Updated: Dec 28, 2020
My daughter was given a children’s Bible in her toddler years which she liked to read and reread constantly. It turns the biblical stories into children’s stories – all neat and tidy. This year on the high holidays when one of the sermons discussed Abraham almost killing his beloved son Isaac (the so-called “Binding of Isaac”), my daughter turns to me and says, “This isn’t in the Bible.” Then, since these were Zoom services, she raced upstairs to grab her Bible and verify that her memory was not faulty and that her Bible did in fact omit this story entirely.
While I understand that removing a story of near filicide from a toddler Bible is a perfectly age-appropriate choice, I find the messy parts of the biblical stories are the most interesting. The Torah is not Aesop’s fables, with a clear moral at the end. There are gaps and redundancies and contradictions and mess that has given us thousands of years of scholarship to question what it all means.
One of these messy pieces is Zipporah. Zipporah is the wife of Moses – Judaism’s greatest prophet. Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses our Teacher. But growing up, while I learned all the stories of Moses and his greatness, I never learned of Zipporah.
Zipporah is not an Israelite; she is a Midianite. Moses, who has been raised as an Egyptian rather than an Israelite, is now fleeing from Pharaoh and meets Zipporah at a well. Legend teaches that this is the very same well where Jacob had met Rachel. Moses, who has a tenuous relationship to the Jewish community at best, now marries outside his people.
Where Zipporah becomes interesting is her next appearance. As Moses, Zipporah, and their son are travelling from Midian to Egypt, they met either God or an angel of God who tries to kill Moses. Zipporah grabs a piece of flint and circumcises their son, and God spares them.
Who is this superwoman? In the history of many other Jewish women, I spent my son’s bris as a bit of a mess, averting my eyes from the procedure. Zipporah, who is not herself an Israelite, acts with bravery in the face of God’s anger and saves her family. In doing so, she honors a tradition and a people to which she does not belong.
Zipporah, like many others, operates in a liminal space between Jewish and not Jewish. One scholar – Gwynn Kessler – describes Zipporah as “an outsider, a non-Israelite, the wife of the father – but not herself the mother – of Israel.” Another scholar, Karen Strand Winslow, talks about how the circumcision story “links Zipporah to other preserving, delivering women in the lives of the ancestors. She is a link in the chain of other women – both insider and outsider – who saved males and preserved Israel.”
So why didn’t I learn about Zipporah in Sunday school? Because she was a woman? Because she was an outsider? Because she presents a complication – that it is her bravery and maternal instinct to protect that acts as the savior instead of Moses? In teaching our children, let us tell them all the stories, even the ones that are a bit messy.
If you are interested in learning more about Zipporah and how intermarriage has existed throughout Jewish history, I will be teaching a class called “A Love Fate Relationship: Intermarriage Throughout History” through JLearn - READ MORE. You can sign up by calling (248) 205-2557 or going to CHECK OUT THE WEB PAGE HERE.
It costs $80 for all five sessions, but if cost is an issue there are many different scholarships available by calling (248) 205-2557. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.