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Zipporah at the inn is the name given to an episode alluded to in three verses of Exodus. It is one of the more unusual, curious, and much-debated, passages of the Pentateuch. The verses in question are Exodus 4:24–26, the context is Moses and Zipporah reaching an inn on their way to from Midian to Egypt to announce the plagues to the Pharaoh:

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." (NRSV)[1]


The standard interpretation of the passage is that Yahweh wants 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 Yahweh's anger.

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

Because of these difficulties, many biblical scholars consider the passage fragmentary. 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."[2]

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. The question on why Moses neglected to have his son circumcised and thus incurred the wrath of Yahweh 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 the firstborn son of Jethro would be given over to idolatry and thus explaining why Moses was viewed negatively by Yahweh.[3] One Midrashic interpretation is that, while Yahweh allowed Moses to put off circumsizing 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.

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 up 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.[4]

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 even granted to Moses.[5]

Identity of the attacker

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 κυρίος "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 to humanity. (It is the mal'ak that speaks to Moses from the burning bush).


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ Howard Schwartz, Tree of souls: the mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press US, 2004, ISBN 9780195086799, 376f..
  3. ^ Kugel (1998), p. 519.
  4. ^ 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 9781584653073, 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."
  5. ^ Kugel (1998), 517f.
  • 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 9780674791510.
  • Shera Aranoff Tuchman, Sandra E. Rapoport, Moses' women, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2008, ISBN 9781602800175, 127-139.

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