A Murderous Bridegroom
Towards the end of Parashat Shemot, Moses takes leave of his father-in-law Jethro and, obeying a divine command, takes his wife and sons, mounts them on a donkey, and sets out for Egypt (Exod 4:18-20). Yhwh briefly instructs him on what he should tell the Pharaoh (vv. 21-23). The account of what happens next may be the most enigmatic narrative in the entire Hebrew Bible:
וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ יְהוָה וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ׃ וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת־עָרְלַת בְּנָהּ וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי חֲתַן־דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי׃ וַיִּרֶף מִמֶּנּוּ אָז אָמְרָה חֲתַן דָּמִים לַמּוּלֹת׃
Translating as literally as possible (and therefore somewhat clumsily):
And it happened on the way, at a lodging place, that Yhwh met him and sought to put him to death. And Zipporah took a flint and cut the foreskin of her son, and touched his legs, and said, “For an in-law/bridegroom of blood are you to me.” And he slackened off him. Then she said, “In-law/bridegroom of blood to/by/of circumcision” (vv. 24-26).
Despite being just 29 Hebrew words long, the piece raises a myriad questions. Whom did the deity seek to kill? Whose legs did Zipporah touch? To whom did she speak? What provoked the attack – especially given that Moses was seemingly acting in accordance with the divine will? What saved the child – the circumcision, the act of touching the legs, Zipporah’s pronouncement, all of the above, or perhaps none of it – and why? Why did Zipporah – rather than Moses – spring into action? And what is the connection between circumcision, blood (which may or may not be that of circumcision), and the in-law relationship between two families presupposed by the term hatan (חתן) ‘in-law, bridegroom’?
In this dvar Torah, I will try to answer these questions by using the concept of intertextuality that was developed by literary critics in the late-twentieth century.
The Bible Is Full of Itself
Intertextuality is exactly what it sounds like – a relationship between two or more texts that creates an opportunity to see at least one of them in a new light. Increased attention of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first century scholars to such opportunities is based on the growing recognition that no text is an island. It consciously or unconsciously builds upon existing texts, imitating some of them and polemicizing with others. It shares ideas, presuppositions, literary forms, and language with the texts that were created more or less simultaneously with it. And it serves as a launching pad (or, rather, as one of the many launching pads) for the texts that will be created later. As Roland Bathes put it, “any text is a new tissue of past citations.”
In biblical exegesis, the intertextual approach can be especially fruitful. As is well known to anyone who has ever read the Hebrew Bible closely, it tends not only to reiterate its points time and again – something that might be expected from a canon of sacred scriptures – but also to reuse its metaphors, imagery, motifs, plots, and language, formulaic and otherwise. To quote James Sanders, a contemporary American biblical scholar, “the Bible is full of itself.” As a result, many of the biblical texts, perhaps even all of them, interact with multiple others, sometimes on multiple levels, with meaning – which may sometimes be the only one available – generated in the process. Although the “nighttime circumcision” narrative may look like an odd man out, in fact it fits nicely into this pattern.
It Happened at Midnight
One major motif that Exod 4:24-26 shares with several biblical stories is that of a potentially or actually lethal divine attack taking place at nighttime (although the piece does not specify when exactly the incident took place, barring special circumstances it would be highly unusual for an ancient traveler to lodge during the day). In fact, the motif is so common that it even gave rise to a traditional Passover song whose refrain is “It happened at midnight.”
The events that the song lists include,
- Jacob’s wrestling with God (Gen 32:25-30),
- The slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn (Exod 12:29-30),
- The decimation of the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem (2 Kgs 19:35),
- The overthrow and assassination of the Babylonian king Belshazzar (Dan 5:30).
Reflections of the belief that nocturnal encounters with the deity are dangerous and may turn deadly are found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, for example, in the dread that grips Abraham when the sun sets and darkness surrounds him while he is in Yhwh’s presence (Gen 15:12) as well as in the commandment to pronounce Shema “when you go to bed and when you arise” (Deut 6:7).
Two of the narratives mentioned above are of special interest because they exhibit further parallels with the “nighttime circumcision” story.
The Plague of the First Born and the Need for Circumcision
The account of the tenth plague of Egypt, the midnight slaughter of Egyptian firstborns, also has significant parallels with the story of Moses at the lodging house.
First, circumcision plays an important role in it: the deity explicitly states that only circumcised males can partake of the Passover offering (Exod 12:43-45, 48-49).
Second, the plague is foreshadowed in Yhwh’s speech that immediately precedes Exod 4:24-26: the deity calls Israel its firstborn son (vv. 22-23) and threatens to kill the firstborn son of the Pharaoh (v. 23), as it indeed happens in Exod 12:29.
Third, Zipporah’s unnamed son whom she circumcises with a flint is in all likelihood her – and Moses’s – firstborn Gershom.
By putting these parallels together it becomes possible to determine whom the deity attacked in the episode and why. The blood of the Passover offering was supposed to mark the houses of the Israelites and thus protect the firstborn sons inside from the plague (Exod 12:7, 13, 21-23). And since uncircumcised males could not participate in the meal, as far as firstborns were concerned circumcision made all the difference between those doomed to perish and those assured of survival.
Indeed, it is possible that the blood of the sacrificial animal on the lintels and doorposts of the Israelite houses was meant to symbolize the blood of circumcision. Gershom, having not undergone the procedure, was indistinguishable in this crucial respect from the firstborn sons of the Egyptians – including the Pharaoh’s son whom Yhwh had just promised to kill. In terms of the larger Exodus narrative, he was fair game – until, that is, Zipporah saved his life by cutting off his foreskin with whatever tool she could find at such short notice.
Of course, that still does not explain why Gershom was attacked long before the plagues of Egypt even began, not to mention culminated in the slaughter of the firstborn sons. It is here that another story of a nocturnal divine assault, Gen 32:25-30, comes in handy.
Jacob Wrestling the Angel: God Attacking His Own Emissary
Like the account of the tenth plague, the account of Jacob wrestling with the angel displays multiple additional parallels with Exod 4:24-26. When Jacob is forced to wrestle with a mysterious adversary, he is, like Moses in the “nighttime circumcision” narrative, on his way back to the country of his birth, which he had left out of fear for his life (Gen 27:41 – 28:10; Exod 2:11-15). Both return with wives and children, having married in the land of their sojourn into the family of a local chieftain who is also a relative (Laban was Rebecca’s brother according to Gen 27:43; 28:5, and Midianites were Abraham’s descendants according to Gen 25:2). Most strikingly, in both cases the divine assault takes place despite the fact that the journey is undertaken at Yhwh’s explicit order (Gen 31:3; Exod 4:19).
Many commentators, especially Christian, see the paradox of the deity attacking its own faithful emissary as an affirmation of boundless divine autonomy, which cannot be constrained by any rational considerations. Yet, this approach is largely foreign to the Jewish tradition, which tends to deny that, as Abraham put in Gen 18:25, “the judge of the whole earth will not do justice.” Indeed, a closer look at Jacob’s case confirms that what happened to him on the bank of the Jabbok was by no means irrational.
Up to this point, trickery had been Jacob’s favorite MO; he cheated others of their possessions, be that primogeniture (Genesis Gen 25:29-34; 27:1-40) or cattle (Gen 30:27-43), and, despite being anything but a weakling (in Gen 29:10, he moves a stone that was too heavy for three shepherds to handle), ran away when the injured party sought to harm him. Even immediately prior to the wrestling scene, he first tried to bribe Esau (Gen 32:14-22) rather than facing him, and then apparently hid behind the backs of his wives and children. Such behavior might be tolerable in an individual named Jacob, but in order to become Israel, an eponymous progenitor of a nation, he needed to learn to stand his ground – as it indeed happened in Gen 32:25-30.
Application to the Attack at the Lodge Story
Being uncircumcised was not Gershom’s fault, but rather that of his parents, specifically, of Moses (in Genesis 17, where it is first mandated, and throughout the Jewish tradition circumcision is predominantly the father’s responsibility). That is why it is hard for traditional Jewish commentators to see the son, as opposed to the father, as Yhwh’s target.
In this light, the narrative becomes bitterly ironic: Israel’s designated liberator is negligent with regard to what at this point is the only practice setting Israel apart from all other peoples; the future mouthpiece of divine commandments is ignorant of one of the very few mitzvot that had been decreed so far.
Indeed, Moses’ lack of Israelite identity is so profound that even with his son under attack he apparently does not know what to do in order to affirm it and thus to rescue the boy. As further intertextual links will show, by rushing to circumcise Gershom, Zipporah accomplishes both – but at the price of irreparable harm to her family and her people.
“Thicker Than Water”?
When the Hebrew Bible uses the word damim (דמים, plural of dam ‘blood’) of a person or a group of people the implication is usually that the subject is a killer. Consequently, the expression חתן דמים, literally “in-law/bridegroom of blood,” repeated twice in Exod 4:25-26, should be properly translated “murderous in-law/bridegroom.” Although that may smack of a contradiction in terms, the situation in which actual or potential matrimony leads to in-laws slaughtering each other is by no means uncommon in the biblical narratives.
In Genesis 34, prince Shechem seeks to marry into Jacob’s family; as a result, he, his father Hamor, and all the men of their city are slaughtered by Jacob’s sons – Shechem’s potential in-laws. David marries into Saul’s royal house in 1 Samuel 18 but exterminates what is left of his in-laws in 2 Samuel 21:1-14. Amazingly, in both cases circumcision plays a major role. Jacob’s sons pretend to welcome Shechem into their family on the condition that he and all his subjects undergo the incapacitating procedure (Gen 34:13-17), which leaves the city without able-bodied defenders (v. 25). David wins the hand of Saul’s daughter Michal by not only meeting the bizarre bride-price set by the king – a hundred Philistine foreskins – but also doubling it (1 Sam 18:24-27).
A Murderous Son-in-Law
Moses’s relationship with Zipporah’s family undergoes a similar macabre twist. Despite being an in-law of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:21), he acts in Numbers 31 as an executor of Yhwh’s order to attack Midian; the onslaught leaves all Midianite men dead and all women and children taken as spoils (Num 31:7-9), with no exceptions mentioned for Jethro and most of his family. For them, Moses truly becomes a “murderous son-in-law.” Therefore, it must have been him that Zipporah described as such. And it must have been his legs that she touched after circumcising Gershom – perhaps to remind Moses of his own circumcision: in some biblical texts, such as Judg 3:24, the word reglayim (רגלים), usually “legs,” likely serves as a euphemism for the penis.
Both the verbal formula and the gesture affirmed Moses’s Israelite identity, established by his son’s circumcision. It is only as Israel, certainly not as a Midianite by marriage and not even as an Egyptian (which is how Jethro’s daughters see him at their first meeting in Exod 2:16-20), that he could eventually become an implacable exterminator of Zipporah’s people. Despite apparently being fully aware of this, she chose to act – and since, as we already know, it was Moses’ identity that caused the divine attack in the first place, her actions brought it to an end. She saved her son and, in a sense, contributed to Israel’s liberation from the Egyptian bondage but in the process exposed her people to wholesale slaughter and probably lost her husband: as made clear by Exod 18:2, she did not accompany Moses to Egypt because he “sent her away.” Jethro brings Zipporah back to Moses when they meet (still on amicable terms) near Mount Sinai, but she is never heard of again, and that perhaps is a good thing: her explicit presence at the scene in Numbers 31 would be more than an ordinary reader can safely stomach.
Interweaving Liberation with Violence
An intertextual approach to Exod 4:24-26 thus offers the readers an opportunity to make plausible sense out of a very difficult text, which, understood this way, exposes the double-edged nature of group identity that generates antagonism by promoting unity and interweaves liberation with violence. From the story of Cain and Abel to the expulsion of foreign wives under Ezra and Nehemiah, the Hebrew Bible never ceases to grapple with such issues.
Intertextuality also adds Zipporah to the long list of biblical women caught up in power struggles between families or peoples and forced to make devil’s choices as a result. Like Dinah and Michal – as well as Rachab, Jael, and others – Zipporah makes only a brief appearance (she never acts beyond our piece) but her agency deserves to be fully appreciated and her plight to be understood and remembered.
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December 31, 2015
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Dr. Serge Frolov is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Nate and Ann Levine Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at Southern Methodist University. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Clairmont Graduate University and another Ph.D. in modern history from Leningrad University. He is currently the editor of Hebrew Studies.
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