Women of the Bible – Zipporah

We have seen last month how several courageous women, each of them risking their lives in various ways, saved the baby Moses. But as a young man, despite being a prince by virtue of being adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses had to flee Egypt after killing a taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave. When we pick up the story, Moses is a much older man who has made his home in Midian, in the Arabian Peninsula, married a Midianite woman named Zipporah, and has been content to live there quietly for many years, far away from any Israelites and from any Egyptians. But God has big plans for Moses: he is called to return to Egypt to deliver the Hebrews from slavery. Understandably, Moses is far from enthusiastic about such a daunting task. With great reluctance, he finally agrees to go, knowing at least he has nothing to fear from his former enemies: “Yahweh said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return into Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.” (Ex: 4:19). Moses sets out therefore with Zipporah and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.

It is during the trip that a very strange incident happens, so strange in fact that according to Jonathan Kirsch[1], “for mystery, mayhem and sheer baffling weirdness, nothing else in the Bible quite compares with the story of Zipporah.” That might be a slight exaggeration as there are plenty of weird stories in the Bible, but the story of Zipporah is certainly up there! This is how the text describes the “incident”: “On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So, He let him alone. At that time, she said blood-bridegroom in reference to circumcision.” (Ex. 4: 24-26)

The first obvious question which comes to mind is why would God want to kill Moses? Not simply to punish him but to kill him. Why is God so angry? Let’s not forget that He has spent a lot of time patiently countering Moses’s successive excuses which aimed to avoid having to go to Egypt: “What if they don’t listen to me?”, “I am not eloquent”, “Please send someone else” etc… There is no doubt that God wanted Moses and no one else for that task, so why kill him now when he is on the way to fulfil his mission? We are not told whether God appeared in some physical form or as a voice but clearly Moses is paralysed with fear as he does not act or say anything to defend himself or his family. It is Zipporah’s presence of mind that saves the day as she alone discerns what God wants and circumcises her son right away with a flint knife…

This is indeed even stranger that God’s anger. How come Zipporah knows what God wants more than Moses? Moreover, why is it that Moses did not have his sons circumcised in the first place, an essential sign of the covenant? Both Gershom and Eliezer should have been circumcised on the eight day after their birth. Some commentators[2] explain that “oversight” by the fact that Moses having been raised as an Egyptian, did not identify with the Israelites’ religious practices. Another explanation might be that Zipporah, not herself an Israelite, had refused to allow it.

But as extreme dangers demand extreme measures, the “gutsy Zipporah” as Lynn Japinga describes her, shows what she is made of and “with nerves of steel performs emergency surgery on her son without losing her lunch”[3]…!!! Nothing is said however of the reaction of the poor son (whose age we don’t know) and please note, only one son, not the other.

The weirdness of the episode continues after that, though as Zipporah takes the foreskin and touched “his” feet. Whose feet? Moses’s or her son’s? The Hebrew is ambiguous and can design either, but whoever it was, why does Zipporah do this? As the Hebrew word for feet is often in the bible a euphemism for genitals, most commentators have suggested that she touched Moses’ genitals with the son’s foreskin which would symbolically mean that Moses is being circumcised by her too. So here we have yet another woman saving the day for Moses: Zipporah having served as a mediator between Moses and God, God’s mysterious anger abates.

The last strange element is what Zipporah says at the end: “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” What does that mean? Several scholars have suggested that it might be the conclusion of a magic sacrificial rite that Zipporah performed as a high priestess of some ancient religion like her father Jethro, described as a “high priest”. Trevor Dennis thinks that such a scenario is entirely plausible: “Despite its apparent spontaneity”, he writes, “Zipporah’s act is clearly of a ritual kind, in particular the fact that it seems to conform to established rules such as using a flint knife with the emphasis on the shedding of blood which appears to have been understood as a type of sacrifice.[4]” “If this is the case”, writes Dora O’Donnell Steel, “this text is unique not only within a biblical framework but within the context of the ancient Near East as there is no other evidence that women performed acts of blood sacrifice[5]

This enigmatic episode raises as we have seen, a lot of unanswered questions but what is certain is that Zipporah averts a great danger: without her resourcefulness, her calm and of course her steady hand in performing a delicate operation on her son, Moses would have been killed. I will therefore let Trevor Dennis conclude this short study[6]: “Zipporah has emerged from this tiny, obscure passage as possibly one of the most significant women in the Bible and yet she is virtually forgotten and written out of the story of Moses when she makes her third and final appearance in the narrative in Exodus 18[7]

We might deplore this, but we should not be surprised that in a book like the Bible, which was most probably entirely written by men living in a deeply patriarchal society, women who became heroines were never – or extremely rarely – recognised as such, whatever they did, contrary to their male counterparts. It is a modern and very welcome development that so many commentators have now endeavoured to reclaim the various roles and the great importance of women in the biblical text.

[1] Jonathan Kirsch, The Harlot by the Side of the Road, (London, Rider, 1997)
[2] Lynn Japinga, Preaching the Women of the Old Testament, (WJK, Louisville, Kentucky, 2017)
[3] Lynn Japinga. Preaching …
[4] Trevor Dennis, Sarah Laughed: Women’s Voices in the Old Testament, (SPCK, London, 1994)
[5] Drorah O’Donnell Steel, Exodus in The Women’s Bible Commentary, (SPCK, London, 1992)
[6] Trevor Dennis, Sarah Laughed …
[7] Trevor Dennis, Sarah laughed …