Zipporah: Bible

by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Zipporah is a Midianite woman who becomes the wife of Moses. After Moses kills an Egyptian, he flees from the pharaoh and settles among the Midianites, an Arab people who occupied desert areas in southern Transjordan, northern Arabia, and the Sinai. He meets the seven daughters of Reuel, priest of Midian, at a well; rescues them from shepherds who are harassing them; and fills their jugs with water. In gratitude, Reuel (called Jethro or Hobab in other biblical passages) offers Moses hospitality, then gives him his daughter Zipporah in marriage (Exod 2:21–22). She and Moses have two sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Exod 18:3–4).

Zipporah is the heroine of a bizarre incident that takes place as Moses heads back to Egypt with his wife and sons (Exod 4:20). On their way, at a night encampment, “The Lord met him [Moses] and tried to kill him” (Exod 4:24). No reason is given, just as no reason is given for the angel’s attack on Jacob as he came back from Mesopotamia (Gen 32:24). Jacob was alone and wrestled with the angel all night; Moses is with his wife, who comes to his rescue. She takes a flint and cuts off her son’s foreskin. She then flings the foreskin at “his” feet, declaring that he is hatan damim to her (Exod 4:26). Zipporah’s enigmatic statement has two possible explanations: she flings the foreskin at Moses’s feet, saying, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me” (NRSV), or she flings it at God’s feet, saying, “You are a blood father-in-law to me.” (Damim means “blood,” and hatan can mean either “bridegroom” or “father-in-law.”) Either way, her deed and words stop the attack. The story is already difficult for the narrator, who adds a comment that hatan damim refers to circumcision. The situation remains unclear to us. Zipporah, however, understood it and acted decisively to rescue Moses. Zipporah’s name, meaning “bird,” combined with her protection of Moses, is reminiscent of the fierce loyalty to her husband Osiris of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who is often portrayed as a bird of prey.

Zipporah is not well rewarded. At some point before the exodus from Egypt, Moses sends her and the children away (Exod 18:2). After the exodus, her father, the priest of Midian (here called Jethro), comes to visit Moses, bringing Zipporah and her two sons. Moses is told that his father-in-law Jethro is “coming to see you, with your wife and her two sons” (Exod i8:6). Moses goes out to greet Jethro and takes him into his tent, but nothing is said about his greeting Zipporah.

Moses’ neglect of Zipporah is obvious, as he (not God) tells the men at Sinai not to approach any women in preparation for God’s approach in three days (Exod 19:2). Since he himself is apparently always in preparation for meeting with God, we can infer that he never sleeps with Zipporah. In Num 12:1 Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because of the “Cushite woman” whom he married, but they do not mention her name. Midrashic tradition assumed they were discussing Moses’ neglect of Zipporah. Other interpreters see the Cushite woman as a second wife, with Miriam and Aaron opposed to the marriage. But no children are ever recorded for a second wife of Moses.

Bibliography

Ashby, Godfrey. “The Bloody Bridegroom: The Interpretation of Exodus 4:24–26.” Expository Times 106 (1995): 203–205.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Pardes, Ilana. Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach. Cambridge, MA: 1992.

Propp, William. “That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus 4:24–26).” Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993): 495–518.

Robinson, Bernard P. “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus 4:24–26.” Vetus Testamentum 36 (1986): 447–461.

18 Comments

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Could it not be that Miriam was an ancester of Moses thru Midian, one of the sons of Ketrah,gen 25:1? And that Jethro is called a priest because he worshiped the most high God,taking from median,their grandfather, the knowledge of God thru Abraham?

The imagery of Botticelli is remarkably beautiful though it hauntingly reminds me of the images in Christianity of the blonde, blue-ed Jesus. Zipporah was more likely to be a dark-skinned Ethiopian woman. Jesus was more likely to have middle-eastern features as well. Such imagery is disturbing.

How far was this place from the Jordan river. Were Zipporah and her Family are from

I see this scenario as explaining, likely, a stress attach on Moses' part, and that most likely Zipporah performed the customary ritual, that had been delayed, due to Moses, who was raised by Egyptians, still learning how to be fully informed with his ancestry and religion. He was chosen by God to weild a great amount of power. God gave him an unqualifiable strength, because he could be motivated and focused, but he seemed to struggle and fatigue (despite, or because of, his special encounter with God) and needed others to assist his mission, which always made him very interesting to me. To me he is an interesting character because he is chosen even though he might not feel worthy. His wife is nurturing and wise and well aware of what appeases God, the qualities of a good wife in her day. She helps compel him, even though it is a sacrifice to her and to him to serve God as so commanded. So I kind of see the blood as a bond of service and true, kindred faith.

10 stars thanks for more WISDOM on Mose, the food (Word of God) Taste like Good Soul FOOD...LOVE

She circumcised the child because Moses had told her it was the sign of the Covenant God made with Abraham. Failure to keep the sign of the Covenant moving forward at this point in Hebrew history was taken very serious by God.

Okay, I think most of us are more concerned with the realistic ideology of the culture and misguided understanding of the reasons the Holy Scriptures don't talk about women much. If you go all the way back to the garden of Gadedan then we may begin to see why only the most advantageous, smart, cleaver, honorable, strong, obiedient, Godly, willful, or in the direct lineage or family related somehow to men of greatness and our savior are mentioned. Many ministers have had to (eat crow) look and try to find a reference to "if a woman finds a husband she's found a good thing." There is no such scripture as if there were then our savior would have been from "The Seed of Man..." not "The Seed of A Woman..." Let's also remember she wasn't afraid to shed a man's blood to abide by God's truth and word.

Why is Zipporah depicted as a white woman above when she was clearly black?

In reply to by Brandie

I hope you don't mind my "butting in": If I remember correctly it is because this is what European monastries and artists were encouraged to do to appeal to their parishoners...to identify more readily with the stories that never took place in - or with people from - their part of the world. The images were especially important because the average citizen could not read... I might add I find it annoying as well, but understanding context helps.✌

How about this. Zipporah having two sons, didn't want them circumsized until God was going to kill Moses for not keeping the Covenant of circumcision, so she took a stone circumcised her son and said a bloody husband you are to me and left him for two years.

In reply to by Regina

In Midianite culture, the men didn't get circumcised until they were engaged. They would get circumcised, recuperate, marry and then consummate the marriage. This being said the son was most likely not old enough in Midian culture to get circumcised. They didn't circumcise the men at 8 days old as Abraham's covenant required.

Moses Kushiro woman is Sudanese woman and she have one child

I find it quite interesting that as much as is discussed that Zipporah is a Midianite or a Cushite that the one picture on this article to depict her is of a woman with Nordic features.

In reply to by Malkie

Exactly, she wasn't white or blonde

In reply to by Chloe Walker

So true - the image is confusing to any reader that is trying to learn more about this individual.
It's like use a photo of a Geisha girl when writing an article about Harriet Tubman.

The Bible describes Zipporah as either Cushite or Ethiopian. Both terms are correct. The term Cushi is a Hebrew term used to describe people of African descent. The word Ethiopia comes from the Greek which means "burnt faces". Both terms locate people who presently reside in Sudan or the ancient land of Cush.

There is an ambiguity of the meaning of Kushite and Madianite as they are not different origin = it is Ham lineage as African- the Midianites, are one of this first African-Arab people who lived in desert areas as there in the SinaÌÄåø, it's a big difference betwen this tribe of Jethro and others Arabic tribes , you can understand as a whole people. Sephora means as well in Hebreu Beautifull. Women in the antiquities are consider as easy prey well Moses send his wife and kids away from violence ! :-)

Why did Zipporah do what she did in cutting off the foreskin of their son? Did Moses disregard the covenant of circumcision of their son?

"Zipporah, after Botticelli," 1874, by John Ruskin. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, 143 x 54 cm.

How to cite this page

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Zipporah: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 7, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/zipporah-bible>.

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