In addition, Zipporah plays more than a supporting role in the future of the Israelites. "Moses is God's chosen messenger, the most important biblical figure after Abraham," says Kirsch. Yet, Moses is at risk of losing his life, except for the intervention of Zipporah. The entire fate of Israel rests with her. "She, the pagan daughter of a priest, stood up to God," he adds.
Although Zipporah is an obscure figure in the Bible, she is depicted favorably, while Moses is "hapless, a total shirker, full of arguments about why he shouldn't be the one to go to Israel and lead his people out of slavery," notes Kirsch. Zipporah, on the other hand, is heroic, "decisive, fearless, strong, the competent person in an emergency."
Others draw out different themes apart from the importance of circumcision. "To me, the main point is to show that the deity is not all benign. It can be dangerous for humans to be in the presence of God, unless they follow religious prescriptions such as circumcision," says Sidnie White Crawford, a professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
According to Crawford, the story may also be saying that marriage to foreigners can be a good idea and work out well and that, within the family structure, women may be more active in the religious sphere than men. "Like Zipporah, it may be the women who are responsible for conducting the religious rituals," she says.
A new novel, Zipporah, Wife of Moses, by Marek Halter, puts a fictionalized spin on Zipporah by making her the "Cushite" or Ethiopian wife of Moses. Halter portrays Zipporah as a proud, black-skinned woman who refuses to marry Moses, even after bearing his two sons, until he accepts God's mission to lead his people out of slavery. In this version, it's Zipporah who changes the destiny of Moses and his people. "Zipporah is black, and a foreigner, and she poses the problem of how we relate to the other," says Halter. "Moses is ignorant, so Zipporah becomes his principal adviser." Zipporah, the outsider with black skin, helps Moses fulfill his destiny as a liberator of the enslaved.
Just as there are several interpretations of Zipporah's role in the biblical text, there are various interpretations of the literal meaning of her name. "Tzipor" means bird in Hebrew. One theory, according to Rabbi Rebecca Alpert in The Women ' s Torah Commentary: New Insights From Women Rabbis on the 54 Torah Portions, is that before she was born, Zipporah's mother intuited that "like the purification offering of two clean, living birds, [her daughter] would be responsible for purifying her house." Another suggestion is that she "would take flight with this strange man, Moses."
In either case, Zipporah stays true to her role as a woman who acts bravely and decisively, not one who is acted upon.