Zipporah: The voice of silence

Zipporah chose the destiny of silence, retreating into herself as a mysterious and quiet person. She preferred to hide under the mask of silence, choosing the strategy of being second.

Zipporah means “bird.” Like a bird, she was furtive. Unlike a bird, she was silent. She was the dark-skinned woman behind a splendid husband. But how much influence did Zipporah have on Moses’ life? She definitely played a key role in transforming the effusive and impulsive man she had met in the desert into a formidable, courageous leader and lawgiver, who led Israel out of Egypt’s captivity into the frontiers of the promised land. We have some evidence to think that, to a great extent, the success of Moses was due to the calm and sweet disposition, mixed with counsel, that this quiet woman shared with him for most of his life.

The Bible says very little about Zipporah. The five books of Moses contain only three clear and brief allusions to her (Exodus 2:21-22; 4:24-26; 18). Out of these few references, only one describes Zipporah in a leading role. Why did Moses not write more about her? Why is there no clear recognition of her? Or is it that her most important contribution was silence?

Moses was impulsive in character, explosive in temper, high-flaunting in self-image. Would such a person be the leader God was looking for to accomplish the great task of liberating His people? God chose His own way of molding Moses, and allowed Moses to go to the desert from the royal courts of Egypt to unlearn what he had learned in the classrooms of the University of Egypt. Among the first lessons he had to learn were patience and humility. No characteristic is so valid in leadership and influence as to be patient with people — their problems, their dreams, their ways — and to show by example that to be leader is to be a servant. Moses did achieve this transformation, and later the Lord Himself paid a great tribute: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).

Through whom did God teach these lessons of patience and humility? Who changed Moses? Was it the desert that hit his pride and taught him humility? Definitely, geography and the shepherd tasks softened his impetus. More importantly, however, human relationships play an effective role in tempering one’s character and steadying one’s purposes in life’s journey. Recent research has shown that certain social relational components — such as empathy; working together; sharing common goals, plans, and expectations — are statistically associated with effecting personality changes.1 Such components influence a person to look at issues dispassionately and with care and calmness.

Moses had someone to instill these significant social skills and personality building blocks in his life: his serene, patient, gentle wife Zipporah. To carry out the huge task of leading, organizing, and teaching this rebellious nation, it was crucial to have a soft and calm voice at home. It was at home, with Zipporah, that Moses learned the disciplines of patience, moderation, restraint, discretion, and obedience to God, among many other lessons — disciplines that are essential for effective spiritual leadership.

A determined woman

After 40 years in Midian, Moses and his family went to Egypt to accomplish the mission God had given him (Exodus 3). On their way, there was a dramatic and unexpected event. Moses suffered a sudden and severe illness that they recognized was a punishment from God for not having complied with His commandments: the circumcision of Eliezer, his son.

God was angry, and Zipporah calmed him. The experience of appeasing Moses during so many years helped her to calm even God. Moreover, she was responsible for neglecting the command (the Midianites saw circumcision as a cruel and brutal act) and assumed the responsibility.

In a valiant move, she took a sharp rock and without hesitation proceeded to perform the surgery without anesthesia — cutting out the foreskin of her first-born — showing herself to be a resolute and bold woman. It must have been an impressive scene to watch her with her bloody hands, defiantly screaming at her husband over the yelling of her son, while she threw the blood-dripping piece of skin at his feet: “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me” (Exodus 4:25).2

The blood of sacrifices offered to God purifies and saves humans. This bloody ritual with his son saved Moses’ life and renewed his marriage vows with Zipporah, through this cruel liturgy that both shared. Zipporah executed the noble ministry of intercession and reconciliation with God. Years later, Moses would exercise the same ministry of intercession: on two occasions, he was ready to offer his life to God in order to save his people from the wickedness of idolatry and rebellion (Exodus 32:10-14; Numbers14:10-20).

The hidden face of Zipporah

Holes in a story are one of the characteristics of the biblical narrative. In Exodus 18, we find a suggestion that may shed light on the hidden characteristics of our heroine. After some years of separation, Jethro brought Zipporah with her two sons to Israel’s camp. The last time we saw them was on their way to Egypt. Now we discover that Moses “had sent her away and her two sons” (Exodus 18:2). Why did he do so? We have to remember that Moses and his brother Aaron did the negotiation with Pharaoh’s court, and Miriam was supporting them as a leader among women. It is possible that Zipporah perceived she wasn’t very well accepted in her husband’s family, since she was a foreigner with dark skin. She probably preferred to leave rather than produce discord at critical times.

Zipporah and her sons arrived at the Israelite camp. Moses had not seen them for some time; he was too busy leading Israel out of Egypt. When he heard that his family was coming to join him, “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent” (Exodus 18:7). There they continued talking in a friendly way, while Zipporah and the children stayed outside, silently suffering Moses’ indifference. It is easy to think that an omission such as this must have been the result of a premeditated, secret plan. What plan? Why should Zipporah not be mentioned?

It is a noteworthy fact that this reunion was prior to the significant social, political, and legal reorganization that Israel experienced during the Exodus. The next day the family arrived, and Jethro advised Moses to share leadership responsibilities, dividing the people by jurisdictions organized hierarchically, with their respective judges, and leaving Moses to solve major disputes that required his intervention. Moses accepted such important changes (Exodus 18:24). Is there a connection between this administrative rearrangement and Zipporah? Definitely so, since, according to Ellen White, she was the one who proposed the idea. “When Zipporah rejoined her husband in the wilderness, she saw that his burdens were wearing away his strength, and she made known her fears to Jethro, who suggested measures for his relief. Here was the chief reason for Miriam’s antipathy to Zipporah.”3 It is difficult to imagine that such a great organizational transformation coming from a woman — not to mention a foreigner — was easily accepted. But it was accepted, because the idea was presented through her father Jethro, a respectable man with priestly investiture who came from Abraham’s lineage. Although others may not have known the Jethro-Zipporah connection, Miriam detected the source of the reorganization that Moses implemented. The problem was that this reorganization removed Aaron and Miriam from power. They had had privileges in the previous system. From now on, their work would be reduced to minor issues.

Zipporah chose the destiny of silence, retreating into herself as a mysterious and quiet person. She preferred to hide under the mask of silence, choosing the strategy of being second. She chose to hide her dark face so that her husband’s face would shine with blinding flashes. She cautiously walked in the stealthy night of a self-imposed mission. We do not see her presence, but we can see her fingerprints, some of them written in blood.

Under circumstances when the fever of “visibility” is part of human nature, it is almost incredible to think about this silent woman, who was trying to get away from the prestige and attention and live an inconspicuous life. Zipporah sought an existence in which she hid her destiny behind her biography. Her humility and greatness are exemplary indeed, and she stands as a model of silent leadership.

Mario Pereyra (Ph.D., Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina). When he wrote this article, he was a teacher at Universidad de Montemorelos, México. Now he is retired. He is the author of many articles and several books. E-mail: pereyram@um.edu.mx.

REFERENCES

  1. See J. C. Norcross, Psychotherapy Relationships That Work (Oxford University Press, 2002).
  2. All Scripture references are from the New International Version.
  3. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), p. 384.