Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The family of foreigners: Zipporah's difficult cross-cultural marriage (Ex 2-4, 18)

We opened Exodus with wonderful female characters in stories that were thrillingly easy to appreciate and understand. Not so with our next woman, Zipporah. We know just a little about her--enough to really pique our interest and, frankly, leave us very perplexed. She is a foreigner, not an Israelite, and there is a veil over a lot of the details of this exotic woman's life. But lets dive in and learn what we can.

Beautiful strangers meet in Midian
By the time Moses meets Zipporah, his life has become even more complicated than it was at his birth, which is saying a lot. He has been raised in Pharaoh's house, but feels a sense of identity with his own people, the Hebrews, who are enslaved and bitterly oppressed by Pharaoh. After his identity conflict boils over and causes him to commit murder of an Egyptian who was whipping a Hebrew slave, he is forced to flee to the wilderness.

Exiled from the home into which he was adopted, out of his own people, who are exiles themselves, Moses is a foreigner in so many senses when he sits down by a well in Midian. We, however, are in familiar territory, knowing exactly what happens when young men show up at wells in foreign lands. When the priest of Midian's seven daughters come to water their flocks, they are chased away by other shepherds, but Moses rescues them from the shepherds and wins himself an invitation to dinner with Reuel or Jethro, the priest of Midian. And sure enough, we are not kept waiting for the news, in the next sentence, we learn that "In time Reuel gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses for a wife." When they have a son, Moses names him Gershom, "foreigner." You can read Moses' mind easily here. Though he seems to have settled happily in Midian, he still feels like an alien.

The lovely thing about a romance that occurs when you are away from home is that it is exempt from the stresses of your other life. Moses, having run away from his really complicated identity situation in Egypt, could be, in Midian, nothing but the herder of Jethro's sheep, and the husband of Zipporah. Moses had a small and manageable world in his escape. To Zipporah, Moses must have seemed brave, exotic, and just troubled enough to be interesting.

But when God breaks into Moses' life and interrupts his avoidance strategy, Zipporah's life, as well as Moses', will be completely turned upside down. Surely God's call to Moses disrupted and completely changed his life, but he had a context for it. He was receiving a redemptive challenge that would bring together his life struggle, focus it, and define both himself and and God's people.  But for Zipporah, who didn't share Moses cultural identity and history, it must have felt quite disorienting. She probably had entertained the idea that her foreigner might someday want to visit home, but she couldn't have imagined a scenario like this, where her husband would be called to face off with Pharaoh, and she would eventually need to travel with a whole nation of in-laws through the red sea and then the desert.

But Moses doesn't lead with his unique calling from God when he approaches Jethro about returning to Egypt. He goes with the milder, "Please let me return to my relatives in Egypt, I don't even know if any of them are still alive." Jethro gives his blessing and the family sets off. This journey from Zipporah's home culture to Moses' will change who is the "foreign" spouse. Did Zipporah know what her family was getting into? Probably, when you consider what she seems to know in the story that follows.

The Bridegroom of Blood
They are on the road when the most substantial paragraph we have in the Bible about Zipporah occurs. Moses is already gearing up for his task of confronting Pharaoh, hearing a message from God that reminds him of what he must do in Egypt. Immediately after God speaks to Moses, we have this strange story, which I will transcribe fully, because it is short, and odd enough that we should remember exactly what happens: 

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.

This is another story that is so confusing to me that I did some extra googling to see if real theologians know what to do with it. Unfortunately, they don't. That doesn't make it easier, but it does give us more free reign to try to figure it out! 

Here is my take. One main problem with understanding the story is that we don't know who the "him" refers to in the first sentence, whom God sought to kill. Moses? Pharaoh's son, who has been mentioned in the previous sentence? Moses' son? My guess is that the "him" is Gershom, Moses' son--that along the way Gershom's life was endangered at the hand of God. Here's why.

The death of the firstborn of Pharaoh is mentioned in God's message to Moses which immediately precedes this. The death of Pharaoh's firstborn is contrasted with the rescue of God's firstborn, Israel. But which household does Moses' firstborn belong to? Pharaoh's household or God's? The question seems open based on Moses life story. In seeking the death of uncircumcised Gershom, maybe God was pushing Moses toward full identification with Israel, reminding him of what would happen to the children of Egypt.

Moses had been living as a foreigner away from his people, and had obviously not circumcised his son yet. But in light of Moses' calling, their family identity with the Jews would need to be complete. Perhaps at home in Midian, Zipporah had not felt the urgency to abide by this foreign custom, even if Moses may have mentioned it to her. But with their purpose clear, and her son's life on the line, Zipporah begins to realize what her marriage to Moses will mean for their family. They must all fully join God's people, and circumcision is necessary to establish this. She circumcises Gershom, throws the foreskin (ugh, so weird to be talking about foreskins!) at Moses, and in distress mixed with resignation, calls him a bridegroom of blood. Strange that the text gives us an explanatory note here that Zipporah's exclamation had to do with the circumcision, but leaves so much else unclear. 

What I think is clear is that Zipporah is upset over the bloodiness and injury her son must experience, but grudgingly understands what is necessary. In this take on the story, we are, admittedly, guessing about who's life was in danger. But whoever it was, Zipporah seems less worried about the mortal danger and thankful for having avoided it, than upset by the circumcision. This is a clue to me that this identification with God's people is a main issue here. Zipporah is the person who would struggle with it most, out of their family of three. Returning with Moses into Egypt would have brought this family identity issue to a crisis, and I think that's what the story is about.

Before we move on, let's note that here again in Exodus, we see the supreme importance to life of bearing children, in that the ultimate plague and worst punishment imaginable for the Egyptians is the death of a child.

The separation
Before studying Zipporah this time, I had never noticed how little Moses' family factors into his life once he returns to Egypt, and thereafter. But the text after this story turns completely to Moses, Pharaoh, the plagues, the passover, all the major themes of the Exodus. The next time we hear anything about Zipporah and her sons, they are coming back with her father Jethro, because, whoops, Exodus forgot to tell us that "Earlier, Moses had sent his wife, Zipporah, and his two sons back to Jethro, who had taken them in." It's mentioned as an aside to explain why the family is visiting, and you can't really tell when it happened. 

Why did Moses and Zipporah separate? I'm really dying for a little more detail about their family life after leaving Midian. So let's try to reconstruct a bit. In the last story we have about Zipporah, she appears upset with Moses about the circumcision, which was only the beginning of her passage into Hebrew life. If the circumcision was a problem for her, that she would bear, but with some distress, how will she handle becoming part of an enslaved group of people, and watching Egypt suffer under all the plagues? Could Moses have "sent her back" to Jethro for her safety and peace of mind? Maybe. 

With Moses taking on the mantle of his role as the leader of God's people out of Egypt, their marriage and family life would surely have been affected. He transitioned from a shepherd to a  prophet, miracle worker, and head of state. We can imagine how the family of the president of the United States must completely sacrifice their claim on him while he is in office, and this is probably a fair parallel to what Moses' family had to do. But while Moses was consumed with his work, Zipporah would have lacked other support. She was among complete strangers in Egypt. If Moses was a foreigner in Midian, now Zipporah is one in Egypt, but without the fellowship of a spouse, or her extended family. Maybe that's why it made sense for her to go back. 

You could also interpret it as Moses "going off to war" and arranging for the safety of his family. Given the intensity of his task, that would also make sense.

Jethro brings his daughter and grandsons back to visit Moses, after he hears of the great success of the Exodus. Between the lines, I detect signals that Jethro is really wishing to reunite Zipporah with Moses. He comes with Moses' family, encouraging him and rejoicing with him over what he has achieved. But he also watches Moses and makes some helpful suggestions for how Moses can delegate work to have more time . . . for his family, perhaps? Moses takes this advice well, and implements Jethro's advice. At the end of the visit, "he went away to his own country," but there is no mention of Zipporah and the boys. Did they stay?

I don't see any evidence that Zipporah goes back home with Jethro, but neither is there any hint of her being around afterward. I guess it's possible that they enjoyed a supportive and warm home life, which Moses just did not think was important to mention in the rest of the Torah. I would love to go with that, though I wish we had more evidence for Zipporah not being left behind with her loving father while Moses abandoned her for his holy career. 

It's not clear. But they are not in the story again except for a brief mention years later when Aaron and Miriam find fault with Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. That critique seems a bit random in it's context to me. Check it out and see if you have any insight yourself: Numbers 12:1. My only guess is that this is the cultural identity issue coming up again? That maybe they are astonishingly doubting Moses' Hebrew credentials if his wife is a foreigner?

The episode is worth considering with reference to Zipporah, because God comes to Moses' defense, saying to Aaron and Miriam, "Of all my house, he is the one I trust. I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles. He sees the Lord as he is." The point is that God is clearly pleased with Moses' relationship with him. This question about his marriage is answered by God's pleasure in his unique relationship with Moses. God is saying that his marriage to Zipporah does not count against him in any way. 

One other option we haven't mentioned yet is that perhaps Zipporah just never could fully identify with Moses' people, that the cultural differences were too much, and she wanted to be back at home. Could she have abandoned Moses? An argument against this is that in 1 Chronicles Gershom and Eliezer are referred to as family leaders, so they it seems like they must have been living with the Israelite community. But I was not able to find any information about children they had or anything else.

Ultimately, we can imagine two main versions of Zipporah's life: either she tried to integrate with Israel, or she didn't. If she didn't, she would have been the responsible party for the distance in their marriage. If that scenario is true, that Zipporah went back home because life with her holy husband was too difficult, it's easier to understand. We expect God to be in the corner of people who are abandoned by their spouses. But I think we have a little more of a challenge understanding this marriage, because we know Moses "sent them home" himself, initially, and that his sons are later involved with the Israelite community as leaders. So to me it seems a little more likely that Zipporah was there, but that after Midian, she just didn't figure strongly into Moses life, which was dominated by his work and his relationships with God. Adding to the challenge, we know that God was pleased with Moses' work and relationship with God, though it kept him from involvement with his family, and his wife, who must have really needed him in the foreign culture he brought her into.

There are a lot of words on the cutting floor for this post. I would love to tie a bow around the the story of Moses and Zipporah's relationship, but we just don't have enough information about in the text to even know exactly what we are looking at. My mom points out that it's so biblical that we get a fairly sparse account that focuses on particular events, and leaves out backstory we are left scratching our heads over.

We should also keep in mind that according to tradition, Moses is the author of all of the Bible we have read so far. Maybe he doesn't want to detail his private home life and marriage details. We did have more to work with in the other families he wrote about in Genesis. But here he focuses on what God was doing for the Israelites at large. For him, Zipporah figures in to the story when he meets her in exile, and then when they establish their family identity as firmly Hebrew. That's the important part of her story for the purposes of Exodus. Though we do have the fact that they have separated for a while, which hints at some possible trouble in their marriage, that part isn't even totally clear. I would love to understand more of her life and experience, but it seems Zipporah must remain a bit foreign to us.

  • Moses and Zipporah faced a challenge uniting in culture and purpose after Moses' call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
  • We know they separated for a while, but we don't know why, or even whether or not they reunited. 
  • Zipporah does not seem to figure into the most important parts of Moses' life.
  • God is pleased with Moses' life, whatever was happening in his marriage.
  • What do you think is the best explanation of Moses and Zipporah's relationship? Do you think Zipporah was left behind by Moses or the other way around? Did she live with Moses after Jethro's visit?
  • What is the best way to deal with the given difference in priorities between husbands and wives, to have the most happy and satisfying marriage for both parties?
  • Is there any chance God was happy for Moses and Zipporah to separate and for him to throw himself into his career and for her to live with her parents? That doesn't sit right with me . . . 

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