Zipporah: Wife & Savior

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“Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer” Michelangelo – c1508

 Zipporah, Moses’ wife, was one of seven daughters of the priest of Midian, variously known as Jethro, Reuel and Hobab. After Moses received his directive from Yahweh to return to Egypt to save the Israelites, at a night encampment on the way, God threatened to kill either Moses or his son (the pronouns are unclear). Zipporah averted the imminent death by circumcising her son with a flint. Thereafter Zipporah returned with her sons to her father’s home in Midian. Later she rejoined Moses at Mt. Sinai. Nothing more is recorded of her. Our knowledge of Zipporah is limited to a few verses in the Bible. Most scholars have relegated the Zipporah account as too unfathomable and fragmentary to ever reconstruct into a cohesive narrative whole. However, I think there are sufficient details in these verses to enable us to identify the most plausible explanation of who she was and what she did.

All commentators agree that the story of Zipporah’s circumcision of her son is an early tradition, undoubtedly an oral tale passed from generation to generation in a time when women were the storytellers for their families and clans. As patriarchy gained ascendancy, later editions of the story tried to suppress the emphasis on women’s experience and power. Despite later redactors’ efforts, Zipporah refuses to recede into the background, at least for those paying attention to the biblical text.

Meeting Moses

“Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, ‘How is it that you have come back so soon today?’ They answered, ‘An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.’ He said to his daughters, ‘Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.’ Moses was content to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as wife. She bore a son whom he named Gershom…” (Exodus 2: 16-22).

Like many biblical patriarchs, Zipporah and Moses met at a well. Local men harassed Zipporah and her sisters and Moses stepped in to save the day. The daughters were all aflutter when they incredulously told their father that the Egyptian saved the day and watered the livestock for them. You can almost hear them swooning over the strong and compassionate stranger. Then abruptly we are told that Moses and Zipporah are married because Moses was content to stay with her father.

The “betrothal is more a product of the men’s mutual trust and friendship. Zipporah’s feelings and thoughts, her appearance, or even the feelings she might have evoked in Moses, are unknown. The scene does not distinguish her from her other sisters by noting her conduct or looks” (Fuchs, p. 278).

Moses stays in the land of the Midianites because of the man, not because of the woman. Although not as lofty a position as being an Egyptian prince, the son-in-law of a Midanite priest was status enough for Moses. Unlike Rachel and Isaac, this was not a love match.

Zipporah’s Ethnicity

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Zipporah belonged to the Midianite tribe, a nomadic people who roamed from present day Syria and the Arabian Peninsula to the Sinai Peninsula. In particular they inhabited the territory known as Midian, a region near the holy mountain of Horeb which lay between Edom and Paran. They were known for their mining endeavors with the Egyptians and therefore possessed relatively sophisticated technical skills in metal smithing. The Midianites worshiped several deities including Baal and Yahweh. In fact, many scholars speculate that they were early worshipers of Yahweh. Known as the Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis, the theory argues that the Israelites adopted the worship of Yahweh from the proto-Arabian tribes, particularly the Midianites and their subgroup the Kenites. This is supported by the fact that after Moses met the Midianite priest, Zipporah’s father, God came to Moses in the burning bush and announced that he was known as El-Shaddai by his forefathers (Exodus 6:3) but would now be known as Yahweh. (See my discussion about Yael/Jael for further information about the Kenites. See Blenkinsopp’s article for a recent description of the hypothesis.)

The genealogical table in Genesis 25 states that Midian was the son of Abraham by his partner Keturah. Three of Midian’s five sons have names which are found among the Israelite tribes, indicating that the Midianites were integrated into the tribes of Israel. Though Moses never seemed too excited about Zipporah, he couldn’t blame her for being a pagan worshiping woman since they shared the same God.

Theme of the Firstborn Son

“So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt…And the Lord said to Moses… ‘Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.”‘ At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it…And when He let him alone… (Exodus 4:20, 22-24).

An important theme throughout the Israelite tradition is the sacrifice or redemption of the firstborn, both of livestock and humans. All creation belonged to the deity and was forbidden for human use until it was redeemed from this state of taboo. Those who broached this law forfeited their life to God. The taboo could only be removed through sacrifice, a ritual which acknowledged the deity’s ownership by giving God the first portion. The sacrifice of part of the tabooed object redeemed the remainder. For firstborn sons, the shedding of some of the child’s blood through circumcision redeemed the child.

“The willingness to cut the foreskin is a symbolic acknowledgment of the ultimate requirement of willingness to give the whole life to God, for in a profound sense it is owed to God. According to the pattern of Zipporah’s incident, the cutting is a symbolic gesture of sacrifice that averts the ultimate sacrifice” (Haberman, p.26).

Circumcision visually proves that the deity has been tendered his full due and therefore must save the child’s life.

The pronouns in Exodus 4 are not clearly indicated so there is confusion whether God threatened Moses or his son in verse 24. If God sought to kill Moses, his “sin” may have consisted in not previously offering the proper sacrifice (his son’s foreskin). Whether God threatened the life of Moses or his son, Zipporah recognized that circumcision was the solution to the divine threat. A number of scholars have noted that the description of Zipporah’s circumcising her son comes hot on the heels of God’s discussion of firstborns. Because of the repeated theme in close proximity, I agree with most commentators that we are meant to link the two events. Therefore Zipporah must have circumcised her firstborn, Gershom. The story in Exodus 4 can readily be taken as the paradigm for how to redeem a firstborn son. This does not preclude the acknowledgement that circumcision also represents a fertility rite meant to placate a fertility god. (See Eilberg-Schwartz’s cross-cultural study of circumcision for more details.)

It seems that Zipporah was party to God’s conversation with Moses about firstborns and therefore understood that redeeming her firstborn was an essential rite. For whatever reason, it appears that Moses didn’t take responsibility for fulfilling God’s requirement.

The story “illustrates in the most graphic way the fate that awaits those who are not redeemed (i.e. like Pharaoh’s son only a verse before)…the circumcision is a miniature sacrifice: the little cut instead of the big cut” (Wyatt, p.416).

Following Gershom’s circumcision, and smearing the blood, just as she had hoped, God withdrew in same manner as he “passed over” the houses marked with blood during the Passover event.

Did Zipporah do something wrong?

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In the traditional interpretation of the incident on the way to the lodging place, Moses is seen as having failed to circumcise his son. Incapacitated from God’s attack, they say, Zipporah is forced to perform the task on her husband’s behalf. Many commentators suggest that it was Zipporah’s fault because she refused to let Moses perform the rite previously. Needless to say, this is a pure fabrication and has no basis in the text. Furthermore, finding Zipporah at fault makes no logical sense since God did not seek to kill her or even rebuke her. If it weren’t for her actions, God would have killed either her son or her husband.

Though the Midianites did practice circumcision (probably at puberty as in the case of Ishmael), traditionally she is condemned for not allowing Moses to circumcise their sons on the eighth day of their lives.

This conclusion is untenable because the “strict command to circumcise boys on the eighth day is from P (Gen. xvii 12), whereas our tale is from the older J source…It seems unfair and implausible that readers should be expected to infer both the requirement of circumcision and Moses’ omission of the rite merely from the cryptic Exod. iv 24-6” (Propp, p. 500).

The age of the son at the time of circumcision is irrelevant to assigning fault. The text certainly does not indicate that Zipporah waited too long to perform the task.

What does the Phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” Mean?

“So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin…saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!’ And when He let him alone, she added, ‘A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.'” (Exodus 4:25-6)

Again, because the pronouns are not clear, commentators are divided over whether Zipporah was addressing her son, Moses or God. Perhaps an examination of the meaning of the term “bridegroom of blood” will help us identify to whom Zipporah spoke.

“Bridegroom of blood” is the traditional translation of the Hebrew phrase hatan damim. The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states that the term hatan refers to “a relationship of affinity,” that is, a social relationship rather than a blood relation. Since Zipporah uses the phrase, it is very likely a Midianite term.

“Hatan damim may be a linguistic fossil, pre-Israelite or Midianite, the meaning of which has been lost. However, it can hardly be coincidental that in Arabic the stem h-t-n denotes ‘to circumcise’ as well as ‘to protect.’ This latter is also its meaning in Akkadian” (Sarna, p.26).

Kosmala concludes that in very ancient times “circumcise” and “protect” were more closely related linguistically (p.27). By circumcising her son, Zipporah was assured that God would protect him (Howell, pp.73, 75).

In addition, marriage and circumcision are linked in Hebrew vocabulary,

“a usage also found in other Semitic languages: hoten, ‘father-in-law’ (wife’s father), literally means ‘circumciser’, and hatan, ‘son-in-law’ (daughter’s husband, bridegroom, means ‘one circumcised’)” (Wyatt, p.420).

Circumcision became associated with marriage because it was a necessary prerequisite to betrothal (Wyatt, p.423).

“Circumcision was the formal certification that he had passed out of the first stage of childhood. Not to be circumcised was tantamount to being still a child. Therefore to wed with one as yet uncircumcised would have meant, not true marriage but only sexual intercourse with a child, and would have been a disgrace” (Morgenstern, pp. 61-2).

Hatan therefore means to be related by the blood of circumcision.

After an extensive study of the term, Morgenstern concludes that hatan is rooted in the ancient idea of a beena marriage wherein the husband gains the protection of his wife’s family through the rite of circumcision.

“Among these earliest Semites beena marriage was normal, and kinship was traced only through the mother. Fatherhood was totally unknown, or if known, was a purely incidental and unimportant relationship” (Morgenstern, pp. 36-7).

Obviously by joining Zipporah’s family, Moses entered into a beena marriage. To a certain extent, therefore, it does not matter whether Zipporah was addressing her son or her husband when she declared, “You are a hatan damim to me.” It seems the phrase means, “You are now a full member of my clan,” a comment equally valid for both males. At the nexus of hatan and its meaning of circumcision, marriage and protection, Zipporah stood with flint in hand, conscious of her responsibility to create order at a chaotic moment.

Smearing the Blood

“So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and dabbed [vataga, ותגע ] his legs with it…” (Exodus 4:25)

Vataga is the same verb used in the Passover narrative of Exodus 12:22 suggesting that we as readers should associate the two episodes. As in the Passover event, the blood is effective only if it can be seen. “When I see the blood, I will pass over you…and not smite you” (Exodus 12:13, 23).

“Blood rites often serve as a prophylactic, especially among the Arab peoples. The ‘aqiqah is a ceremony with a sacrifice designed to avert evil from the child. On that occasion the blood of the animal is smeared on the forehead of the child, that is on that part of his body where it can be seen. The Samaritans have a similar custom at their Passover. They take blood from the Passover lamb and draw with it a line on the forehead of the children down to the point of the nose” (Kosmala, p.24).

Israelite priests were instructed to dip their fingers in the blood of sacrificed animals and make a big show of splashing it around the altar (Lev. 3:8). Even in the ceremony by which Aaron and his sons are consecrated as high priests of the Israelites, blood is dabbed on various parts of their bodies. To this day blood remains religiously powerful; keeping kosher requires the draining of it from meat because blood is considered to be the essence of life (Gen. 9:4, Deut. 12:23). Zipporah’s actions were quite understandable given the culture of sacrifice in which ancient Near Easterners were immersed.

Zipporah the Priestess

In circumcising her son and then giving voice to a highly formalized pronouncement, Zipporah acted as some sort of ritual specialist. Indeed, among the Midianites, the ritual may have been a women’s specialty (Meyers, p. 43). McNutt, an expert scholar of ancient Near Eastern metal working notes that smithing clans like the Midianites often performed ritual functions such as circumcision. However, if we are wrong and women did not ordinarily perform the ceremony, Zipporah seems to have taken on the male role, particularly that of her father the priest of Midian. An important role of the hatan in its first sense (father-in-law) is to circumcise (Robinson, p.458).

And if “Zipporah is to be seen as assuming her father’s role as circumciser, should she also be seen as assuming in certain ways his role as priest? Note in this regard that, in the exodus tradition, the blood offering of circumcision is closely associated with the blood offering of sacrifice” (Ackerman, p. 74).

This episode provocatively hints at a priest-like role for Zipporah. Setel speculates that we have here a hint of a lost tradition of women as priests in the early worship of Yahweh (Setel, p.34).

Zipporah and Mythology

Pardes observes that Zipporah resembles Isis the Egyptian goddess who resurrected her deceased husband’s phallus so that she could conceive a child. Several scholars note the resemblance: Zipporah means bird and Isis is depicted as a bird. Although I don’t find the Isis myth closely connected with the biblical story, Zipporah does seem to follow behavior associated with guardian goddesses.

“Such goddesses are frequently the primary caretakers of striving young heroes…the protection these goddesses offer often entails struggles with other deities (usually male deities) on behalf of their chosen heroes” (Pardes, pp.88-9).

Rather than the survival of a goddess myth from Egypt, Zipporah’s actions reveal a faultline between ideologies, between polytheistic and monotheistic traditions.

In the older religions, the goddesses offer protection but with the “rise of monotheism, goddesses are dethroned. God is one and as such He is male. Divine protection is solely in male hands. Yet female guardianship does not vanish; it is transferred to the human realm and perceived as the role of female characters, of mothers in particular. What we witness in ‘The Bridegroom of Blood’ are conspicuous traces of this cultural transaction” (Pardes, pp.88-9).

Zipporah lays bare a moment when the male God not only didn’t provide protection but acted more like a demonic deity with an inexplicable desire to kill Moses. Rather than a goddess stepping in to save the hero, the very human Zipporah circumvented death.


“So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent [salah] home…Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. He sent word to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.’ Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.” (Exodus 18: 2, 5-7).

The Hebrew word translated as ‘sent away’ (salah) frequently refers to divorce in the biblical context. Hays maintains that although the text does not say when Moses sent Zipporah away, it probably occurred shortly after the “bridegroom of blood” encounter. Reis contends that the two parted in anger immediately after the circumcision scene (pp.329-30). Their conclusions are reinforced by the fact that Moses doesn’t even greet Zipporah when her father returns her. He asks after Jethro’s welfare but is shockingly silent about his wife, the mother of his sons. We can’t help thinking that the relationship had little meaning for him. After this encounter we never hear of Zipporah again. We can only guess what the marital strife entailed. However, it appears that Moses disowned the two sons he produced with Zipporah. They inherited no significant religious or leadership positions. It seems that the rejected sons were adopted by Moses’ brother Aaron since they are included in his line of descent in the genealogies.

Revenge against Midianites

Not only did Moses’ sons pay for the rift between their parents, but Moses also turned against Zipporah’s people. At the end of Numbers, the Israelites led a series of attacks on the peoples whose lands they passed through, including the Midianites, Edomites and Moabites, closely related tribal groups. One of Israel’s major adversaries was the Moabite king Balak, “son of Zippor.” (Note that Zipporah is the feminine form of “Zippor.”) To make a long story short, the son of Zippor decided to use the Moabite women to entice the Israelite men into idolatry (Numbers 31:8,16). The story of the son of Zippor is closely interrelated with the Midianites (start reading from Numbers 22 onward for the details). For example, the women leading Israelite men into idolatry were named as both Midianite and Moabite. After the incidence with Cozbi the Midianite, God directed Moses to defeat the Midianites. The men were slaughtered, the women and children were taken captive and the Midianite settlements were wiped from the face of the earth (Num. 31:9ff).

“Ultimately, Moses–in his last public act–will annihilate them. From Moses’ lips will come the command ‘Kill every (Midianite) woman who has slept with a man’ (Numbers 31:17). Does this include his wife? His in-laws?… It may be that the author has recorded the name ‘Zipporah’ specifically to make the subtle connection between Moses’ marriage and the violent events that later take place due to the ‘son of Zippor'” (Hays).

Not only did he seek to punish his ex-wife, his sons, but he was determined to obliterate Zipporah’s ethnic group. Having witnessed a nasty divorce or two, I have to say that Moses took the breakup rather badly.


In the book of Judges we read of Jephthah’s daughter and we learn that God does not always intervene to prevent child sacrifice. Knowing the real danger, Zipporah stood up to Yahweh through a ritual act and thereby saved at least one life. Zipporah’s centrality in the Exodus 4 text underscores women’s potential power as actors in rituals they have been excluded from. But more than being taken seriously as moyles (ritual circumcisers), Zipporah is an example of breaking the silence and defying injustice. For that reason her story deserves to be given voice. The condemnation heaped on her by centuries of commentary must be redressed. To do anything less is to continue writing women out of history.

For Further Reading

Ackerman, Susan – “Why is Miriam also among the Prophets? (And is Zipporah among the Priests?)” Journal of Biblical Literature 121 (2002), 47-80.

Binns, L. Elliott – “Midianite Elements in Hebrew Religion” Journal of Theological Studies 31 (1930) 337-354.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph – “The Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis Revisited and the Origins of Judah” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 33.2 (2008) 131-153.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard – God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Beacon Press, 1995)

Exum, J. Cheryl – “Second Thoughts About Secondary Characters: Women in Exodus 1.8-2.10” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 6. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994)

Fuchs, Esther – “Structure and Patriarchal Functions in the Biblical Betrothal Type-Scene: Some Preliminary Notes.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3 (1987), 7-13.

Glick, Leonard B. –  Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Haberman, Bonna Devora – “Foreskin Sacrifice: Zipporah’s Ritual and the Bloody Bridegroom” in The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite, Elizabeth Wyner Mark, ed. (Lebanon, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 2003) 18-29.

Hays, Richard B. – “Moses: The Private Man Behind the Public Figure,” Bible Review 16 (2000) 16-26, 60-62.

Hoffman, Lawrence A. – Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Howell, Adam J. – “The Firstborn Son of Moses as the ‘Relative of Blood’ in Exodus 4.24-26” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, September 2010; vol. 35, 1: pp. 63-76.

Kirsch, Jonathan – The Harlot by the Side of the Road (Ballantine Books, 1998)

Kosmala, Hans – “The ‘Bloody Husband'” Vetus Testamentum 12 (1962) 14-28.

Meyers, Carol L. – Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women (Fortress Pres, 2005)

McNutt, Paula – “The Kenites, the Midianites, and the Rechabites as Marginal Mediators in Ancient Israel” Semeia 67 (1994) 109-32

Morgenstern, Julian – “The ‘Bloody Husband'(?) (Exod. 4:24-26) Once Again” Hebrew Union College Annual 34 (1963), 35-70.

Pardes, Ilana – Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992)

Reis, Pamela Tamarkin – “The Women Around Moses” Jewish Bible Quarterly 33 (2005) 127-30.

Robinson, Bernard P. – “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus 4:24-6” Vetus Testamentum 36 (1986):447-61.

Sarna, Nahum M. – The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991)

Setel, T. Drorah – “Exodus,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998)

Silverman, Eric Kline – From Abraham to America: A History of Jewish Circumcision (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006)

Wyatt, Nick – “Circumcision and Circumstance: Male Genital Mutilation in Ancient Israel and Ugarit” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, June 2009; vol. 33, 4: pp. 405-431.

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