Vulture Culture: A Thought on Tzipporah

As some might know the pantheon of ancient Egyptians  was a proverbial menagerie. They personified many of their major gods as birds.  Why they did is open to considerable debate.  Perhaps it was because birds could fly and thus be in areas unattainable by humans or perhaps maybe they were viewed as being powerful for being able to live in the harsh desert conditions.

One of these bird gods of Ancient Egypt was the vulture. The vulture was sacred to the goddess Nekhbet, the goddess of upper Egypt and also Mut, the ‘mother’ goddess.

The vulture represents eternal power and protection.  This makes a lot of sense, since vultures are scavangers by nature, it is no surprise that they had become associated with eternity.  As they eat the flesh of the dead, it can be assumed that they consume the soul of the departed.  When finished the vulture soars off into the sky, carrying the departed soul to heaven. 

The Egyptian dynastic mythology was caught up into immortality, it makes sense that the vulture was very often depicted in association with the many rulers of Egypt.

I was thinking about this culture of vultures when reading Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. There we meet the woman who will become Moshe’s wife Tzipporah. She was one of the seven daughters of Jethro, a Kenite shepherd who was a priest of Midian. There we read:

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off. Moshe rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?” They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.” Moshe consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Tzipporah as wife.

Exodus 2:16-21

She has two children with Moshe, but she seems to be an NPC, barring the incident in the inn just before Moshe goes back to Egypt to liberate the Israelites. There we read:

At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah 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!” And when [God] let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Exodus 4:24-26

Many interpreters depict Moshe as being “lazy” in not circumcising their sons. It is interesting in that a Bris and eating of the Korban Pesach are the two positive commandments for which not doing gets you koret- “cut off” from the Jewish people. In the case of Moshe this was the last thing he needed to do before going to Egypt and for the Israelites the Korban Pesach was the last thing they needed to do before leaving Egypt. In many ways both represent our version of Hernán Cortésburning the ships.

But we should get back to Tzipporah. Why is this her role in the story? We all want life partners who help us succeed and keep our commitments, but what does this have to do with vultures? Well , Tzipporah means bird. And just as the Egyptian vulture goddess represented eternal power and protection, she did this for Moshe.

May we all blessed with a Tzipporah in our lives.


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