Bizarre is typical of how biblical scholars describe the tale of Zipporah and her husband, Moses, especially the section in which God attacks Moses, and Zipporah uses a blood ritual to successfully defend her husband and son. "For mystery, mayhem, and sheer baffling weirdness, nothing else in the Bible quite compares with the story of Zipporah and the 'bridegroom of blood,' " says Jonathan Kirsch, author of The Harlot by the Side of the Road.
The main plot of Zipporah's cryptic story, which contains a few large holes, is this: Moses, a fugitive from Egypt, where he killed a man for abusing a Hebrew slave, happens upon the seven daughters of Jethro, the Midian priest. The daughters are at a well in the desert, trying to water their sheep. Using brute force, chivalrous Moses scares off some bullying shepherds who are harassing the girls. A grateful Jethro gives Moses his daughter Zipporah in marriage, despite their religious differences. They marry and have two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.
A few years later, after God speaks to Moses through a burning bush, Moses sets out with his family to return to Egypt to free his people from slavery. During this journey, a strange incident occurs one night in their tent. God tries to kill Moses. Zipporah, somehow sensing that God is angry that their son isn't circumcised, immediately grabs a stone and cuts her son's foreskin. Cutting away the foreskin from the penis is a sign of identification among Hebrews, according to God's covenant with Abraham. Then she flings the bloody foreskin at his feet (whether "his" in the story refers to God, Moses, or the baby is unclear, and feet may be a stand-in or a euphemism for genitals). Then she says: "Surely, a bridegroom of blood thou art to me."
Reading the crucial passage in its entirety doesn't clear up much. "And it came to pass, on the way to the lodging place, that the Lord 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.' "
To this day, no one is quite sure what Zipporah meant, but it did the trick. She saved Moses, and he went on to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. However, despite her bravery and quick thinking, Moses doesn't treat Zipporah especially well or act particularly grateful. Moses sends her and the children away before the Exodus from Egypt. Later, they reunite, but he may have taken a second wife, a "Cushite" or Ethiopian woman.
Several mysteries in this tale leave experts baffled. Why did Zipporah, a woman, perform the circumcision? Which son was involved? Was God himself the attacker, or did he send one of his minions? Why did Zipporah and Moses separate? Is the "Cushite" or Ethiopian wife of Moses referred to in the text Zipporah or another woman?
Despite the many ambiguities, the main message of the story is clear, according to Kirsch: "The lesson the Bible intends is that God insists on circumcision as the essential symbol of the covenant of his chosen people. God is even willing to murder for failure to comply. He'll even kill Moses after recruiting him on his liberation mission. That's how important circumcision is to God."