Zipporah – wife of Moses

Moses who is such an important figure in the liberation of the people of God from their slavery in Egypt and their leader through the years in the desert wilderness, is a man saved by women.  Previously – we saw how his mother and sister are instrumental in saving him from death at birth and that he was adopted by the daughter of Pharoah.  It would seem that Moses, for his own safety, was brought up in ignorance of his heritage.  We can only guess at how his sense of identity was affected by this – but we do have some clues.  When he becomes aware of the enslavement of his people – the Jewish people, by the Egyptians and their forced labour building the pyramids he explodes:

“He noticed how heavily they were burdened and he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his own people. He looked around and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Not really a very good response.  The upshot is that his killing of an Egyptian did not remain secret for very long and to preserve his life he had to flee Egypt.  Moses arrived in the land of Midian, which was outside Egypt and possibly within modern Saudi Arabia.  

Following in the tradition of Isaac and Jacob, Moses sat down by a well.  There he observed, the seven daughters of the priest of Midian (Reuel or Jethro) come to draw water for their father’s sheep and be pushed aside by some male shepherds.  Moses goes to their rescue and scares off the undesirables and helps with the important and time-consuming and labour-intensive business of watering the sheep.  His assistance is so significant that they arrive home early to their father, explaining that they had found a helpful stranger by the well.  Hospitality is offered followed by Zipporah as wife for Moses.  Perhaps the verses in Exodus are an abbreviation of a much longer process and perhaps not. 

Zipporah thus becomes the wife of Moses.  They remain within her father’s orbit and Moses becomes a shepherd to Jethro/Reuel’s flock of sheep.  Two boys are born during this time – Gershom meaning “I have been a stranger in a foreign land” and Eliezer “The God of my father came to my help and delivered me from the sword of Pharoah”.

Zipporah has presumably been fully briefed on Moses’ dramatic life story, thus far.  The God of his ancestors, of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, was probably not the God that the priest of Midian and his family served but she would have learnt much about God from Moses.  Time passes, perhaps forty years or so, and the Pharoah who had issued a sentence of death on Moses, dies.  God calls Moses (in the Burning Bush) to return to Egypt and be the leader of his people who leads them out of slavery and Egypt.  Following this encounter – Moses goes home and tells his wife and her family that the time has come for him to leave and return to Egypt.  Zipporah, packs up her life and, with their children, prepares to follow her husband to a new land.

On the way a somewhat strange incident occurs.  Having instructed Moses to return to Egypt and obtain his people’s freedom, God and Moses have a bit of a problem.  Perhaps in living with a wife and her family who don’t follow the ways of his ancestors and having been brought up outside his family, Moses had forgotten to ensure that his sons were circumcised – that symbol of belonging to the Hebrew people, chosen by God.  Zipporah seems to grasp this problem and circumcises her children.  This act wins her husband a reprieve from God.

Zipporah, who was never been exactly prominent in the narrative, fades completely after this.  We don’t know whether she settled in Egypt amongst the oppressed people, whilst Moses and his brother attempted to win their freedom.  We don’t hear of her during the dramatic night when the Jewish people prepared the first Passover Meal and ate it ready to flee.  The story of the escape of the Jewish people and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea follows.  The singing and dancing is led by Miriam, not Zipporah.

Time is not delineated, but some time after these events, but probably not many years later, Zipporah is mentioned again.  It seems that Moses had sent her and her children back to her own family.  Jethro, his father-in-law, has heard of the dramatic events and has brought Zipporah and her children to join Moses in the desert. 

“Blessed be the Lord who has delivered you from the power of the Egyptians and Pharoah and has rescued the people from the grip of Egypt.  I realise now that the Lord is greater than all the gods for he delivered his people from the Egyptians who dealt tyrannically with them.”

We then hear nothing further about Zipporah, so we leave her re-united with Moses, with a father who has converted to the God of the Jewish people.  Probably she would have followed the example of her husband and father.  We have already noted that she understood the importance of ensuring that important rituals were followed.

Our final mention of Zipporah is somewhat debatable.  Miriam takes exception to Moses having a wife – “a Cushite” from Ethiopia and not from his own people.  It is completely unclear whether this is the same wife as before eg Zipporah or a second wife.

Jordaens, Jacob, 1593-1678. Moses and his Ethiopian Wife Sephora, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Zipporah’s story started in such a familiar way echoing the earlier story of Jacob encountering Rachel at a well and being helped with the watering of the sheep.  However, Zipporah rapidly disappears into the background and we don’t hear about when she dies or where she is buried and so on.  The only merest hint about relations with Zipporah’s family happens when Moses asks Hobab, the son of her father, if he would like to join the people of Israel on their journey to the land promised by God.

Hobab declines: “I will not come with you.  I would rather go to my own land and my own family.”

Moses replies: “Do not leave us, for you know where we can camp in the desert, and so you will be our eyes.  If you come with us, you will share in the prosperity with which the Lord will bless us.”

It would seem that by marrying Zipporah, Moses was building up the people of God. The descendants of his children by Zipporah are named later on as part of the priestly tribe of Levi.  It’s really not much to go on when looking closely at the life of Zipporah.

Next time we shall look at the challenge made by the daughters of Zelophedad.

Image from Moses and the Burning Bush – Five Minutes with Teddy and Jesus

If you would like a version of the Story of Moses and the Exodus, then follow link below for series of videos I have made for the under-5s.

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