Parashat Shemot is the onset of the Children of Israel’s redemption from Egypt. The Sages say “By the Merit of Righteous Women We Were Redeemed from Egypt.” This is especially true in the case of Moses, who is consistently saved by brave and resourceful women: the midwives Shifrah and Puah (who, according to some interpreters, are Yocheved and Miriam), his mother Yocheved, his sister Miriam, his adoptive mother, the daughter of Pharaoh, and his wife Zipporah.
Like other love stories in the Bible, Moses and Zipporah meet by the well. Moses flees Egypt, after having killed an Egyptian guard. He arrives to Midian, and meets Jethero’s seven daughters, who come to water their father’s flocks, by the well. The other shepherds chase them away, but Moses saves them and waters their flocks. When the sisters return home, they tell their father about their champion. In response, their father instructs them “call him, that he may eat bread,” implying possible marriage.
The Sages suggest that Jethro identified Moses’ lineage, and knew that he is blessed. Out of the seven sisters, Zipporah takes the initiative, and runs after the stranger as swiftly as a bird [in Hebrew the name Zipporah means a female bird].
Bridegroom of Blood
Moses marries Zipporah, and they have two sons: Gershom and Eliezer. After God is revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush, Moses takes his family and intends to go back to Egypt to free the Children of Israel. During their overnight stay in the desert, God tries to kill Moses. In what seems like witchcraft, Zipporah manages to appease God’s wrath by circumcising her son and offering the bloody foreskin as offering, declaring “Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me:”
And it came to pass on the way at 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.’ (Exodus 4, 24-26).
Faced by the wrath of God, Moses becomes passive and oblivious, unable to save his own life. Zipporah, who has exhibited initiative from their initial meeting, circumcises her son and places the bloody foreskin at his feet as a ritual act of appeasement.
How did Zipporah know that God’s wrath was related to circumcision? The Sages suggest that the wrathful angel swallowed Moses from his head to his circumcised manhood. From this Zipporah inferred that circumcision has the power to save her husband’s life.
Drinking All the Days through a Straw
After heroically saving her husband, Zipporah disappears from the story. She is reunited with Moses before the Revelation of Mount Sinai. In this sense Zipporah’s story is partial, broken. In her poem “Oyoy” Yona Wallach describes Zipporah as a woman who finds herself in a dead end. She asks “where are we stuck… where are we standing.” The questions have no question marks but rather end with a full stop, suggesting a state of bewilderment and confusion, pointing out the harsh challenges awaiting ahead: “Hard days… like drinking all the days through a straw.”
Woe Zipporah where are we stuck
hard days or say it with penults
seas of straws, like drinking
all the days through a straw with what
bandages shall the night be dressed flowery
and pink at the end yellow and in the day
wow Zipporah where are we standing
~Oyoy, Yona Wallach. Translated by Linda Zisquit.
Feature Photo: Sandro Botticelli, The Trials and Calling of Moses (1481-1482).