Zipporah, the woman who mediated with God for her husband

I’m reading through Exodus at the moment and came to a passage that has puzzled me every time I’ve read it. The story picks up as God tells Moses he has a job for him to do with Pharaoh and the Israelites in Egypt.

Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. … At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (Exodus 4:20, 24-26.)

The Bible never says why God was about to kill Moses.

  • Was it because Moses hadn’t circumcised his son?
  • In their lengthy instructions to Moses about going to Egypt and leading the Israelites back to the Promised Land, couldn’t God have added in a quick reminder to circumcise his son?
  • Also, wouldn’t killing him before he even got to Egypt put a damper on God’s plans to use Moses to free the Israelites from their captivity?

The passage doesn’t say much about any of these questions. But it does say a lot about women.

Zipporah the Intercessor

One of the main functions for the ancient priests of God was to intercede for the sake of God’s people. They stood as mediators between God and the people when the people sinned.

In taking on this role they are not exercising a power inherent in themselves but stand as representatives of God. That’s because it is really God himself who intercedes for us.

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Hebrews 7:23-25.)

One thing to remember about Zipporah is that she saved Moses before Israel had any priest. Yet still she carried out a priestly duty in offering blood to intercede for Moses with God; after all, atonement for sin requires an offering of blood. This was one of the first ordinances God gave the Israelite priesthood.

Once a year Aaron [the first high priest of Israel] shall make atonement … with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come. It is most holy to the Lord. (Exodus 30:10.)

The ultimate and eternal sacrifice, the one the priests merely represented through their actions, is Jesus’ blood on the cross.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering … . And so Jesus also suffered … to make the people holy through his own blood. (Hebrews 13:11-12. See also Isaiah 53:12.)

If the actions of the high priests year after year on behalf of God’s people interceded for them in their sin, and since this is actually a representation of what Jesus the Son of God did once for all time on the cross with his own blood, then Zipporah took the same place as a priest: she represented Christ in standing between her husband and God with the sacrifice of a son’s blood.

Women and the Priesthood

There is not a single woman listed among the priests of Israel. The ordinances of the priesthood made clear that they were to come from males in the line of Aaron, and only those men who were without physical handicap, blemish or infirmity. (Leviticus 21:21.) These were the rules for Israel under the Mosaic Covenant, the laws God gave Moses for the Jews as he established their theocratic nation.

We are not under the Mosaic Covenant.

Neither was Zipporah.

She lived to see that covenant, but at the time she saved Moses from God’s wrath that covenant did not yet exist. It doesn’t exist for Christians either.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6.)

That “written code” is the Mosaic Covenant with all its rules. You now live under a new way, one where everyone is a priest.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9.)

The nation of God’s people is made up of women and men together, with no distinction in their merit or place in his kingdom.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28.)

In Jesus we are not under the Mosaic Covenant; we are equal in God’s sight; we are all priests in the kingdom of Christ.

Sounds a lot like Zipporah, the priest who saved her husband’s life.

***

Michelangelo’s depiction of Zipporah circumcising her son, from a fresco in the Sistine Chapel. They all look so calm and deliberate, which is not the impression of urgency I got from the Exodus text. Notice all the men standing around watching. No one else is mentioned in the Bible as being present, but apparently Michelangelo understood Zipporah as a woman chosen by God to intercede for her husband. It’s not a matter of God settling for a woman because a man wasn’t available, as some Christian Patriarchy teachers would insist, since Moses was there too. God just chose Zipporah over Moses.

***

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19 Responses to Zipporah, the woman who mediated with God for her husband

  1. Bev Murrill says:

    Some great points here, Tim. It’s shown up Zipporah to me in a really different light. I always thought she was cool, but hadn’t seen the symbolism of priesthood before.

    In my book Catalysts:You can be God’s Agent for Change, I wrote about this incident in a chapter called What To Do When God Tries To Kill You. It seems to me that Moses is a type of we who hear the call of God and attempt to rise to it. First He gets us to respond to Him, and then He works on the issues we need to change. We can only see them as we are going, rather than before we go.

    The thing is the Moses was a Hebrew but hadn’t been brought up as a Jew. He would have known about circumcision and would have been circumcised, but his upbringing would have precluded it as the norm. Not being raised as a God fearing Jew, it would have seemed to him to be just a meaningless ritual. When he had his boys, maybe he didn’t value the idea enough to circumcise them, and/or maybe Zipporah wasn’t going to let anyone do that to her babies… and because it wasn’t a big deal to him, he didn’t follow through on circumcising.

    But there must have been an awareness in the family because Zipporah knew what to do when God was trying to kill her husband. To me it symbolises (as you have pointed out in referring to the priesthood) a Christian tenet of rolling away the flesh… to reinterpret it for today’s follower of Jesus, it means that we begin to serve God because we hear His call, but as we go on the journey, we meet with times when only circumcision of the heart will make us able to pursue the calling.

    What makes this even more relevant are the situations we are all familiar with, when those who’ve been called by God stop circumcising their hearts and end up bringing dishonour to the Body of Christ.

    There’s more to say, but I’m sure you get my gist.

    • Tim says:

      “First He gets us to respond to Him, and then He works on the issues we need to change.” That is one of the best insights I’ve read on what our walk with God is like, Bev. He really does continue his good work in us, carrying it forward to the day of completion, as Paul told the Philippians.

  2. Leah says:

    Beautifully contemplated and expounded, Tim!!! I grew up in the church, and regrettably many women’s stories were skipped. It’s truly delightful when fresh perspectives are given on biblical truths that were there all along. I’ll be adding this study to my growing list of things I must review and reconsider God’s message. Thanks Tim! Well done!

  3. California Native says:

    “Notice all the men standing around watching. No one else is mentioned in the Bible as being present,…” I just assume it was an opportunity to fit in more of the Medici family.

  4. Finding Christ in story of Zipporah. Great work. This is one of the most difficult passages in the Old Testament. I struggled to make any sense of it when I taught though Exodus. Most of commentaries shrug their shoulders when it comes to this bizarre interaction, let alone attempt to find Christ in this passage.
    Then you added the idea of female priesthood… very though provoking. I imagine I’m going to be dwelling on this and discussing this with others for the foreseeable future.

  5. aaronjab says:

    Women make wonderful intercessors, especially mothers. Better intercessors than men, in my opinion.

  6. Shalini says:

    Wow! You really must add a ‘super like’ button to your site Tim! 🙂 Zipporah rocks! Being a woman in a male-dominated, chauvinistic Asian context, this blog is like the Balm of Gilead. Incidentally, I have always been fascinated with Deborah and Jael. Would be interested to hear you talk about them.

  7. Pingback: Zipporah and the Eucharist | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  8. Don Johnson says:

    I think you know that you are taking Rom 7:6 out of its immediate context. In its immediate context I think it means something else.

    Here is how I understand what Paul is doing at the beginning of what we call Rom 7. Israelites (later called Jews) in the Prophets were said to be married to God in the Mosaic covenant. The northern tribes rebelled and split off to form Israel and turned away from God, so God divorced them, per Jer 3:8. So these people are no longer considered married to God, but Jews still were. When the new covenant is instituted by Jesus the metaphor of a wedding is used, joining Jesus in the new covenant is like a bride (church) marrying Jesus (groom). Everyone knows that a woman can only have one husband at a time per the Torah.

    With the “divorced” Israelites, since they are not now married, they can simply marry Jesus in the new covenant, fulfilling the Israel part of Jer 31 when it talks about the new covenant.. But with Judah AKA Jews (the other group mentioned in Jew 31), Paul has a puzzle to solve. Jews want to “marry” Jesus in the new covenant, but find themselves “married” to God in the Mosaic covenant, as the new covenant is better. God will not give Jews a valid reason to divorce God, as God keeps his covenant vows. The only other way to end a marriage covenant is death, so Paul points out that a believer “dies” in water baptism and this severs the marriage covenant with God in the Mosaic covenant thus allowing a Jewish believer to marry Jesus in the new covenant.

    It remains to be seen what this new covenant consists of. This is mostly explained in Jer 31, it consists of the exact same laws as found in the Mosaic covenants but instead of being written on stone and scrolls, it is written on one’s heart. In other words, the “new” part is WHERE the laws are written. P.S. Jesus in fulfilling the prophecy of Moses about The Prophet also gets to add teachings and perhaps commandments and he adds the new commandment, to love one another as he has loved us. Having the laws written on one’s heart means one will be able to keep them as one will want to do so. This understanding allows Paul to be telling the truth when Luke writes about him in Acts 21 where James agrees Paul has never taught a Jew to forsake the Torah of Moses.

    • Tim says:

      The meaning of Romans 7:6, though, is that all believers – Jews and Gentiles – are free of the restrictions they thought the law imposed that might get in the way of freedom in Christ.

      • Don Johnson says:

        Ok, how do you reconcile your understanding with what Luke reports in Acts 21. This is a section of Scripture that I see being mostly glossed over as to its implications by many in the gentile church. If Paul never asked the diaspora Jews to “forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21) how can they be free of all the rules in the Mosaic covenants that apply to them? Recall that Peter, James and Paul are recorded continuing to do “Jewish things” after accepting Jesus as Messiah. Paul claims “I am a Jew, I am a Pharisee…” long after he accepted Jesus as Messiah.

        • Tim says:

          Yep, Paul never said he stopped being a Jew. He also said he has the freedom to live as a gentile if he wanted.

        • Don Johnson says:

          As a gentile can choose to become a Jew, I also think a Jew can choose to become a gentile, although Paul claims he did not do this and further that he never taught that a Jew should do it. How can one (in the Acts 21 case, Paul) say they never taught something that is inherently impossible; if it is inherently impossible, one would just point that out.

          I think the main difference is whether one is obliged to do the Jewish identity marker type commandments: a Jew is, a gentile is not but is allowed to do so in some form if they wish. So, for example, a Jew should strive to keep Sabbath except when a higher commandment overrides it (like the disciples in the grain field) and a gentile is not required to keep Sabbath, but it is also not prohibited from them choosing to do so, so Sabbatarians are not wrong in their choice unless they claim others are wrong in not choosing as they do.

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