The biblical mama grizzlyShemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, contains one of the most perplexing stories in the Torah. While Exodus 4:24-26 is only three lines, it has long raised pages of questions:
“At a night encampment along the way, The Lord encountered him and sought to kill him.” (24) “So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” (25) “And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (26 JPS translation)
For the sake of brevity, I want to focus on only two of the many questions raised by this text. First, the Hebrew root word used in verse 25 is (k-r-t), “cut off”, rather than the usual Hebrew root word for circumcision, (m-l-h). This is the only place in the Bible where k-r-t is used as the verb for circumcision. Why? Second, what exactly does the phrase “bridegroom of blood” mean?
The Hebrew root k-r-t is most commonly used to describe being “cut off” as in removed from the community for not following the commandments. In fact, in Genesis 17 where Abraham receives the commandment to circumcise all Jewish males, it says in verse 14 that the person who does not obey this commandment shall be “cut off”(k-r-t) from his people for breaking that commandment. This usage of k-r-t is much more of a metaphysical concept of separation than the standard use of m-l-h implies.
Regarding the “bridegroom of blood,” the Hebrew word for “bridegroom” is chatan. If we just look at the Hebrew use of that word, it is a seemingly perplexing word choice. But if we remember that Hebrew, especially biblical Hebrew, is part of a larger Semitic family of languages, then we find a possible explanation. In both the ancient languages of Akkadian and Arabic, the root ch-t-n can mean “protection.” It also means “circumcise” in Arabic. Therefore, it is possible that this use of the Hebrew word chatan could have actually been a regional term borrowed from another Semitic language. In that case, verse 25 could be read as “You are truly ‘protected’ by the blood of circumcision for me.”
The use of k-r-t can then be a better understood word choice in this story. Zipporah, the mother acted with urgency; her son (or possibly Moses according to some biblical commentators) was in mortal danger and she saw this action as the only way to protect her loved one. K-r-t implies a gut reaction, one of grabbing the stone knife and cutting off the foreskin in order to prevent her loved one from being cut off from his family for not being circumcised as it says in Genesis 17:14.
While these possible word choices do not answer all of the questions raised by this graphic story, they do remind us all of the G-d-given instinct in mothers to protect and preserve their families. That instinct is universal, and it binds us all to the larger Jewish family and the universal human family as well.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)