Say Hello to Zipporah
Dr. Rabbi Dalia Marx 18.1.2011
Dr. Rabbi Dalia Marx 18.1.2011
After hearing about the salvation of the People of Israel, Jethro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came to the desert to him: “And Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons… And Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife unto Moses into the wilderness…” (Exodus 18:2-5). These words are hard to understand because we did not hear anything about the departure of Zipporah. When did it happen and why? Did Moshe send Zipporah away or was it a mutual separation? Do we have here the first ever documented divorce? And if Zipporah was sent away, why did she come back with her father to see Moshe in the desert? Ever since the story of her saving Moshe when God wanted to kill him by cutting her son's foreskin, we do not hear a thing about her.
I would like to take this opportunity to consider questions regarding alienation and familiarity in the relationship between Moshe and Zipporah. In all relationships there is more than what meets the eye, and I think that they may teach us a lesson in understanding our own attitude to the “other” as well as to ourselves.
Moshe was raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace but in his essence he remained a stranger, a son of slaves, who absorbed his alienation with his mother's milk. When he flees to the desert he returns to his original state as a stranger. As a stranger and newcomer, he strikes out at the local harassing shepherds and helps the seven daughters of the priest of Midyian. When the daughters tell their father what happened, they introduce the new young man as “an Egyptian”. The oldest daughter, Zipporah, was given as a wife to the rescuer.
Moshe caused Zipporah to leave her home and her status as princess and go as a foreigner to an unknown land. He does not even consult her; he puts her and his sons on a donkey, takes his stick and takes off. Moshe returns to Egypt, but in fact he returns to a place he has never been before. He comes as God’s messenger, but is a stranger both to his people (did he have an Egyptian accent?) and as a threatening stranger to him with whom he lived as a son in his palace. Moshe the man was known all his life both as a stranger and as a local, a respected personality and a nameless wanderer, as the one who merits speaking face to face with God and as the one who eventually remains in the desert and was buried in an unknown place.
Whereas Zipporah, the local princess, was given to this foreigner who had fled from Egypt, followed him to the unknown land from which he fled, and became herself a total stranger. She is a stranger not only because of her different origins, religion and ethnicity but also because she is married to a man who was, until recently, a stranger to his own people and a hated representative of the oppressive regime. We do not know anything about Zipporah’s life experiences or feelings. Compared with our matriarchs that gave their children names that reflected their lives, Moshe (who was also given the name by a woman) is the one who calls his sons by names that reflect his own journeys (Exodus 2:22, 18:4). Why were Zipporah’s strangeness and her faith silenced? What do we know about her?
Did Zipporah want to marry a strange man because he was a hero and helped her and her sisters? (This is, after all how it is depicted in modern films and books). Or perhaps it was a practical marriage that she was forced into by her father? And Moshe, was he enchanted by this Midyianite woman he met by the well or did he marry her in order to survive in a strange land? We already asked what were the circumstances of the “sending away” of Zipporah. Was it her choice or maybe she, the princess could not face a life in the desert with the slaves? And if it is so, why did her father, Jethro the priest of Midyian, choose to come to Moshe with Zipporah and the children? Why does Moshe respect his father-in-law so much? “And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent.” (Exodus 18:7). But he ignores his wife, who saved his life and the lives of his two sons, his flesh and blood.
The Midrash also does not go into details of the relationship between the two and about Zipporah’s personality. Let’s examine two very different midrashim that do deal with her: In the verse "for he had married a Cushite woman." (Numbers 12:1), our Sages ask: “Is Cushite her name, was it not Zipporah? But just as a Cushite has strange skin so Zipporah 's actions are weird" (Bavli Moed Katan 16b). The Midrash does not explain what was “weird” in Zipporah 's actions. Is it said in order to indicate that she was a daughter of an idolater, or was it a compliment that by her resourcefulness she saved Moshe? We can’t be sure what they meant, but according to a later midrash, Moshe was kept for ten years as a prisoner in Midyian and it says that during all these years, Zipporah took care of him and fed him and later she even persuaded her father to free him (Yalkut Shimoni Exodus 168). Here we get a very different portrait of a resourceful and courageous woman saving her beloved.
Zipporah and her relationship with Moshe get a very interesting, albeit brief, interpretation in a work by Yehezkel “the tragedy writer”. Yehezkel lived in Alexandria, and like many Hellenistic Jews wrote in Greek and what he wrote followed the Greek tradition of the tragedy. We do not know any thing about his life, but from a reference made by Eusebius, the Church Father, he is referred to as "the Jewish tragedy writer”. From this we can surmise that he was indeed a writer of tragedies. Perhaps Yehezkel used the tragedy literature genre in order to provide his Jewish readers with Jewish material in updated Greek attire and in order to engage them in Biblical stories and perhaps he also wanted to attract the non Jewish readers. We will never know. What is left for us is a testimony on an interesting cultural meeting between Jewish content and Hellenistic form.
In Yehezkel’s play, Moshe asks Zipporah, when he meets her and her sisters near the well, who they are, and she replies in detail, explaining the nature of the land:
This land, O stranger, all bears Libia’s name, but tribes of sundry races dwell throughout; natives, the dark skinned Aethiops. Yet there is one who is ruler, prince, and sole commander. He rules all this state and as priest judges mortal men; he is the father of myself and these. (as she indicates her sisters).
The reference of Zipporah to Moshe as "the stranger" may show, that the oldest daughter of the "ruler and the sole commander" who "judges mortal men; a priest" feels superior over the stranger. Later in the play an unknown man Chum (brown, was this the color of his skin?) requests that Zipporah tell him everything about her relationship with Moshe. Zipporah answers: "My father bethrothed me to this alien. Calling him "alien", Zipporah grasps the essence of all Moshe's life. We can also read between the lines and see that she was not happy with her father's decision, and to her Moshe remained the "alien" all his life.
Only the tragedy, "the Exodus" (היציאה), remained from Yehezkel’s literature. The tragedy is about the Exodus from Egypt and it is only partially preserved. We learn about it, as mentioned, from the Eusebius, the Church Father who quotes a Greek author Alexander Poluhistor, who apparently lived in first century BC and wrote a book on the Jews. We see that also here, as in the story of Moshe and Zipporah, this tradition comes to us through a Christian Church Father, who quotes a Greek author who quoted a play of a Jewish writer who writes on Jewish content according to Greek literary conventions.
As Moshe and Zipporah, who operated in a complex cultural, gender-oriented, religious and ethnic world, Yehezkel's tragedy made a complex journey, until reaching us. And so are we living in a complex world in which we are strangers in our homes and at home in places far away.
Let us never forget our original and essential strangeness in the world, and at the same time, may we always strive to make all mankind feel at home.
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