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 . . . 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Infanticide and women helping women (Ex 1:15-2:20)

From Potiphar's wife, the categorical villainess, we move right along to the book of Exodus and our first unmitigated heroines, the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah. When we left off in Genesis, the Israelites had just arrived in Egypt at Pharaoh's invitation. The last 10 chapters or so of Genesis, though they feature a few women, are mostly about Joseph and his father and brothers and how God blesses them with the favor and wealth of Egypt. Important stories in God's plan, but not specifically useful for looking at what God has to say about women. But when Exodus opens, we are greeted by some truly incredible women handing awful circumstances with the courage, faith, compassion, and grit.

However, to set the stage for their stories, we do need the larger context of what is going on with God's people at large. The Israelites arrived in Egypt in honor, which was afterward forgotten and replaced with persecution, oppression and enslavement.

The story of the Exodus has been treasured by oppressed people throughout history. Reading the part of the story we are focusing on, parallels between the plight of the Israelites and enslaved African Americans are plain, but I noticed a new similarity this time. The obvious parallel is that both groups are enslaved and oppressed, and feared because they are becoming too numerous. In the United States, as time has passed, some liberation for African enslaved people has been gained. But another similarity between these two people groups that was particularly salient for me at this cultural moment, and in thinking about the part women play in the story, involves the solution Pharaoh proposes to control the group he wants to oppress. This is where the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, come in. Pharaoh tells them to kill the Hebrew baby boys as they are being born. “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

The concept that made this parallel jump out to me was "infanticide," which we have horrifyingly found in our headlines lately, around the national discussion of what we will allow when we permit abortion. Infanticide is the horrible extreme of the permission given to mothers to end the early lives of babies who would burden them. Pharaoh is clearly barbaric for ordering the murder of born-alive babies whose mothers want them to live. But there is some overlap in strategy between his plan and the historic racist eugenics movement, which has its current iteration in clinics in offering abortions to African Americans at a much higher rate than the rest of the population (some key statistics can be found on this page). The root idea employed there is the same--to manage an oppressed people by lessening their numbers, through keeping their offspring from living.

Women helping women
In our modern conversation, this topic appears much more complex, because abortion is linked to the idea of helping women avoid the loss of power and agency that happens to them when they bear children. Women are asked to participate in the decision to kill their babies, and encouraged that though the decision is difficult, it will be better for everyone if there are less dependents to care for. In one light, abortion is seen as a strategy that women must fight to make available, to help each other, despite it's terrible nature. Women who want to help other women often want to preserve the right to use it, with the idea that it will help some people, closing their eyes to the even more innocent people who it destroys. But can we really call this women helping women?

The way this "parallel" works when it come to the women in the story is actually not as a parallel, but a contrast in how women have seen their own flourishing and needs in biblical history versus our own moment. In ancient Egypt as well as 18th century America, there were similar conflicts between oppressive governments and enslaved people. Pharaoh relied on his evil authority to kill the baby boys among his slaves to keep them down, where as Margaret Sanger and her crew turned to the idea of eugenics for similar reasons. But the women upon whom the strategies were implemented reacted in very different ways then and now.

When it comes to Shiprah and Puah, the brave Hebrew midwives, we have a different dynamic of women helping women than what is offered in abortion clinics. In order to help their fellow women, the midwives defied, not an obvious moral standard, but rather the decree of an evil king. The reason they did not kill the Hebrew baby boys was because "they feared God." This is a sound way of choosing between right and wrong and determining a course of action in a difficult situation. Their fear of God led them to a reverence for the lives of the new people he was bringing into the world. They understood the miracle and blessing of new life, and they had too much fear of God to be able to listen to Pharaoh and commit murder.

What kind of blessing?
Verse 20 tells us that because of Shiprah and Puah's fear of God, God was kind to them, the people continued to increase, and in my favorite detail, "because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own." Mark down another instance of God rewarding women by blessing them with the gift and holy task of bearing children. I love that the reward comes to them because they helped babies live and helped mothers keep their children, and that the reward is for them to also have children. This is a banner story for women as mothers, and as helpers of mothers. We can so clearly see God's favor on these roles for women who fear him.

Contrast this picture of blessing for women and the one we often maintain in this century: women as self-sufficient, unencumbered by the heavy work of bearing and caring for children, empowered to pursue any agenda without thought for this aspect of their lives. The two ideas are very different. We have lost the understanding that children and motherhood are at the heart of some of the greatest purposes and blessings for women. This devaluing of our feminine humanity has lead to terrible consequences. When motherhood is a hindrance that we need to dispense with in order to live fully, it is not a big jump to see actual children as hindrances that need to be dispensed with. But this is a great and tragic error. Its consequences keep women from the most fulfilling (though surely also the most costly and demanding) parts of life, and encourage them to commit murder to avoid experiencing them. To the babies themselves, the error denies the blessing of life.

For modern mothers, even if we believe that abortion is wrong, it's worth looking at our assessments of our lives and asking which kind of blessing we are valuing more heavily? Are our goals in life encumbered by our care for our children, or vice versa? What will the result be of our struggle to "have it all"? Can we win it? If we have to land on one side or another, which side will we land on?

Though we have been really emphasizing the privilege and goodness of motherhood for women here, there is another beautiful piece of this story for women who are not mothers. Shiprah and Puah only receive their reward of having families at the end of their part in it. In their work supporting women and families, they are full participants and heroines in God's plan. Motherhood is not required for a meaningful and influential life as a woman in God's sight, though it may become a reward from him, for women who bravely and faithfully live in holy fear of him. The midwives are single ladies, and fully serving God in that role.

I drew him out of the water
Moving on in the story--tragically, Pharaoh will not be completely outwitted by the Hebrew midwives. His next step goes further than subtly making it look like the baby boys are being born dead. To ensure that live baby boys are not allowed to live, he orders them to be thrown into the Nile.

Moses' mother and sister are the next two brave, God-fearing women we meet in this section. His mother is in a terrible situation where she cannot legally provide for her son. Horribly, Pharaoh has instructed "all his people" to throw the Hebrew baby boys into the Nile. Moses is in terrible danger from which his mother can't save him. But she does what she can to help him survive. Technically she does put Moses into the Nile, but she sets him in a little basket boat, nestled in the reeds, and sends his sister to watch over him. It's hard to imagine being in this horrible position as a mother. Perhaps she was planning to just keep him in the basket "in the Nile" and continue to care for him there? That would have been an ingenious solution if you ask me.

But this desperate mother receives help when it is desperately needed. Pharoah's daughter hears the baby crying, understands his plight, and decides to take care of him. Moses' sister Miriam cleverly inserts herself into the situation, offering to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. I just wonder if they are all aware of what is going on here, if Pharaoh's daughter understands how Miriam and the "Hebrew woman" are related to Moses. I like to think so. Pharaoh's daughter "adopts" Moses to save him, but then brings his mother along, keeping her in the picture and supporting her to allow her to care for her son. This is an incredibly beautiful picture of how women can truly help and encourage each other. It is a stark contrast from women helping each other to abandon and kill their babies to make a better life for themselves. Rather these women are helping each other provide for babies, sharing the burden in really difficult and dangerous circumstances. God is deeply involved with them, unfolding his plan to save the whole nation of his people. They have a role of honor, bravery, and privilege both trusting him in their lack of power, and using what power they have to save life, and mother together.

At this part of the story we can discuss another component of the abortion issue. Openness to adoption is the obvious required corollary to a pro-life stance. But adoption is also critiqued sometimes as a means for babies to be taken from families who can't support them and effectively bought by wealthy families of the dominant culture who then assimilate the children into that culture, robbing them of their cultural identity, and robbing other communities and families of their youth.

Because it can be so difficult, open-adoption, where biological parents maintain contact with children who are adopted by other families, is often avoided. But here we have a different perspective, where a whole family is adopted and supported through the resources of a wealthy, concerned woman. Maybe this is a better way? Pharaoh's daughter names the baby Moses- "I drew him out of the water." What if Christian women with power and resources everywhere listened for those crying babies in trouble, drew them from the water, and then found their mothers to help them and bring them along too? The application seems obvious, though it's much easier to write about than to actually do.

These stories read to me like a ballad of honorable women: Shiprah and Puah, Moses' mother, Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter, all heroines. What a delightful place to stop and think about women in God's plan.

  • Pharaoh's plan to kill the Hebrew baby boys is a prefiguration of the racist policy of selectively offering abortion for African Americans more than other races. Both attack babies to oppress a population.
  • God shows his favor to women by giving them children again in this story.
  • The heroic action of the midwives, Moses' mother and sister, and Pharaoh's daughter are a key component of God's plan to bring his people out of Egypt.
  • God provides for Moses' mother when a wealthy, powerful woman intervenes and supports their family as a unit.
  • Did Pharaoh's daughter know who Miriam and the "Hebrew woman" were?
  • If you are a mother, do you honestly see yourself as more blessed or burdened by your children? Probably a combination, right?
  • What exactly is the current way to find families with babies in the reeds and help them?