Most of us know Moses’ story. He gets pretty good press coverage. If you’re older, you watched “The Ten Commandments” every Easter. And if you’re younger, you might have learned Moses’ story from “Pharaoh, Pharaoh ..ooo baby, let my people go” –
Yes, most of us have heard about Moses….but not so much about his wife, Zipporah or his sister, Miriam. Those stories don’t get told as often.
Especially Zipporah. Be honest, here…how many of you remember this crazy story we just read about Zipporah? Or remember hearing of Zipporah at all? Some of you may recognize her name in another translation — Sephora — from the cosmetics store that is named after her. Sephora…or Zipporah’s…name means “lovely to look at.” Zipporah was the daughter of a priest of MIdian — somewhere in modern day Saudi Arabia. She was a foreigner. She was beautiful. And she was tough. According to this account, Zipporah took on God to defend Moses….and won.
Of course..this Bible story is one that we rarely read…because it doesn’t make sense to us. Why would God want to kill Moses? After all…God just Moses in the burning bush and chose him to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. If you think it’s strange, you’re not alone. Biblical interpreters have always struggled to understand what’s going on here. But the gist of the story is that when they were on their way back to Egypt, and stopped for the night the Lord met Moses and intended to kill him…until Zipporah intervened. And what did you do? Zipporah circumcised her son on the spot and defended Moses as her husband. And God backed off. Zipporah’s actions saved Moses’ life.
Again…the story is weird. It doesn’t fit with our understanding of how God works. But since it results in Gershom’s circumcision…we can guess that this story is told because it has something to do with the Hebrew faith. Which is interesting…because if you think about it….Moses really doesn’t have any connection at this point to the faith of his Hebrew ancestors. He was raised by Egyptians…he wasn’t raised on the stories of the God of Abraham and Sarah …of Jacob and Leah and Rebekah. In Pharaoh’s court, he would have been raised on the stories of Ra and Isis and Osiris. And then, when he fled Egypt to live in the household of the Priest of Midian, he would have been shaped by their faith. However, this is the fun part for all of you that like Biblical trivia…the Midianites were also descendents of Abraham ….through Keturah — the woman Abraham married after Sarah died. I know…just imagine how old Abraham was then! But Keturah and Abraham have 6 sons…but Abraham sends them away to the East…to Midian…when they grow up. But what that means is that through Zipporah and her father, the Priest of Midian…Moses actually would have been introduced to a faith similar to his own people’s…a faith rooted in the God of Abraham. Isn’t that cool how God works things out? So God’s way of showing up in people’s lives would have been more familiar to Zipporah than to Moses. She would have understood how God might show up in a burning bush…and who also might show up in the dead of night to kill her husband. She recognizes God when Moses does not…and in circumcising her son, she takes on the Hebrew faith…even before Moses does…. to protect him. She covers Moses with her own faith by circumcising Gershom and God leaves Moses alone. . Zipporah, like Jacob…tangles with God in the night…and it is because of her that Moses lives to fulfill his role in leading the Hebrew Israelites out of slavery.
Zipporah reminds me of so many women…so many who fiercely cover their families with their faith — grandmothers and mothers who baptize their babies and pray tirelessly for their loved ones and claim God’s promises for them — that God has them and holds them no matter what…no matter what danger they face…no matter what roads they travel. Zipporah is beautiful …but she is so much more than that. With a cosmetics store in her honor, we are reminded sadly of how often women are recognized only for their looks…instead of the ways they transform their world. Zipporah is a wonder woman of faith…she is the reason the Israelites redemption from slavery could go forward. She is a forerunner to all the women who teach the faith and live the faith and meet God head on. She inspires us to fight for what is right…she inspires us to be open to the strange ways God meets us..and she inspires us to claim our faith, tenaciously, for those we love, even when hope seems lost.
And then…we have Miriam. Miriam is Moses’ sister. Some of you remember that when Moses was a baby, it was Miriam who made sure his floating basket found its way safely into the care of Pharaoh’s compassionate daughter. And when Moses returns to Egypt to lead the people out of slavery…he doesn’t do it alone. He does it with his brother Aaron and with Miriam. And friends…Miriam is not a follower in this story. She is a leader. It is Miriam who leads the women in singing and dancing and praise after they make their way across the Red Sea….she leads them in worship of God…really, she serves as their priest and their prophet and that’s actually what scripture calls her — “the prophet Miriam”. In the book of Numbers, there is a story about Aaron and Miriam and Moses…and Aaron and Miriam are frustrated with Moses because has taken over leadership of the people. You see, they were the leaders of the Hebrew people before he showed up. So they are chafing at Moses’ assumption of authority…particularly Miriam. She’s used to being the authority where God and the people are concerned. However, now God has chosen Moses for this role, and so when Miriam grumbles, God shows up and confronts Miriam and humbles her by giving her leprosy. She has to move outside the camp…but here’s the interesting thing…the people will not move on without her. They wait until she is healed and can rejoin them. Miriam is still the one who inspires them…Miriam is their heart. Miriam is not a side note in the story of the Israelites. She is as important to the people as Moses and Aaron….I love that the prophet Micah speaks for God saying “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
I confess…for years I only thought of Miriam as the little girl who watched Moses in the basket. But even in that story Miriam dared to approach the daughter of the Pharaoh, arranging to have her mother be a wet-nurse for the baby boy. That takes chutzpah! Miriam is brave and wise…she is respected and loved….she is a prophet of Israel. And her ministry flows through her in music…in song and in dance. Now…our worship services are pretty sedate. We like to sing…but we’re not exactly big dancers in most of our Lutheran churches ..at least here in America. We’re lucky if someone sways a little to the music. But I’ll tell you — I’ve been to worship services with folks from Sudan and Ethiopia….and sitting still is unheard of. Singing is always accompanied by dancing and drumming. It’s like Native American worship — have any of you been to a pow-wow? Their prayers and spirituality find shape in their whole bodies….moving to the beat of the drums with dance and song. That is the kind of worship and expression of faith that Mirian leads — it is a whole body experience. A lot of us in our more western cultures are not that comfortable with our bodies. I know I more often feel awkward and self-conscious…it’s hard to “let loose” in public. But I wonder…what am I …what are we missing?
I was thinking about that this week….in what way can we let our whole bodies experience God’s presence like Miriam? In what way can we let our whole bodies lift up our prayers? We lift our voices…yes. We use our heads….but our faith is more than what happens from the top of our head to our neck. I wonder if Miriam can inspire us this week to let God be present in us and fill and free our whole bodies…from all the insecurities and self-conscious anxiety we hold…and to see our limbs and skin and lumps and bumps as instruments of glorious worship, instead of objects of derision. I would like to let Miriam inspire us to sing a song of redemption and freedom and victory…a song of God’s triumph and God’s love…with all of our flesh and bones…we wholly belong to God. Embodied…we can delight in God’s glory.
You know, there’s a weird strain that took hold in Christian churches somewhere in history –where dancing was considered sinful…and modesty was the ultimate virtue…and sex was just plain bad. But that is not the God of Scripture. The God of Scripture couldn’t figure out why we thought we needed to cover our bodies. The God of Scripture delighted in the dance. And the God of Scripture talks about God being the bridegroom and God’s people being the bride…which ’m pretty sure is talking about the beautiful intimacy of sexuality. My friends…God loves you. And God loves your body…and wants you to love it …to delight in it…to move …to dance like Miriam…to let it rejoice in God’s victory and love.
Friends…my hope this morning is that you might be inspired by these women of faith —by Zipporah and by Miraim — wonder women of faith…to live your faith with tenacity and perseverance and courage…and with full bodied joy. Amen.