Shemot – The mystery of a displaced story

Image by Yael Shahar

There is one episode in this week’s parashah that stands out as particularly difficult to understand: the story of Tzipora’s emergency circumcision at a wayside inn:

At a night encampment on the way, the Eternal encountered him and sought to kill him. So Ziporah 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.”

וַיְהִ֥י בַדֶּ֖רֶךְ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֣הוּ יְהוָ֔ה וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ הֲמִיתֽוֹ׃

וַתִּקַּ֨ח צִפֹּרָ֜ה צֹ֗ר וַתִּכְרֹת֙ אֶת־עָרְלַ֣ת בְּנָ֔הּ וַתַּגַּ֖ע לְרַגְלָ֑יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי׃

וַיִּ֖רֶף מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אָ֚ז אָֽמְרָ֔ה חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת׃

This mysterious story seems to defy interpretation. Who was it that God sought to kill? And why?

A misplaced vignette

We can begin to make sense of the story only if we realize that it has been lifted out of its proper place in the wider narrative; chronologically, it belongs much later. In fact, it belongs in chapter 11, during the plague of the firstborn. This is clear from the preceding verses: After Moshe is told that Pharaoh will not listen to his request to let the Hebrew slaves go, God tells him, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Eternal: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’”

If we read this story in its proper context, it begins to make sense: In the midst of the plague against the firstborn, God seeks to kill Moshe’s firstborn son, Gershom. Tziporah, realizing that the plague has been unleashed against everyone except the Israelites, acts quickly to bring her son into the Covenant of Avraham and save him from the plague.

Gershom, born in the land of Midian to a Midianite mother, is a child of no clear identity. His very name means “Migrant There”. Like Moshe himself, he is a child of two worlds, or of none. With one swift stroke of her flint knife, Tziporah decides his identity once and for all—he is an Israelite, and so he will live through the night of terror.

Subversive episodes

But if this story rightfully belongs near the end of the story of the plagues, why is it presented to us here, a parenthetical vignette as displaced as its protagonists? To answer this question, let’s look at the things that are emphasized in the story thus far.

The increase in the Israelite population alarms the new Pharaoh, who “did not know Yosef”. Pharaoh seeks to spread his paranoia to the entire nation of Egypt. He enslaves the Israelites to keep them from rising up, imposing harsh labor on them. However, the more the Israelites are oppressed, the more they increase, and the stronger they become.

And so Pharaoh takes stronger measures, giving secret instructions to the midwives to kill the male babies. However, this plan, too, miscarries (so to speak): the midwives refuse to carry out the order. The key word in this brief narrative is חיה-life. The midwives are instructed to kill the male babies, but instead, “give life to the children”. When brought before Pharaoh, they defend their actions by saying that the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are “lively” (חיות), and give birth before the midwives can come to them.

The quiet voice of resistance

Only when his plot fails does Pharaoh call upon the entire nation to help him deal with the Israelites. He issues a new decree that all male Israelite newborns are to be cast into the river to drown. We aren’t told how, and to what degree, this decree is obeyed by ordinary Egyptians, but that it was a real threat is illustrated in the narrative’s next vignette: The birth of a baby boy and his mother’s desperate attempt to hide him, and when that becomes impossible, to save his life.

Here the narrative is understated. No names are named; all we know is that the child’s parents are a Levite man and a Levite woman. They could be any Hebrew family, doing their best to deal with oppression and the threat of genocide. That’s exactly the point; they could be anyone. We readers know the identity of the baby in question; we know that he will grow up to liberate the Hebrew slaves and become Israel’s great law-giver. But his mother doesn’t know this when she takes steps to save him.

Nor does  Pharaoh’s daughter know what her actions portend, when she finds the baby floating in his basket in the river. She knows only that here is a child in need. Nor does Moshe’s sister’s know what the outcome will be when she comes forward to offer a Hebrew wet nurse for the child.

In doing so, the sister risks more than is at first obvious: in suggesting a Hebrew wet nurse, she lets Pharaoh’s daughter know that she is in on the secret: this is a Hebrew child and the princess is clearly defying her father’s orders. In doing this, she brings the princess into a conspiracy to save the life of the anonymous child, not because of who the child his, but because he is a child and deserves his chance at life.

Women of valor

In all these episodes, we find an interesting phenomenon: it is the women who defy the institutionalization of evil in their society. The midwives resist the murderous instructions of their king, effectively taking the side of the hated Israelites against their own people. Moshe’s mother resists by hiding her newborn son as long as possible. Ironically, her bid to save him takes the form of giving him to the river; she can tell the Egyptians that she did exactly as Pharaoh decreed, and cast her son into the river. Pharaoh never explicitly said “don’t build a boat for him”!

While it’s only natural for an Israelite mother to resist Pharaoh’s evil decrees, even Pharaoh’s own daughter acts against him! Her actions in taking a baby that she knows to be a Hebrew child and raising him as her own is a willful act of rebellion against her father.

The common denominator here is that it is the women who, sometimes at risk of their own lives, rebel against the corrupt laws of their government. In following their instincts, they save the lives of those under their care. By subterfuge and civil disobedience, they pave the way for the Israelite’s eventual escape from Egypt, one subversive act at a time.

And so, we come back to the parenthetical story of Tziporah at the Inn. If we transplant this story into its rightful context, the plague of the first born, we get a picture of Tzipora taking matters into her own hands. For whatever reason, Moshe’s firstborn son had been left uncircumcised. Perhaps this was due to his being a child between two cultures, or perhaps Moshe, not being raised in Israelite society, was not yet aware of the importance of the rite. Whatever the reason, the child’s lack of identity left him exposed on the dreadful night of the plague. As with the other episodes in our narrative, the hero is a woman who acts to save one in her care from death. We imagine her action as one of desperate defiance, echoed in her declaration: “A bridegroom of blood you are to me!”. And when her ploy works, and she sees the angel of death withdrawing from the boy, we hear the wonder in her voice when she says, “a bridegroom of the blood of circumcision”.

And so we understand why this story was displaced from its rightful place in the narrative. While chronologically the episode comes much later on, thematically, it fits with the other stories in our parashah, stories about ordinary women paving the way for redemption, one life-giving act at a time.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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