Moses married Zipporah, a shepherd and daughter to Jethro the Midianite, a priest of YHWH the Lord. Moses first met Zipporah in the wilderness when she and her sisters were being harassed by other shepherds as they tried to water their sheep at a well. A rich scriptural tradition of shepherding informs an imagination of Zipporah’s life, that ranges from Jacob shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep, David protecting his sheep from lions with a simple sling, and to Jesus describing a God who leaves his 99 sheep to find the one that is lost. Shepherding is dangerous work, filled with physical toil, sacrifice, and for females, harassment as they care for their flock. Ultimately, though, it is a life that is characterized by quick instincts that ensure their flocks are protected and can thrive. In this case, Moses defended the girls and helped them water their sheep. Scripture tells us that Zipporah’s father was so impressed with Moses, he invited him to stay with them, ultimately giving Zipporah to Moses as a wife (Exod. 2:16-22).
The fact that Zipporah’s father was a priest is crucial to this story. Zipporah’s upbringing in a wise, priestly family provided her with understanding in the ways of worship. When God confronted Moses and was ready to kill him, Zipporah interceded as a priest would in approaching God. As surprising as this is to our western sensibilities, history confirms that female priestly roles were part of Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Zipporah’s word choice,selection of instrument (the flint), and the way she circumcised her son reflects her knowledge of priestly work.1 Together, with her shepherd’s instinct to protect the flock, and her priestly knowledge, she quickly appeased the wrath of the Lord, and saved Moses’ life (Exod. 4:24-26).2
Zipporah is discussed in several books reviewed by CBE. See a review of Imagining Equity by Katie Strand Winslow, who looks at outside women who engage in God’s work of preserving life, including such women as Zipporah.
Also, see Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom by Kelley Nikondeha.
- Carol Meyers discusses the fact that Zipporah demonstrates priestly knowledge. Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NY: The Cambridge University Press, 2005), 12, 63-66.
- Tikva Frymer-Kensky addresses the ritualistic elements that Zipporah knew and used as a protector. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 30.