Saturday, September 16, 2017

Why Zipporah Circumcised Her Son

Alice C. Linsley

Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the most difficult passages of the Old Testament.
Thus saith the LORD.... And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn. And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, "Surely a bloody husband art thou to me." So he let him go: then she said, "A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision." (Exodus 4:22-26)

Many Bible scholars believe that this puzzling story is an episode from a larger narrative. It is mysterious because of its brevity and lack of context. We are told only that this happens on the journey back to Egypt and at night.
3200 BC flint knife 
from al-Badari

There is no explanation as to God's motive. Was Moses to pay for killing another man with his own life? Why would God want Moses to die when He has given Moses clear directions about what he is to say to Pharaoh when he arrives back in Egypt?

What is the significance of all this talk of first born sons? Israel as God's firstborn appears to parallel the firstborn of Egypt, but was the child circumcised by Zipporah Moses's first born son?

In what sense is Israel God's firstborn. Surely this is not a statement about the primacy of birth, since Israel, that is, Jacob, was not Isaac's first born. Is it a reference to the great antiquity of the Hebrew priesthood?

Note that Moses is not named in the passage.When Zipporah circumcised her son what did she touch with the bloody foreskin? The pronouns do not make it clear. Did she touch the legs of her son or the legs of her husband? Is the word "legs" a euphemism for genitals? Scholars have debated this for years.

Zipporah appears to accuse Moses. What is the substance of her accusation, and is she angry with him? Normally, Hebrew babies are circumcised on the eighth day. Did Moses delay his son's circumcision for some reason?

What is the significance of the word hatan for bridegroom? Does this word provide greater insight into the mysterious text?

Some of the difficulty of this passage can be cleared away when we remember that Moses was a Horite Hebrew and his marriages followed the pattern of his father and his ancestral Horim. The Horite Hebrew chiefs had two wives. The first was the wife of the man's youth and was a half-sister. Moses's first wife was his half-sister and she is referred to as his "Kushite" bride. The second wife was usually a patrilineal cousin and this wife was taken close to the time when the man would become a chief.

Zipporah was Moses's second wife; his cousin bride. Presumably, the son who Zipporah circumcised was their first born. If this is the case, Zipporah performed the rite that would have been performed by her father, the priest of Midian. This is because the first born son of the cousin bride belonged to the household of his maternal grandfather. This is a feature of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of Abraham's people.

Zipporah's father was a Horite Hebrew priest who ruled in the region of Midian.The land of Midian was named for one of Abraham's sons, born to Abraham's cousin wife, Keturah (Gen. 25). To explore the account given in Exodus 4:24 we need to understand the marriage and ascendancy pattern of the Horite Hebrew chiefs.

As Moses and Zipporah were by now too far away from Jethro for Jethro to perform the circumcision, it was done by Zipporah. The daughters of priests performed circumcisions, but only on females. It is called "Pharaonic circumcision" and pertained only to the wives and daughters of high-ranking Kushite priests. The Bible does not say much about this, but there is extra-biblical evidence for female circumcision among the Nilotic rulers. This is not to be confused with what is termed today "female genital mutilation."

In November 1982, Canadian anthropologist Janice Boddy's fascinating essay on Pharaonic circumcision appeared in American Ethnologist. The essay was titled "Womb as Oasis: The symbolic context of Pharaonic circumcision in rural Northern Sudan" (Vol.9, pgs. 682-698). Here Boddy sets forth her research on Pharaonic circumcision among the people of Sudan. She found that the practice of female circumcision parallels male circumcision. It expresses recognition that humans are created male or female. This binary distinction is one of the more important binary distinctions found in the Bible.

Boddy explains (p. 688): 
"In this society women do not achieve social recognition by becoming like men, but by becoming less like men physically, sexually, and socially. Male as well as female circumcision rites stress this complementarity. Through their own operation, performed at roughly the same age as when girls are circumcised (between five and ten years), boys become less like women: while the female reproductive organs are covered, that of the male is uncovered. Circumcision, then, accomplishes the social definition of a child's sex by removing physical characteristics deemed appropriate to his or her opposite: the clitoris and other external genitalia, in the case of females, the prepuce of the penis, in the case of males." 

Herodotus (BC 485-425) wrote concerning the origin of circumcision:
"Egyptians and the Ethiopians have practiced circumcision since time immemorial. The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves admit that they learnt the practice from the Egyptians, while the Syrians in the river Thermodon and the Pathenoise region and their neighbours the Macrons say they learnt it recently from the Colchidians. These are the only races which practice circumcision, and it is observable that they do it in the same way with the Egyptians."

Among the ancient Nilotic peoples, and especially among the ruler-priests, circumcision was a blood rite. Blood was regarded as the substance of life and shed blood was a protection or a covering.  The tent that covered the Tabernacle was made of the hides of rams dyed red to symbolize the blood covering (Exodus 26:14)Purification was made by the ashes of a red heifer (Numbers 19:9). This stands as a "perpetual sacrifice" for Israel and points to the Son of God who was sacrificed outside the city. The blood of the lamb on the doorposts in Egypt signaled divine protection for all in that house. Likewise, the scarlet cord let down from Rahab's window symbolized blood protection. She and her household were spared when the Israelites entered the city.

This brings us to the term hatan.  The word has multiple related meanings. It means husband. Moses was both Zipporah's husband and her covering. We recall how in seeking Boaz's protection, Ruth asked him to cover her with the hem of his robe. This is a very ancient custom which is observed in many cultures. In the Akkadian, hatan means protection. However, in Arabic hatan (or khatin) refers to circumcision (Hebrew Study Bible, pp. 113-114).

It is possible that Zipporah claimed concerning her husband: "You are protected by blood" (Sarna, N., The JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, Jewish Publication Society, 1991, p. 26).

It is significant that the blood that protects is the blood of the Son. Let those who have ears to hear, hear the message of our Messianic Faith.

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