In Defense of Zipporah

Introduction

Over the past few months, I’ve heard quite a few Independent Fundamentalist Baptist sermons which touched upon Zipporah, the wife of Moses. Specifically, they focused on this episode in the Exodus account, when Moses is on the way to Egypt with his family.

At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

Exodus 4:24-26

Generally the interpretation here is that Zipporah was being a grumpy, disrespectful wife. Sometimes this interpretation is used to go into a discussion on why wives shouldn’t be disrespectful to their husbands. Steven Anderson, in a sermon on Exodus 18, makes this statement:

Now, here’s another character that the Bible doesn’t tell us a ton about – Zipporah. But let me tell ya something, when you look at what’s there, you don’t get a real good picture of Zipporah with what’s there, okay. And I’m gonna refresh your memory on some of the stuff about Zipporah. But, you get the picture that Moses and Zipporah didn’t have a really good relationship, because what do we know about Zipporah? Well, we know he marries Jethro’s daughter, he marries Zipporah, they have a couple kids, okay. But the first time we’re introduced to Zipporah is in Exodus chapter four, where basically God is going to kill Moses because Moses has not circumcised his son. And then Zipporah ends up angrily circumcising her son and throwing the foreskin at the feet of Moses. Now, this, you know, when you’re fighting, and someone’s throwing a foreskin at you, that’s pretty, that’s a pretty knockdown, drag-out fight at that point, you know, when the foreskins fly. So basically, you know, she throws it – “You’re a bloody husband!” Now look, why did the child need to be circumcised? Was it Moses’ idea? It’s God’s commandment. So here’s Moses trying to obey God, trying to serve God, and do what’s right, and what’s his wife say? “Oh, you’re a bloody husband!” That’s a bad attitude. She’s not supporting him in serving God. He’s basically serving God in spite of this woman is the picture that we get.

Transcribed from the YouTube video Moses’ Marriage Problems; source

Yet to be fair to our IFB friends, it’s not just they who see things this way: many, many commentators paint Zipporah in a poor light. For example, John Calvin, in his commentary on the verse, has some especially strong words against her.

For although, in some degree, as necessity compelled, Zipporah submitted herself to God, yet, aroused to violent anger, she turns against her husband, and fiercely reproaches him with being “a bloody husband.” Hence we perceive how far she was from a pious disposition to obey; since she thus furiously attacks her husband, and vents her wrath on him, on no other account but that God had extorted from her the circumcision of her son.

Calvin’s Commentary on Exodus 4; source

I was curious just how bad her behavior here truly was, so I decided to do some research. Also, my oldest daughter has become infatuated with Zipporah ever since watching some clips from The Ten Commandments, so now I have a special interest in her story as well.

Background

As written before, this episode happens on the way towards Egypt, with Moses taking his family in tow. While at a lodging place, it is said that the Lord “met him” and sought to put Moses to death. The reason for this is not explicitly stated within the text itself. Some have said it was because of Moses’ earlier murder of an Egyptian (Exo 2:11-12), although Stephen’s own commentary on the episode seems to suggest that Moses’ act was justified (cf., Acts 7:24-29). Calvin recounts an isolated rabbinical tradition that “Moses had provoked God’s vengeance… because he took his wife and children with him” (source).

However, the full context, especially with Zipporah’s action, seems to hint that it was because Moses did not circumcise one of his sons. On this, historical commentaries from both Jewish and Christian sources overwhelmingly agree. Although the son is not mentioned by name, we know Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Exo 18:2-4). On the identity of the child in question, historical commentaries do not overwhelmingly agree. Some say it was Gershom, while others say it was Eliezer. Only Gershom has been mentioned by name up until this time (Exo 2:22), but we know that Moses had both sons by then, as the plural is used (cf., Exo 4:20). It could be that Gershom had already been circumcised, but Eliezer, being younger had not. Either way, the identity of Moses’ son is not important – only that Moses had not circumcised the son in question.

Why would Moses not circumcising his son be such a heavy matter? It must be remembered that circumcision was the seal of the Abrahamic covenant, and the mark of the special relationship between God and His people. To ignore the command to circumcise was to in essence make the individual a covenant breaker, and make them unable to fellowship with the flock of God.

“He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Genesis 17:12-14

Circumcision was so important, in fact, that one could not take part in the Passover meal if they were not circumcised (Exo 12:48). If Moses was to be God’s servant in the Exodus and give the people the Law, he would not only have to be obedient to God, but he would have to lead by example. By not circumcising Gershom, Moses was not only proving a poor example, but violating the commands of a holy and just God. John Calvin extends this application to our own daily lives:

By this example we are warned that we have daily need of God’s help to support our strength, lest our courage should fail us, and our zeal should gradually grow cold or luke-warm; for Satan is constantly devising many temptations, by which he may either destroy or lessen our diligence. Therefore, whosoever desires to approve himself to God in the whole course of his life, must prepare the armor and the strength for enduring this contest; for if Moses was deficient in perseverance, we shall be equally, or even more liable to the same failure, unless the Lord uphold us by his Spirit.

Calvin’s Commentary on Exodus 4; source

The question that naturally comes next is why Moses hadn’t circumcised Gershom in the first place. The belief of some is that he may have not wanted to offend Zipporah or Jethro, who would have opposed Gershom being circumcised. For example, Calvin states that Moses did not circumcise Gershom because he “was aware that it was disagreeable either to his wife or to his father-in-law” (source).

Some commentators place the blame squarely on Zipporah. Matthew Henry writes that the lack of circumcision probably came from Moses being “unequally yoked with a Midianite, who was too indulgent of her child, while Moses was too indulgent of her” (source). Matthew Poole’s commentary writes:

From Zipporah’s averseness to and dread of that painful and, as she thought, dangerous ordinance of God, which she herself evidently discovers in this place; and the rather because of the experience which she had of it in her eldest son. And as she seems to have been a woman of an eager and passionate temper, so Moses was eminently meek and pliable, and in this matter too indulgent to his wife, especially in her father’s house, and therefore he put it off till a more convenient season, when he might either persuade or overrule her therein…

Poole’s Commentary on Exodus 4; source

On the other hand, some traditions point the blame more at Jethro than Zipporah. One midrash source states that Moses did not circumcise his firstborn “at the command of Reuel”, and Zipporah’s quick action “delivered her husband and her son from the hand ‎of the angel” (source). Another Jewish tradition, found in the Targum of Jonathan, a paraphrase-commentary dated to around the time of Christ, likewise points the finger at Jethro, and even presents Zipporah as a heroine-figure who reverses her father’s mistake to save her husband.

But it was on the way, in the place of lodging that the angel of the Lord met him, and sought to kill him, because Gershom his son had not been circumcised, inasmuch as Jethro his father-in-law had not permitted him to circumcise him: but Eliezer had been circumcised, by an agreement between them two. And Zipporah took a stone, and circumcised the foreskin of Gershom her son, and brought the severed part to the feet of the angel, the Destroyer, and said, The husband sought to circumcise, but the father-in-law obstructed him; and now let this blood of the circumcision atone for my husband. And the destroying angel desisted from him, so that Zipporah gave thanks, and said, How lovely is the blood of this circumcision that hath delivered my husband from the angel of destruction!

Targum of Jonathan; source

The Targum Jerusalem gives a similar account:

And she circumcised the foreskin of her son, and brought before the feet of the Destroyer, and said, The husband could have circumcised, but the father-in-law did not permit him; but now, let the blood of this circumcision atone for the fault of this husband. And when the Destroyer had ceased from him, Zipporah gave thanks and said, How lovely is the blood of this circumcision which hath saved my husband from the hand of the angel of death!

Targum Jerusalem; source

A problem with blaming Jethro or Zipporah (or both) as the cause for Gershom’s lack of circumcision is that the Midianites are known to have practiced circumcision – in fact, circumcision was common in the region, not just with the Hebrews. Consider that Jeremiah mentions Egypt, Edom, Ammon, and Moab as examples of nations where circumcision is practiced (Jer 9:25-26). Why would Jethro or Zipporah have opposed a practice their people regularly performed? On the other hand, the Midianites are said to have circumcised only adult males, not infants, and only before the man’s wedding. (Similar conditions can be found in other cultures – infant circumcision itself was a rare thing.) If this is the case, it could be possible that Moses had forgone the circumcision at this time to appease his Midianite family. Although Jethro was a priest who appears to have believed in the Lord (cf., Exo 18:9-10, 12), and the Midianites were descendants of Abraham (cf., Gen 25:1-2), the Abrahamic Covenant continued on through Isaac specifically, and not Abraham’s other children (cf., Gen 17:19, 21). It may very well be that even believing Midianites, like Jethro and Zipporah, did not practice infant circumcision.

In the end, the reason why Moses did not circumcise Gershom might be a question we won’t know the answer for until glory. It could be the simplest answer: he slacked on his duty, as all of us do from one point to another. Whether it was because of familial pressure or personal nonchalance, he had not done what was expected of him by God.

This condition creates the situation we witness in the verses. To understand this better, we will need to study this passage bit by bit.

At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death…

At this lodging place, the Lord “met” Moses and “sought to put him to death.” How this went about is unsure, as the description is minimal. Many commentators suppose that Moses fell ill, and hence the language of the Lord meeting Moses is figurative to refer to divine punishment “meeting” Moses. The NET, for example, explains the whole episode as one where “on the journey Moses fell seriously ill,” but Zipporah, “learning the cause of the illness, saved his life by circumcising her son” (see NET notes for verse 24). John Gill records that Aben Ezra and Kimchi were of the opinion that it was an illness as well (source). Other Jewish traditions (see below) say that the Angel of the Lord actually manifested before him, hence it would be similar to Balaam’s own experience (cf., Num 22:31). John Calvin sees reason to believe the appearance of an angel, or direct revelation, had to have been involved somehow, since “had he not been instructed by revelation or by an angel, it would not have at all profited him to be shewn the impending danger” (source). Origen goes even a step further, suggesting that the angel referenced in Jewish tradition was a demon (source) – which some rabbinical traditions agree with (source). However, there is no reason to believe Origen’s position, especially when scripture clearly says it was “the Lord” (v. 24) doing it, with little else suggested.

Whatever the manner or method, something happens in which Moses’ life comes in jeopardy, and which may have required quick action.

Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin…

Zipporah is then recorded to have snatched a flint, which was a sharp stone (cf. Jos 5:2), and proceeded to circumcise her son on the spot. This has led to some discussion as to whether or not a woman can circumcise. Some rabbinical traditions get around this by suggesting that Zipporah caused someone else to cut the foreskin off for her, or at the very least she started it and let Moses finish it.

And is there anyone who could say that a woman isn’t able to? But it says: “So Zipporah took a flint an cut off her son’s foreskin” (Ex 4:25)! Read it as:”she caused someone to take”. But is says, “and cut off”! Read it as:”she caused someone to cut off”. And if you want, you can say, she started it, and Moshe came and finished it.

Avodah Zarah 27a2; source

While it might be possible to assume this could have happened, there is nothing in the text to immediately presume that this is the case. Moses only traveled with his wife and sons (cf., Exo 4:20), so there is little likelihood someone else was there who also happened to know how to perform infant circumcision. The reason that Zipporah circumcised the son herself was in order to act quickly to save her husband’s life.

Perhaps even more humorously, John Calvin records an argument during his time that used Zipporah circumcising her son as scriptural support for women baptizing others.

Let us conclude, then, that the confusion of Zipporah, and the stupor of Moses were pardoned; whilst she rashly hastened to circumcise her son, not out of presumption, but yielding to the fears of destruction threatened by God. Thus their folly is confuted who wish to obtain a color for baptism by women from this passage; for they contend that if infants be in danger of death, they may be properly baptized by women, because Zipporah circumcised her son. But they will themselves allow that, if a man be present, a woman could not lawfully administer this sacrament. It is a perversion, then, to lay down a rule from a confused and hasty act.

Calvin’s Commentary on Exodus 4; source

In other words, Calvin gives the medieval way of saying our modern day maxim, “hard cases make bad laws.” Zipporah’s action was done under extreme circumstances, in an extreme case, when her husband’s life was in danger and the judgment of God Himself had fallen upon her family. To argue it as a scriptural principle for permitting women to either circumcise infants or perform the rite of baptism is misguided at best.

In any case, this brief refutation reminds us that there is truly nothing new under the sun. The only difference may be that, while few use Zipporah as an example for women doing baptisms, some cite the women at the tomb as support for female preaching.

…and touched Moses’ feet with it…

Some translations say at this point that she then “cast” (KJV; NKJV; ASV) or “threw” (NASB; CSB; HCSB) the foreskin at Moses’ feet. Some of the IFB pastors I referenced before (including Anderson) have capitalized on the KJV rendering of “cast”, using it to highlight how temperamental and disrespectful Zipporah was acting. However, a more accurate translation would be “touched” (NIV; ESV; NET; NLT), and the Targum quoted before translates it further as having Zipporah lay the foreskin at the feet of the angel. The LXX even translates the passage by saying Zipporah herself fell at the feet of Moses. The point here is, taking in account the meaning of the word and the traditional interpretation up to and around the time of Christ, that Zipporah did not toss the bloodied foreskin at Moses as if she were throwing a temper tantrum, but rather she was acting in a much more gentle manner.

…and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”

Zipporah then makes this interesting statement: “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” The “bridegroom of blood” is obviously a reference to the circumcision act itself, as verse 26 explains. Why Zipporah says this at all, and what she means by it, is a larger matter of debate. As demonstrated at the beginning of this post, many have interpreted this statement as an insult, as if Zipporah is yelling at Moses for having to do this bloody deed to her son. Matthew Henry expresses his personal opinion that this was Zipporah “expressing her dislike of the ordinance itself, or at least the administration of it to so young a child, and in a journey” (source).

On the other hand, this needn’t be the only way we interpret it. Origen writes that Zipporah “had known the story about a certain angel having power before the shedding of the blood, but who became powerless through the blood of circumcision,” hence her terminology to Moses, “A bloody husband art thou to me” (source). Matthew Henry, while favoring the notion that Zipporah was expressing her distaste, also presents (source) two other potential interpretations:

  • Zipporah is “solemnly expressing the espousal of the child to God by the covenant of circumcision”.
  • Zipporah is giving “her thankfulness to God for sparing her husband, giving him a new life, and thereby giving her, as it were, a new marriage to him, upon her circumcising her son”.

The targumim of Jonathan and Jerusalem, as we saw earlier, both present Zipporah in a positive light with this statement, and reword her language to have a more positive spin. The Targum Onkelos, another one of the targumim, reads the passage in this way:

And it was in the way, at the place of lodging, that the Angel of the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. And Zipporah took a stone, and circumcised the foreskin of her son, and approached before him, and said, On account of the blood of this circumcision let my husband be given (back) to me. And when he had desisted from him, she said, But for the blood of this circumcision my husband would have been condemned to die.

Targum Onkelos; source

Of course, the targumim often reference traditions that should be taken with a grain of salt. (For example, in Exodus 2, the Targum of Jonathan says that Jethro kept Moses in a pit for ten years, with Zipporah sneaking him food.) One rabbinical tradition even enters the realm of sheer fantasy by presenting it as if Zipporah saved Moses’ life from being eaten by two angels. Just in case you think I’m making this up…

Rabbi Yehuda bar Bizna taught: At the time that Moses our teacher was negligent about the circumcision, the destructive angels named Af, meaning anger, and Ḥeima, meaning wrath, came and swallowed him, and only his legs were left outside. Immediately, “Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son” (Exodus 4:25), and immediately “He let him alone” (Exodus 4:26)

Nedarim 32a3; source

The point is that, by the time of Christ, a trend in Jewish tradition was to see Zipporah’s words here as the fruit of a grateful heart, not a spiteful one. While Jewish tradition is not always friendly towards Zipporah, on this episode they all seem to see Zipporah in a much more gracious light than do many modern commentators.

What, then, can be presumed of the statement “bridegroom of blood” if it is not meant as an insult? There are various explanations for this, all of them reaching a similar conclusion. The NET, quoting another scholar, explains it in this way:

U. Cassuto explains that she was saying, “I have delivered you from death, and your return to life makes you my bridegroom a second time, this time my blood bridegroom, a bridegroom acquired through blood”…

NET notes for verse 25

Various medieval Jewish commentators have touched on the passage, and offer other interpretations. Sforno ties it in with the circumcision itself.

I have done this seeing that when I became married to you and you were my bridegroom you stipulated that our sons would have to be circumcised and that we would extract a certain amount of blood as the mark of the covenant with G’d. Tzipporah said all this to the angel who wanted to kill her husband in his defence i.e. the angel must know that there was no deliberate negligence in performing the rite of circumcision.

Sforno Commentary on Exodus 4; source

Rashi argues Zipporah’s statement of “a bridegroom of blood” was referencing her son, in relation to her husband almost dying.

…which means, thou hast brought it about that my bridegroom (Moses) was on the point of being killed because of thee: thou hast been to me my husband’s murderer.

Rashi Commentary on Exodus 4; source

Rashbam interpreted it to mean that, by drawing her child’s blood, Moses remained her husband in life.

…by means of this offering of my son’s blood you, Moses, remain my husband.

Rashbam Commentary on Exodus 4; source

The point is that we needn’t immediately presume that Zipporah is speaking out of anger here. The common theme in the historical interpretation is that Zipporah, by drawing the blood of her son in circumcision, had spared the life of her bridegroom. In this sense, this made him a “bridegroom of blood” to her.

If we consider that the Midianites only circumcised men when they became betrothed, it could be that Zipporah had this in mind. This may have inspired her exact terminology of “a bridegroom of blood,” since husbands in Midianite culture really would become “a bridegroom of blood” at betrothal. Of course, in this instance, the situation is flipped around a bit: Moses was not a bridegroom of blood through his own blood and circumcision, but through the blood and circumcision of his son. I admit, however, that this is speculation on my part.

Concluding Thoughts

Judging from all this, it might be ungracious to presume Zipporah is being a disrespectful wife here. To do so presumes that much of this incident (eg., the uncircumcision of her children) is her fault to begin with, and hence it is presumed the following episode (the removing of the foreskin) is done out of anger. On the other hand, what we find is that the situation was a desperate one where Zipporah was acting out of urgency, not anger, and the vast majority of commentary and thought from the time of Christ and immediately afterward saw her action as motivated by a desire to save her husband, and not mere anger.

It might be fascinating for the Christian reader to discover that this passage presents what seems to be a hidden shadow of Christ. By drawing the blood of her son, Zipporah makes atonement for her husband – on this, Christian and Jewish commentaries agree alike. The NET notes for verse 24 add that Zipporah saved Moses’ life by “casting the foreskin at Moses’ feet (indicating that it was symbolically Moses’ foreskin)”. One of the targumim quoted earlier has Zipporah state, “…now let this blood of the circumcision atone for my husband”, as well as, “How lovely is the blood of this circumcision that hath delivered my husband from the angel of destruction!” The LXX changes Zipporah’s statement to say, “The blood of the circumcision of my son stood.”

Moses’ son here then becomes a shadow of Christ. His blood is drawn, and it is his blood that is used to atone for the sins of Moses. Moses had not fulfilled the demands expected of him, and was guilty of a sin deserving death. Yet his son, through circumcision, and by his blood, was able to wipe away his guilt. Moses’ son, by his blood, secured the life of his father and brought realization to his parents’ marriage; similarly, Christ’s blood secured the eternal life of His flock, and guaranteed the marriage of the Lamb and His church. I know in some Reformed circles, this kind of interpretation is not popular and gets frowned upon, but I do think that, for pastors going through Exodus, there is a clear Gospel message here.

Some might disagree with me here, or still think that Zipporah was being disrespectful. If one does so, that’s fine. (I certainly don’t think you’re a heretic for doing so!) I welcome any and all (respectful) correction or feedback in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “In Defense of Zipporah

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  1. What I noticed is also the tendency of Hollywood to get “Christian” women act in un-biblical ways. The way that so called “Righteous” Women act like repellent shrews like in Quo Vadis.

    The woman in the Polish version seems to act much better than the Hollywood version.

    This may be the same.

      1. Yes you can watch it here:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ezhAiHzbdM

        Hollywood likes to portray the “Righteous” wife as similar to the contentious woman condemned in Proverbs.

        Or I simply find them grating. As if intended to sabotage marriage. In the same way no fault divorce and the duluth model does so:
        https://dalrock.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/threatpoint/

        https://dalrock.wordpress.com/2016/07/21/all-roads-lead-to-duluth/

        That and the promotion of using sex as a weapon in marriage. Where wives refuse sex for Husbands that don’t comply. Or that there can be marital rape.

        Work to sabotage marriage whilst making prostitutes being able to take the high ground in actually fulfilling the need of their clients.

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