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."
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.