Zipporah: unsung heroine of parshat Yitro

The sidra is named for Yitro, the priest of Midian and father of seven daughters and indeed Yitro deserves the honour for he takes in the fugitive Moses, provides him with shelter, with work and with a wife – his daughter Zipporah, and he teaches him a great deal about leadership and about relationship with God.

But it is his daughters I would like to focus on, and in particular the long suffering Zipporah.

Moses, having fled the wrath of Pharaoh after he had killed an Egyptian taskmaster, fled to Midian and sat down by a well. The verse repeats one verb – וַיֵּשֶׁב – “to sit or to stay”, which alerts us to pay close attention. Rashi quotes midrash: – the first “staying” means that he settled in Midian, and the second that he deliberately sat near the well. Just as Jacob met Rachel and Eliezer found Rebecca at a well, it seems clear that Moses was intending to find himself a partner. Sure enough, he meets and subsequently helps the seven daughters of the priest of Midian who have come to get water for their father’s flocks. Having filled the troughs with water for their animals, the women are chased away by the shepherds – something that is apparently their usual experience as after Moses helps them they arrive home earlier than usual, an event noted by their surprised father.

Why do the shepherds chase the girls away? Scripture gives us no clue, but midrash comes to our rescue. According to Shemot Rabbah (1:32), the priest of Midian had abandoned idolatry and so had been excluded from the community, and his daughters were treated harshly because of this ban. It is a curious lacuna in the text,  tantalising us with the unexplained punitive treatment of the vulnerable daughters of a man of status even while appearing not to care very much.  At this point we do not know the name of their father, only that he is a “cohen Midian”, a priest of Midian.

Unlike the meetings that lead to the marriages of Rachel and Rebecca there seems to be no special relationship created between Moses and any of the women at the well. Indeed they do not invite him back to their home in order to thank him with their hospitality, but they leave him at the well; indeed the encounter would end there except that  their father asks what has happened that  they are back earlier than usual. Only then do they recount the event, and their father exclaims at their omission and tells them to call Moses in order to offer him a meal. Laconically the text then tells us that  “Moses was וַיּוֹאֶל – willing or content to stay with the man, and he gave Zipporah his daughter to Moses”. Having met all seven daughters without being given any sense of their individuality or their difference, we now find that one of the daughters is given as a wife to Moses. There has been no courtship, no sense that they were interested in each other or found any connection with each other, Zipporah is simply an object here, given to the “ger Toshav” and she bears him a child whom he (not she) names Gershom, a signifier of Moses’ experience as a stranger in a strange land. It is not indicative of any closeness of relationship or belief in a shared future through the child.

Zipporah is almost invisible. She appears to have no agency whatsoever, no personality is evinced and no relationship with Moses on show. All we have is her name – which probably derives from the root meaning ‘bird’- in particular a sparrow, and seems to gloss the meaning that she is unremarkable and unappreciated.

But our next meeting with Zipporah changes all of that.

While acting as shepherd for his father in law Moses had met God near Horeb at the bush that burned but was not consumed, and been told to return to Egypt and to take out God’s people who were suffering there.  Moses is not at all keen. First he asks God “who am I that I can go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out?” and God reassures him – “I will be with you, and as proof when you have done it you will worship me here”. Moses finds another reason to avoid the task –“no one will believe me. They will ask me for your name and I don’t know what to say”. God responds with a phrase that will answer this fear “ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I will be” God extends the instruction – “Go tell them I sent you, Go gather the elders and tell them I have remembered them and will bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey. Go with the elders and tell Pharaoh to let you take three days journey into the wilderness to worship God. And when Pharaoh refuses, I will smite Egypt and you will be allowed to go. And then when you go, ask for compensation from the Egyptians, you will not leave empty handed”.

Moses responds once more with anxiety:  “They won’t believe me. They won’t think I have met You”. God responds with admirable patience and firstly turns Moses’ staff into a serpent and then back into a staff, and then turns Moses’ hand leprous and then returned it to its healthy state.  These are to be signs Moses can use to convince the Israelites of the authenticity of his meeting with God.

Leaving aside the whiff of bad magical tricks, what we are left with is Moses’ desire not to get involved, not to take any initiative or risk, even at the direct request of God. God even offers him a third sign to show the disbelieving Israelites – the changing of water to blood – it smacks a little of desperation, how many tricks does one need if one actually believes in what you are saying?

Moses finds another reason not to go – he is not an orator, he finds public speaking hard and he is not convinced by God’s response to him that as God has chosen him his speaking skills will be adequate. Only then does God get angry – this dissembling has gone on long enough. Moses will have the help of Aaron, he will have his staff and the various tricks. He should get going.

Interestingly Moses does not get going immediately – instead he goes to Yitro his father in law and asks for permission to leave to see if any of his family in Egypt are still alive. And Yitro tells him to go in peace. Was he hoping that Yitro would not give permission? Who are the brothers in Egypt whose status Moses is referring to?  God seems to respond to an unsaid remark – “everyone who sought your death in Egypt is now dead. Go.”

Moses takes Zipporah and his two sons to journey to Egypt and while they travel God tells him that while he may create magical effects with his staff, Pharaoh will not give the people permission to leave. Then follows an opaque and quite terrifying text.

God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh that Israel is the first born son of God.  Pharaoh has been asked to let God’s first born son travel to worship God, but Pharaoh has refused and so God will kill the son, the first born son of Pharaoh.

The theme of the first born son, of the primacy of that role and the specialness of that child, is emphasised and established. We are prefiguring the final plague when the first born son of everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the animals in the fields, will be slain during one terrible night. All will be killed except the first born of those Israelites who have enacted the ritual of the night of Pesach, slaying a lamb and displaying its blood on their doorpost. There is a time slippage – this is being said before anything has really happened. There is a person slippage – quite who is who is unclear. All we know is that the first born son belongs to God in a way that others do not.

Moses is travelling with his own first born son, Gershom.

On the way to the lodging house, God encountered him (וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ) and sought to kill him.

What is the nature of the encounter? Who does God encounter? Who does God seek to kill?

Is it Moses? Is it Gershom?

Moses is entirely passive. Rigid with shock? Prepared to acquiesce? Unwilling to act? Up till now he has mainly been avoiding what God  asks of him. This seems to be part of the same behaviour.

But Zipporah is having none of it. The daughter of a Cohen Midian, a Midianite Priest, she immediately recognises the danger and the need to act. She becomes a Priestess, performing the ritual that will avert the danger.

Zipporah takes a flint and circumcises her son – presumably Gershom her first born rather than Eliezer.        She touches/approaches ‘his feet’ She declares “כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי:”

It is a priestly ritual with an act and a declaration. The blood seems to be the sacrifice that propitiates God and also binds her to the divine. It also seems to save the life of Moses and/or Gershom.

What is a “hatan damim”. Often translated as a “bridegroom of blood”, it may refer to the newly circumcised Gershom (a child being circumcised is described as Hatan); or to Moses (Hatan can mean bridegroom) in that this act is the one that really binds them together as equal partners in the work of God; or even to God – does she bind God to her in her ritual action where she offers the blood of her own first born? And here is God the Hatan (bridegroom) of the Hatan (father in law)? Has she bought into Moses’ relationship with God by virtue of circumcising her son?

Whatever happens in this night, God withdraws the danger, and Zipporah clarifies that the ritual is to do with the act of circumcision: חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת

One might think that this act by Zipporah is enough to give her status and place in the leadership going into Egypt, but bizarrely it appears to have the opposite effect. There is no record that she ever goes to Egypt, and no record that she is part of the events there, and no record that she is part of the Exodus.  Instead she disappears from the text until all these events are over, and then we have an insight into where she had gone.

In this sidra (exodus 18) we find that Yitro, the priest of Midian and hatan (father in law) of Moses , has heard about God having brought the Israelites out of Egypt and he brings Zipporah and their two sons to Moses

We are told

 וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ:

Yitro, the Hoten of Moses, took Zipporah the wife of Moses, after he had sent her away.

The word for sending away here is the same as that used for divorcing a wife (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Had Moses divorced Zipporah? Had he sent her back to her father’s house in order to protect her from what was to happen in Egypt? Was the sending away an act of shielding love or of punitive revenge? We cannot know. But we do know that Yitro feels confident enough to bring her and the two sons to Moses at the mountain where God will be revealed to Israel.

Is he ensuring his daughter is able to be present at the giving of Torah? Is he ensuring that his grandchildren take their appropriate place in Israelite history? Torah stays silent on the subject. Neither Zipporah nor her two sons with Moses will have any role in the future narrative. Moses is the ultimate high achieving father/husband who has no time for family – everything is focused on his love of his work/God – a personal life is irrelevant.

Poor Zipporah. Moses isn’t even interested to see the family. He welcomes Yitro his father in law, he performs all the social niceties with him, he brings him into the tent and updates him about what has happened and Yitro behaves like a priest. Once again there is a meal – they eat bread together as when Moses first met Yitro.

And Zipporah fades out of the narrative. She is, we assume, at Sinai – but Moses is determined to stay focussed and pure and instructs men and women not to be together for the days of preparation. Their relationship – never close or personal – is now over. Only with the story in the book of Numbers of the complaining about Moses (second) wife being Cushite brings her back to mind. But even here it is not clear – is this a new wife or the same one? There are no children. Moses is not interested in relationships. He is married to his job, to God, to his position as leader.

Zipporah is a woman who, like the other women in the early chapters of Exodus, saves the life of Moses and allows him to grow and mature into the person able to fulfil God’s work. From the midwives who facilitate his birth and his mother who carefully hides him where he will be found, through Miriam and the daughter of Pharaoh, the protective function is carried out by women – a relic maybe of an earlier tradition of guardian goddess, that has been subverted by the paternal and patriarchal characteristic of the Hebrew God.

Zipporah forms no close relationship with a peer. She cuts a lonely figure despite being one of seven sisters.  Her marriage is loveless and cold. She is given no obvious honour or status, does not seem to have any contact with her sister-in-law Miriam (unless one reads Miriam’s complaint about the Cushite wife as being one of sisterly solidarity with Zipporah – a reading that would be quite a stretch).  She stands alone, but she is powerful. She takes on God and makes God back off. She protects her young son and saves his life. She protects her husband and saves his life too. I can only hope she got more pleasure from Gershom and Eliezer, that they honoured and respected her and understood just what a brave and competent woman she was. I like to think of her rising to the priesthood, an early role model who understood ritual and liturgical formula and could use them to best effect.

Whoever she was and whatever happened to her, her name gives us some optimism. Like a sparrow she flies unnoticed, getting on with her life, able to see from her own perspective. As psalm 84 reminds us

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר ׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר ׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘ אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֢תָה אֶפְרֹ֫חֶ֥יהָ אֶת־מִ֭זְבְּחוֹתֶיךָ יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֑וֹת מַ֝לְכִּ֗י וֵאלֹהָֽי:

Even a sparrow finds a home and a swallow a nest where she may lay her young, Your altars Adonai tzeva’ot, my sovereign and my ruler.

Zipporah the priestess of Midian both challenges God and is brought by God into the inner circle of God. Where Moses fails her, let’s hope God supports her. She is at Sinai and she is unencumbered by her husband. Who knows what she could have achieved that bible has chosen not to record.

 

We hear God differently through our diversity: the trick is to listen fully and to know that different voices tell of the same God

The sidra begins with the words “vayishma Yitro – and Jethro heard” – but we don’t know what exactly it was that Jethro heard and understood. The information about what had happened in Egypt, the splitting of the sea and the war against Amalek didn’t have much effect on others who knew of it, so why does only Jethro respond in this way? There must be something else in the text….Either Jethro heard something more than we are told, or else he heard in a way that moved him powerfully and changed him.

Jethro seemed to hear in a particular way, the kind of hearing that happens when someone is moved to re-examine feelings, and so change the direction of their life.   This is more than active listening; it requires openness to the other, readiness to be affected by what one hears.

Hearing is a theme in this sidra. For of course we also have the people hearing God speaking, as the foundational event of Judaism, the giving of Torah at Sinai, happens in the hearing of the people at the foot of the mountain.  But what does it mean to hear the voice of God? And how can we possibly know when we have heard it, let alone allow ourselves to be changed by it?

After three days of preparation, the people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, the summit of which seems to be hidden in a storm of lightening, fire and smoke, and there is thunder and what appears to be the sound of the shofar, though it is never clear who is blowing the shofar. The whole mountain is trembling violently and Moses begins to talk to God and God answers: “And when the voice – Kol – of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a Kol -voice. It isn’t really clear what it is that people hear when God answers – the word Kol can mean a voice, a sound, even a thunderclap. The ambiguity is important, for each person could claim to have heard God, and yet each may have heard something quite different from others. Rabbi Art Green suggests that what Moses heard was the thunder, just as everyone else did, but that within it he was able to hear the voice of God, even though others could not. Moses’ special ability was that he could translate the voice of God into the words we have– the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments.

The Talmud (Berachot 45a) records an amazing discussion: “From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud “It means The voice of Moses,” which is understood by them as meaning that God’s voice was at the same volume as Moses’ voice. But it is possible to read this at face value- as Art Green does – So when the Talmud says “God spoke in the voice of Moses” we could understand that God actually did speak in the voice of Moses” That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. The human and divine voice was apparently the same – and this is why Moses was able to discern within the thunder the voice of God – it was his own voice he could hear.

There is a great deal of rabbinic storytelling around the events at Sinai. One of the most important is that it wasn’t only the Israelites at the foot of the mountain who heard the voice of God. The Midrash teaches that the voice went out to all the seventy nations of the world, each in its own language (Shabbat 88b), and another Midrash tells us that every person heard the voice of God differently, each in their own head (Shemot Rabbah 5.9). These are two different Midrashim, with quite different understandings from the text of what was actually heard. And this is diversity of interpretation is important to us. The Talmud, recording the debates of generations of rabbis about what text means, and what God’s will might be, shows us that disagreement and creative understanding are all part of the process of trying to discern what might be the truth of God’s words to us. The only agreement in this diverse process is that there is indeed a truth, but it is not clear what that truth might necessarily be. In the words of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, “The Midrash can present on one page many contradictory interpretations of any given biblical verse. Certainly our sages realized that if one Midrash gives one version of events and a second Midrash gives a contradictory version, they can’t both be true at the level of what physically happened. However, they understood that each Midrash taught us something they saw as true about the world.  What does this teach us about truth and legitimate disagreement? Judaism does not teach that everything is relative. The message of the Parasha is that there is ultimate truth. However, we don’t always have a common understanding of what that truth is.

How do we negotiate this?  What are the ground rules and red lines when we all passionately believe we are right?  Civil debate becomes even more challenging when we are not merely talking about theoretical issues, but issues that impact upon our most deeply held moral values.” In other words, debate is all the more difficult for us when we are required to really hear the other side, to be prepared to give up some of the things that we hold dearly to ourselves, in order to serve the higher principle of making the world a better and more just place for all.

How do we hear the voice of God in our world? How can we trust what we think we hear? How do we choose between what we want to hear and what is authentically the voice? Firstly, like Jethro, we must listen completely, hear truly what is said and be open to it being something that might challenge what up till now we have held true and firm. And, like Moses, we must let the voice of God sound through our own voices, not that we may think we can speak for God but that we allow God to speak through us.

God is not us, and we are not God, but we must experience God with our own selves, our own experiences, our own way of understanding. And listening to the voice of God, true listening, should inform our choices and challenge our assumptions and some of our closely held attitudes. God is calling us to be something more than we are, to be more the people we should be. That is the voice we must listen to, and give others the right to hear the voice that they also hear – for the one thing our tradition is quite clear about is that each will hear the voice of God differently, but each of us is quite capable of hearing the voice of God.