Bloody Bridegrooms and Angry Deities

Narrative and Feminist Criticism and Exodus 4:24-26

Introduction

Perhaps no other passage in the story of Moses is so tantalizing to scholars as the “bridegroom of blood” pericope of Exodus 4:24-26. Just three verses long, it has been the subject of dozens of different interpretations – at least 40 of them.[1] This paper will look briefly at two modes of critical analysis, narrative and feminist, compare them and analyze how these two methods view this passage.

Narrative and feminist criticism

The two methods share a close relationship; in fact, Gunn portrays feminist criticism as growing out of the narrative tradition and includes both under the broader literary-criticism category.[2] Critics employing narrative and feminist methods tend to view the text univocally with a focus on plot or characters. Gunn defines narrative criticism as a method in which “meaning is to be found by close reading” to identify plot, characters, point of view, “language play” and theme.[3]

Feminist critics also look carefully at characters and plot, albeit with different motives. As Fewell puts it,

Feminist criticism makes no pretense to objectivity; it challenges the notion of universals; is more interested in relevance than in so-called absolute truth. In short, it resists the categories and definitions that male scholars and artists have set forth, in particular their definitions of women.”[4]

This can be a strength, forcing the reader to rethink assumptions coloring his or her thinking. Indeed, Fewell says feminist criticism “questions the very presuppositions of Western scholarly tradition.”[5] Similarly, Gunn says narrative criticism “seemed able to produce a richer array of interpretations” than traditional methods that seemed to dismiss ambiguity.[6]

As they offer similar strengths, narrative and feminist criticism offer a similar weakness: The boundary of a given narrative could be expanded to include the entirety of Genesis through 2 Kings. Such “boundary disputes” are important to determining the meaning of a story. Likewise, by focusing on the final univocity of a passage, narrative criticism risks losing important context about a narrative’s origins. In so doing, a key part of the narrative itself can be lost.[7]

As a type of narrative approach, feminist criticism shares the same concerns, as well some others. A significant one, as Exum notes, is it’s not precisely a “method” but a school or ideology housing numerous ways of reinterpreting narrative texts. With no unifying modus operandi and “an ever increasing body of scholarly literature that rejects notions of methodological unity,” identifying feminist criticism itself becomes difficult.[8]

Treatment of the bridegroom pericope

Despite their many similarities, one significant difference between the methods can best be seen in their treatments of the same passage. While narrative and feminist critics both tend to look at the plot and characters of the “bridegroom of blood” story of Exodus 4 in an effort to find coherence, narrative critics do so in a way that overlaps with more traditional critical methods, such as form, source and redaction.

Propp, for example, sees Exodus as a classic “hero adventure story,” and in so doing, cites 4:24-26 as a necessary “branding” phase in the Hero’s journey.[9] This is a focus on the narrative, but it also seems to contain elements of form and perhaps even of some traditional-historical criticism, as well.

Using Gunn’s template in To Each Its Own Meaning,[10] a narrative critic likely would first identify the significant characters – Moses, Zipporah and Yahweh – and determine what each character desires. According to the plain language of the text, Yahweh desires to kill someone, though the pronouns aren’t clear (Exodus 4:24).[11] A review of Willis reveals that most scholars believe it to be Moses.[12] Moses himself, however, despite likely desiring to live, is silent in this passage. Zipporah’s actions in the text indicate she desires to save her husband’s, if not also her son’s, life.

After circumcising her son (again, a scholarly consensus), Zipporah concludes the encounter with the dramatic action of throwing or touching the foreskin to Moses’ or Yahweh’s feet or genitals and saying, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me” (4:25), the exact meaning of which also remains in dispute. Narrative and feminist critics alike appear to agree on this rendition, preferring the interpretation in which Zipporah touches the foreskin to Moses’ genitals. Conclusions diverge from this point.[13]

As a narrative critic, it would be worth looking for other examples in the Old Testament where Yahweh was portrayed in such a fashion. Indeed, narrative critics note similarities between this narrative and that of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis.[14]

Feminist critics, meanwhile, engage much more in speculation, highlighting perhaps the signature difference between these two parallel fields. A feminist critic would look at the text of the “bridegroom of blood” pericope for what it doesn’t say – reading “against the grain” while assuming it is written through patriarchal lenses.[15] In this case, the text is clearly full of gaps, but it treats Zipporah well: She is portrayed as smart and decisive, doing what is needed to assuage Yahweh’s wrath. Some feminist scholars argue Zipporah’s character was simply impossible to repress, and that key elements of the story were nonetheless changed to avoid emasculating Moses.[16]

Perceptions of Zipporah’s motives tend to range widely among feminist critics. She alternately is described as an angry, scornful wife who despises her husband’s heritage[17] and a cunning, courageous woman who quickly acts to save his life.[18] While many narrative critics center attention on Yahweh’s seemingly capricious decision to kill Moses, Zipporah is the focus and the heroine for feminist critics, described even as defeating Yahweh in this passage.[19]

Conclusion

These methods provide intriguing new interpretations for an ancient text. Narrative and feminist criticism, while using different emphases, provide an interesting framework through which to view one of scripture’s most fascinating passages, and they complement more traditional criticisms, which themselves provide key insights in their own, more structured way.

A better analysis of this passage would combine the methods of both traditional and poststructuralist criticism, as Willis and Propp do in their studies, to provide a fuller view of how this passage – or any passage – should be read.


[1] All references to scholarly consensus for this passage are taken from reviewing research summarized by John Willis in Yahweh and Moses in Conflict: The Role of Exodus 4:24-26 in the Book of Exodus (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2010).

[2] David Gunn, “Hebrew Narrative,” in Text in Context: Essays by Members of the Society For Old Testament Study, ed. A. D. H. Mayes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 227-228.

[3] Gunn, “Narrative Criticism,” in To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, Rev Exp, eds. Steven McKenzie and Stephen Haynes (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 201.

[4] Danna Nolan Fewell, “Reading the Bible Ideologically: Feminist Criticism,” in To Each Its Own Meaning, 269.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gunn, Text in Context, 227.

[7] Gunn, To Each Its Own Meaning, 224-26.

[8] J. Cheryl Exum, “Feminist Study of the Old Testament,” in Text in Context, 86.

[9] William H.C. Propp, Exodus 1-18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Anchor Bible, 1999), 32-33, 233.

[10] Gunn, To Each Its Own Meaning, 214.

[11] All biblical quotations are from the New International Version, 1984.

[12] Willis, Yahweh and Moses in Conflict.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Propp, Exodus 1-18, 233-234.

[15] Fewell, To Each Its Own Meaning, 277.

[16] Athalya Brenner, I Am … : Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 72.

[17] Pamela Tamarkin Reis, “The Bridegroom of Blood: A New Reading,” Judaism 40 (1991): 327-328.

[18] Jacqueline Osherow, “Brides of Blood: Women at the Outset of Exodus,” in From the Margins 1: Women of the Hebrew Bible and Their Afterlives, eds. Peter S. Hawkins and Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg, (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 50.

[19] Brenner, I Am … , 73.

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