Zipporah at the inn

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Moses's Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliez by Pietro Perugino, c. 1482.

Zipporah at the inn is the name given to an episode alluded to in three verses of Exodus. It is one of the more unusual, curious, and much-debated passages of the Pentateuch.

Passage[edit]

The verses in question are Exodus 4:24–26, the context is Moses and his wife Zipporah reaching an inn on their way from Midian to Egypt to announce the plagues to the Pharaoh:

Leningrad Codex text:

24. ויהי בדרך במלון ויפגשהו יהוה ויבקש המיתו׃
25. ותקח צפרה צר ותכרת את־ערלת בנה ותגע לרגליו ותאמר כי חתן־דמים אתה לי׃
26. וירף ממנו אז אמרה חתן דמים למולת׃ פ

Translation:

24. And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
25. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.
26. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

New Revised Standard Version translation:

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. It was then she said, "A bridegroom of blood by circumcision."

The standard interpretation of the passage is that God wanted to kill Moses for neglecting the rite of circumcision of his son. Zipporah averts disaster by reacting quickly and hastily performing the rite, thus saving her husband from God's anger.

Difference in translation[edit]

In Hebrew, the word “feet” is used as a euphemism for the word “genitals.” Very few translators chose to use the word “genitals” in their interpretation, so it's not clear what Zipporah touched with the bloody foreskin.

The Hebrew for “bridegroom of blood” written as hatan damim, is derived from a Semitic root verb which means “perform marriage.” In Arabic this phrase is linked to Hebrew, but means “perform circumcision.” In ancient Akkadian, which is related to Arabic and Aramaic/Hebrew, this phrase means “to protect.”

Zipporah was a woman from Midian, which was in the northwestern region of present-day Saudi Arabia. Arabic is now spoken in the region, but in Zipporah‘s day, Akkadian was spoken. Some claim[1] (with no further references in it) that, in the ancient Akkadian, casting the foreskin meant “to protect,” thus “You are a bridegroom of blood,” can also mean, “This blood will protect you.”

Various interpretations[edit]

The details of the passage are unclear and subject to debate. One problem is that the text uses pronouns multiple times, without ever identifying which of the three individuals (Moses, God, and Moses and Zipporah's son), is being referred to by each instance. In particular, it is unclear whose feet (God's, Moses' or her son's), Zipporah touches with the foreskin, and the meaning of "bloody bridegroom".

Because of these difficulties, many biblical scholars consider the passage fragmentary. The ambiguous or fragmentary nature of the verses leave much room for extrapolation, and rabbinical scholarship has provided a number of explanations. Specifically, the Targum Neophyti, a midrashic translation of the Pentateuch into Aramaic, expands Zipporah's enigmatic "you are truly a bridegroom of blood" to "How beloved is the blood that has delivered this bridegroom from the hand of the Angel of Death."[2]

While the passage is frequently interpreted as referring to Gershom, Moses' firstborn, being circumcised, the Midrash actually states that the passage was, at that time, considered instead to refer to Eliezer, Moses' other son.[citation needed] The question on why Moses neglected to have his son circumcised and thus incurred the wrath of Yahweh was debated in classical Jewish scholarship. Rabbi El'azar ha-Moda'i said that Jethro had placed an additional condition on the marriage between his daughter and Moses - that the firstborn son of Jethro would be given over to idolatry and thus explaining why Moses was viewed negatively by Yahweh.[3] One Midrashic interpretation is that, while Yahweh allowed Moses to put off circumcising his son until they reached Egypt, rather than weaken him before the journey, Moses did not hasten to perform the task as soon as possible after he had arrived.[citation needed]

Rabbinical commentators have asked how Zipporah knew that the act of circumcising her son would save her husband. A common explanation is that the angel of God (or one of two angels, Af and Hemah, the personifications of anger and fury), in the shape of a serpent, had swallowed up Moses up to but not including his genitals. Zipporah immediately understood that the threat was related to circumcision, by a "psychoanalytic link" between Moses' penis and his son's, the ambiguous use of pronouns taken by Haberman (2003) as indicating the fundamental identity of the deity, her husband and her son in the woman's subconscious.[4]

Hyam Maccoby, in The Sacred Executioner, interprets the passage as meaning that when God met Moses he (Moses) tried to kill him (Moses' son). On this view the story is an aetiological myth about the origin of circumcision as a substitute for human sacrifice.

Kugel (1998) suggests that the point of the episode is the explanation of the expression "bridegroom of blood" חתן דמ, apparently current in biblical times. The story would seem to illustrate that the phrase does not imply that a bridegroom should or may be circumcised at the time of his marriage, but that Moses by being bloodied by the foreskin of his son became a "bridegroom of blood" to Zipporah. The story has also been interpreted as emphasizing the point that the circumcision must be performed exactly at the prescribed time, as a delay was not granted even to Moses.[5]

German orientalist Walter Beltz thought that the original myth behind this story was about the right of Yahweh, as an ancient fertility god, to receive in sacrifice the first born son. He reasons that the pronouns can't refer to Moses, since he is not mentioned in the text preceding the passage. Moreover, the preceding text speaks of Israel as Yahweh's first born son and that Yahweh would kill Pharaoh's first born son for not letting Israel out of Egypt. It is obvious, he concludes, that this leads the writer to insert this story about another first born son, Moses'. Accordingly, it can only mean that Yahweh wants to take possession of the son of Moses because he is entitled to the first-born male. The mother undertakes the circumcision, an ancient matriarchal relic, and touches Yahweh's genitals with the child's foreskin. Only this makes sense when she uses the marriage formula "you are my bridegroom of blood". For in doing so, she transferres the child of Moses into a marriage with Yahweh, making him a child of Yahweh. The complete sacrifice of the boy is replaced by the sacrifice of a part of the penis. The biblical redactor still bore this in mind when he added: "At that time she said 'bridegroom of blood,' referring to circumcision." Originally, young boys were sacrificed to the pantheistic Cretan and Phoenician goddesses only after the priestesses had consummated ritual intercourse, the sacred marriage, with them. This is the ancient concept to which this story belongs.[6]

Identity of the attacker[edit]

While Exodus is unambiguous about Yahweh (God) himself performing the attack on Moses, other texts make the attacker an "angel of the Lord".

The version in the Book of Jubilees (2nd century BC) is attributing the attack to Prince Mastema, a title that was another name for Satan:

... and what Prince Mastema desired to do with you when you returned to Egypt, on the way when you met him at the shelter. Did he not desire to kill you with all of his might and save the Egyptians from your hand because he saw that you were sent to execute judgment and vengeance upon the Egyptians? And I delivered you from his hand and you did the signs and wonders which you were sent to perform in Egypt. - Jubilees 48:2-4

The Septuagint version subtly alters the text by translating the Tetragrammaton not as κύριος "the lord" but as ἄγγελος κυρίου "the angel of the lord". "Angel" (ἄγγελος ) is the translation throughout the Septuagint of the Hebrew "mal'ak", the term for the manifestation of Yahweh[citation needed] to humanity. (It is the mal'ak that speaks to Moses from the burning bush).[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ http://www.shabbat-kallah.org/bridegroom-of-blood.htm%7C BRIDEGROOM OF BLOOD
  2. ^ Howard Schwartz, Tree of souls: the mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 978-0-19-508679-9, 376f..
  3. ^ Kugel (1998), p. 519.
  4. ^ Bonna Devora Haberman, 'Foreskin sacrifice - Zipporah's Ritual and the Bloody Bridegroom' in: The covenant of circumcision: new perspectives on an ancient Jewish rite, Brandeis series on Jewish women, ed. Mark, UPNE, 2003, ISBN 978-1-58465-307-3, 18-42. "Like Eve, Zipporah tangles her references to her son, her lover and God. ... Male figures coalesce in Eve['s] and Zipporah's consciousness."
  5. ^ Kugel (1998), 517f.
  6. ^ Beltz (1990), 65.
  • Walter Beltz, Gott und die Götter. Biblische Mythologie, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin, 1990, ISBN 3-351-00976-3.
  • James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, Harvard University Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0-674-79151-0.
  • Shera Aranoff Tuchman, Sandra E. Rapoport, Moses' women, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2008, ISBN 978-1-60280-017-5, 127-139.