Moses and his African wife

Jacob Jordaens, Moses and his Ethiopian Wife, c.1650
Oil on Canvas, Rubenshuis, Antwerp

In early versions of the Old Testament, there is a passage which describes Moses introducing his Moorish or Ethiopian wife to his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron. Miriam and Aaron do not accept Moses’s black bride and are punished for that by God. In this film clip, Art historian Elizabeth McGrath describes how Jordaens painting refers to this Biblical passage.

Moses wife is known in the Bible as Zipporah. Shes usually portrayed as a European woman, but in early Christian sources Moses had another wife, an Ethiopian. Moses bigamy didnt suit the church. In later translations of the Bible, Moses two wives were merged into one: Zipporah. The black wife disappeared into the background. Jordaens was a Calvinist and an avid reader. He was most likely aware of the early Christian story about the second Ethiopian wife.

(Text adapted from Black is Beautiful exhibition information)


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1 comment

  1. RALPH JOSEPH-MIRANI March 29, 2011 at 12:27 am -

    Moses married a Nubian princess named Barthis (or Barthees) after a military campaign at Kerma, where she watched the battle from the wall and fell in love with him. He must have been only 18 or 20 years old at the time, and she was probably 15 or 17. She would therefore have preceded Zipporah, whom he met only after he fled to Midian at the age of 40. It seems unlikely that as an Egyptian prince, Moses would have remained unmarried till about the age of 40. Zipporah seems to have been his second wife, which was quite legitimate for the Hebrews. (King David too had several wives and concubines. The concept of monogamy only emerged with Christianity). No further mention is made of the Nubian wife, and the sudden problem about his “Ethiopian” wife only erupts after the Israelis have crossed the Red Sea into Midian. Christians who are uncomfortable about Moses having more than one wife seem to forget that the Old Testament is about Judaism, not Christianity. Though closely related, they are not the same religion.

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