For the week ending 4 March 2017 / 6 Adar II 5777

Moses, King of Cush

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Don

Dear Rabbi,

I am curious as to whether Moses was in Africa after having fled Egypt on account of killing the Egyptian task-master when saving the Jew he was beating, and before having returned to Egypt in order to redeem the Jews. I have heard something to this effect, but it is so peculiar that I’d like clarification. Thanks.

Dear Don,

In Ramban’s commentary on the verse, “Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died” (Ex. 2:23), he asks why the verse mentions “many” days, where the word “many” seems superfluous. He answers by elucidating another verse, which is the one you refer to: “Pharaoh heard of (Moses’ slaying the evil task-master), and he sought to kill Moses; so Moses fled from before Pharaoh. He stayed in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well” (Ex. 2:15). Ramban writes that although it seems from this earlier verse (2:15) that the events of his flight and settling in Midian were sequitur, that can’t be so. Firstly, as a fugitive fleeing death he wouldn’t settle in one place. Secondly, if so, the verse should have said directly, “Moses fled to Midian”.

Rather, Ramban explains that the otherwise superfluous word “many” in the latter verse (2:23) reveals that Moses was actually in exile for many years after fleeing Egypt before eventually settling in Midian. He estimates that this period of exile was approximately sixty years, of which his stay in Midian, where he married Tzipora the daughter of Yitro, was only a small span of several years at the very end of this period, before returning to Egypt in order to redeem Israel. But Ramban gives no indication of where Moses was or what he did during that very long time of exile.

However, the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, 1:168; Sefer HaYashar, Parshat Shemot) portrays in amazing detail the fantastic events of Moses’ life during that absence, of which the following is a meager synopsis: Moses is 18 when he flees Egypt and arrives in Cush, which is ancient Ethiopia. There he wages war on behalf of King Kokinus who had been deceitfully ousted by the wicked Bilaam (former advisor to Pharaoh), who also bewitched the people and cunningly fortified the city. At the age of 27, after 9 years of fighting to restore the rightful king, Moses finally re-conquers the capital through ingenious means, but only after the king’s death. The grateful populace bestows wealth and favor upon Moses, elects him as their new king and confers upon him the widowed Queen Adoniya as his wife. However, because the queen asserts her idolatrous ways, Moses never consummates the marriage with her.

After Moses reigns for 40 years until the age of 67, the disgruntled, idolatrous queen beseeches the populace to dethrone Moses in favor of Munchan, her son from Kokinus. But due to their great love of Moses they are reluctant to do so, until Moses steps down. The people then send him off with great honor and gratitude, and from there he finally travels to Midian where he resides with Yitro for 10 years before marrying Yitro’s daughter Tzipora at the age of 77. G-d then appears to him in the Burning Bush and commands him to return to Egypt in order to redeem the Jewish People, which he does at the age of 80, together with Aaron who was 83 (Ex. 7:7). Accordingly, these events occurred to Moses from the age of 18 to 80, which was a period of 62 years.

Interestingly, the Jewish historian Josephus also relates these general events, but with significant differences. (Of course, as an alienated Jewish historian in hire of the Romans, Josephus is only partially reliable, and authentic Jewish sources take precedence, but his account is worth noting in that it concurs with the basic description of Moses as King of Cush.) According to Josephus (Antiq. 2:10:2), Moses’ military campaign in Ethiopia occurs while he is still a royal prince of Egypt, before he returns and re-discovers his oppressed Jewish brethren. Another difference is that in Josephus’ account it is the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians, Tharbis, whom Moses marries in return for her aid in conquering the city. It is possible that even in Josephus’ version, Moses does not consummate the marriage, since according to the conclusion of the Tharbis legend, Moses fashioned a miraculous ring which caused Tharbis to forget her love for him, and he then returned to Egypt alone (Raleigh, Sir Walter. The History of the World: Section IV, ‘Of Moses Flying out of Egypt’, 1829 edition). There he later slew the Egyptian, fled to Midian, married Tzipora the daughter of Yitro and again returned to Egypt by the word of G-d to liberate the Jewish People.

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