In Standing Between Life and Death we looked at Miriam’s ministry as prophet, worship leader, and forgiven usurper. But Miriam was not the only strong woman whom God called to stand between life and death in the life of Moses. Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, also acts in a cultic role. Like, Miriam she also looks over Moses and saves the lives of her family.
“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 Moses’ 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'” (Exodus 4:24-26). These are three of the most mythic and problematic verses in the Bible. Commentators have spilled gallons of ink in describing how these verses should be read and interpreted.
Zipporah was the wife of Moses. She, Moses, and their sons have just left Midian and are on their way to Egypt in obedience to what God had told Moses to do. Then Yahweh comes against either Moses or one of their sons to try to kill him. Quick thinking and quick acting Zipporah circumcises either her husband or her son, applies the bloody foreskin to one of their feet or genitals (feet are an euphemism for genitals in the Hebrew Scriptures), and the wrath of Yahweh is averted. Zipporah is the only human named, and the only human to act in this account.
In the verses right before this incident, Yahweh tells Moses what he is to say to Pharaoh: he is to let Yahweh’s people go, and if he does not let Yahweh’s firstborn son go then Pharaoh’s son shall die. In light of the context, these verses foreshadow the Passover.
But why should Yahweh come against Moses or one of his sons to try to kill him? Bernard Robinson thinks the reason is Moses’ reluctance earlier in chapter 4 to obey God’s calling to go and demand Pharaoh to release his people. He seems to think that either Moses or his son not being circumcised would not warrant this action on Yahweh’s part. Terrence Fretheim thinks it is a combination of both: “Moses’ continued resistance to the divine call, occasioning God’s wrath (Exodus 4:14), and his failure concerning circumcision are signs that do not bode well for the future” (p. 81). Is Moses still having reprehensions? Is Yahweh growing tired of his excuses? We will never know.
What we do know is how Yahweh’s wrath was adverted, and Moses (or his son) was spared. Zipporah quickly circumcises either Moses or her son and touches the bloody foreskin to the feet or genitals of one of them. She acts as a mediator between Yahweh and her family. She also acts as a priest. In a salvific moment that will foreshadow the Passover, she circumcises one of the men in her life and applies the blood to save one or both. This is the only written record we have of a woman performing an act of blood sacrifice in the Bible or in Near Eastern religion.
Ironically the priesthood that would later go on to minimalize Miriam’s role in the wilderness traditions as a cultic leader begins with a woman, and not even an Israelite woman. A foreign woman is the first person in Exodus to offer a blood sacrifice that averts the wrath of God and once again saves Moses.
The first female prophet named in the Hebrew Scriptures is Miriam, and the last female prophet is Huldah. Huldah was a prophet in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah, and her story is found in 2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34. Although there are noteworthy male prophets in Jerusalem at the time (Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum), Josiah sends the high priest to inquire of Huldah after a scroll is found in the temple. Huldah verifies that the scroll is the word of God, and that it’s words would come to pass, but Josiah would be spared since his heart was grieved over the sin of his people (Huldah’s prophecy would happen within 35 years). After he hears her words, Josiah steps up his reforms and leads the people in celebrating the first Passover that included all of the people since before the time of the judges (2 Kings 23:22).
Huldah was the first prophet to declare written words to be the word of God–Scripture. She is the first whose “words of judgment are centered on a written document as no others have been before her.” She is the first to authenticate Scripture. Manuscripts had been accumulating for years, if not centuries, but for the first time a prophet proclaims the writing to be God’s word, and this prophet is a woman–the last female prophet before Judah falls to the Babylonians. She started the process that would eventually give us canonized Scripture.
Huldah was married to Shallum who was the “keeper of the wardrobe” (2 Kings 22:14). But when Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah come to her home, they do not ask for her husband, and there is no embarrassment over inquiring God’s will of a woman. The high priest does not have an issue with a woman prophet. In fact, her gender is irrelevant in the text as is her marital status.
As Miriam frames the Exodus narrative so Deborah and Huldah frame Deuteronomistic history. Deborah appears at the beginning in Judges and Huldah at the end in Kings. Both women declare God’s word to leaders who respond. Unfortunately by Huldah’s time the nation had gone so far into idolatry that exile was inevitable, so there would be no songs of victory as in the days of Deborah. Although her words did compel the king to continue in his reforms and may be held the tide for a few more years.
Two women with ties to the cult; one as a priest and the other as a prophet. They are both married, but it is Zipporah who saves her husband and family as priest. King Josiah immediately inquired of Huldah on finding the scroll in the Temple. Both women knew what God wanted them to do and did it. As Miriam, Zipporah and Huldah are mediators and intercessors standing between life and death. Zipporah is successful, but Huldah must face the reality that her people have sinned too much for too long and confirm that God would send his people into exile.
Once again the traditions of Zipporah and Huldah remind us that as women we stand between life and death for our families, our communities, and even those who consider us to be outsiders. They were called, not because of who their husbands were or what their husbands did, but because they were available and open to God’s calling in their life.
Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002).
Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dihk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible (New York: E.J. Brill, 1993).
Claudia V. Camp, “1 and 2 Kings” in Women’s Bible Commentary, expanded ed., eds. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Claudia V. Camp, Wise, Strange and Holy: The Strange Woman and the Making of the Bible (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).
Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991).
William E. Phipps, “A Woman Was the First to Declare Scripture Holy,” Bible Review (vol. 6, no. 2, April 1990), p. 14.
Bernard P. Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus 4:24-6,” Vetus Testamentum 36 (October 1986): 452-3.