Zipporah: Saving Moses from a murderous God

Throughout history, especially on dark nights, women have protected and nurtured their own: nursing, loving, comforting, or fighting off intruders. Deep in the pages of Exodus, a mysterious story picks up on that same theme, but is a narrative unlike any other in the Bible. There, a woman named Zipporah, Moses’ first wife, rises up like a Minnesota wolf on a moonlight night, ready to face down the spectre that is chasing Moses, trying to kill him.

Alas, it is no ordinary assailant that pursues Moses. The rage-filled intruder is actually God. (Read all of Exodus 4 for full story.)

Exodus doesn’t give us all the details. We don’t know if God appeared in a raging fire, in a whirlwind, or in combat fatigues. All we know is this: “On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him [Moses] and tried to kill him.” (Exodus 4:24)

We don’t know WHY God went into such a rage. After all, just days earlier, God had finally convinced Moses to be the one to lead the Israelites from slavery. You remember the conversation. Moses says he’s not eloquent. So God arranges for his more loquacious brother, Aaron, to accompany him. Moses says Pharaoh will never listen to him. God says to say to Pharaoh: “I AM has sent you!” Moses parries and tussles with God, but is finally convinced to take on the extraordinarily difficult job of convincing Pharoah to release hundreds of thousands of Israelites from slavery. A huge step.

Zipporah must leave her six sisters and her beloved father, Jethro. With no doubt tears and sadness, she bids goodbye to her six sisters, saddles the donkey, and sets out beside Moses, her young young boys in tow. Off the young family goes to a new life, a new calling, a new ministry.

And then, AFTER the job description is signed, AFTER Moses and Zipporah have left their home,  AFTER they are alone and vulnerable and in transit, God strikes. It is then, and only then, that God chases Moses down, apparently ready to rob the little family of husband and father.

The stuff of nightmares. Imagine being called to a new job and being chased by God even before you had a chance to sit behind your desk. Imagine being on your way to your wedding and being chased by God—not in a subtle way, not suggesting you think about the marriage longer—but for the purpose of killing you. Imagine finally having the courage to adopt a child and being on the way to meet the child entrusted to your care—and then, without warning, God strikes.

Moses seems to have no clue as to why God is angry. But Zipporah understands. Either she intuitively knows what has gone wrong or she hears God’s words, although nothing is reported about the content of them in the Bible.

In the chaos, and by the light of the campfire—if indeed they had time to light the fire—Zipporah grabs a piece of flint and one of her young sons. And then she cuts off his foreskin, circumcising him. And how terrifying that must have been! God forbid, what if she had missed with the flint? But she didn’t.

She takes the foreskin and touches Moses’ feet with it saying, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me! A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (Remember here that in ancient Hebrew “feet” means genitals.)

Moses had apparently neglected a key requirement of fatherhood: to circumcise his son on the eighth day of his life, thus failing to mark him as a child of God under the covenant that God had established with Abraham. (See Genesis 17:10-14.) Zipporah somehow figures this out, and takes charge.

Given Moses’ Hebrew roots, this indifference to circumcision is surprising, but may also indicate that his Egyptian upbringing temporarily overshadowed his Jewish heritage or that Zipporah and Moses had different faiths (Zipporah was most likely a polytheist) Perhaps as a young couple, the rituals of faith had been too easily dismissed.

Whatever. God is unhappy. Zipporah finds the solution. God is appeased.

And thank goodness for that, because without Zipporah’s brave and intuitive act, Moses would have been killed—and the Israelites might have stayed in bondage for many more years in Egypt. For all we know, they might never have been freed.

God does not come off as the stellar figure in this story. Neither does Moses.

But Zipporah does.

Like Jacob at the River Jabbock, she wrested a blessing from God—only she does it when God is in a murderous rage.  In doing so, she saved Moses’ life–and just possibly, the future of the Israelite people.

Zipporah met God with brains and courage and a deft touch with the knife. Wow.

Sorry you never got more recognition, Zipporah. You get it here. 

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A note to the reader: For some, this story may be too fanciful to consider, as in “yeah, like God would really try to kill Moses…are you kidding?” My job here is not decide which Bible stories are worth considering and which ones aren’t. I look at all of them, especially the ones that involve women and remember this adage: “Stories don’t tell us what is true. They tell us what must be true.” In other words, what are the eternal truths here? What does this story have to teach us? What does it want us to take away? What implications might it have for us? And that’s where the discussion begins. Here are some of my thoughts. More importantly, what are yours, especially in this time of Advent, this time of preparation?

  • Fighting for those we love may bring us into terrifying waters.
  • Wrestling with God is part of being spiritually mature.
  • God is unpredictable.
  • Sleep with one eye open.

For reflection

  1. Zipporah was the only woman in the Bible to circumcise a child. Does that act change your opinion of her at all, given that she seemed fairly nondescript beforehand? Describe what comes to your mind (besides horror movies) when you hear: “You are a bridegroom of blood!”
  2. Faith development in families occurs over time. To what extent have different faith backgrounds affected your family? Has there been any resolution? What have you learned?
  3. The Bible says that God “tried to kill Moses.” If God is all-powerful, why was it a matter of “trying?” And why might he have wanted to kill him?

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Photo: Scott Gunn

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