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Zipporah in the Bible: The Untold Story

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We know that Moses is the man God chose to deliver his people, Israel from the grip of Pharoah. But Moses almost did not make it to Egypt. In fact, he almost met an early grave. His success lies at the feet of an Old Testament hero few talk about and many don’t even know her name. She is Zipporah, Moses’ wife in the Bible.

God Prepares Moses for his Confrontation with Pharaoh

By the time we reach chapter 4 of Exodus, we already know Moses has been tasked with the job of saving Israel from slavery. He is certainly nervous about the proposition and feeling rather insecure. In the first half of the chapter, God prepares Moses for the task by showing him the types of miracles he will perform in front of Pharaoh. Turning a staff into a snake or a healthy hand into a leprous one was not enough to remove Moses’ jitters. He tells God he has a public speaking problem and at this point, God has lost his patience. But God relents and promises Moses that his brother Aaron will be his mouthpiece.

So Moses is about to embark on a rather difficult spiritual adventure. You would think that he has dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s. But you would have thought wrong. Moses left out a very important and significant detail that almost cost him his life.

God Plans to Kill Moses

As we progress into chapter four, we see that Moses begins his preparations for his departure in verse 18. Ask your father-in-law for permission? Check. Gather the wife and sons? Check. Secure transportation aka donkeys? Check. Circumcise your boy? Definitely not checked.

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This peculiar story is often left out of the Moses narrative. I certainly did not see it in The Prince of Egypt, but I guess that does not make for rated-PG TV. God has chosen his man, but now in Exodus 4:24, while Moses and his family are resting in the 2nd Millenia BCE equivalent of Motel 6, God seeks to kill him. Shortly after in verses 25 to 26, Zipporah grabs a sharp stone and single-handedly circumcises one of her sons, and then the account nonchalantly continues. If you are left scratching your head, you are not alone.

A Covenant Matters

One of the reasons this story is confusing is because it lacks context for us in the 21st Century. Earlier readers would have picked up on the role that the covenant of circumcision plays in this important account.

God first makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, but God seals it in blood in Genesis 15. A covenant is a type of agreement between two or more parties where each side usually promises to do or not do something. What is peculiar in the Genesis 15 covenant is that God is the only one to make a promise — to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan. To seal the promise, several animals are cut in half and God walks through the middle of the halved carcasses. This is a blood oath, and although it may sound gruesome, it was a common custom practiced in the ancient world. Under the terms of a blood oath, both parties to the covenant typically pass through and in doing so declare, “May this be done to me if I do not keep my oath.” But since God only placed the responsibility on Himself, God alone subjects himself to the curse if the promise is broken.

A couple of chapters later, in Genesis 17, we are introduced to the covenant of circumcision. In this covenant, God promises to make Abraham the father of many nations. Under this covenant, God does require males (and males alone) to circumcise the foreskin of their reproductive body part. In verse 14, God gives a dire warning to those who do not comply.

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 17:14

The failure to be circumcised is a big deal and fathers usually had the responsibility of circumcising their children on the 8th day after birth. It doesn’t look like Moses had done that with one of his children and that puts him in quite the pickle.

Moses' success lies at the feet of an Old Testament hero few talk about and many don't even know her name. She is Zipporah, Moses' wife in the Bible. Share on X

Great Leadership Comes with Great Responsibility

The covenant of circumcision was about about being fruitful and multiplying. More specifically, the covenant was about the survival and expansion of the Hebrew nation (which eventually would include Gentiles under the new covenant through Jesus Christ). That the sign of the covenant would be marked on the man’s reproductive organ is not a coincidence. What does this have to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise his son?

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The goal of Pharaoh was to destroy Israel as a people. He was not happy that they were multiplying and sought to completely vanquish the nation of Israel, or at least greatly reduce their numbers. It ran completely contrary to the covenant of circumcision that God had established in Abraham. Now God chose Moses as his representative to free his people from Egypt and His promise could be fulfilled — but Moses had failed to do the one ceremonial act that represented that very promise.

Why did Moses fail to do so on the eighth day of his son’s birth? Was he not as versed in Hebrew culture as others and didn’t realize that God had specified a time when it had to be done? That is possible. While Moses had spent his early years with his birth mother, most of his adolescence and early adult life was under the influence of Egyptians and then later he attached himself to the Midianites. While the Midianites were also descendants of Abraham, they developed as a people separate from the nation of Israel and their practices did not always align with God’s commandments (See Genesis 37:36, Numbers 25, Judges 6:3). So Moses may not have had the benefit of being fully immersed in the culture of his people, Israel, and was following Midianite standards for circumcision which could have been more lax.

But maybe he was just squeamish about the whole thing and kept putting it off. Regardless of the reason, he failed to act and the Bible tells us that God sought to kill Moses.

God’s response seems a bit harsh to our modern sensibilities but authority in the Bible always comes with great responsibility. God holds his leaders to a higher standard. But someone had Moses’ back and in doing so she became an ēzer to him and the people of Israel.

Zipporah Acts

How Zipporah knew that God was going to kill Abraham, we don’t know. We also don’t know how she connected the covenant of circumcision to Moses’ predicament. Maybe God was gracious and revealed it to her. Maybe she put two and two together on her own. But how she knew is inconsequential. What is important is what she did with that information. She immediately took action and circumcised her son.

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God used the ēzer to do what was necessary, even if it was bloody and against Zipporah’s motherly instincts. Never mind that her son might have already been an adult. Note that at this time Moses was already 80 years old so their offspring would not have likely been small children. And she circumcises him with a stone!

In the account, after she circumcises her son the text reads in Exodus 4:25 (in the ESV), “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!'”

Why did she throw the foreskin on the Moses’ feet? And why did she say he was a bridegroom of blood to her? There is definitely something cultural going on here and commentators are not particularly sure. The only sure thing we know is that the word Moses is actually “him” in Hebrew, so the word “him” could have also referred to her son. Zipporah might have been following a Midianite ritual because of her lack of knowledge of Hebrew practices. Or it could be something else. Regardless, she followed through and because of her actions, we know God spared Moses.

Moses and Zipporah Separate

If you notice, right after the whole circumcision incident, we don’t hear about Zipporah again until Exodus 18:2. It is in this latter verse that we learn that Moses had sent Zipporah and his sons back to Midian. Based on the friendly tone between Moses and his father-in-law in Exodus 18, we can surmise that it was not for negative reasons. The more likely explanation is that shortly after he almost died, Moses realized the gravity and the dangers he was subjecting his family to by bringing them to Egypt. The safer place for them was in Midian until Moses and Israel were freed from Egyptian strongholds.

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Moses’ decision is a protective one — one that would keep his family safe. And yet, it would have been difficult for Zipporah. In modern times, I can think of no better example than military wives — who must hold the fort at home while their husbands keep the country safe. It is a reminder that the role of ēzer requires strength and sacrifice in the midst of difficult times.

Ezer’s Do Hard Things

If Zipporah had not followed through and Moses had died, God would have raised someone else. God will come through with his promises with or without us. Yet, God allowed her to be the hero in this story and made it a point to tell us about it. She protected her husband but also protected the nation of Israel.

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What can we learn from her story? As a wife and as an ēzer, you can play an important role in helping your husband dot his i’s and cross his t’s for whatever calling God has in his life (just as your husband has a responsibility to help you prepare for yours). Marriage isn’t about, he does his thing and I do mine. We keep each other accountable. If you are not married, you can play an important role in being an ēzer to other people in positions of authority, like a boss, a family member, or a church leader. If you see someone heading straight off the edge of a cliff, do not hesitate to act. Be an ēzer. Ezers do hard things. It is the reason we were created and Zipporah serves as an example to us all.

Other articles in the series of Untold Stories of Old Testament Heros

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