Zipporah’s Story in Torah

We don’t hear much about Moses’ wife and sons. To start the process of studying them, I’m first collecting Biblical mentions, which are below.

Moses and his Ethiopian wife Sephora (Mozes en zijn Ethiopische vrouw Sippora). Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650.

Moses was born a Hebrew slave but set upon the Nile as an infant and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. As an adult, he murdered an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew.

When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well.

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock;

but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.

When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?”

They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.”

Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as wife.

She bore a son whom he named Gershom, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”

Exodus 2: 15-22

“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died” (Exodus 2:23) and God remembers the Hebrews in bondage. “Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian” (Exodus 3:1) discovers the burning bush and God tasks him with freeing his people.

Moses went back to his father-in-law Jether [sic] and said to him, “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”

The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”

So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God with him.

Exodus 4: 18-20

We don’t know how old Moses’ and Zipporah’s sons are. If a “long time” passed after Gershom was born, that implies he’s too big to share an ass with his mom and brother (whose age we can only guess at). Nor do we know how old Zipporah is.

Torah tells us Moses was 80 when the Exodus began (about a year after he returned to Egypt) and that he spent 40 years away. So he was certainly much older than Zipporah.

We also can’t assume the Torah story is in chronological order. We know that in other places it is not. The time that passed may have been after Moses fled Egypt and before he met Zipporah and her sisters at the well.

Now the story takes a bizarre turn.

At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him.

So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!”

And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Exodus 4: 24-26

You might think I left something out but, no, this is it. Immediately before are God’s instructions to Moses to threaten the life of Pharaoh’s first born son (which could relate to Moses’ son, thought we don’t know which son was involved in this story). Immediately after is God speaking to Aaron, telling him to meet his brother in the wilderness.

There is no mention of Zipporah’s family until Exodus 6:25: “And Aaron’s son Eleazar took to wife one of Putiel’s daughters, and she bore him Phinehas.” Putiel is another name for Jethro. So this is one of Zipporah’s sisters. There is no way this marriage could have taken place before the start of the Exodus. So here we have a clear example of Torah setting aside chronology in order to tell a story.

The next mention comes in Exodus 18, just before the Hebrews arrive at Mount Sinai, though the events described take place at Mount Sinai.

Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.

So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home,

and her two sons—of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”;

and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, “The God of my father was my help, and He delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God.

He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.”

Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.

Exodus 18: 1-7

Here we learned that Moses did not continue traveling to Egypt with his family, that he sent them home. We also have the remarkable happening that Moses, after a year long separation from his wife and sons, does not appear to acknowledge them at all. He only greets and spends time with his father-in-law. Some (as represented by the painting below) speculate that Torah only mentions greeting Jethro to emphasize Moses’ respect for him, not because he ignored his family.

Moses Meeting His Wife and Sons.  William Artaud.  c. 1791.  Carnegie Museum of Art. [Here a much younger than 80 Moses greets his young wife, his aged father-in-law, and his two pre-teen sons. Who is the other women in the picture? Could it be Zipporah’s sister, come to wed Aaron’s son Eleazar?]

And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law.

Exodus 18: 12

Jethro was a Midian priest but this passage implies that he has converted to Judaism, something many commentators assume. We don’t know when he or his daughter converted or if the children were born before or after that fact, but the circumcision scene tells us they were Jewish at that time, if not before. If the conversion came later, that would explain why they were not already circumcised. It would not be unreasonable to assume the family converted after Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.

Jethro gives Moses advice on leading his people, then he goes home. We don’t hear anything more about Zipporah until Numbers 12, long after the giving of the Torah and the tablets, but while they are still at Mount Sinai.

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!”

They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” The LORD heard it.

Numbers 12: 1-2

God lectures Miriam and Aaron and then punishes only Miriam. We aren’t sure why she is punished (or why just her) or why Moses’ siblings were complaining about his marriage. Also, Zipporah is not named here. Some commentators take this to mean this is Moses’ second wife. But most believe Zipporah is his only wife. Nor do we know if Cushite refers to Kush, in Africa, or if it refers to Saudi Arabia (where Midian is) or if it just means beautiful and/or dark-skinned.

Many commentators do not consider Miriam and Aaron to be complaining about Moses’ choice of wife but, rather, that he was neglecting her.

Regardless of how old Moses’ sons were when led the Hebrews out of Egypt, they were adults when the Hebrews made it to the land of Canaan 40 years later. Yet Moses does not appear to train his sons to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he appoints Joshua (who is not even from the tribe of Levi) to be his successor.

The sons don’t die or bring shame upon their family. They just simply are in the background. We have to go to the end of the Bible to hear from them again.

As for Moses, the man of God, his sons were named after the tribe of Levi.

The sons of Moses: Gershom and Eliezer.

The sons of Gershom: Shebuel the chief.

And the sons of Eliezer were: Rehabiah the chief. Eliezer had no other sons, but the sons of Rehabiah were very numerous.

I Chronicles 23: 14-17

Moses’ grandsons and later progeny may not have been big names but they were trusted with important duties.

Shebuel son of Gershom son of Moses was the chief officer over the treasuries.

And his brothers: Eliezer, his son Rehabiah, his son Jeshaiah, his son Joram, his son Zichri, his son Shelomith—

that Shelomith and his brothers were over all the treasuries of dedicated things that were dedicated by King David and the chiefs of the clans, and the officers of thousands and hundreds and the other army officers;

they dedicated some of the booty of the wars to maintain the House of the LORD.

I Chronicles 26: 24-27


1 Comment

  1. From Sin to Sinai – Out of Egypt

    April 23, 2021 at 10:22 am

    […] their defeat of Amalek, we have Chapter 18 which is about Moses’ family (his wife, children, and father-in-law) arriving to meet the Hebrews. The day after that, Moses spends all day trying legal cases and Jetro, his father-in-law helps him […]

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