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Zipporah's Fire

In Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), Zipporah seems to fade away until, ultimately, she no longer appears in the story. Rashi and other commentators imagine that Moses chose to set her aside, effectively divorcing her. In this Midrashic Monologue, we continue our exploration of Zipporah’s point of view and suggest that she was the one who decided to remove herself from her husband’s story.


I stood in the crowd listening to Moses tell his people about the importance of keeping one’s oaths. It took all of my energy not to scoff at his words. No one could accuse my husband of forsaking his oaths to heaven, but what of his promises to me and to our children?

I allowed my mind to wander as I considered whether it had been the wilderness’ heat that had curdled the love I once felt for my husband. But, I snapped back to attention when I heard Moses declare that we were going to war with the Midianites, with my people. At that moment, everything that had been churning within me escaped in a scream of rage and pain. It was so loud that even God’s chosen one, the man who slept beside me when he remembered to come home at night, fell silent.

For a moment, he looked ashamed. For just a moment, I saw the shepherd who I had wandered with as we shared our dreams, the runaway who had chased away the men who would have taken advantage of my sisters and me. For a moment, I saw my husband, but then he was gone. Then the Israelite’s leader was back, and he simply continued on with his speech.

I was so overcome with grief, with rage, that I could not make myself move, and so I just stood there in the crowd, sobbing and shaking. I could feel the Israelites shrinking from me, leaving me more and more alone in my desperation, unwilling to face the human cost of their God’s call for war.

Even when Moses finally concluded his speech and the people had gone back to their tents, I continued standing there, waiting.

Moses approached me tentatively, without the confidence that seemed to animate him when he spoke with God’s words.

“Zipporah. You know I don’t want war, but this is God’s…”

I raised my hand, cutting him off before he could try to explain, “How dare you tell me that the death of my people is your God’s wish.”

He had sense enough not to try to offer any other explanation. I continued, feeling as if everything inside of me was finally boiling over.

“Was it not enough that my father, Jethro, a Midianite, sheltered you when you were at your weakest?

Was it not enough that he bound his daughter to you and brought you into our clan?

Was it not enough that I left the family that I love to follow you into this endless wilderness?

Was it not enough that I allowed your God and your people to steal my husband from me?

Was it not enough that your nephew, Pinchas, murdered my cousin in cold blood?

Moses, you have just declared war on my family! How can you be so heartless?!”

He looked exhausted as he replied, “Zipporah, the men of your tribe are our enemies. We will never be safe as long as they have any power at all. But, I promise you, the women will be spared. They will be brought into our camps and given to Israelite men who will protect them.”

I fell back a step in the face of his blind faith, his cruel ignorance.

“Safe like Cozbi with her Israelite? Safe like your wife who has born your children but is treated as a pariah and a potential traitor? Safe like Bilhah or Zilpah who helped create the tribes of Israel but whose names are barely mentioned even by their own descendants?"

I paused, gathering all of the generosity I had left. “Moses, please. Remember the way you once loved Jethro. Remember the way once you loved me. Do not do this.”

Moses shook his head and said, “It is God’s will. I cannot go against it. I’m sorry, Zipporah.”

His resignation was like a match, and all at once, I was ablaze, burning with incandescent pain and fury.

“If the Midianites are your enemy, then I am your enemy. You are no longer my husband. You are no longer my partner. I divorce your life from mine. Our paths will no longer be entwined.”

Moses raised a hand to his head, almost as if he was shielding his gaze from the strength of my fire. “Zipporah, please. Consider the duty that I have been charged with. You know I can not contradict the Eternal One.”

I had no more patience for his pleas. “Dayenu. Enough. Your words, your excuses, are worthless to me when all that I have ever wanted was your love. We are done. I am no longer your wife. I am no longer your woman. You have stripped everything from me, and now I am only my rage.”

Moses stood defeated, withered, and silent as I walked away from him. That night, he stayed away from our tent. Quietly, I explained to my sons, Gershom and Eliezar, that we needed to pack because we would be leaving at first light. They had shared so little of life with Moses that they were more upset about the prospect of leaving their cousins than their father.

The next morning, I helped my boys put our packs on their shoulders, and with no fanfare at all, we began our journey. At one point, I looked back and saw the silhouette of Moses standing in front of his God’s column of fire. I allowed myself to pause for a moment and grieve for the fact that my husband had chosen to follow his God’s light instead of my own. But, then I resumed my journey, blazing a safe path for my sons to follow.


Note from MM:

While in this Midrashic Monologue, we imagine that Zipporah holds within her a powerful rage, it is interesting and enlightening to compare her anger with that of Pinchas (who in the recent Torah portion of #Balak channeled his rage directly to violence and murder). Pinchas’ actions are reprehensible and destructive. In contrast, Zipporah’s anger is transformative. While it burns bright with power, she channels it wisely, using it to free herself from a situation that was causing her pain and to propel herself into the next chapter of her life.


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