Zipporah (Numbers 12)

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Zipporah by Alan Jones

I’ve never heard a sermon preached on Zipporah. She never got mentioned in Sunday School, and is often airbrushed out of the Exodus story. But Zipporah is someone we need to pay more attention to, especially in a world full of racial tensions and an emboldened KKK. Because on the few times I heard her mentioned, no-one pointed out that she was black.

The daughter of a priest of Midian, Zipporah became Moses’ wife during his forty-year exile from Egypt, eventually accompanying him and the rest of Israel into the wilderness. But in Numbers 12 we encounter an uncomfortable story: Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron confront their brother – he’s married a Cushite woman, an African, and they’re not pleased. They may be the spiritual leaders of a fledgling nation, but that doesn’t mean family dinners aren’t uncomfortable.

What happens next is dramatic – God himself descends, rebukes Miriam and Aaron, and curses Miriam with leprosy.

Knowing that Zipporah is African casts a new light on this punishment – leprosy turns Miriam’s skin “as white as snow”. It’s a form of poetic justice, made all the more shocking and heart-breaking because it’s Miriam, the prophet who danced through the Red Sea singing of liberation and freedom and God’s justice has a problem with her sister-in-law because she’s black. Two women who saved Moses’s life were at each other’s throats. Doesn’t matter how much of an ally someone might see themselves as, there are still underlying prejudices to confront, systems to dismantle. Black lives matter, and Zipporah matters as much as Moses, as Aaron, as Miriam.

(Note that God agrees with this, by the way: it’s the racism that earns a punishment, not the inter-racial marriage.)

But let’s not limit Zipporah to being the victim of racism and injustice; she’s also a hero in her own right. Either intellectually or intuitively she seems to grasp whatever the heck is going on in Exodus 4:24-26. She gets between her husband and the Wrath of God, saving Moses and getting things done; while Moses saved the Children of Israel from Egypt, Zipporah first had to save Moses. In that sense this woman of colour can be seen as a Christ figure. That’s not an image we see portrayed that often; maybe we should ask why not.

This would be a fascinating story in itself, but it speaks to us today. As long as Sunday services remain the most racially segregated time of the week, Zipporah’s story, and the reactions of her in-laws, remain relevant. As long as people of colour face prejudice and injustice, as long as the white church remains silent about its complicity in structures that enable that, Zipporah remains a woman whose story needs to be retold and reclaimed; this obscure story tucked away in Numbers becomes a story for our times.

Noticing Injustice and an Unburning Bush (Exodus 3:1-4)

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The story of the Burning Bush is iconic. Every Sunday School student has drawn it, and it’s almost too famous – when we know something so well we can take it for granted. That’s dangerous: always be on the look out for the new thing God’s trying to tell you.

For instance, it took me years to notice how God waits for Moses to spot the bush before He speaks. This isn’t a sudden Road to Damascus experience, it’s a pause, a pregnant moment in history. We don’t know how long the bush was burning, only that the conversation was initiated when Moses went to investigate. God seems to be waiting for him.

But then Moses noticing things is what brought him to this point in the first place: he may have been raised in a palace, but despite this privilege he still noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slaves; later he sees Zipporah and her sisters attacked by shepherds and intervenes to save them, an act that draws him into another adopted family and gets him the job that takes him to the Burning Bush and an encounter with God.

You know, the God who has also recognised the suffering of his people.

Maybe, despite his later protests, Moses is exactly the right person to lead the Hebrews out of slavery because he and God both share an attentiveness to injustice (and notice that what really catches Moses’ attention is that the bush is on fire but not destroyed – it’s wrong and out of step with how the world should work, so how does that reflect on his earlier attention to injustice?). And that comes at a cost: Moses is forced to reconsider his identity, abandon his privilege and become a shepherd. It’seems a bush in the desert that burns, not a palace in Egypt.

(I suspect Shiphrah and Puah would have spotted the bush, had they been there.)

God appears to Moses, but waits for Moses to take the first step toward him, to plant his feet on holy ground. It’s a dynamic that echoes throughout the Exodus, God doing the heavy lifting but with Moses serving as herald. It’s a lopsided partnership, but a partnership nonetheless. And maybe that partnership is important, as it’s not just about defeating Pharaoh, it’s about making the Hebrews into the people of God.

That means we need to be attentive to what’s going on around us, to see where darkness reigns and to spot where the Kingdom needs to come – especially if that needs to break down our own privilege, the injustice we perpetuate with our own hands. And as we step towards those places, we’ll see that God is already there, waiting to transform situations but also his people. Because bushes still burn.