)

To be sure, I have already mentioned that Zipporah likely had died by the time Moses remarries in Numbers 12. That’s because, as said before, Moses would not have wanted to anger God by marrying a second woman while his first wife lived. But there’s another reason why Zipporah was not black — and it pertains to Cecil DeMille’s work in the movie for which he is still famous today, The Ten Commandments.

What would that reason be?

DeMille immortalizes Zipporah and extends her years to the point at which Moses is to die and the people are to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

Some would think that this points to the opposing argument (that is, DeMille thought Zipporah was the Ethiopian woman, too), but that’s not the case at all. The reason? Zipporah isn’t African. In DeMille’s on-screen portrayal, Zipporah is a woman of color (and she is beautiful, no doubt), but she isn’t Ethiopian African. Zipporah is not portrayed as a dark-skinned woman. Moses isn’t portrayed as a dark-skinned man, even though a number of cartoons and productions surrounding Moses make him dark-skinned. After all, it was 1956, and putting a bonafide African woman in the role as Moses’ new wife would have surely offended racist Europeans who would have been turned off by seeing it. In the 1950s, African-Americans still were not fully recognized as equals to white Americans. Racism was still heavy, and it would take the 1960s Civil Rights Movement to rectify it.

But DeMille was onto something when he “resurrected” Zipporah and continued her on-screen years: he did it so that he wouldn’t have to include the Ethiopian woman in a premier role. Zipporah was designed to keep the Ethiopian off-screen. If Zipporah had been the Ethiopian, why would he have put her on-screen to start with? The fact that DeMille kept Zipporah on-screen suggests that, in his estimation, she and the Ethiopian woman were two distinct individuals. Even DeMille disagrees with the assumption of Pastor Henderson that Zipporah was Ethiopian. DeMille and I disagree on keeping the Ethiopian off-screen, but I agree with the underlying assumption behind such a decision (that is, that Zipporah and the Ethiopian aren’t the same person).


Dr. Henderson draws his conclusions with regard to Zipporah, the Ethiopian woman, and even Moses’ mother, but I’d like to challenge his assumptions. Where does he get these from? Why does he assume Moses’ mother was black just because she was born in Egypt? Why does he assume Zipporah is Ethiopian? What evidence in Scripture is there to justify such assumptions? I realize his original article throws these thoughts out in the open “to be controversial,” but assumptions of this sort without Scriptural evidence are not healthy to be tossed around.

Tossing around controversial subjects and statements, with no scriptural support, are prone to be picked up by others who will run with them because “pastor so and so said it.” There are some believers in the Church today who just don’t know how to disseminate sources and information. They don’t know who to trust, and will trust anything that remotely sounds okay to them. This is not to say that we all aren’t prone to false teaching, because we are; but some are mature and can sense when a teaching is false and heretical. Some believers are babes in Christ and cannot distinguish truth from lies.

As those in charge of leading God’s flock, we have to do a better job of leading people into truth than just being controversial when we believe it suits a particular political purpose. I honestly think The Christian Post should have inquired about these claims and asked the pastor to check them himself before publishing the news piece.

Zipporah was a Person of Color (POC). She was Asian, a brown-skinned Asian at that. Since my Native American ancestry ties me to Asia, cuzn Zipporah (as I’ll call her here; my DNA has confirmed I am related to the Levitical priesthood, and thus, Moses, Miriam, and Aaron; Zipporah was his wife, and Moses and her were one, so that makes her a cousin of mine) was a beautiful brown-skinned woman. But as beautiful as she was, make no mistake: Zipporah was no African woman.

Moses’ wife mentioned in Numbers 12 remains a mystery, but one thing we know is that she was a “sistah.” Cousin Zipporah, as much of a POC as she was, was not. That doesn’t make Zipporah any less significant; it’s just stating the facts.