Zipporah is My Hero

Image: A flint knife from Egypt, c.1000 BCE. This historical image held by Wellcome Images is available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.

Parashat Shemot has a curious little story in it, one of the most mysterious passages in the Torah.

Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Yitro, the priest of Midian. There is no mention of any conversion to Judaism. This gives us two alternatives:

  1. It wasn’t mentioned because she never converted.
  2. It wasn’t mentioned because of course she converted.

Traditional interpretations tend to go with #2. However, I am not so sure. Was the marriage of Moses and Zipporah an intermarriage? We have stories in midrash about how Yitro eventually converted to the religion of the Hebrews, but I am not aware of any such midrashim concerning Zipporah.

The story in Exodus 4:24-26:

So it happened on the way, at the lodging-place, that God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ So he let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’

It looks like a fragment of a story, sandwiched in between God’s instructions to Moses and the little family’s arrival in Egypt. The pronouns make it particularly confusing, and I left them as written, because I thought you might enjoy puzzling over them.

To my eyes, it looks like Moses neglected to give Gershom a bris [ritual circumcision.] God was unhappy about this, so unhappy that He suddenly announced he was going to kill Moses. Zipporah stepped in and performed the bris, throwing the foreskin at Moses’ (?) feet. Then she said something very weird, and God left them alone. Zipporah, realizing that she’d said something weird, tried to clarify it.

All that’s really clear here is that Zipporah is the heroine of the tale, and Gershom was finally circumcised.

When I attend a bris for a family in which the mother is not Jewish, or the mother is a convert to Judaism, I like to tell her about Zipporah. We would not have made it out of Egypt had she not seized that piece of flint! And whether she was a convert to Judaism or not, she saved the whole nation of Israel.

Rabbi David Kasher has a fascinating take on this story, and did a better job of searching the midrashim. You can read his article on Parsha Nut.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

8 thoughts on “Zipporah is My Hero”

  1. the other thing that is really clear is there wouldve been hella words from Zipporah to Moses after that. a little chat as I like to say. I chose my hebrew name after her…


  2. An analysis from The Naked Bible shows the difficulty in understanding this brief story:

    21 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ” Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’ If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’.”

    24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

    The apparent incoherence of the placement and the meaning of verses 24-26 extends from the fact that it makes little sense for God to want to kill Moses right after He has called him to return to Egypt as the chosen delivered of Israel.

    In addition to this theological conundrum, the passage lacks clarity because the referent of certain verbs and pronouns is ambiguous, and certain expressions used in the passage have unclear meanings.

    Two points of uncertainty are especially important.

    First, who is it that the LORD wanted to put to death? Most readers assume it is Moses since he is mentioned in the preceding verses, but verse 24 does not name him. Since it is Moses’ son (Gershom; Exod 2:22) whose foreskin is removed in verse 24, he could very well be the person under threat of death.

    Second, what does it mean that Zipporah, Moses’ wife (Exod 2:21), would touch the foreskin of her son to Moses’ “feet”?

    Two additional factors make this question even more troublesome. The name “Moses” does not appear in the Hebrew text, which literally reads “touched his feet.” A translation that includes “Moses” is therefore interpretive. Consequently, Zipporah could have taken the foreskin and touched either Moses or Gershom.

    One also has to determine what is meant by “feet” since the word can refer to feet, legs, or genitals according to Old Testament usage (see f. Judg. 3:24; 1 Sam 24:3; 2 Kings 18:27 = Isa. 36:12; 7:20; cf. Deut 28:57; Ezek 16:25; Ruth 3:4, 7).

    Gaining clarity on all these issues is crucial to a coherent interpretation.


  3. This seems like a great article!

    By Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen (United Kingdom, Modern Orthodox)

    Published in Jewish Bible Quarterly (JBQ) Vol. 33, No. 2, 2005

    Jeffrey M. Cohen is rabbi of the Stanmore Synagogue in London, and a frequent contributor to JBQ. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which are 1001 Questions and Answers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (1997), Issues of the Day (1999), and Let My People Go: Insights into Pesach and the Haggadah (2002).



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