Bible Commentator

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Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

ZIPPORAH  AND THE BRIT MILAH: A WOMAN CIRCUMCISOR


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INTRODUCTION:

Moses raised as a Prince in the Egyptian palace, departs fearing for his life and settles in Midian where he lived for several decades with his wife Zipporah and his father-in-law, the pagan Priest Jethro.  At the Burning Bush God introduces Himself to Moses and gives him his life- long mission: to liberate the Israeli people from slavery in Egypt and take them to the promised land.


 

THE INCIDENT AT THE INN:

After God commissions Moses as His emissary to lead His people into freedom He almost immediately decides to kill him. The attack is bizarre and seemingly inexplicable. 1


The story begins with three introductory verses (Ex. 4:21-23). In the first verse God speaking to Moses uses the word ‘be’lechte’cha (when you return)’ a variant of 'lech l'cha’ (go to yourself), that He twice used as a command to Abraham (Gen. 12:1, 22:1); once when the Patriarch is told to leave his home and go to Canaan, and secondly when he is told to go to Mt. Moriah and there to sacrifice his son Isaac. Both Abraham and Moses are told by God to re-identify themselves, and dedicate themselves to God.


In the two following verses (22-23), Moses is told that Pharaoh will reject the demand to release the children of Israel, and he must then say:  'Thus says the Lord: Israel is My firstborn son. I have said to you, Let My son go, that He may worship Me, but you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son'. The first time Israel is referred to as a nation is when Pharaoh complains about their fecundity (Ex. 1:9). This is the second time when God refers to them as His first born son.


“And on the way, at a lodging place, God encountered him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took up a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at his legs and said 'You are my bridegroom of blood'. So it withdrew from him; and she said 'a bridegroom of blood for circumcisions'”. (Ex. 4:24-26).


The ambiguities implicit in the text include the use of pronouns (him, he, son) instead of proper names and the understanding of the Hebrew ‘chatan damim’ – bridegroom of blood - used twice.


In verse 24, the words ‘him’ and ‘he’ appear to many Jewish commentators as referring to Moses. But then why would God choose to kill the man he has just appointed to lead His people? As a result of this apparent paradox some of the Sages in the Talmud (BT Ned. 31B-32A and JT Ned. 3:9-11) and some commentators suggest the death penalty was directed not against Moses but one of his children; Targum Yonatan states that it was the eldest Gershom while Ibn Ezra that it was the second child Eliezer. 2


Why would failing to circumcise a child or being an uncircumcised child be a death sentence for either Moses or the son? (Certainly an uncircumcised son can not be blamed; his father perhaps?)  Should Moses being God’s emissary be held to a higher standard? Why did God not tell Moses at the burning bush that his son needed to be circumcised?


Perhaps it is related to the immediate previous verse when God referring to Pharaoh says ‘Now I will slay your firstborn son' (4:23); that may in fact be the theme of the entire incident. Just as the Pharaoh will suffer for having mistreated God’s first born son, Israel, so Moses will suffer for having mistreated his first born by not circumcising him.  This seems to suggest that Gershom is the uncircumcised son. 3

 

If Gershom, the firstborn son of the Israelite/Egyptian Moses and a non Israelite mother 4  is uncircumcised, he might be considered Egyptian, and therefore be killed as a first born male Egyptian. Can the circumcision performed by Zipporah be considered an act of converting her son into the Israelite faith?


Before the tenth plague and the deaths of the firstborns, God tells the Israelites to slaughter a lamb (the paschal lamb) and put its blood on the doorposts of their houses to protect them from the angel of death: ‘When I see the blood, I will pass over you’ (Ex. 12:13, 23).  By taking the foreskin of her son and placing the blood at ‘Moses’ legs (or genitals’ 5), Zipporah may be making a sign of protection similar to the sign on the doorposts. As the blood of the lamb will protect the Israelis so the blood of the circumcision will protect Moses. Cassuto interprets Zipporah’s words to Moses as: ‘I am restoring you to life by means of our son’s blood. Our son’s blood restored your life’. 6


In the Hebrew text, the word ‘damim’ is the plural "bloods" (4:25,26), perhaps metaphorically connecting the blood of circumcision to the blood of the lamb. No one uncircumcised can eat the Paschal lamb. In some Jewish midrashic traditions the blood smeared on the doorposts was a mingling of the Passover lamb and blood from recent circumcisions. 7 Gershom needed to be circumcised to be part of the covenant and to partake in the Passover ritual about to begin.


Why would Moses not have circumcised his son?


A Midrash suggests a 'prenuptial agreement' between Jethro and Moses  that the first born son of Moses and Zipporah would be dedicated to the idolatrous gods of Jethro – a Priest of Midian -  and remain uncircumcised. 8 According to the midrash Moses accepted the condition. 9 This tale is also noted by Aramaic targums: ‘My husband wished to circumcise, but his father-in-law prevented him. Now may the blood of this circumcision atone for my husband. . . . Then Zipporah gave thanks, and said ‘How beloved is the blood of this circumcision that has saved my husband from the hand of the Destroying Angel’. 10


Some have raised the question of Moses’ own circumcision. 11  Moses lived with his birth parents for three months (Ex. 2:2) so it may be reasonable to assume he was circumcised on the eight day. Alternatively the Talmud says that Moses was born circumcised - meaning he came out of womb perfect. 12  Did Moses not circumcise his son because he had himself never experienced it? Is it conceivable that Zipporah metaphorically circumcised the already circumcised Moses by touching the child’s foreskin at his genitals? 13 Some have asked how Zipporah knew that circumcision was required to save Moses or the child? A midrash states that the destroying angel was a snake who swallowed Moses up to his genitals (or two snakes swallowing Moses from both ends so that only his genitals showed 14) and Zipporah then realized that circumcision was required to save Moses or their child. The last word in this incident ‘la’mulot’ is plural perhaps suggesting the child and Moses.


CHATAN DAMIM:

In Hebrew ‘chatan’ means ‘bridegroom’, sometimes father-in-law, brother-in-law or son-in-law or even simply a blood relation; 15 ‘chatana’ means ‘marriage’ and also sometimes ‘father-in-law’. The Arabic word ‘chatana’ means ‘circumcise’ and Arab males can not marry before being circumcised. (Could Zipporah, a Midianite be speaking a version of Arabic? 16) For Arabs the rite of circumcision is usually performed when a boy is less than 13 years old as was Ishmael.


With the Hebrew ‘ki chatan damim attah li’ (4:25) there may be a word play on the Hebrew word ‘chatan’ [bridegroom] and the Arabic word ‘chatana’ [circumcision]. ‘You are my bridegroom of blood' could be read `You are mine, circumcised with blood'. 17  The word ‘chatan’ in this case may be based on the Arabic circumcise and not the Hebrew for bridegroom.  The ‘you’ could refer to either Moses or the son. Zipporah may be referring to her newly circumcised son.  The word ‘chatan’ in Arabic is sometimes colloquially used for a young male ‘child’ (as is true in Yiddish).


Jethro. the father-in-law of Moses, is rarely mentioned without the qualification  ‘chatan moshe’. 18 Perhaps Zipporah is appropriating her father’s role as Priest and then the chatan – father-in-law – is symbolically circumcising his grandson. 19


Zipporah then combines chatan with the Hebrew la’mulot [circumcisions]: not 'a bridegroom of blood for all circumcisions', but `circumcised with my blood relation for all future circumcisions'. This may confirm the protective value of blood from a circumcision. 20 Aramaic targums suggest the same: ‘May my husband be given to us by the blood of this circumcision’. 21


CONCLUSION:

Abraham, who received the first covenant with God circumcised himself and then his thirteen year old son Ishmael. That circumcision became the symbol of the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham was told of the forthcoming exile that would begin with the descent of Jacob and his family into Egypt and end when Moses liberated them and when Joshua led the people across the Jordan River back into the land that God promised to Abraham. Joshua then circumcised all the Israelites males (Josh. 5:2).  It is not clear how fully Jewish circumcision was followed in Egypt. Some midrashim claim that the Israelites had forgotten the rite or even refused to follow it.22 Thus when Joshua reinstalled the rite when they entered the promised land, it may not have been because of the lack of circumcision in the desert, but an earlier forgetting or rejection.


The attempt by God to kill Moses was curtailed when Zipporah circumcised their son. Thus the reason for the execution was the lack of the child being circumcised. Consequently the ancient Midrashim attempted to find reasons for the child not having been circumcised. Some sources say the child was ill or Moses was concerned with safety of performing an operation on the road – all of course legitimate reasons for delaying a circumcision. Perhaps Moses believed he should delay the circumcision in order to rush off to Egypt to begin his new mission? Others, as noted above, held that Jethro – Moses’ father-in-law – a Priest of Midian had demanded as a condition of marriage that the first male child be ‘his’. The idea that a first born belonged to the Priest was an ancient Mid-east custom. Even today Jewish first born males are ritually assigned to a Priest and redeemed by the father for a ritual payment on the thirtieth day following the birth (pidyon haben).


Once Moses departed from Yithro’s house on his way to Egypt, it became incumbent upon Moses to immediately circumcise the boy. The penalty for a father not circumcising his son is not death. However Moses had just been chosen by God to lead the Israelite people out of Egypt and into the land God had promised their forefathers. It is inconceivable that his own eldest son – remembering the tenth plague – not be circumcised - the physical act Jewish identity.  One could conclude as the Mishnah (Ned. 3:11) and Talmud (BT Ned. 31b-32a) do that the purpose of the incident is to emphasis the importance of circumcision. 23 This would seem to be based on the introductory verses (4:22-23).


Others have argued that these verses about the tenth plague are not introductory to the incident at the inn and are misplaced. The chronological order before and after the incident at the inn are confusing. After the burning bush Moses goes back to Jethro to receive his permission to proceed to Egypt. He then takes Zipporah and the children to travel with him to Egypt and on the way they stay at the inn. In the verse immediately after the incident God tells Aaron to go to Moses in the wilderness and they meet at the mountain of God where the burning bush took place (4:27). Is it conceivable that Moses was not at the inn at all (as held by Abraham son of Maimonides) but sent Zipporah and the children to the inn and went back to the mountain or even stayed there? Is that why some claim the children were attacked and not Moses? Since it appears that Zipporah was not in Egypt during the plagues why does the text state he took them to Egypt (4:20) and when did Moses sent her and the children home (Ex. 18:2)?


It is worth noting that Zipporah is the only woman in Biblical history known to have circumcised a son. The Shulhan Aruch (Joseph Caro - sixteenth century) states that the father is obligated to circumcise his son, if he unavailable he can appoint an agent ‘all are fit to perform a brit, even a minor, a slave or a women’.  Maimonides stated that women can act as mohalot. 24 Zipporah’s action is the basis of some current day feminists performing the brit milah. Jewish Ethiopians have a tradition which they claim came from their original exile before the destruction of the first Temple where a mother circumcises her male son. 25 While this no longer officially ‘kosher’ in Israel some claim it is still done underground.


 


1 Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish theologian and philosopher wrote  'To love the Torah more than God [is] protection against the madness of a direct contact with the sacred'.  From Derrida, J., Writing and Differences, Trans. by Alan Bass, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978) Pg. 153, quoted in Handelmann, Susan, A., The Slaying of Moses, (SUNY, Albany, 1982) Pg. 171.


2 In Exodus 4:20 just before the introductory verses the text refers to Moses’ children, in the plural.

3 Eliezer,  the second son we are told was named to thank God for destroying Pharaoh which suggests (despite the plural ‘bnai’ in 4:20) his birth occurred after this incident.

4 There is a Midrash that suggest that Yitro was a descendant of Abraham and Keturah, Kugel, James,   ‘Tradition of the Bible’ (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998)  pg. 534. Zipporah, a grand daughter of Abraham perhaps becomes an acceptable marriage partner as were Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

5 The Hebrew ‘raglaim’ normally means legs, but in the context of a circumcision many commentators consider it means genitals.

6 Cassuto, Umberto, ‘A Commentary on the Book of Exodus’, (Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1997) pg. 86.

7 Midrash Rabbah Exodus, XIX:5.

8 Or perhaps not circumcised until his 13th year as was Ishmael.

9 Mekhilta de R. Ishmael, Jethro. Amalek. The writers of the Mishnah, Talmud, targums and midrashim all written around and after the turn of the Common Era were concerned about Hellenistic and Roman assimilation and the lack of some Jews circumcising their male children. A ban on circumcision was involved in the Bar Kokhba war (132-135 CE) and its aftermath.

10 Quoted in Winslow, Karen, S,. Early Jewish and Christian Memories of Moses’ Wives, (Ellen Mellen Press, Lewiston, 2005), pg. 136, 241. The Talmud, targums and midrashim use a ‘Destroying Angel’ rather than God as setting to kill Moses.  

11 Numerous Christian commentators suggest that Moses was not circumcised; see Houtman, Cornelis, Exodus, Vol. I, (Kok Publishing, Kampen, 1993) pg. 439-448 and Bernard Robinson, ‘Zipporah To The Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus IV:24-6, VT, 36/4, 1986, pg. 448-449.

Few if any Jewish commentators state that Moses was the one not circumcised.

12 BT Sotah 12a.

13 Egyptians did circumcise their male children but used a different procedure than the Hebrew one.

14 Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Jews, Vol. II, (JPS, Philadelphia, 1946) pg. 295.

15 T.C. Mitchell, ‘The meaning of the Noun HTN in the Old Testament, VT 19, 1969.  

16 Would the Tnakh use a non-Hebrew word? In fact there are many non-Hebrew words used in the Tnakh; several hundred according to the Ibn Ezra in the Book of Job, which Jewish sources claim was written by Moses. Many scholars have pointed out that Moses is named by the Egyptian Princess who found him and that in Egyptian language and it means god - Ramoses - the god Ra, Thatmoses - the god That, Ptahmose - the god Ptah, all were Egyptian gods and Pharaohs.


17 Daiches, David, ‘Moses, The Man and His Vision’, (Praeger Publishers, N.Y., 1975) Pg. 55.

18 Yitro is mentioned 10 times in the Torah; eight times he is referred to as chatan Moshe.

19 Propp, W.H., ‘That Bloody Bridegroom’, V.T., 43, 1993, pg. 509.

20 One extant of the Septuagint has been translated as Zipporah saying ‘for you are a relative of blood to me’ and ‘the blood of the circumcision of my child stands’. Winslow, pg. 132.  

21 Winslow, pg. 136.

22 Midrash Rabbah Exodus, XIX:5.

23 Bernard Robinson suggests that Moses repeatedly told God that he feared he would fail in the mission; even after God showed him the miracles He could perform.  ‘The wrath of God burned against Moses’; a very strong repute indeed.  (4:14) In threatening to kill Moses God was warning him that he should be more concerned about God than about confronting the Egyptians or convincing the Israelites to follow him. Robinson, Zipporah, pg. 459-461.

24 We should note that one Rabbi in BT Abod. Zar. 27a states that Zipporah began the circumcision and Moses completed it because a woman is forbidden.

25 From archival videos of elder Ethiopians, documented and directed by Ariel Krause, a graduate student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.