Tsipporah and Her Bridegroom of Blood

Posted by on Sep 24, 2021

Tsipporah, Mosheh’s wife, upon having circumcised her son said the words: “You are a bridegroom of blood to me”. From the narrative we learn that she circumcised her son. But to whom did she speak the words “You are a bridegroom of blood”, and which son did she circumcise?

A good departure point to describing the term “bridegroom of blood” is to explain it in its proper context.

Mosheh was shepherding the flock of Yithro his father-in-law and he led the flock to Horev, the mountain of Elohim. There the Messenger of YHVH appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush, saying, “I am sending you to Pharaoh, to bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt”.

At that point, Mosheh must have taken the command to return to Egypt and bring His people of the land of slavery to be of high importance and so dear to YHVH that he was not allowed to delay it unnecessarily.

However, on the way to Egypt, we are told that YHVH met him and sought to kill him. Tsipporah took a sharp stone, circumcised her son, and threw his foreskin at his feet, saying, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me!” And He (YHVH) let him go. Then Tsipporah said to him, “You are a bridegroom of blood, because of the circumcision”. (Exo 4:24-26)

There are several questions we need to answer in the course of this whole paragraph: who was sought to be killed, to whom did she refer, saying, “You are a bridegroom of blood”, and who was “him”?

Who sought to kill whom?

Many commentators have suggested that it was Mosheh whom YHVH sought to kill. But there are those who hold the view that it was the firstborn son of Mosheh, Gershom, who was threatened, while others are on the opinion that it was his second son (yet unnamed) Eliezer.

We are not told how much time had passed between Gershom’s birth and the day of his circumcision. But on the other hand, we do know that Mosheh was forty years old when he left Egypt and returned to Egypt forty years later. That makes him eighty years old at the time of the exodus.

Therefore, it is possible to expect that Mosheh married Tsipporah sometime after his arrival in Midian, and then Gershom was born. If this line of reasoning is correct, then Gershom must have been no older than forty at the time of his circumcision. It is very unlikely that Mosheh had stayed unmarried for forty years until his departure from Midian. In this case, Gershom would have been the son Tsipporah circumcised. So far the narrative in Exo 2:21-22.

However, we are told in Exo 4:20 that Mosheh took his sons (plural) and his wife and he returned to Egypt. Later at Mount Sinai, we learn (Exo 18:4) the name of Mosheh’s second son: Eliezer, but we are not told when or where he was born.

It seems also clear from the story that Tsipporah was either pregnant or had already given birth to Eliezer prior to their departure from Midian. In either case, Eliezer was older than eight days and thus had passed the time of circumcision.

The Sages are in agreement that it was Eliezer who Tsipporah circumcised on the way to Egypt, but differ on whether the angel sought to kill Mosheh, because he had not circumcised his son, or Eliezer himself.

Therefore, if the story is about Eliezer, as commonly accepted, one thing is clear: at that point in the narrative he was uncircumcised. In this case, Mosheh should have circumcised his son and send him back with his mother to Midian.

And indeed, Mosheh should not have exposed both his pregnant wife and his family to the dangers of the long trip but to let them stay in Midian. We should note here what YHVH said to Mosheh, “Go, return to Egypt, for all the men are dead who sought your life”. YHVH said nothing about taking his family with him. But Mosheh took his wife and his sons and headed for Egypt (Exo 4:19-20).

This small detail reminds us of the call of YHVH to Avraham to go to the land of Kana’an. Again, YHVH said nothing about taking Lot, but Avraham did exactly that: he took Lot with him to Kana’an and that caused a lot of troubles later.

Likewise, had Mosheh listen carefully to the instructions of YHVH, that incident would not have happened in the first place.

An alternative reading of our passage is that the angel did not seek to kill Mosheh but his son Eliezer, the uncircumcised baby. Other sages hold the view that the whole thought that Elohim would seek to slay Mosheh, who was on His mission to redeem His people, must be abandoned. It was rather Eliezer, they say, whom Elohim sought to kill, and it is to Eliezer that the third person “met him” and “slay him” refer. According to them, the Scripture refers to Eliezer by the term “him”.

This is difficult. A baby cannot be in charge of his own circumcision, and therefore no guilt can be imparted to him. Besides, the name Eliezer is not even used in our passage; Eliezer is not at first mentioned. Therefore, to make sense, before referring to a person in the third person, one has to first identify him.

In response, those sages say that to identify the object of “him” the person must first have a name which the baby did not yet have; that is the reason the Scripture referred to the second son of Mosheh with the term “him”.

For one reason or the other, Mosheh took his family to Egypt and when his second son was born on the way, he saw no need to circumcise him thus exposing himself under the danger of being punished for not fulfilling the command of circumcision. This is why Mosheh was sought to be punished.

The performance of the rite of circumcision, Tsipporah must have thought, was so dear to YHVH that she was not allowed to delay it unnecessarily.

Tsipporah removed the impediment to saving Mosheh’s life by circumcising her son Eliezer. The child would then remain with his mother until healed and return to Midian, and Mosheh would continue on by himself to Egypt. Tsipporah made the right decision. Since Mosheh was unable to perform the circumcision, for whatever reason, Tsipporah acted as his surrogate.

Who is the “bridegroom of blood”?

Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ (Exo 4:25 JPS)

Here too the sages differ in their opinions. Some say that “his feet” refers to Eliezer’s feet, as well as the phrase: “Surely a bridegroom of blood you are to me”, since it is the custom of women to refer to a child as a bridegroom when he is circumcised. If this is the case, then its meaning will be, “surely you are a child of blood to me, for because of you my husband will die”.

The medieval Tanak commentator Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040 – 1105) sees this peculiar verse as a reference to Mosheh’s feet, and “she said, etc.” referring to her son Eliezer. Thus the whole meaning of Tsipporah’s words will be, “you have brought it about that my bridegroom (Mosheh) was on the point of being killed because of you: you have been to me my husband’s murderer”. So far Rashi.

Some commentators, however, claim that Tsipporah cast Eliezer’s foreskin at the feet of the angel who sought to kill Mosheh, and her words “You are a bridegroom of blood” were addressed to Mosheh himself.

According to them, Moshe did not circumcise his son as the angel had already incapacitated him. Seeing this, Tsipporah grabbed the sharp stone, cut off Eliezer’s foreskin, and threw it at the feet of the angel, saying to her husband: “You are a bridegroom of blood”.

At that point Tsipporah understood that her husband almost had been killed. This is the reason why she repeated her words “You are a bridegroom of blood”, but more properly “You are a bloody bridegroom”, and added “because of the circumcision”.

We must therefore view this verse as telling us that Tsipporah said: “You are a bloody bridegroom because you did not circumcise our son”. Then the angel released him (“He let him go” v.26). Thus, Tsipporah saved her husband’s life.

The righteous Tsipporah

Although the Sages have already treated this subject exhaustively, there is some room left for our comments.

If we want to understand what took place at that time we must pay attention to the words Tsipporah spoke the “bridegroom of blood” in the context of Exo 4:21-23, i.e. the giving of the instruction to Mosheh concerning Israel as the firstborn of YHVH and the slaying of Pharaoh’s firstborn son.

Tsipporah called someone “a bridegroom of blood”; in the context that must have been either Mosheh or Eliezer.

As a Midianite she spoke the language of the descendants of Avraham through Ishmael: Arabic. The Hebrew word for “bridegroom” is חָתָן chatan and can mean a relative by marriage (especially through the bride); figuratively a circumcised child.

When we reflect on what we have written above, we will find that there is a strong connection between the term “bridegroom of blood” and the rite of circumcision.

According to Nahum M. Sarna’s The JPS Torah Commentary, in Arabic, Aramaic, and Akkadian (close languages to Hebrew), chatan means to circumcise or to protect:

However, it can hardly be coincidental that in Arabic the stem h-t-n denotes “to circumcise” as well as “protect.” The latter is also its meaning in Akkadian. Hence, the enigmatic phrase could convey, “You are now circumcised [and so] protected for me by means of the blood—the blood of circumcision.” Curiously, p-sh, the Hebrew stem behind the word Passover, can also mean “to protect.”

Therefore, what Tsipporah had said in her language Arabic was this: “You are a circumcised child of blood, because of the circumcision” thus speaking to her son Eliezer, not to her husband Mosheh. Otherwise, it would have been odd for her to call her husband a child, since Mosheh was her husband, well advanced in age.

It is very probable, therefore, that Tsipporah circumcised Eliezer in hope of protecting him from the angel. Thus, through the circumcision Eliezer became a covenant child of YHVH: “a circumcised child of blood, because of the circumcision”.

An alternative interpretation, however, would be that Tsipporah could have said, “You are a circumcised child of blood, because of the circumcision” speaking to her  husband Mosheh, who was indeed “a child of [the Covenant of] circumcision”. By this she criticized her husband for not having circumcised his son Eliezer, while he himself was circumcised.

After this incident, Tsipporah and her circumcised son returned to Midian, while Mosheh and Aharon went to Egypt (Exo 4:27). Torah never mentions Tsipporah and her children having gone to Egypt.

In support, in Exo 18:1-4 we see that Yithro, Mosheh’s father-in-law, brought Tsipporah and her sons to Mosheh. At this moment of the reunion, we see that Mosheh’s second son, Eliezer, had already had a name.

Now, why is it important to know why Eliezer had been circumcised at those circumstances?

To understand the motivation behind Tsipporah’s actions to circumcise Gershom, we must understand it in the connection of YHVH’s threat against the firstborn of Pharaoh. Namely, that whatever Pharaoh does to the firstborn of YHVH, that is Israel, YHVH will do the same to the firstborn of Pharaoh.

Another consideration to understand the motivation of Tsipporah is that she was clearly aware of the Covenant made with her ancestor, Avraham, concerning the circumcision of a male child Gen 17:9-14.

And an uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, his life shall be cut off from his people – he has broken My covenant. (Gen 17:14)

As a descendant of Avraham through Midian (the son of Keturah), Tsipporah understood that (1) Israel was the covenant people of Avraham through Yitschak, and (2) the importance of the circumcision.

In other words, it is clear in our story that the contention is between (1) the covenant people Israel and the Egyptians, and (2) between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Now, if YHVH was to slay the firstborn of Pharaoh, the sons of Mosheh must be made right before YHVH.

Tsipporah understood the cause for the threat and acted immediately fearing YHVH’s threat upon her uncircumcised son Eliezer.

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