Life and family
Zipporah was probably the eldest daughter of a man who had no sons. One day, in 2473 AM (in the winter of 1532/31 BC, according to Ussher), she and her sisters drove their flock of sheep to their well and drew water from it to water their flock. Some rival shepherds of unknown nationality tried to drive them away from the well. Then a stranger, whom Zipporah identified at first as an Egyptian, came to the women's aid and forced the shepherds to desist. He then helped the women complete their watering.
The Biblical narrative here says that the sisters returned to their father's camp and left the man behind. Jethro asked them how they could have finished their task so quickly, and they told him that "an Egyptian" had helped them. Jethro then asked why they left him at the well, and told them to invite the stranger to the camp.
This man was Moses, who agreed to stay in camp and learn how to be a shepherd. Moses and Zipporah were married soon afterward. Their first son was born in the next fall, and Moses named him Gershom ("the stranger"), because, he said, "I have been a stranger in a strange land." (Exodus 2:16-22 )
The next mention of Zipporah occurs when Moses is traveling back to Egypt to start his famous mission. The Bible says that God met Moses and was about to put him to death. Then Zipporah performed a circumcision on his son (some authorities say Gershom, and others say Eliezer) and then threw the foreskin at Moses' feet, saying, "You are a bridegroom of blood to me." (Exodus 4:24-26 )
This incident is a matter of sharp controversy with regard to the significance of circumcision and Zipporah's feelings about it. Most authorities recall that circumcision was an important sign that God had given to Abraham of His covenant with His people, and if one of the sons of Moses had not been properly circumcised, then Moses had failed to honor the terms of the covenant, and had to rectify this oversight before proceeding further. Some authorities further suggest that Moses was guilty of a worse fault: still refusing to obey God and carry out His mission to Egypt. Concerning Zipporah herself, some authorities credit her with thinking more clearly than did Moses, recognizing his failure to circumcise his son, and acting in order to avert disaster. But others suggest that Zipporah recoiled in horror at the custom of the circumcision and felt estranged from Moses on that account. According to this theory, God forced Zipporah to act, and Zipporah withdrew temporarily from Moses' life, leaving him free to continue the mission without argument.
The Biblical narrative clearly says that Moses, Zipporah, and their two sons set out for Egypt. (Exodus 4:18-20 ) Yet the Bible also says that Moses sent Zipporah and their sons away to Jethro before the Exodus of Israel. (Exodus 18:1-4 ) Some authorities assume that Moses sent Zipporah back to Jethro before he arrived in Egypt. Whether Zipporah deliberately abandoned Moses is in dispute. In any event, Zipporah and the sons of Moses joined the camp of Israel after the Red Sea crossing.
The Ethiopian Woman?
The identity of the Ethiopian woman whom Moses had married by the second year of the wilderness journey (Numbers 12 ) is in doubt. Ussher, Jacobs, Konig, and others assume that Zipporah and the Ethiopian woman were the same person. Others admit the possibility that the two women were distinct. Many authorities who identify the Ethiopian woman as Zipporah suggest that racial prejudice or simple woman-to-woman jealousy provoked Miriam to question the authority of Moses and cite his marriage as her excuse.
Different authorities cite different reasons for identifying Zipporah as the Ethiopian. Ussher states that Midianite country was a part of Ethiopia at the time. Other authorities suggest that the Midianites were not descended from Abraham at all, but from Ham, and specifically Cush.
If Zipporah is not the Ethiopian, then Moses married twice, as did Jacob, because the Bible does not state unequivocally that Moses gave Zipporah any sort of bill of divorcement. Josephus stated that Moses commanded Egyptian troops and led them in a successful attack against Ethiopia before his exile. If this was true, then some Ethiopians might have been part of the "mixed multitude" that joined the Israelites at the Exodus. But Moses' campaign in Ethiopia, if it occurred at all, occurred forty years before the Exodus, so Moses would not likely have married a woman whom he had earlier taken as a hostage or prize in that campaign.
Zipporah in fiction
Zipporah appears as a minor character in at least two motion picture projects and one television project describing the Exodus and the life of Moses. She is also the subject and title character of an original novel.
Cecil B. DeMille
In the Cecil B. DeMille production (The Ten Commandments), Zipporah (credited in the movie as Sephora) appears as the eldest sister, responsible for six younger sisters in addition to her father's livestock. She sees a strange man sleeping under a palm tree and points him out to her sisters. They speculate about his origins, because though he wears Egyptian sandals, he does not wear an Egyptian robe. (Moses is shown wearing the red robe with the black and white stripes, based on what the Midrash identifies as the colors of the tribe of Levi.) Then the rival shepherds, identified as Amalekites, come pushing their way to the well. One of them strikes Zipporah and knocks her to the ground, whereupon the stranger explodes into action, knocking down Amalekites left and right with his staff as only a trained soldier could. "Let them be first who drew the water," he says with a stern voice, and that impresses Zipporah at least as much as his coming to her aid.
Zipporah's sisters start competing with one another for the man's attentions, but the man clearly shows that he noticed Zipporah and commends her for her bravery. Zipporah returns to her father's camp to ask his permission to invite the stranger to stay. The stranger meets Jethro and introduces himself as Moses, son of Amram and Jochebed. Moses stays with Jethro and even agrees to act as the selling agent for Jethro and his fellow Midianite shepherds. After Moses negotiates a profitable sale of the fleeces, Jethro invites Moses to choose one of his seven daughters. Six of them dance before Moses and Jethro and the other men, but Zipporah refuses, finding such a display unseemly. She goes out to tend the sheep alone, and Moses leaves the celebration to join her. When he reveals that he did not choose any of her sisters to marry, Zipporah realizes that Moses is still hurting from a prior love affair turned sour, and asks him about this other woman in his life. The two talk frankly with one another, and Zipporah suggests that Moses could still be happy in a non-luxurious setting, because some things are more important than luxury. Moses agrees, and proposes to Zipporah, which proposal she accepts.
The burning bush incident appears to occur when Moses has a five-year-old son. A half-starved man, still wearing some broken chains, stumbles into the camp, and Moses asks Zipporah to care for him. The new arrival is Joshua, who has escaped from a copper mine. While Joshua is recuperating, Moses climbs Mount Sinai, and when he returns, his face is shining. At his word, Moses, Joshua, Zipporah, and Gershom all return to Egypt. (This project does not mention Eliezer at all.)
The circumcision incident does not occur in this version. Zipporah and Gershom are "sent away," but this does not occur until shortly before the first Passover, and then by the order of an Egyptian princess who in fact was that "other woman" in Moses' life. Zipporah rejoins Moses after the Red Sea crossing, and witnesses the unfortunate affair of the Golden Calf.
In the Jeffrey Katzenberg animated-cartoon feature The Prince of Egypt, Zipporah is captured by Egyptian slavers and brought to Egypt to be given as a prize either to Ramesses II or to his "brother," Moses. She tries to bite Ramesses' finger off, and so Ramesses gives her to Moses. Moses takes hold of the rope binding her wrists, and when she will not stop trying to pull away from her, he drops the rope so abruptly that she falls backward into a fountain. Ramesses then orders her taken to Moses' chambers—but while there, she manages to overpower the chamberlain and escape. On her way out of the capital city she asks Miriam and Aaron to give her a supply of water, which they do.
Months later, Zipporah and her sisters are trying to fight off some rival goatherders, when a stranger unties the intruders' camels and sets them running free, forcing the goatherders to chase after them. The stranger then falls into the well. Zipporah starts to pull the stranger out of the well, but then recognizes the stranger as Moses—and lets him fall back in.
Eventually Moses arrives in Jethro's camp, and Jethro tells Moses that he ought not be modest about the service that he has rendered. Moses agrees to stay, and he and Zipporah marry.
When the burning-bush incident occurs, Moses announces that he has to return to Egypt because he wants the same thing—freedom—for his people that Jethro and his family have. Zipporah understands and announces that she will go with him. Thus, contrary to the Biblical narrative, Zipporah accompanies Moses in his first appearance in Ramesses' court, in his apology to Miriam and Aaron after that appearance goes badly, and during the Ten Plagues. Zipporah even participates in the long march to the Red Sea, and the crossing, side-by-side with Miriam.
In Burt Lancaster's television project Moses: the Lawgiver, Zipporah appears, with rare exception, following faithfully the description of her role in the Biblical narrative. The Lancaster project even mentions the circumcision incident, but shows the circumcision occurring to an infant boy—probably Eliezer, since Gershom was born much earlier. (This project does not compress time, as do the DeMille and Katzenberg projects, because Burt Lancaster portrays Moses only during his years as Judge of Israel, and employs a different, much younger actor to portray Moses during his years as a prince of Egypt.)
Author Marek Halter wrote a novel titled Zipporah, Wife of Moses in 2006. In this novel, Halter propounded a new theory of Zipporah's origin: that Zipporah was not a Midianite at all, but that Jethro had adopted her. Thus Zipporah is an outsider, because her Ethiopian skin is much darker than Midianite skin. Though Jethro shows her no adverse discrimination, the Midianite men of marriage able do, and so Moses is the first man to express a romantic interest in her. And when Moses proposes to her, she accepts, but on the condition that Moses return to Egypt to rectify the injustice of their slavery.
- James Ussher, The Annals of the World, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2003, pgh. 170
- Blank, Wayne. "Entry for Zipporah." Daily Bible Study, n.d. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Jacobs J and Ochser S, "Zipporah, The Jewish Encyclopedia, n.d. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Konig, G. "Zipporah." About Bible Prophecy, 2001. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Authors unknown. "Women of the Bible: Z." Alabaster Jars, n.d. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Goldstein CR, ed. "Moses and Zipporah: Reading with Relations." Sabbath School Network, n.d. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Jones, Floyd N., The Chronology of the Old Testament, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2004, p. 216
- Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 175
- Atteberry, Shawna R. B. "Women Intercessors: Zipporah and Huldah." CRI/Voice, 2007. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Bob L. "Moses and Zipporah." Ichthys, October 21, 2006. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 238
- See for example "Wehzo", "Moses and Zipporah," HubPages, 2008. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Authors unknown. "Zipporah." American Bible Society, 2008. Accessed December 5, 2008.
- Josephus, Antiquities 2.10
- Halter, Marek. Zipporah, Wife of Moses. New York: Random House Publishers, 2006. 288 pages, trade paperback. ISBN 978-1-4000-5280-6