“For (Moses) had married a Cushite.” (Numbers 12:1)
The minds of people of color are at times so colonized and their eyes so accustomed to seeing reality through the lens of the dominant culture, that the hope of any liberation seems futile. No longer are threats of violence or intimidation necessary. Centuries of repression have taught us how to police ourselves. The stigmata on our darkened bodies are self-inflicted wounds caused by the vain attempt to live up to the caricature created about us by those with the power and privilege to construct reality for all of humanity. The horror is when people of color accept this false reality as truth and condition their tastes, their hopes and their own sense of self accordingly.
For some, taught to see beauty and virtue as white, an attempt is made to grasp this beauty and make it a portal to civilization. There has historically existed, and among some today still exists, a trend to marry someone who had lighter skin pigmentation. Whether a conscious or subconscious act, a self-imposed prerequisite exists among some of us to marry a lighter-skinned person so as to perform what we Hispanics have come to call “la limpieza de sangre” (the washing of the blood). This phraseology indicated a metaphysical notion of blood being a vehicle toward lineage equality. For most of history, parents, concerned with the socioeconomic consequences of their “white” child marrying a person of darker complexion, argued in terms of “limpieza de sangre.” Pursuing racial purity, parents felt a marriage across racial barriers degraded the family’s reputation and contaminated the purity of blood.
Moses’ family found themselves in a similar awkward situation because Moses married a black woman. The Cushites were a black biblical ethnic group. Moses’ marriage upset his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, who later confronted him about it. They challenged him by saying: “Has God spoken only to Moses? Has he not spoken to us too?” All three of them then appeared before God, who surprisingly, was upset with Moses’ family. The Bible says that God was so mad that he inflicted Miriam with leprosy, turning her skin “white as snow.” God only relented after her brothers pleaded for mercy.
Because we read this story from a culture strongly affected by racism, we simply assume that Aaron and Miriam were upset because Moses married downward, that is, he married a black woman. We impose on the Bible our 21st-century bias. Yet a closer reading of the text reveals that it was not Moses who married downward.
We first need to ask which nation was superior in the region. The answer: the Egyptians, an African people. Blacks were the ones in position of power during Moses’ lifetime. Hence to marry a black person was to marry upward. The concern Aaron and Miriam had was that because Moses married upward, he might “put on airs.” This is why they ask if he thinks that God can only talk to him. This also explains why the text reassures the reader that “Moses was the most humble of men, the humblest man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). The irony of the story is how God punishes Miriam. He makes her white (Numbers 12:10).
So Moses marries a black woman. But why are we assuming Moses himself wasn’t black? Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us the color of Moses’ skin. Why do we assume it was white? After all, there were no Europeans in this area of the world at this time. The Cushite woman may have been marrying down not because of race, but because of the socio-economic position of Israel, a non-nation of people roaming through a desert.
All of us read the Bible subjectively. There is no such thing as an objective reading, only the power of one group to make their subjective reading objective for everyone else. We all read the Bible with the biases society has taught us. We do violence to the Word when we impose our prejudices upon the text. How else have we “colored” the Scriptures? What color does the Bible say was Adam and Eve? Saul, David and Solomon? The Prophets? Jesus? If the Bible does not tell us their color, why do we assume? And why are they depicted on church walls and books as being white Europeans?
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.