Moses’ Wife, the Queen of Sheba, and the Black Bride
There are all kinds of interpretations of the difficult text in Numbers 12. Origen’s is most compelling to me, as he ties it into his homily on the Song of Songs:
‘I am dark and beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Cedar, as the curtains of Solomon.’(1.5—Vg. 1.4)
In his book Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley opens his chapter on the Bible and black identity with this verse from the Song, as he goes on to demonstrate how black identity in Scripture, along with multiple ethnicities, show forth God’s promise to Abraham and his original purposes of cultural diversity as a manifestation of his glory. He surveys black identity in Scripture as fulfillment of this promise, tracing through Ephraim & Manasseh (Gen. 48:3-5), the multiethnic group who left Egypt during the exodus (Exod. 12:38), and the conversion of Africans such as Simon of Cyrene and his family (Matt. 27:32), and the Ethiopian eunuch ((Acts 8:26-40). And he concludes, “When the black Christian enters the community of faith, she is not entering a strange land. She is finding her way home.”
That reminded me of Origen’s homily. He comments on the daughters of Jerusalem bringing this charge to the Bride, calling her black, an outsider, “one who has not been enlightened by the patriarch’s teaching.” He speaks for her:
“Because of my dark colouring you may compare me to the tents of Cedar and the curtains of Solomon; but even Cedar was descended from Ismael, being born his second son, and Ismael was not without a share in the divine blessing. You liken me even to the curtains of Solomon, which are none other than the curtains of the tabernacle of God—indeed I am surprised, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you should want to reproach me with the blackness of my hue. Have you not come to forget what is written in your Law, as to what Mary [Mariam] suffered who spoke against Moses because he had taken a black Ethiopian to wife? How is it that you do not recognize the true fulfillment of that type in me? I am that Ethiopian.“
In expositing Numbers 12, Origen points out the interpretive difficulty of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint. The text says that they spoke against Moses over the Cushite woman he married, but what they said was “Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does he not speak also through us?” (Num. 12:2). What does this have to do with Moses’ Cushite wife? Origen thinks it has to do with what their positions represented typologically.
“…they understood the thing Moses had done more in the terms of the mystery; they saw Moses—that is, the spiritual Law—entering now into wedlock and union with the Church that is gathered together from among the Gentiles. This is the reason apparently, why Mary [Miriam], who typified the forsaken Synagogue, and Aaron, who stood for the priesthood according to the flesh, seeing their kingdom taken away from them and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof, say: Hath the Lord spoken to Moses only? Hath he not spoken also to us?”
Origen comments how despite all of Moses’ achievement, it is in the context of taking the Ethiopian wife in which God speaks most highly of him. This passage makes so much more sense when we consider the typology! Paul has done this himself, telling us to look at the allegorical representation of Sarah and Hagar and the two covenants (Gal. 4:21-31).
So does Jesus. Also in tracing the black bride, Origen points to the queen of Sheba, who “heard about Solomon’s fame connected with the name of the LORD and came to test him with riddles” (1 Kings 10:1). She comes with her entourage and all of her questions, and her breath is taken away by Solomon’s words and wisdom, and the pure joy that she sees among his people. “Blessed be the LORD your God! He delighted in you and put you on the throne of Israel, because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel” (v. 9). Describing the gifts she gave, Scripture tells us that “Never again did such a quantity of spices arrive as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon” (v. 10). And that, “King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba her every desire—whatever she asked—besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty” (v.13).
What does this have to do with Jesus? The typology. The queen of the south, as he calls her, is a type of the church who comes to Christ from out of the Gentiles. In rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for their lack of faith, he says, “The queen of the south will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and look—something greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). Origen comments:
This queen came, then, and, in fulfillment of her type, the Church comes also from the Gentiles to hear the wisdom of the true Solomon, and of the true Peace-Lover, Our Lord Jesus Christ. She too at first comes trying Him with riddles and with questions, which had seemed to her insoluble before; and He resolves all her perplexity…
She finds peace. That’s what the bride in the Song does: “So in his eyes I have become one who finds peace” (Song 8:10). The Song is laden with the images that we find in the account of the queen of the Sheba: delight, breath, spices, gold, precious stones, wood, love, desire. The Song invokes our own eschatological imaginations as we see desire fulfilled. She finds something greater than Solomon (8:11-12). She found her way home. Her Groom beckons her evangelical voice (8:13). And we join with this black and beautiful bride as she calls her King of Peace to the mountain of spices which her own body represents (Song 8:14).
“Ambassadors will come from Egypt; Cush will stretch out its hands to God.”Ps. 68:31
“And that ‘black one’ becomes beautiful, for all that the daughters of Jerusalem are unwilling that it should be so, and envy and revile her.”
Behold the glory of God manifested in his bride:
“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”Rev. 7:9
“I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.”Rev. 21:2