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The Woman at the Well
The Wise Virgins
“ I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah. 2:2)
Ex 2:16-22, 4:24-26, 18:1-6
1. Where was Zipporah born? What relationship did she have with the Israelites? How many times is she mentioned in the Bible?
2. What is the spiritual meaning of the well in the Bible?
3. What importance does Zipporah have in the history of salvation in the Old and the New testaments?
4. What is the meaning of “the Lord met him (Moses) and wanted to kill him” (Ex. 4:24)?
5. What did circumcision stand for in the New Testament?
Before we attempt any study of the character of Zipporah, the wife of Moses, as a symbol of the Church, the bride of Christ, we should remind the reader of an important fact of the symbols (Typology) of the Bible. The Old Testament in its entirety does not present one symbol that represents fully our Lord Jesus Christ in terms of His perfection, in the different aspects of His life and his works. Moses, it is true, was one of the clear symbols of our Lord in certain aspects particularly his act of salvation of the Israelites in getting out of Egypt as mentioned repeatedly in later ages by prophets who spoke of a new salvation (Isaiah 35:3-10, 40:9-11, 51:9-11, 52:7-10). Again the “song of Moses” (Exodus 15:1-21) is still sung by the Church at the midnight praise (first hose), as it is sung by the Church of the first-born in heaven (Revelation 15:3) in expression of the great salvation done by the Lord. However, we see a difference and perhaps a contradiction between the salvation as performed by Moses and that accomplished by our Lord Jesus:
a. All those who were delivered (including Moses himself, his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam) died in the wilderness, and only Joshua and Caleb entered the land of Canaan.
b. While Moses represented the Law, Jesus Christ brought about the covenant of grace “for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). And while Moses was a witness and a servant of Christ, Jesus Christ was the Son over His own house which is the Church (Hebrews 3:1-6). Again while Moses was a mediator for the old covenant, Christ was the mediator of a grater covenant (Hebrews 8:8-13; Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The first meeting at the well of Midian
The Midianites are the descendants of one of the sons of Abraham from Keturah whom Abraham married after the death of Sarah (Gen. 25:1,2). Median is located in the Arabian peninsula, east of the Gulf of Aqaba. Perhaps after Moses escaped from Pharaoh for having killed an Egyptian, he found that this uncivilized region was the best place for his residence. The inhabitants there lived on grazing and mining, and the land did not lure Egypt for invasion nor did it represent a military hazard for it.
When Moses reached Midian it was natural to sit down by a well (Ex. 2:15). This was the only way for a stranger to get acquainted with the residents of the area in order to find a place to live in, as was the case with Eliezer the servant of Isaac, and with Jacob in Haran. At the well, seven maids came and drew water for their father’s flock. After they filled the troughs with water, the shepherds came and drove them away. When Moses saw this, he helped them and watered their flock himself.
St. Cyril the Great, in his exegesis of the book of Exodus(1), explains that those shepherds represent the devils who prevent people from drinking pure water, which is the water of the Spirit: the real worship which helps people to live and to see the Truth. Here, St.Cyril focuses on idol worshipping which keeps man away from the true God.
St. Cyril then deals with Zipporah, the only one among the seven maids chosen by Moses (symbol of Christ) to be his bride. Zipporah thereby represents the Church of the Gentiles who believed in Christ after Israel rejected him, and they became the bride of Christ (John 3:29, Eph. 5:32, Rev. 21:2).
As for Origen, he focuses his spiritual interpretation on the relationship of the human spirit with Christ, her groom. He sees in Zipporah’s meeting with her groom at the well (the same with Rebeckah and Rachel) an evidence of the importance of the word of God in the Bible for the unity of every soul with Christ, “Assuredly, the soul’s union with the Word cannot be fulfilled without studying the Holy Bible, which the wells represent; and whoever comes to these wells to draw water from it, by meditating on its words to conceive its deeper meaning, will become a bride of the Lord, because his soul unites with God”(2).
The priest of Midian
When the seven maids came back to their father with their story of what happened at the well, it was natural that he ordered them to go back to the well to invite Moses to his home. In the Bible, the father is known by three names, Reuel (Ex. 2:18), Jethro (Ex. 3:1, and Hobab (Nu. 10:29, Judges 4:11). Many Bible scholars see that he worshipped the same God of the early patriarchs since his first name, Reuel, means ‘God’s friend’, and ‘El’ was the name by which God was known at the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Zipporah and her role in the history of salvation
Zipporah was mentioned only three times in the Bible (Ex. 2:21, 4:25, 18:2), and she was quoted only once in a short statement. Even when she met Moses at the well, her name was not mentioned. Nothing is known about the relation between the bride and groom before or after their marriage, as in the case of Rebeckah or Rachel. No reference is made in the Bible about their personal conversations that lift marital love to the heavenly heights like the maiden’s words in ‘Song of Songs’.
Although we know very little about this character, she played the most important role in the history of salvation in the Old Testament, only next to that of Moses. She saved Moses from certain death while he was on his way from Midian to Egypt to lead the Israelites in their exodus. The scriptures give an account of this story in just three verses: “At the lodging place on the way the Lord met him (Moses) and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” So he let him alone. Then she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood” because of the circumcision (Ex. 4:24-26).
Immediately after that, things developed quickly. By order from God Aaron came to meet Moses at Horeb, the mountain in Sinai, and both went together to Egypt, but Zipporah and her two sons went to Midian. Zipporah then appears for the last time (Ex. 18:1-7) when Jethro took her and her sons back to Moses after the exodus from Egypt.
It seems that Moses contracted a fatal disease on his way to Egypt. According to the Bible scholars, Zipporah believed that such illness was a punishment from God for neglecting the circumcision of one of his sons. That is why Zipporah did the job, and touched Moses with blood and so he was healed at once.
Here, we can find symbolic references to the New Covenant:
First, circumcision is a symbol of the offering on the cross, and of baptism through which believers share in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
* “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Chrisat, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).
* “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in thc circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism in which you also were raised with him through faith” (Co 2:10-12).
Second, Circumcision and marriage and their relation to the union of Christ with the Church: Circumcision was known to a number of ancient peoples and it was practiced during adolescence or before marriage. The word ‘circumcised’ means ‘groom’ both in Arabic (khatan) and Hebrew, and this explains Zipporah’s words to Moses “You are a bridegroom of blood to me” (Ex. 4:25-26). The Church came out of the wounded body of Christ as Eve was taken from Adam’s rib.
Third, Why did the Lord want to kill Moses, and how did Zipprah save him?
Moses was a symbol of Christ, whose death was one of the most important stages of man’s salvation. How could Moses have accomplished salvation for the Israelites without death of the cross? “King Solomon (symbol of Christ) made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon …. Go forth, O daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon with the crown which his mother crowned him on the day of his spousal, the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song 3:9-11).
The Church was established by coming out of the side of Jesus, pierced on the cross, through the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist (water and blood, Jo. 19:34). These are the mysteries by which we are incorporated in the Church.
For the salvation of the Jews from Egypt to be accomplished, Moses had to die, so that through his death he would be a perfect symbol of the cross of the Lord. But in lieu of Moses’ death, the symbol was complemented with another symbol which is the blood of circumcision and thus Moses was saved from death.
There are other examples in the OT in which a symbol was complemented with another symbol particularly those referring to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus:
1. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: Isaac is considered a symbol of Christ in his death and resurrection as quoted in the Coptic liturgy of Maundy Thursday of the Holy Pascha: “Slaying Isaac was a reference to the shedding of the blood of Jesus on the cross for the salvation of the world. And as Isaac came back alive, so did Jesus Christ rise from the dead.” Here Isaac was not slain and did not die but it was the ram that completed the symbol of death. Isaac went back alive although he was laid on the altar as a burnt offering.
2. The sacrifice of the two birds for leprosy (Levit. 14:49-56): One of the two birds would be killed to use its blood for cleansing. The living bird would be dipped in the blood of the bird that was killed and would be set free to go out of the city. Here, one of the two birds represents the Lord’s crucifixion and death, the other represents resurrection and ascension.
3. Jonah the prophet: Jonah was the clearest example from the Old Testament mentioned by the Lord as a prophecy of His death and His resurrection after three days,“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
Jonah had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and be buried for three days (symbolically, in the belly of the whale) before he could accomplish the mission of salvation of the people of Nineveh. St. Jacob, bishop of Seroug, explains this in one of his homilies on the book of Jonah: “The image of the Son led Jonah to the path of suffering, and sent him to escape unto the sea; he could see Him by the light of the mysteries, and thus the preacher hastened to reside in the heart of the earth for three days. But if Jonah did not escape, he would not have been dipped into the sea, portraying the death of the Son for three days. Had Jonah not suffered, he would have been alien to the mystery of the Son. Jonah’s escape is the perfection of his prophecy”.
These examples tell us that Moses had to go through the valley of the shadow of death (without dying), before he was to lead the people of God unto the path of salvation. In his interpretation of the gospel according to St. John(3), St. Cyril the great says that it was Zipporah who liberated Moses from the power of death. Then Moses, who represents the Law that boasts of circumcision (Ro. 2:17-23), could not be delivered by his own circumcision, but Zipporah, who represents the Church of the gentiles, the bride of Christ, did deliver him by offering an acceptable sacrifice. The central meaning here is that the Christian Church is the selected bride, and she is now calling Moses (the Jewish synagogue) to eternal life. It is clear here that Moses is not a perfect symbol of Christ because sometimes he refers to the covenant of the Law.
(1) St. Cyril of Alexandria: Interpretation of the book of Exodus, "Glabella on Exodus", in three parts. It has not been translated from Greek so far. The summary quoted here is derived from an essay, “Moses and the Mystery of Christ” in Cyril of Alexandria’s Exegesis, Part II (Coptic Church Rev., vol. 21, #2).
(2) Ronald Heine: Origen Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, page 166.
(3) This was translated into English in 1883, and was not reprinted again. Paragraphs quoted here were derived from the reference mentioned in reference No. 1.
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