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Who is Zipporah?

Zipporah, whose name means “little bird,” is Moses’s wife. She is mentioned three times by name and once by role (Exod 2:21-22, Exod 4:24-25, Exod 18:2-6; Num 12:1). 

Most of the mentions of Zipporah are passing references. She is one of the seven daughters of Jethro/Reuel, a Midian priest. Her appearances in the Hebrew Bible coincide with Moses’s journey to and from Egypt. She meets Moses after his escape from Egypt when he rescues her sisters from shepherds at the well (Exod 2:21-22). Then, Zipporah appears again when Moses journeys back to Egypt to free the Israelites, and she performs a circumcision. This is the only time Zipporah is recorded as the agent of an action (Exod 4:24-25). Jethro reunites Moses with Zipporah and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, after Moses has led Israel out of Egypt. Their reunification indicates that Zipporah may not have stayed in Egypt with Moses (Exod 18:2-6). Num 12:1 refers to Moses’s Cushite wife, which is a possible reference to Zipporah, though she is not named.

What is significant about Zipporah?

Exod 4:24-26 describes Zipporah’s strange though life-saving act of circumcision. Several interpretive questions surround Zipporah’s act: what is the blood ritual Zipporah performs? Who is it for? While circumcision is a well-known ritual practiced by several cultures in the ancient Near East, its connection to a ritual involving a “bridegroom/relative of blood” is otherwise unknown. Our understanding of her act is further obscured by the verses’ use of male pronouns, rather than personal names, for the male characters, who might be identified as Moses, Gershom, or Eliezer. What is clear is that Zipporah saves the life of Moses or his sons through a blood ritual involving circumcision, and that the ritual act of a foreign woman preserves Moses’s life and line in Israel.

Zipporah’s status as a foreign woman in Israel is significant. She is described as a Midianite. If the reference in Num 12:1 is to her and not to an unnamed second wife of Moses, she is also a Cushite or Ethiopian (depending on the translation of the Hebrew kûšî). The Midianites were an ethnic or political group who occupied the Southern Transjordan area, while Cush most likely describes an area south of Egypt and east of the Red Sea. Zipporah is therefore marked by her “otherness”; she is distinct from the Israelites, and she exemplifies Moses’s ties to foreign cultures, including Egypt and Midian. Her status as a foreigner is highlighted in Num 12:1, where God punishes Aaron and Miriam for criticizing Moses’s Cushite wife and strikes them with leprosy. It is only through Moses’s prayerful intercession that they are healed.

While Zipporah is an outsider to Israel and is mentioned only a few times in the Hebrew Bible, she is still important. She successfully saves her family through her act of circumcision and is defended by God against an ethnocentric attack by Moses’s own family.

  • Aubrey Buster is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (Il). She is the author of Remembering the Story of Israel: Historical Summaries and Memory Formation in Second Temple Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

  • Wu-Ruth

    Ruth Wu is a Senior majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies (Bible Theology, Human Needs Global Resources, and Communication Theater) at Wheaton College (Il).