There has been some conflict in scripture and a lot of debate in rabbinic literature on marriage. This is especially true in regards to marrying “aliens.” In this regard, modern Jewish thought holds that one is a Jew (and therefore not “an outsider”) if they are born to a Jewish mother, or if they undertake a formal rabbinically sanctioned conversion process. [See Rabbi Tzvi Freeman’s article entitled Who is a Jew?]
I have previously written about Ruth, but she is an interesting case study, as she is a foreigner, but also “mother” of the line which includes both King David and Jesus.
I take it as a given that the scriptures are silent on many points, and if a point is not key to the narrative, the details are often omitted. Maybe this is the case in Ruth, as there is no reference to her formal conversion to Judaism, but rather a self-attestation that, “Your people will be my people and your God my God (Ruth 1:16).”
There are several scriptures that forbid the marrying of “people of land,” notably Deuteronomy 7:1-2. “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them.” This is a clear prohibition (at least for the people of these nations).
This leads to a consideration of Ezra 9. This text is a little problematic. “After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them (v. 1-2).” The chapter goes on to clarify the point, in part, by noting it was “the detestable practices” of these nations, which were the core concern. Ezra 10:3 shows that in an attempt to return to “righteousness” there was a programme of mass divorce of “alien wives.”
Notice Moabites [as with Ruth] are on the Ezra list [but not on the Deuteronomy list], as are Hittites [previously prohibited and with possible application with David and Bathsheba account]. In the scriptures we find the celebration of faithfulness of the Moabitess Ruth; and interestingly the sin in the latter case [Bathsheba] was instigated by the Jew David. The “race” of the foreign wife seems in practice inconsequential, it is rather her conduct and righteousness that is the concern.
The marriages of Moses may prove to be good cases in point. His first wife, Zipporah was a Midianite. Her father was noted to be “a priest of Midian.” An aside here is important. Midianites were descendants of Abraham, and would have shared the knowledge of the God of Abraham. While not of the line Isaac and Jacob, they would have had knowledge of the God of their father Abraham. Moses’s wife, Zipporah was from Midian in Arabia, but presumably a mono-theist and acknowledger of God. Note here again that there is no mention of a formal conversion. An interesting point by Jewish law, but perhaps not as important as her God-centred beliefs (and those of her father).
It is Moses’ second marriage which gives us some insight to the nature of what should be considered “foreign.” Numbers 12:1-2 records, “Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” And the Lord heard it.”
The details of the dispute are unclear. It does centre on the fact that “Moses had taken a Cushite woman as a wife.” Cush is the ancient name for Ethiopia. Moses’ second wife (who is unnamed) was not only non-Hebrew, but African. Was it an issue of her race? Was it that she was not a believer?
Exodus 12:38 tells us that as the Hebrews departed Egypt that “a mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock.” We can postulate that with the exodus of the Jews, that other slaves (among them Cushites) used the opportunity to leave as well. Jewish tradition holds that Moses accepted these into the Twelve Tribes. As such, they became subject to the same rules and laws of the covenant. So presumably this Cushite wife’s beliefs (like those of Zipporah’s) were not the issue.
The main teaching of the passage seems more about Miriam’s self-elevation, but there is a great secondary application which advances our theme. “The anger of the Lord burned against them [Aaron and Miriam], and he left them. When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. (Numbers 12: 9-10).” Miriam complained about Moses’ marriage to an African, the result -she [Miriam] is made “white as snow.” It being leprosy, a presumably unwelcome state. Was this incidental or central to the narrative? If it is central it is an interesting point to ponder, was it about race or skin colour? If so, God gave a definitive response.
In the end, the faith of the spouse, not their “ethnicity” seems the more germane issue. The concern from God’s point of view seems to be about corrupting influences of practice. Ruth and Zipporah are celebrated in the Word. Foreign by birth, yes. Foreign to God, no. The call of God is “To you, O men [and women], I call, And my voice is to the sons [and daughters] of men (Proverbs 8:4) [see also Acts 2:39].” Tribe and nation does not diminish the call, all that is required is to answer it.
Next time in Bible Ladies, I will explore another foreign woman, Rahab.