Ethiopians: Artapanos and Josephos on Moses, intermarriage, and the Kushites (second century BCE-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethiopians: Artapanos and Josephos on Moses, intermarriage, and the Kushites (second century BCE-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2023,

Ancient authors: Numbers 12:1-2; Artapanos, On Judeans (in the decades after 186 BCE), fragment 3, as cited by Alexander Polyhistor (first century BCE) who was cited by Eusebios (early fourth century CE), Preparation for the Gospel 9.27.1-37 (link; link to Greek); Josephos (late first century CE), Judean Antiquities 2.238–253 (link); Anonymous (ninth century CE), Old Testament History / Palaia Historika 70 (link to Greek).

Comments: Stories that circulated among Greeks and others regarding the “Ethiopians” or “burnt-faced” people (also known as “Kushites,” which may or may not relate to a self-designation) were wide-ranging, from idealizing portraits about an exceptional people that was close to the gods (e.g. Herodotos on the long-living and most beautiful Ethiopians [link]), to very derogatory characterizations of an uncivilized people, especially in connection with the so-called Troglodytes and others (link). But one of the more prevalent and recurring themes about Ethiopians south of Egypt was how difficult it would be to conquer them. This is why, for example, Herodotos’ tales about the Egyptian pharaoh Sesostris (Senwosret) make special mention of him being the first to conquer Ethiopians among his other ostensibly amazing feats that few others would ever surpass (link).

Judean attempts to claim special contributions by Hebrew, Israelite or Judean figures was part of the competition among peoples in the ancient context, as we have already seen with Artapanos’ retelling of the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses (link), a portion of which reappears below with other materials. In fact, some retellings of Moses’ story quite clearly present Moses as a Sesostris-like figure, thereby claiming for Judeans some of the more important conquests and contributions to civilization. This is a context in which to understand at least some elements in the stories that circulated regarding Moses’ leadership in a successful invasion against the seemingly undefeatable Ethiopians. Artapanos’ retelling (which may well be based on orally circulating material) focusses on the pharaoh’s attempt to have Moses killed. Josephos’ retelling is more concerned with the great accomplishments of Moses in leading the armies against the Ethiopians. Moses appears as a hero not only for Hebrews and some Egyptians, but even for some (or at least one) among the Ethiopians. The tale serves to explain the biblical passage regarding Moses having a Kushite or Ethiopian wife.

In this way an intermarriage between a Hebrew and a Kushite in a biblical story could be transformed into a larger tale of relations between peoples, with ancestors of the Judeans coming out on top, not only over Ethiopians but also over Egyptians. Overall, this material gives us a picture of Judeans – including the non-elite Judeans who may have passed along similar stories orally – attempting to place themselves within the broader field of relations and competition among well-known or legendary peoples in the ancient Mediterannean.

The much later (ninth century) anonymous “Old Testament History” (Palaia Historika) once again draws on similar legends about Moses, but has Moses struggling against “Indians” (as “Ethiopians” and “Indians” were often interchangeable or mixed up as far-off southeastern peoples, from an outsiders’ perspective). Here there is no marriage.

You can read more about Sesostris and Moses legends within ethnic relations in Harland’s articles:

  • “Ethnic Relations and Circulating Legends in the Villages of Egypt” (link)
  • “Subject Peoples and Civilizational Priority” (link).

Source of the translations: E.H. Gifford, Eusebius: Preparation for the Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1903), public domain, was used as the base for a new translation by Harland, based the critical edition of the Greek by Karl Mras, Eusebius: Die Praeparatio evangelica, 2 vols. (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1954); H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackeray passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland. Palaea Historica excerpt from W. Adler, “Palaea Historica (“The Old Testament History”),” in eds. R. Bauckham, Richard, J.R. Davila, and A. Panayotov, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 628, with minor adaptations by Harland.


Numbers 12:1-2

[Mention of Moses’ Kushite / Ethiopian wife in the context of complaints in the desert]

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite [Ethiopian / Aithiopissēs in the Greek LXX] woman that he had married, for he had married a Kushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord in fact only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” And the Lord heard it. . . [omitted Lord’s intervention with some anger against Miriam and Aaron].


Artapanos, On Judeans (some time in the decades after 186 BCE)

[Account of pharaoh Chenephres’ attempt to have Moses killed by attacking Ethiopians]

But when Chenephres noticed the excellence of Moses, he envied him and found a way to kill him on some plausible pretext. So when the Ethiopians invaded Egypt, Chenephres thought that he had found a convenient opportunity, and he sent Moses out as a general of an army against the Ethiopians. But Chenephres put together a force of farmers, anticipating that he would be easily killed by the enemy due to the weakness of his troops.

But Moses along with a hundred thousand of the farmers came to the so-called district of Hermopolis and camped there. Moses sent generals to pre-occupy the country, and they gained remarkable successes in their battles. Artapanos adds that the people of Heliopolis say that this war went on for ten years. So Moses, because of the greatness of his army, built a city in this place in which he consecrated the ibis, because this bird kills the animals that are poisonous to humans. Moses called it Hermes’ city. Though they were enemies, the Ethiopians loved Moses so much that they even learned from him the custom of circumcision. Not only them, but the [Egyptian] priests as well.

When the war ended, Chenephres pretended to welcome Moses while in reality he was continuing to plot against him. So Chenephres took Moses’ troops from him, and sent some to the frontiers of Ethiopia for an advanced guard. . . [omitted remainder of the narrative about Moses].


Josephos, Judean Antiquities (ca. 90s CE)

[Ethiopian invasions of Egypt]

(2.238–253) So Moses was born and brought up in the way already described. When he grew up, he gave the Egyptians clear proof of his merits and that he was born to humiliate Egyptians and to make advancements for the Hebrews. This is the opportunity he seized: The Ethiopians, who are neighbours of the Egyptians, invaded their territory and pillaged their possessions. The Egyptians in indignation made a campaign against them to avenge the insult. After being beaten in battle, some Egyptians died and the rest escaped to their own land in dishonour by fleeing. But the Ethiopians pursued them closely and, considering it a sign of weakness not to subdue all of Egypt, they attacked the entire country. After having a taste of Egypt’s riches, the Ethiopians refused to relinquish their hold. Since the neighbouring districts faced with their first incursions did not dare to oppose them, the Ethiopians advanced as far as Memphis and to the sea, with none of the cities being able to withstand them.

[Egyptians seek an answer of what to do]

Oppressed by this disaster, the Egyptians turned to oracles and divinations. When counsel came to them from god to take Hebrews as allies, the king commanded his daughter to put forward Moses to serve as his general. After her father had sworn to do Moses no harm, the daughter surrendered Moses, thinking that great benefit would come from such an alliance. At the same time she also disapproved of the untrustworthy priests who, after having spoken of putting Moses to death as an enemy, were now not ashamed to desire his assistance.

[Moses’ wisdom in leading the attack against Ethiopians]

Called in by both Thermouthis [the king’s daughter, who raised Moses] and the king [identified with a Chenephres in Artapanos’ version], Moses gladly accepted the task, to the delight of the sacred scribes of both peoples (ethnē). For the Egyptians hoped through Moses’ military courage to defeat their foes and at the same time to destroy Moses by trickery, while some of the Hebrews foresaw the possibility of escape from the Egyptians with Moses as their general. In order to surprise the enemy before the Ethiopians had even learned of his approach, Moses at that point assembled and marched off with his army, taking the route not by way of the river but through the interior.

Moses gave a wonderful proof of his wisdom in the interior. For the route is rendered difficult for a march because of the many snakes which the region produces in abundant varieties, so much so that some are not found anywhere else and breed here only. They are remarkable for their power, their harmfulness, and their strange characteristics. Among these snakes are some which are actually winged, so that they can attack one from their hiding-place in the ground or inflict unexpected injury by rising into the air. So Moses devised an amazing stratagy in order to provide security and an safe passage for his troops: he had baskets, resembling chests, made of the bark of papyrus, and took these with him full of ibises [native birds]. Now this animal is the snakes’ deadliest enemy: snakes flee before the ibises’ attack and, in taking off, are caught, just as they are by stags, and swallowed up. The ibis is otherwise a tame creature and ferocious only to snakes. However, I refrain from further words on this subject, for Greeks are relatively acquainted with the nature of the ibis. When, therefore, he entered the infested region, he by means of these birds beat off the vermin, letting them loose upon them and using these auxiliaries to clear the ground.

[Moses’ success against Ethiopians]

After accomplishing the march like this, Moses encountered the Ethiopians without them expecting anything, engaged in battle with them, and defeated them. This crushed their cherished hopes of controlling the Egyptians. He then proceeded to attack and overthrow their cities, and great carnage ensued for the Ethiopians. After having a taste of this success which Moses had brought them, the Egyptian army showed such unending energy that the Ethiopians were menaced with servitude and complete obliteration.

[Siege of Saba / Meroe, capital of the Ethiopians]

In the end they were all driven into Saba, the capital of the Ethiopian [or, Kushite] realm, which Cambyses later called Meroe [near modern Shendi, Sudan] after the name of his sister, and they were besieged there. But the place offered extreme obstacles to a besieging force because the Nile enclosed it in a circle and other rivers, the Astapos [i.e. Blue Nile] and the Astabaras, added to the difficulty of the attack for any who attempted to cross the current. The city which lies within in fact resembles an island. There are strong walls encompassing it and it has rivers as a bulwark against its enemies, along with large flood barriers within the ramparts to protect it from inundation when the force of the swollen streams is unusually violent. It is these which made the capture of the town so difficult even to those who had crossed the rivers. So Moses was annoyed at his army’s lack of progress because the Ethiopians would not engage them.

[Tharbis the Ethiopian king’s daughter and marriage with Moses]

Then Moses met with the following adventure: Tharbis, the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians, was watching Moses bringing his troops close beneath the ramparts and fighting valiantly. She was amazed at the ingenuity of his maneuvres. She understood that it was to Moses that the Egyptians – who only now despaired for their independence – owed all their success and that, through him, the Ethiopians were reduced to the last straits despite the Ethiopians being boastful about their feats against them. So Tharbis fell madly in love with Moses. Under the control of this passion, she sent to him the most trusted of her servants to make him an offer of marriage. Moses accepted the proposal on condition that she would surrender the town. He pledged himself by oath to certainly take her as a wife and, once master of the town, not to violate the pact, at which point action overcame opposition. After chastisement of the Ethiopians, Moses rendered thanks to God, celebrated the marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land.

However, although saved in this way by Moses, the Egyptians conceived from their very deliverance a hatred for him and planned to pursue with greater enthusiasm their plots against his life. They were suspecting that he would take advantage of his success to revolutionize Egypt, and they suggested to the king that he should be put to death. . . [omitted remainder of Moses’ story].


Old Testament History (ninth century CE)

(70) [p. 228 of the manuscript] When Moses reached manhood, Moses performed many acts of valour for the pharaoh. The Indian ocean bordered Egypt, and the Egyptians endured many sea battles with the Indians. When pharaoh ordered him to go into battle against the Indians, Moses wisely decided to fight them on land. But because of the huge number of snakes on the land, they were completely incapable of crossing overland to India. So Moses issued an order, and they brought him around three thousand storks. After bringing the men to a halt, he instructed them to march as a unit. And the storks walked around in front of the camp for a day’s journey, devouring the snakes. In this way, Moses passed across the Egyptian border.

Now the Indians feared the Egyptians coming by sea. However, since they had the snakes as a barrier, they were not afraid of the Egyptians coming over land. So Moses attacked them unexpectedly and, after crossing over the border, plundered all their cities. He captured the entire country of the Indians, despoiled their cities and brought victory to the Egyptians, of a kind that the king of Egypt had never before had. [p. 229] India, however, had never experienced so much plundering. Moses returned with a great victory, bringing an enormous quantity of spoils to the king of the Egyptians. And Moses was treated fondly by the pharaoh and his grandees.

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