The Ethiopian Princess
The Rabbis say that we Karaites don't have the oral traditions to sustain ourselves through the changes of society and civilization. I've always had difficulty accepting that comment considering that we are still here almost 1300 years after our establishment as a distinct entity. True, we never bothered to incorporate what Rabbinical Judaism called the "oral" or unwritten laws into our faith, primarily because when God told Moses to assemble 70 judges to write the laws down, he presented them as complete and immutable, so anything referred to as the "oral laws" were not from God but the interpretations of men. Men who would bend the laws to suit their own purpose. So the accusation that we are lacking the oral laws is most definitely true but I can assure you that we are certainly not lacking our oral traditions, legends and history. This we have meticulously preserved for countless centuries. The story I'm about to present is one of these. It is an ancient tale, that even though Rabbinical Judaism is aware of it, they have strived to make it vanish because in many ways it is contrary to what they wish their followers to believe. It is about a very beautiful princess that followed her husband along the Exodus from Egypt to the land of Canaan. For the most part she has been obliterated from the Five Books of Moses except for the rare reference but there were other books and these existed outside the control of the Rabbis and they have survied. And together they tell a story that is well worth reading.
Felasha Jews from Ethiopia
Over the years I have had the pleasure of rabbinical detractors saying to me, "Where's your proof?" Their implication being that the stories and tales that I either blog about or write in my series of novels known as the Kahana Chronicles are the fabrication of a very fertile mind. Even though you will notice that many of the hubs that I produce on this site have pictures of the books and pages that I cite my material from, they still find it difficult to accept that the world is not as they have grown up to believe but that history is filled with many paradoxes and editors that have been quite brutal in removing what they did not find suitable to their own tastes. Probably the greatest of the editors was Ezra the Scribe because he was arrogant enough to edit the Torah to suit a political agenda. Now that's a comment that might even offend my Karaite brethren because as you know, we built our entire faith on the Tanakh and to now have its authenticity questioned is paramount to being blasphemous. Let me qualify my statement by saying that he only dared to make minute changes to suit his agenda and that these changes suited more the Pharasaic movement that developed two centuries later than it did the Saddukim upon which we base much of our belief structure. Returning from exile in Persia, Ezra and the aristocrats that accompanied him wished to exert control over a population that for roughly two generations had continued in their absence to live and thrive in Israel and Judea. And as we know from our own past couple of centuries the best way to control a population is at first to divide it so that various factions are set one against the other. The unification that follows is stronger because the dominant faction has removed the dissenters and those politically opposed to the new order. It was no different back then. The population that had never been exiled to Babylon, the poor and lower class Judeans, the Samaritans, the native Canaanites, Edomites and other mixed races would never fully be unified with a re-emergent Judean state. It would take years, perhaps generations before they would be fully integrated and in the process Ezra feared they would dilute the Judaism that he wished to reinstitute; A Judaism that had been "purified" by the rivers of Babylon and coincidentally where he had asserted himself as the Kohen Gadol or the Chief High Priest.
And herein lies the great division of Rabbinates and Karaites. In order to remove the element of society that he feared in his mind would be the greatest proponent of moral and religious decay he forbade anyone that had taken a foreign bride to belong to the Jewish community. Inheritance of faith had become maternal to the exclusion of paternal lineage by the reading of a single edict. But who's edict was it? God's? Certainly not. It was Ezra's and the Pharasiac party that followed and the Rabbinical parties that followed that. As strange as it seems Ezra as a Kohen, a distant relative of my own blood actually passed an edict that ultimately fragmented Judaism centuries later and turned it away from its primary goal, to be a light unto the world encouraging others to seek that light and convert them to what was the only monotheistic religion at that time. And his decision most certainly had a political overtone that outweighed its religious motivation. There already was a ruling class left behind in Judea and Samaria. They were the House of Sanballet and the Tobiads. Families that had a historic right to claim leadership of the land. And there was a priesthood as well; the descendants of Mehsullam who were also legitimate Kohenim from the 24 families chosen by King David. But there was one element this pre-existant leadership all had in common; according to Ezra Chapter 9 they had all taken wives from the various people that inhabited the land who were not Jewish. Coincidentally it was the princes that had returned to Jerusalem with Ezra that lodged the initial complaint. What better way to eliminate the ruling class that had remained behind. As we know from Ezra Chapter 7:26, Ezra had been given ultimate power by the King of Persia. He had been given the authority to put any man that wouldn't follow his edicts to death or banishment or the confiscation of his property or imprisonment. A lot of power that could be abused. And as we see in Chapter 10 he sent out a message through the land that everyone had three days to gather in Jerusalem which would be the 20th day of the 9th month and whomever didn't show up was no longer part of the Jewish community and all his substance was forfeited. Imagine losing your home, your possessions, your business because you didn't come when summoned by a group of men that haven't been around for 70 years and now say that they're in charge. And to those that showed up in Jerusalem they were told that they had to divorce themselves from their foreign wives and any children of those wives if they wished to keep their status and property. It would appear that many did so, as harsh and as cruel as this edict was.
And so was born the law of inheritance that separates Karaites from Rabbinical Jews. But was the edict by Ezra a true rendering of the laws from the Torah? Was this God's ruling or as I have mentioned a political device utilized by a returning elite to gain dominance over the land and the people? Certainly not according to Numbers 12:1 a single line that has sent Rabbis and many Christian leaders scrambling in their attempts to try and explain in a hundred other ways than accept it as a clear statement that the foreigness of a wife or the colour of her skin is not the determinant of one's being Jewish but it is the faith of the father that does so.
How much clearer can God be about the paternal inheritance of Judaism? From the Torah, this particular sentence expresses the challenge made by Aaron and Miriam to not only usurp Moses's authority but to force him, exactly as Ezra did, to divorce his wife and send her away or face being banished from the Jewish congregation. Well, God wasn't going to have a bar of it and made it perfectly clear that women were not the determining factor when he punished Miriam for raising the challenge against Moses but spared Aaron the embarassment of being punished as well.
Now I have watched and read over the years how many rabbinical authorities and Christian authorities have attempted to explain this line in Numbers as not being literal. That the wife referred to was Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the Midianite and all that Aaron and Miriam were saying was that she was not one of the escaping slaves and therefore her thinking was as if she was "foreign" to them. Why that should even be an issue is beyond anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Then these same scholars attempt to explain another possibility by saying it was an issue of jealousy. That they wanted Moses to send her away because she had a greater influence on him than they did. The one that had the influence was her father Jethro, a priest, a chieftain and who Moses placed above all others. It wouldn't be a case of sending Zipporah away but several thousand Midianites and that wasn't going to happen. And just to set the record straight, the Midianites were Semites as we learn from Genesis, so any argument of foreigness is entirely fabricated since the Hebrew slaves were nothing but a large number of Semites from various tribal backgrounds and Zipporah was no different from any of them.
Once you've gone through all these arguments with a rabbinical student, they're willing to take the argument to the next level. A battle of semantics. The wife in Numbers 12:1 is described as a Cushite. Cush is the Semitic name for Ethiopia. But you will find this student is willing to argue that a Cushite is actually someone from Cushan. And Cushan was another name for the land where the Midianites came from in the Sinai peninsula. And they will smile and think they have you until you remind the that everywhere else in the Torah a person from Midian is referred to as a Midianite. Why would there be an exception for this one sentence.? And then you will say, but even if it was so, wouldn't someone from Cushan be a Cushanite, not a Cushite? And I always love this answer because it's one of desperation. You will hear about how one of the scribal editors that was copying the Torah made an error and wrote Cushite by accident and the mistake was carried on from every copying afterwards until the original versions wer lost through time. That would imply that there never was more than one copy being made througout all the land or that if there were multiple copies being made, then this one scribe was responsible for making all of them so that the same error appeared in all of them. We know that's not the case, that there were schools of scribes copying the Torah and all of them would have made the same error which never got picked up by any of the proofreaders throughout an entire country. I think not!
But to finish the argument the fact is that Cushan has a vuv as its second letter in the Hebrew spelling. Cush doesn't. And in the sentence of Numbers 12:1 there is no vuv as the second letter in Cushite. This woman was Ethiopian and she was very important to Moses. We don't know a lot about her from the Torah, but then again, his wife Zipporah didn't receive much press either after her marriage to Moses. We here about her joining Moses with his two sons in the desert once the exodus began and that's it. As a nation of oral traditionalists, it would be very unusual that there weren't stories about this Ethiopian wife, that wasn't Semitic, and whom God went out of his way to protect by warning both Aaron and Miriam that they were not to ever attempt to banish her from the community.
Moses's Beautiful Black Wife
Of course there are historical writing that allude to this Ethiopian Princess. And as a Karaite, it is vitally important that I can point to her existence as evidence of the correctness of paternal inheritance. If the most illustrious of our prophets, our law giver, our father of the nation can take a wife from foreign lands and in no way this diminishes his stature as a member of the congregation then it essentially confirms this basic tenant of Karaism. That is not to say that there aren't restrictions on marriage. There are and most of these apply to the Kohenim, the high priesthood, as in to which offspring would be eligible for holding the position based on the mother's background but it is not a case of whether the offspring would be Jewish or not.
The first of these historical treatises was by Artapanus in the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C. Of course depending on the age of the original versions of Yasher Shemot and Yalkut, the legend may have already been written down when Artapunus decided to release his own version. And it was Artapanus's version that played a major source for Flavius Josephus's version released in Antiquities of the Jews (Ant. II.x.2) around 91 A.D. But Josephus had other sources he used as well which would only indicate than in spite of Ezra's reformation, several hundred years later the people were still saying that it wasn't the case in Moses's day.
Artapanus provides us with a wonderful story of how Moses, as a young prince of Egypt was sent by his stepfather (who was not the Pharaoh but his master of the horse) Chenephres with an army to invade Ethiopia. It was designed as a suicide mission since his stepfather was jealous of his stepson's popularity. But apparently Moses had some unanticipated military talents and after battling for years he was able to conquer Ethiopia. Moses returned to Egypt where he was welcomed by Chenephres but still being jealous of him, Chenephres removed Moses's army and sent them back to Ethiopia under the governorship of Nacheros, thereby stripping Moses of his authority and protection. He then ordered Chanethothes to assassinate Moses who tried to flee but was foiled when Chanenthothes learned of his attempted escape. The two men fought and Moses killed his enemy which then leads to the story in the Torah of how he had to flee into the desert where he encountered Zipporah and her sisters. Artapanus doesn't mention an Ethiopian Princess but he does suggest that Moses spent up to nine years in Ethiopia and the Queen of Sheba when she visits Solomon provides an indication that she was a descendant of Moses. A lot can happen in nine years.
The story by Flavius Josephus definitely has similarities to that by Artapanus but in Josephus's version, he is sent by his adopted mother Thermutis to Pharoah to receive the honour of generalship over the army being sent against Ethiopia. He apparently catches the Ethiopians by surprise as they were thinking he would attack by floating down the Nile but instead Moses took an overland route. Moses took city after city, chasing the Ethiopians back into their capital city Saba (Sheba). Saba was surrounded by the Nile and other rivers and had a great wall around it. The battle raged outside the walls but Moses could not press the advantage. The daughter of the Ethiopian king would watch the battle from the walls and overtime fell in love with Moses as she watched him do battle. It was then that Tharbis thought of a way to end the battle, save the city and stop the slaughter. She sent out her servant with a message to Moses. If he would agree to marry her then the city would surrender and pay tribute to the Egyptians. Moses accepted and consummated his marriage to Tharbis before returning with his bride and army to Egypt. Upon his return Pharaoh feared the success and popularity that Moses enjoyed and began worrying that he would become a threat to his throne. Moses became aware of Pharaoh's plot to have him killed and he flees into the desert.
There is a very similar story to that of Josephus written by Lucius Cornelius Alexander Polyhistor who was given his freedom by Sulla which therefore places him in the early 1st century B.C. The fact that a slave in Rome would be writing of this story makes you appreciate just how popular and well circulated it was, even though there are no old rabbinic sources that either mention Moses conducting wars against the Ethiopians nor his marriage to the Ethiopian princess. One can only assume that this oversight by rabbinical authors was intentional. Either they did not want it well known that Moses had taken a foreign wife, and this was acceptable to God which undermines the entire rabbinical premise of inheritance of faith through maternal lines only, or else they were embarrassed by the fact she was black and therefore contrary to the concept of the children of Ham, she was neither cursed nor considered unworthy.
On the other hand, as a Karaite I look at it from the perspective of how wonderful that God has sent a clear message regarding the law of inheritance and who can be a Jew. It is not restricted by sex or colour or even point of origin. It only requires faith and adherence to the original scriptures.
More by this Author
The fundamental rule to be remembered in the Sabbath observance is from the words of Ezekiel 20:12, “I gave them my Sabbath to be a sign between Me and them that they may know that I, Yahweh, sanctify them.”...
Bet you never thought you’d hear myself as a Karaite use the adjective essential in describing the Talmud. But I don’t do so in praise of the Talmud but only in recognition that even for Karaites it was an...
The fact is that God has already told us through the Torah and the Tanakh what He thinks of Kabbalah and those that profess alternative beliefs or belief structures to those he ordained to Moses and Aaron. Not a single...