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Home > Secteur-English > General > Parashat Shemot : Exodus 1:1-6:1

Parashat Shemot : Exodus 1:1-6:1

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Zippora – Building an Identity. By Edna Hilvitz*
The book of Exodus begins with the threat to the survival of the Israelites in Egypt. From Chapter 2 on the Torah unfolds the story of Moses, from birth through childhood and up to maturity. The fascinating figure of Moses, later to become the leader of the Israelites, illumines all of Exodus, indeed all the stories of the Torah. The brief narrative about Zippora en route to Egypt is the last episode in Moses’ life prior to his assuming the role of leader, but precisely here he plays no active role.[1] The story can be divided into nine passages, forming a circular structure :
1) At a night encampment on the way,
2) The Lord encountered him
3) And sought to kill him.
4) So Zippora took a flint
5) and cut off her son’s foreskin,
6) and touched his legs with it,
7) saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me !”
8) And when He let him alone,
9) she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”
Moses and Zippora and their two sons were present at the event, but only Zippora is mentioned by name. The circular structure of the narrative points us to the event’s climax, situated in the middle—the rite of circumcision.[2] Throughout the narrative the Torah seeks to highlight the figure of Zippora and her actions, presenting her as the primary heroine. We must ask why Zippora acted as she did. Zippora was the daughter of the priest of Midian, one of seven sisters who appeared by the well, and she, of all persons, was chosen to be Moses’ wife without any evident reason (Ex. 2:16-21). Biblical exegetes are divided over the question of whose life was in danger—that of Moses or that of his son. For the purposes of this discussion we have chosen to present the view of those who believe Moses’ life was at stake.[3] Moses is the central figure in the narrative unit preceding the circumcision story, and is mentioned there six times. We quote (Ex. 4:18-23) :
Moses went back to his father-in-law Jether…And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” The Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt,…” So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass,… and Moses took the rod of G‑d with him. And the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt,…” We may assume that if the figure in the neighboring unit, the story of the “bridegroom of blood,” is not mentioned by name, Scripture refers to the previously mentioned figure. Had it been the son who was attacked, we would expect Scripture to have said : “At a night encampment on the way, the Lord…sought to kill Moses’ son. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off his foreskin.” The transition from “sought to kill him” (v. 24) to “cut off her son’s foreskin” (v. 25) seems to hint at the fact that two figures were involved here.
There is another narrative in the Torah which is similar to the story at hand in its exceptional nature, namely the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel (Gen. 32:23-32). In these stories, both Jacob and Moses, major figures, were at the stage in life of starting a family and were on their way back to join their extended families. Jacob had to meet with Esau, and Moses had to meet with Pharaoh, and both Jacob and Moses had been preferred over their first-born brothers. Both were saved in an attack and immediately after the event met with their older brothers, kissed them, and embarked on a new era in their lives.[4] The main difference between the two stories is in the way they cope with being attacked. Jacob struggles with all his might and saves himself ; whereas in our story, it is Zippora who saves Moses, thus creating an analogy between Jacob and Zipporah and leading the reader to expect a happy ending. The story of Jacob’s obdurate struggle with the “man” until the crack of dawn includes a divine touch to Jacob’s leg, and our story also has a touching of the leg : “and touched his legs with it” (v. 25). When the circumcision is completed, Zippora takes the foreskin of her circumcised son and touches his leg, or perhaps Moses’ leg.[5] This furthers our understanding of the story and enables us to argue that perhaps the Torah was not comparing Zippora to Jacob but rather to the angel of G‑d. Thus, little by little, the question we posed at the outset becomes elucidated. The Hebrew word malon (rendered by the New JPS as “night encampment”) means a place for spending the night, a place to sleep for those who do not wish to continue their journey through the treacherous wilderness in the dark, thus indicating that the story took place at night. Zippora’s deed was performed in the dark, in foreign surroundings, not her familiar and natural setting. She responded swiftly and unhesitatingly, finding a way out of the trap she was in. This can be ascribed to none other than her great wisdom. We learn of the swiftness of her response from the series of verbs appearing in a single verse : “So Zippora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me !’” (v. 25). Her practicality and expertise in performing a circumcision are surprising. The other description of circumcision in the Torah deals with Abraham, the father of our people (Gen. 17:23-27).[6] “G‑d further said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep : every male among you shall be circumcised’” (Gen. 17:9-10). Through her act of circumcising, Zippora takes us back to the patriarch Abraham. Moses was born in Egypt, to the house of Levy. While an infant in an ark, he was described as “one of the Hebrews’ children” (Ex. 2:6). Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him, and so he grew up in Pharaoh’s house. Later, he had to flee to Midian, where he remained for many years. So what was Moses’ national identity ? Was he a Hebrew ? An Egyptian ? A Midianite ? This important question occupied both the people living in Goshen and the reader skipping back and forth from Amram’s house to Pharaoh’s and Jethro’s.[7] An answer to this question had to be given before Moses could embark on his mission. Paradoxically, it was Zippora, the daughter of the priest of Midian, who through her deed established the identity of Moses and his progeny, thus fulfilling the Lord’s command to Abraham and his offspring several centuries before the Torah was given to Israel. The rite of circumcision seals the identity both of the parents’ generation and of the children’s. It is fascinating to see how in the post-biblical era the custom of women circumcising their sons has spread, particularly on the basis of Zippora’s deed. This is instructive not only about the narrative importance of the event but also about its halakhic significance.[8] Zippora does not need to kill an “enemy,” as sometimes we find to be the case in stories where there is a threat to survival ; rather, in her act of deliverance she fulfills one of the laws of the Torah. This depiction makes the story and its heroine a rare variety : a strong woman with tremendous emotional resources and courage that find expression at a fateful hour. Zippora presents us a fundamental assumption in forming identity and represents a huge challenge : when the nuclear family is under attack, conflicts and predicaments can be resolved by fulfilling commandments that leave their mark on succeeding generations.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Edna Hilvitz is a doctoral student in the Department of Bible, Bar Ilan University.

[1] For a detailed account of the questions and interpretations of this story, cf. J.T. Willis, Yahweh and Moses in Conflict : The Role of Exodus 4:24-26 in the Book of Exodus, Peter Lang 2010.
[2] For further reading on this structure, cf. N. Klaus, “Mivnim Dikdukiyim be-Sefer Yehoshua,” in Iyyunim ba-Sippur ha-Mikra’i : Ne’umim, Mivnim Dikdukiyim ve-Hashva’ot, Tel Aviv 1990, pp. 30-42.
[3] For a summary of the various views, cf. B. Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible (trans. W. Jacob), New Jersey 1992.
[4] S.L. Shearman and J.B. Curtis, “Divine-Human Conflict in the Old Testament,” JNES 28 (1969), pp. 231-242.
[5] On the significance of touching as signifying transition to a new state in life, see R. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge 1999.
[6] Aside from the story of Jacob’s sons and the men of Shechem, which involves deceit (Gen. 34:20-25).
[7] On Moses’ identity, see A.E. Gorospe, Narrative and Identity : An Ethical Reading of Exodus 4, Brill 2007.
[8] Yossi Ziv, “Milah bi-Yedei Ishah be-Sifrut Hazal u-ve-Minhad Yehudei Ethiopia,” Netu`im (2004), pp. 1-16.

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