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Torah Commentary
Sh'mot (January 6, 2018)

Not the Same Old Story

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. When they returned to their father, Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today? They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock. He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.” Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as wife. — Exodus 2:16-21

Bettijane Eisenpreis

If the paragraph above sounds familiar, it should.
The matriarchs Rebekah and Rachel both meet someone — Abraham’s servant in the first case, Jacob in the second — at a well. In a land of deserts, the well must have been the local meeting place. Many stories in the Torah follow a pattern: The younger son becomes the preferred sibling instead of his older brother; the man asks his wife to say she is his sister; or, in this case, the couple meets at a well.

However, the story of Moses and Zipporah differs from the other two stories in significant ways. Moses meets not one but seven women, the seven daughters of Jethro (also called Reuel). He drives off the shepherds who are preventing them from watering their flocks, and the girls go home and tell their father about the kind stranger. In return, Reuel/Jethro invites Moses to stay a while, and gives him one of his daughters, Zipporah, as a wife. There is no introduction, no courtship. Zipporah eventually bears Moses two sons, Gershon and Eliezer, and that‘s all we know.

Moses is a passionate person, but his passion does not seem to be directed to his wife and children. His intense relationship is with God and the Children of Israel. Not that Moses is perfect — far from it! He becomes so angry at the Children of Israel for worshipping the Golden Calf that he breaks the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments and has to go back up the mountain and receive a second set from God. And, because he strikes the rock instead of just touching it with his staff, God punishes him by not allowing him to reach the Promised Land. Even his errors are supersized, because he cares so much for this people, Israel.

Unlike Rebecca and Rachel, who figure prominently in the book of Genesis, Zipporah only speaks once, and exactly what she means is a puzzle. In Chapter 4:24, we read that Moses, Zipporah and their son Gershon were on their way back to Egypt from Midian, when “the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him.” But Zipporah circumcised Gershon and touched Moses’ legs with the child’s foreskin, and said, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And the Lord spared Moses.

This brief section puzzles many commentators. Some suggest that this story is part of an old narrative that has been lost. It is the only time in Exodus that Zipporah speaks, and what she says is a mystery. Is Moses or Gershon the “bridegroom of blood”? And why does smearing Gershon’s blood on Moses’ legs save Moses’ life? This passage could make Zipporah a very major player in the story of Moses, but after this short paragraph, Zipporah never speaks again.

In the end, Zipporah’s role in the story of Moses and the Exodus seems small. Her father, Reuel/Jethro, will have a larger role later in the book. But, unlike the Hebrew fathers in Genesis, Moses’ relationship with women — other than his sister, Miriam — is not significant.

Moses’ errors, like Moses’ accomplishments, are greater than those of most mortals. The Book of Genesis is the story of people like ourselves, while the Book of Exodus deals with the birth of a nation and its morals and ethics. Such moral and ethical imperatives require not just a God but a Moses — a superhuman human who can bring the Commandments to a group of ex-slaves and mold them into a “kingdom of priests and a holy people.” That is what the Torah is all about. Zipporah is barely a footnote in the story of Moses and the people of Israel.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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