Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View

Drawing Back

A Midrash on Exodus 4:24-26 [18]

Moses and I have long agreed that our journey left us in very different places. Only recently, though, have I come to wonder if we even shared a starting point…

In the beginning, I remember, both boys [1] were almost trampled to death when the elder tried to push his new brother off my breast. Plus, the little one wasn’t nursing well and screamed himself to sleep without drinking enough for that day’s heat. When I couldn’t rouse him at first, I began to panic. So, of course, my milk wouldn’t let down when I was finally able to awaken him. It was just eight days after the birth of our not-yet-named son, and I was losing blood again. I was exhausted, missing my sisters, and wondering again if this trip were truly necessary. But my husband – about some things anyway.

First, he’d gone to Father, telling him with an urgency I had not seen since that long ago day at the well [2] that he must see how his brethren were faring [3]. With Father’s blessing, he’d rushed through the preparations and we’d made our good-byes. Then, when he was all but on the road, he’d returned in another rush, telling me that the boys and I should accompany him, that we would all live in Egypt. Finally, as the donkeys were already proceeding, Moses had rushed back once more for the staff he used in shepherding.

In fits and starts through the day’s journey, I had heard more words from that man than he ordinarily spoke from one new moon to the next. He’d told me again about the bush [4] and the staff, the promise of redemption and his need to be among his people. Mostly, though, he’d repeated the same fears: “Why would Pharaoh receive a man of the slave people, a man who’d actually fled court to become a shepherd? Would any Israelite trust a man raised in Pharaoh’s palace? Would they recognize him as a fellow?” [5]

Moses wasn’t hearing my responses, and I knew those were not his only fears, so I let the silences grow. Then just before nightfall, Moses began to speak again, this time of a land of milk and honey and a river of blood; the need to bring the people into God’s presence and the terrors that faced everyone before the redemption could take place. That was when he began to shiver.

The night was quite warm, so at first I assumed the shivering was exhaustion. Still, I remember hesitating to halt our journey, thinking Moses might tell me more if we kept our pace. Eventually, though, I felt the need to lie down and suggested we stop.

Moses barely spoke as we settled in for the night. The boys were already sleeping, and I was beginning to drift off, when he suddenly sat up and shouted, “Not my first born!” [6] Moses shook in his cloak, mumbling something about that river of blood and where it would lead. He was sinking deeper into the grip of the fever [7]. He began struggling for breath, and each gasp seemed to be emptying the little room of its air. For a time I feared Moses’ struggle with the fever might engulf the boys and me as well.

I remember thinking how easily men seem to link blood with death and how constantly they must be reminded that blood is also the source of life. Still bleeding myself from bringing forth the exquisite new life sharing my wrap, I suddenly pictured Moses shortly after Gershom’s birth, demanding that he be circumcised according to Israelite custom. How I’d railed at Moses then!” [8] And, as Moses continued to shiver, I found myself repeating aloud what I’d shouted at him over Gershom’s birth: “Why should your fathers’ God want the blood of this perfectly formed babe? Haven’t I shed enough?”[9]

But that night, kneeling between new life and near death… that’s when I experienced a clarity as sharp and all-encompassing as a birth pain… and as impossible to recall after it has passed.

I can tell you that my fingers refused to uncurl afterward, so hard had I clutched the flint [10]. I can relate how I touched Moses with the blood, telling him, “You are a blood bridegroom,” and how, soon after that, I saw Moses’ fever depart. But none of that explains how the wound I inflicted allowed our family to breathe again that night, or how its scar eventually became a lifeline drawing Moses back to us.

I can tell you how, when Moses finally sat up, I recognized his expression. I’d seen it many times before, on the faces of men at festival rites with my father only there was no joy in Moses’ face, just awe and determination [11]. I can repeat what I told Moses then,”You are a blood bridegroom to me.” I can describe Moses’ response, his solemn nod, the way he carefully placed my hand on his shoulder before pulling our wide-eyed Gershom to his side and picking up our bandaged infant. And I can tell you that it wasn’t to me or to the children that Moses looked when naming our youngest. But does that explain how, even as I felt his shoulder under my hand, I knew that I could no longer hold Moses? Does it give you any clue to the terror I felt as he leaned forward and away from me, intoning “Eliezer– God is my help”? [12]

There is so little of that night’s experience that translates into everyday language. If I tell you that Moses and I lived the rest of our marriage from opposite shores of that river of blood, am I speaking your language? Perhaps I should simply tell you how glad I was to let Aaron and Moses continue on alone after that night.” [13]

Over the years I’ve come to be grateful that I was not destined for prophecy or priesthood. But, I do still regret that I never succeeded in making anyone else understand what was so clear to me that night…

I was never quite sure what Aaron knew in the beginning, and after the tragedy [14] we couldn’t speak of such things at all. Miriam, who received and responded to prophecy as naturally as most people breathe, simply could not — or would not –understand how different things were for her brother or for me. [15]

Even father — who was able to help Moses share the burden of his prophecy, to get through to him when no one else could [16] — couldn’t unburden me. [17]

1. Gershom, Moses’ and Zipporah’s first child, is introduced and named at Exodus 2:22 and again at Ex 18:3. At Exodus 18:3-4, two sons are named. I am following a line of commentary that assumes both boys had been born at the time of this trip, although the second had not yet been named (or circumcised; see, e.g., Shemot Rabbah). Other commentary has the second child born during this trip, and so outside Midian. Still others assume that only one child was born before this incident, leaving the second to be born back in Midian, while Moses and Aaron are in Egypt.

2. Exodus 2:16-21.

3.Exodus 4:18.

4. Exodus 3:1-4:17.

5.Exodus 2:1-15.

6. Sarna’s note on Ex 4:23 (The JPS Torah Commentary) links this verse, which closes with “Behold, I shall kill your firstborn son,” words Moses is told to speak to Pharaoh, with the incident at the lodging place that directly follows.

7. In The Depths of Simplicity: Incisive Essay on the Torah (NY: Feldheim, 1994), R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky suggests that it is the potential leader’s tension between obligation and fear that causes Moses’ illness and that Zipporah’s cure is a reminder of the covenant and his role in its unfolding. I have blended this midrash with the picture of Zipporah that emerges from the myriad other commentaries and midrashim on this odd passage.

8. The brevity of the “night lodging” passage and its use of pronouns and verbs without clear referent leads to much confusion, and so food for comment, ancient and modern. Who does the threatening: an angel? God? Who is threatened: the elder child, the younger child, or Moses? Who is circumcised here Moses or one of his children? and who does Zipporah touch with the blood? Who is the “bridegroom of blood”? Are there two separate referents in the two uses of this term?

In addition, commentators disagree about why the attack took place: was it punishment for a failure to circumcise? a pre-leadership test of Moses? Nor is there agreement about why Zipporah took the action she did: as a magical rite of Midian origin? as a sign of the Israelite covenant, which she understood from her husband’s teaching? an action that seemed necessary to her, based on the situation alone?

9. Some traditional commentary on Ex 4:24-26 suggests that Jethro forbade circumcising his grandsons; Zipporah’s opinion is not recorded.

10. Ex 4:25.

11. Jethro is known as “the priest of Midian” (Ex. 3:1, 18:1).

13. Zipporah is not mentioned in the text between Ex 4:26 and Ex 18:2, when Jethro comes to Moses in the desert with “Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home.” Rashi’s commentary has Aaron suggesting that Zipporah and the children, not being Israelites, not be forced to suffer, and Moses agreeing to “send them home.”

14. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu die “offering alien fire before to the Lord” (Lev 10:1ff).

15. See Numbers 12:6-8, where God tells Miriam and Aaron that they do not understand the difference between Moses’ prophecy and those who receive visions and dreams.

16. See the account of Jethro’s visit to Moses in the desert at Ex 18:1-27, especially Jethro’s telling Moses, “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out, you as well as this people that is with you — for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone. Now heed my voice,…” (Ex. 18:17-19)

17. Zipporah is a footnote-lovers’ dream. She appears only three or four times in the Torah: she is called by name only in Ex 2:21, Ex 4:25, and Ex 18:2 and is possibly the “Cushite” woman who is the focus of Numbers chapter 12. Yet it is this marginal character who stares down God (or a messenger thereof) in order to save her family–and, as a result, the Israelites. In three short verses, a woman who lives largely in the footnotes, or in the white space between the Torah’s letters, makes possible the redemption of the Israelites and the birth of the Jews.

18. This story originally appeared in All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus, edited by Rebecca A. Schwartz. Rikudei Miriam Press, 2001.

Creative Commons License
Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

3 comments

  1. Reading this tonight brought me to tears… Thank you Virginia!

  2. […] Word of the Day: JETHRO, 10-21-11 | World News – Russian opinion1Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View | A Song Every Day […]

  3. […] See also Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View […]

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