A strange episode in a strange land

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By Saul Golubcow
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Shemot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1.


Parshat Shemot moves rapidly, from a new Pharaoh arising and the enslavement of the Israelites to God’s assuring Moses that “a strong hand” will force Pharaoh into letting the Israelites go.

But in verse 24 of chapter four, a frenetic scene stops us: “Now he was on the way, in an inn, that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. So Zipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son’s foreskin and cast it to his feet, and she said, ‘For you are a bridegroom of blood to me.’ So he released him. Then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood concerning the circumcision.’”

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Frightening and bewildering, the episode demands multiple reads as we struggle with what’s occurring and ambiguous pronoun referents for he/him. However, upon consideration, we may understand why the tension is greater than even in the grander moments within Parshat Shemot and how Zipporah’s action is key to the unfolding of the larger Exodus story.

After the Burning Bush encounter, Moses, with wife Zipporah and two sons, is returning to Egypt, and they stop at an “inn.” Commentators have debated whom God wanted to kill, Moses or one of his sons, but clearly the plot revolves around the desperate need for a circumcision, Zipporah’s swift intervention and the implications of her now having a covenantal bridegroom.


When Genesis ends and the Israelites move to Egypt, they are a small, bonded group. At the core of their covenantal relationship with God was male circumcision as God informs Abraham in Genesis 17: “This is my covenant, … between me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised … And the uncircumcised male … shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

As Parshat Shemot opens, the number of Israelites have greatly multiplied, living as foreigners in Egypt, apparently uncircumcised as we learn later from the Book of Joshua that after 40 years in the desert, Joshua “circumcised the Israelites.” When Moses is born, he is hidden for three months. Circumcising Israelite children under these conditions would have been dangerous. Absent the covenantal bond with circumcision at its essence, the Israelites are bereft of identity and spiritual vibrancy, striving among themselves, “strangers in a strange land” as Moses emblematically names his son Gershom.

More than fear and humility, Moses expresses a crisis of identity when he asks of God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Who indeed is Moses, raised as an Egyptian removed from the covenantal relationship with God and his people?

Thus, it’s understandable that in our three dramatic verses, assigning pronouns lacking
referent identity to the males and God reflects a breakdown of the covenant. Thanks to Zipporah’s quick action, not only does she gain a truer relationship with her own “bridegroom,” but with this representative circumcision of the next Israelite generation, the covenant, after God in previous verse 22 reiterates “Israel is my son,” resumes so that liberation can proceed. How interesting that while the covenant lies abrogated, women (midwives, Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Zipporah), who do not partake of circumcision, are the heroes of the Exodus story.

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.

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