Zipporah at the inn

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The Circumcision of son of Moses, Jan Baptist Weenix ca 1640

Zipporah at the inn is the name given to an episode alluded to in three verses of the Book of Exodus. This much-debated passage is one of the more perplexing conundrums of the Pentateuch.


The verses in question are Exodus 4:24–26, the context is Moses, his wife Zipporah and their sons reaching an inn on their way from Midian to Egypt to announce the plagues to the Pharaoh:

Leningrad Codex text:

24. ויהי בדרך במלון ויפגשהו יהוה ויבקש המיתו׃
25. ותקח צפרה צר ותכרת את־ערלת בנה ותגע לרגליו ותאמר כי חתן־דמים אתה לי׃
26. וירף ממנו אז אמרה חתן דמים למולת׃ פ


24. And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
25. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, "Surely a bloody husband art thou to me."
26. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

New Revised Standard Version translation:

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" So he let him alone. It was then she said, "A bridegroom of blood by circumcision."

The standard interpretation of the passage is that God wanted to kill Moses for neglecting the rite of circumcision of his son. Zipporah averts disaster by reacting quickly and hastily performing the rite, thus saving her husband from God's anger. (Shemot Rabah 5:8)

Various interpretations[edit]

The details of the passage are unclear and subject to debate. One problem is that the text uses pronouns multiple times, without ever identifying which of the three individuals (God, Moses, or Zipporah's son) is being referred to by each instance. In particular, it is unclear whose feet (God's, Moses' or her son's) Zipporah touches with the foreskin, and the meaning of "bloody bridegroom".


The ambiguous or fragmentary nature of the verses leave much room for extrapolation, and rabbinical scholarship has provided a number of explanations. Specifically, the Targum Neophyti, a midrashic translation of the Pentateuch into Aramaic, expands Zipporah's enigmatic "you are truly a bridegroom of blood" to "How beloved is the blood that has delivered this bridegroom from the hand of the Angel of Death."[1]

While the passage is frequently interpreted as referring to Gershom, Moses' firstborn, being circumcised, the Midrash actually states that the passage was, at that time, considered instead to refer to Eliezer, Moses' other son.[2]

The question of why Moses neglected to have his son circumcised and thus incurred the wrath of Hashem (God) was debated in classical Jewish scholarship. Rabbi El'azar ha-Moda'i said that Jethro had placed an additional condition on the marriage between his daughter and Moses—that their firstborn son would be given over to idolatry and thus explaining why Moses was viewed negatively by Hashem.[3] One Midrashic interpretation is that, while Hashem allowed Moses to put off circumcising his son until they reached Egypt, rather than weaken him before the journey, Moses did not hasten to perform the task as soon as possible after he had arrived.[4]

Rabbinical commentators have asked how Zipporah knew that the act of circumcising her son would save her husband. A common explanation is that the angel of God (or one of two angels, Af and Hemah, the personifications of anger and fury), in the shape of a serpent, had swallowed Moses up to, but not including, his genitals. Zipporah immediately understood that the threat was related to circumcision, by a "psychoanalytic link" between Moses' penis and his son's, the ambiguous use of pronouns taken by Haberman (2003) as indicating the fundamental identity of the deity, her husband and her son in the woman's subconscious.[5]


The Samaritan Pentateuch differs from the Jewish Masoretic Text in many details. According to the Samaritan version of this episode, Zipporah realized that God was angry at Moses for bringing her and their two sons along on the divine mission to free the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. In an attempt to demonstrate her repentance and prove herself worthy of joining her husband, Zipporah took a sharp flint and cut herself as a physical sign of repentance; this different narrative arises from the voweling of the Hebrew root word בנה (b-n-h). Whereas the Masoretic version states the Zipporah circumcised "b'nah" (Modern Hebrew: בְּנָהּ)—"her son"—the Samaritan text describes her as having circumcised "binnah" (Modern Hebrew: בִּנָּהּ, Samaritan alphabet: ࠁࠪࠍ࠙ࠣࠄ )—"her understanding" or "her blocked heart." [6] Moses saw Zipporah's act of self-mutilation as a remnant of his wife's idolatrous upbringing, and a demonstration that God's displeasure at her presence was indeed well-founded. Therefore, Moses sent Zipporah and their two sons back to her family in Midian; this assuaged God's wrath and spared Moses's life. It was only after the parting of the Red Sea and the Israelites' miraculous escape from Egypt that Moses's father-in-law Jethro brought Zipporah and her sons to rejoin Moses at the Israelite camp in the desert.

Modern scholarship[edit]

Many biblical scholars consider the passage fragmentary.

Kugel (1998) suggests that the point of the episode is the explanation of the expression "bridegroom of blood" חתן דמ, apparently current in biblical times. The story would seem to illustrate that the phrase does not imply that a bridegroom should or may be circumcised at the time of his marriage, but that Moses by being bloodied by the foreskin of his son became a "bridegroom of blood" to Zipporah; the story has also been interpreted as emphasizing the point that the circumcision must be performed exactly at the prescribed time, as a delay was not granted even to Moses.[7]

German orientalist Walter Beltz thought that the original myth behind this story was about the right of Yahweh, as an ancient fertility god, to receive in sacrifice the first born son, he reasons that the pronouns cannot refer to Moses, since he is not mentioned in the text preceding the passage. Moreover, the preceding text speaks of Israel as Yahweh's first born son and that Yahweh would kill Pharaoh's first born son for not letting Israel out of Egypt, it is obvious, he concludes, that this leads the writer to insert this story about another first born son, Moses'. Accordingly, it can only mean that Yahweh wants to take possession of the son of Moses because he is entitled to the first-born male; the mother undertakes the circumcision, an ancient matriarchal relic, and touches Yahweh's genitals with the child's foreskin. Only this makes sense when she uses the marriage formula "you are my bridegroom of blood". For in doing so, she transferres[clarification needed] the child of Moses into a marriage with Yahweh, making him a child of Yahweh. The complete sacrifice of the boy is replaced by the sacrifice of a part of the penis; the biblical redactor still bore this in mind when he added: "At that time she said 'bridegroom of blood,' referring to circumcision." Originally, young boys were sacrificed to the pantheistic Cretan and Phoenician goddesses only after the priestesses had consummated ritual intercourse, the sacred marriage, with them. Thus, some scholars argue this text comes from the same category as such practices.[8]

Identity of the attacker[edit]

While Exodus is unambiguous about Yahweh (God) himself performing the attack on Moses, other texts make the attacker an "angel of the Lord".

The version in the Book of Jubilees (2nd century BC) is attributing the attack to Prince Mastema, a title that was another name for Satan:

... and what Prince Mastema desired to do with you when you returned to Egypt, on the way when you met him at the shelter. Did he not desire to kill you with all of his might and save the Egyptians from your hand because he saw that you were sent to execute judgment and vengeance upon the Egyptians? And I delivered you from his hand and you did the signs and wonders which you were sent to perform in Egypt. - Jubilees 48:2-4

The Septuagint version subtly alters the text by translating the Tetragrammaton not as κύριος "the lord" but as ἄγγελος κυρίου "the angel of the lord". "Angel" (ἄγγελος ) is the translation throughout the Septuagint of the Hebrew "mal'ak", the term for the manifestation of Yahweh[citation needed] to humanity. (It is the mal'ak that speaks to Moses from the burning bush.[9])


  1. ^ Howard Schwartz, Tree of souls: the mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 978-0-19-508679-9, 376f..
  2. ^ " Rashi on Exodus 4:24 Archived January 8, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Kugel (1998), p. 519.
  4. ^ " Rashi on Exodus 4:24 Archived January 8, 2015, at the Wayback Machine citing Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 31b.
  5. ^ Bonna Devora Haberman, 'Foreskin sacrifice - Zipporah's Ritual and the Bloody Bridegroom' in: The covenant of circumcision: new perspectives on an ancient Jewish rite, Brandeis series on Jewish women, ed. Mark, UPNE, 2003, ISBN 978-1-58465-307-3, 18-42. "Like Eve, Zipporah tangles her references to her son, her lover and God. ... Male figures coalesce in Eve['s] and Zipporah's consciousness."
  6. ^ Tsedaka, Benyamim, and Sharon Sullivan, eds. The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah: First English Translation Compared with the Masoretic Version. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013. ISBN 978-0802865199. pp. 132-133
  7. ^ Kugel (1998), 517f.
  8. ^ Beltz (1990), 65.
  9. ^ Exodus 3:2.
  • Walter Beltz, Gott und die Götter. Biblische Mythologie, Aufbau-Verlag Berlin, 1990, ISBN 3-351-00976-3.
  • James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, Harvard University Press, 1998, ISBN 978-0-674-79151-0.
  • Shera Aranoff Tuchman, Sandra E. Rapoport, Moses' women, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2008, ISBN 978-1-60280-017-5, 127-139.