A Native in the Land: Deriving an Ethic of Intercultural Relations from Exodus, Part 6

After examining the fate of those who attempt to destroy God’s covenant people, it’s now time to look at those from outside the family of Jacob who responded positively to them.

What we find is that while God specially blesses and protects the genetic descendants of Abraham, they are in turn intended to bless the entire world. Culture serves as a basis for alienation and violence only when it is intertwined with worship of other gods. Therefore, any person who submits to God and the Hebrew way of worship is assimilated into the family. There are two instances in particular highlighting this conclusion. First, Zipporah and Jethro, two non- Hebrews, are critical to a positive resolution of the book’s plot. Secondly, the “sojourner” is given a central place of protection and reverence by Israelite law.

Zipporah, the wife of Moses is perhaps the most enigmatic character in Exodus. This is true in no small part because the passage in which she plays the largest role, Exodus 4:24-26, is perhaps the most enigmatic in scripture. In it, Moses, obeying God, packs his family and heads for Egypt to confront pharaoh. However, Exodus 4:24 meets the reader with a sudden change of events when, “the Lord met him and sought to put him to death.” Some commentators ascribe this as Moses suddenly drawing a deadly illness.47 Reading the attack as an illness though neglects the uncanny parallels of this episode with the story of Jacob in Genesis 32:22- 32. There are too many similarities for such cursory ignorance. Both stories of godly beatings occur at night and both occur on a return journey to meet a long lost brother. Furthermore, both episodes employ the same verb “to touch” in Exodus 4:25 and in Genesis 32:26, albeit once to a “hip” and once to “feet.” And both actors see a change in character afterwards.48 In addition to these affinities, the Zipporah story is closely intertwined with God’s purposes for his people in Exodus. Cassuto correctly notes the connection with God declaring Israel his firstborn and thus rightful possession, and Moses’ lack of faithfulness of circumcising his own son.49 He and others, however, overlook the connection between Zipporah’s action and the later Passover. Just as Zipporah sheds and smears blood to save the life of Moses, the Hebrews are ordered to shed and smear lamb’s blood to spare their lives during the Passover. This connection is made even more explicit by the requirement of circumcision to partake in the Passover at all.50 If this interpretation is correct, Zipporah’s quick thinking in the midst of divine haymakers demonstrates that this foreign women better understood the contours of God’s design than did the man who was to stand before God on Sinai.

Zipporah is not the only foreign hero of Exodus. Her father Jethro also plays a critical role in ensuring Israel’s survival. Jethro is a “priest of Midian.” It is highly unlikely Jethro was a priest of God in any way, especially given the later picture of the Midianites’ hedonistic idolatry.51 Nonetheless, he welcomes Moses as a son-in-law, and blesses his return to Egypt at the behest of Israel’s God. However, Moses, while loyal to Jethro, is also careful to make a religious distinction between the two of them after the burning bush revelation. Though not stated explicitly, the fact is in Exodus 4:18 Moses tells Jethro nothing of his spectacular encounter with God, and in Exodus 4:28 he tells Aaron everything. This omission strongly suggests Moses recognizes the distance between Jethro and himself.52

Nonetheless, despite his lack of Israelite heritage or knowledge of God, Jethro is the one throughout the early chapters of Exodus who treats people as God does, that is he evaluates actions and not racial or cultural factors.53 Thus, Jethro’s basis of inclusion is the same as that of God who not only allowed for a “mixed multitude” to leave with Israel out of Egypt, but as we will soon see, compassionately provides for all strangers within the midst of his people.

An astute observer might note perhaps Jethro is treated in a positive light early on because of his blessing on Israel and his confession of God’s greatness later in Exodus 18:10-12. This conclusion is entirely possible and only further shows that Jethro is perhaps even more aligned with God’s character than was previously revealed. It is likely the exodus event is the first action of Israel’s God he is aware of and upon hearing it rejoices and acknowledges accurately what he sees. Jethro’s status as a righteous pagan is even more pronounced by the position of his confession immediately following the episode with the wicked Amalekites in Exodus 17:8-16.54

Therefore, Jethro and Amalek represent two diverging paths from which the nations must choose when encountering the living God of Israel.

To summarize, Zipporah and Jethro though they come from a foreign tribe, are presented in the text as heroes full of wisdom and courage because they rightly recognize and act upon the truth that the God of Israel truly lives. Indeed the two of them together take part in the rites of circumcision, sacrifice, and confession, the very marks of entry into Israel’s worship.55 There can be no question then the God of Israel and the God of Exodus is the God of all nations and beckons all to come and worship him even in these early, formative years of his covenant people.

Next time, we will look at the place of the “sojourner” in Israel’s law.

Peace,

Ben

Footnotes:

47) Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 60.

48) Bernard P. Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus 4:24-26,” Vestus Testamentum 36 no. 4 (1986): 452.

49) Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 59.

50) Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue,” 453.

51) Adriane B. Leveen, “Inside Out: Jethro, the Midianites and a Biblical Construction of the Outsider,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34 no. 4 (2010): 395.

52) Ibid., 403.

53) Ibid., 400.

54) Ibid., 405.

55) Karen Strand Winslow. “Ethnicity, Exogamy, and Zipporah.” Women in Judaism 4 no. 1 (2006): 6.

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