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The Oddest Episode in the Torah: Explained

I was asked recently to explain something that really sticks out in the Torah as, at the very least, a very odd – even disturbing – episode. Indeed, it has often flummoxed me as well just because it is quite difficult to understand both the story and why the Torah shares it with us.

The story itself is only three verses long, and even its translation is not so obvious. (I translate it a pretty standard way at first – feel free to check your own versions to see how others have done so):

At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him [Moshe] and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah [Moshe’s wife] took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his feet 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)

This whole episode is quite strange on many levels. But if we read the text carefully, and understand the personalities involved, it all comes together to make sense.

First off, we should set the scene: Moshe has been told by G-d to go to Egypt (where he was a wanted man), confront the most powerful man in the world (Pharaoh), threaten him and eventually serve to help free a slave nation from its overlords. Not exactly a trivial task!

At the same time as G-d first talks to Moshe at the burning bush, Moshe’s wife is either very pregnant or has just given birth to their second son. Either way, her husband comes home with the sheep, informs her that he has been charged with this quest, puts her and the children on a donkey, and they ride off toward Egypt. His wife, Tzipporah, had not spoken with G-d. Nor had she (unlike Yaakov’s wives) been consulted by her husband, or given any choice in the matter. So, having just given birth to a baby, she is confronted with the fact that her husband’s mind is not on his wife, or on their sons. And here is how it unfolds, with each phrase connected to how it is used elsewhere in the Torah.

“At a night encampment” The word “Malon” in Hebrew is first used at the time Joseph’s brothers discover they still have the money they should have paid to Joseph for the food they received – and suddenly, everything has gone wrong. And they were terrified by the uncertainty.

Later in the Torah, the same word refers to the grumblings and mutterings of the nation, which is quite an appropriate connection to this episode. At night encampments in the Torah, the situation is quite unsettled, uncertain, and even downright rebellious.

“The Lord encounters him” “Encounters” is really closer to an uneasy confrontation between two people. It is first used to describe Esau meeting Jacob’s messengers who were bringing advance gifts to try to fend off a conflict. (Gen 32:18 and 33:8). The outcome is in doubt. Indeed, whether there is even an open conflict is not clear.

“And sought to kill him”, Here is where the plot thickens. G-d is seeking something, that much is clear. But “kill him” is not quite right. The word “to kill” is found just one verse earlier, when G-d describes killing Pharaoh’s first born. And that word is different – it is the same word as “murder,” the same word first used when murder is invented by Cain when he rose up against his brother (Gen 4:8)

No, the word in the Torah is not “kill” – it is instead “to make dead.” And the first time that word is used is when G-d forbids the fruit to Adam and Eve: “On that day you will surely die” (formed by using the same root word for “dead” twice). But Adam and Eve, despite eating the fruit, did NOT die! Instead, they changed irrevocably. Their old selves, the way they saw the world, each other, their nakedness, etc. all perished. They became entirely different, thanks to changed knowledge. There was no going back to who they were beforehand.

If this is right, then what G-d is doing when he comes to Moshe that night in the unsettled camp, is seeking a transformation. The old Moshe has to go. The new Moshe has to arrive.  What was wrong with the “old” Moshe? He was a family man, working for his father-in-law, supporting his wife and children. That man could not simultaneously serve as G-d’s very mouthpiece to the world. Unlike every Jew before and after, who are called to use marriage as their template for the challenges of relating to G-d, Moshe could no longer be in a mundane marriage.

Tzipporah at this point sees what is happening. And while it may have been possible that she could have transformed as well, she either does not choose to do so, or she was not aware of the choice. She saw her husband crossing this threshold, and she realized that she was going to be collateral damage – that she was already collateral damage, and it was not going to get better. So Tzipporah chooses to get ahead of it, to cauterize the emotional wound of losing her husband.

What she does next, by cutting the foreskin of her son (note the text says her son, not their son) and touching it to Moshe’s feet is a declaration: a declaration of her new status and his: separated. (There is a connection to levirate marriage as described in Deut. 25:9 – the woman also makes a fervent declaration using the man’s foot.)

Tzipporah sees what is going on. And she takes the initiative, because otherwise she undergoes more pain. So she gets ahead of it, declares the division, declares the new status, AND her feelings. She cauterizes her emotional wound.

The language she chooses tells us this: “A bloody bridegroom”. Moshe is not her bridegroom – he is/was her husband! Calling Moshe her bridegroom is to regress the relationship, back to before delivering two sons, back perhaps even to before marriage itself.

The word for “bridegroom” in the Torah is first found referring to Lot’s sons-in-law: they are connected relatives who, when it came down to it, declined to follow their own wives when the core family fled the city. In other words, “bridegroom” in this case is someone who may not be around for long, someone who may be henceforth separated.

Indeed, in Ex. 18, Moshe’s father-in-law effects a reunion, bringing Tzipporah and her two sons to Moshe. The word “bridegroom” is used in this section no less than 6 times in 8 verses – not the word for “husband” or “master.” The division that Tzipporah created in the marriage had indeed become the new reality.

The reference to “blood” is even more fundamental in the Torah. The first mention of blood in the Torah is that of Abel, calling out from the ground to G-d after Abel’s brother, Cain, had killed him. “Blood” refers to the results of murder, a situation in which there is no going back, but an aura of longstanding guilt remains. A life has been taken, and it can never be undone.

Put together, Tzipporah’s repetition of a “bloody bridegroom” is a statement of the damage to their relationship, a separation between them.  

The punchline is the last word of the text: circumcision. This word, “mul,” is quite distinctive, because it does not mean “covenant,” (though it can lead to a covenant) and it also does not always refer to cutting off the foreskin. Instead, the word means a hard separation, even a stark contrast. So, for example, when Moshe dies (Deut. 34:6), he is described as being buried mul – opposite to – Peor, the basest form of idolatry. In death as in life Moshe was always in stark contrast to idol worship. So Moshe’s service to G-d is delineated by this word mul: here, on his way into Egypt, and then again at the end of the Torah when Moshe dies. Moshe is separated, set aside. He is, indeed, reserved just for G-d – and at the cost of other relationships.

When Tzipporah declares that Moshe is a bloody bridegroom “because of the mul,” she is saying that the circumcision was not just that of her son’s foreskin. She is declaring an eternal incision that would forever divide that marriage, a setting aside of Moshe. Indeed, it is also a separation of Moshe’s sons; they stay with their mother.

There is a reason why Jews bless our children to be like our forefathers and mothers – but not like Moshe and Tzipporah. Theirs was not a marriage for ordinary people to emulate. Tzipporah vanishes from the story until her father brings her and her children back to Moshe, reminding Moshe of the “bridegroom” reference all the way. And while Moshe and Tzipporah remain married afterward, it seems they are never again intimate. G-d comes first.

I think the Torah is telling us something very important by relating this episode: everything comes at a cost. True, Moshe was the greatest prophet in history. But he paid dearly for that role for the rest of his life. It is an insight into the level of commitment Moshe was to display for the rest of his life – as well as the pain that his wife felt as the world she knew was swept out from under her. Tzipporah becomes a sympathetic figure, loyal – but separated – until the end.

Credit: I worked this out with @ishottheserif and with my regular Torah partner, @susanquinn

Comments are welcome!