Flint Knives and Tent Pegs: A Foreign Remnant
A hasty circumcision and a swift act of vengeance—the Kenites seem to have produced some pretty hardcore ladies. But beyond being good stories, the tales of Tzipporah and Jael should spark our attention. For one thing, neither of these people are Israelites, so why do they have these roles in the Old Testament narrative? In another vein, what is their connection with the family of Abraham and the Israelites? They surely aren’t the only members of his family around, what makes them unique? What is God trying to communicate about the worship through the stories of the Kenites?
Our most significant interaction with the Kenites, and so a good starting point, is through Jethro and Tzipporah. When Moses fleas Egypt after murdering an Egyptian, the Kenites take him in. The story clearly resembles the many times prior to this in the Pentateuch where women and wells play a significant role in the story. These women at a well get our brains thinking that God is about to extend his promises to another generation.
For saving his daughters, Jethro invites Moses to stay with his family and gives Moses one of his daughters as a wife. Through his wife, named Tzipporah, Moses is given a son whom he calls Gershom. As Gershom sounds like ‘sojourner,’ it’s a puzzling name choice. Obviously Moses was in a land that didn’t belong to him, but wouldn’t the same be true in Egypt? This passage casts Moses in an interesting light that we don’t normally apply to him. Perhaps it was because of his training in Egypt as a prince, or perhaps it was his rejection by the Hebrews for which reason he was in Midian, but something had caused this miracle child to forget the promises of the God of his fathers. He had become resigned to the sojourning life. Moses didn’t have hope for the Promised Land.
The story of this vice comes to a head on his journey back to Egypt. Moses has an incredible encounter with God who promises him that he will be the instrument of the Hebrews’ deliverance. Staff in hand and with the blessings of Papa Jethro, Moses’ family begin the journey ‘home.’ But along the way, Moses and God have an interesting exchange.
First, God speaks to Moses, providing him with some rhetorical devices for communicating to Pharaoh the problem of the Hebrew enslavement. At this point, Israel is described as God’s ‘firstborn son’ who is meant to serve God, something that ideally takes place outside of bondage. Then a little ways down the road Moses gets into a little tussle with the Lord outside the local Motel. It turns out that this struggle—somewhat reminiscent of Jacob’s confrontation with God in the desert—is all about another instance of Moses misplacing his inheritance of the promises given to Abraham: he hadn’t circumcised his son.
The day—and Moses’ life—is saved by Tzipporah who leaps into action, grabs a knife, hastily circumcises her son, then touches the freshly removed foreskin to her husband’s feet exclaiming: “surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” Kind of an odd thing to say, and certainly an extraordinary event. What’s going on here?
Fast-forward a couple generations and we meet a woman named Deborah. Deborah was a prophetess and a judge who ministered during a time when the Canaanites were oppressing the Israelites. When the people cried out to God concerning their oppression, he heard them and called Deborah to appoint someone to deal with the Canaanites. To make a long story short, eventually the commander of the army ends up at an old friend’s house: Heber the Kenite, husband of Jael. Jael hospitably opens her home to the man, but as he sleeps, she drives a tent peg through his temple. The deliverance from Canaan is fulfilled by the hand of Jael.
These two stories don’t even represent the breadth of God’s use of foreign women to accomplish his work. They have been selected simply because they are both Kenites, a family of great significance throughout the Old Testament. Given the time it would be cool to include in our comparison Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, even Pharaoh’s daughter. God is up to something here that I think is important to take note of before we move into the Law proper in a few days.
Somehow, these foreign women get something that the Israelites don’t. In the story of Tzipporah, Moses, the judge of Israel, abandons hope in God’s promises and settles for a life tending sheep in a land that the Lord did not give him. He confirms this resignation by naming his son after his sojourning in a foreign land. To put the icing on the cake, he neglects to circumcise his son, effectively severing ties between himself and the God who would soon raise him up as the hand of deliverance for the Hebrews. Circumcision wasn’t something one simply didn’t do. This was the sign of the covenant between man and the Almighty; to neglect this is more than just an oversight.
Flip over to Deborah who calls a man named Barak to be the hand of deliverance. He chickens out, so Deborah goes along with him, for morale support. Eventually Barak takes part in the battle the Lord has prepared for him, but he overlooks the fact that God had delivered Sisera, the commander of the army, into his hands. When Sisera flees, Barak pursues the army rather than his target. Sisera ends up at Heber’s house where he is greeted by a woman who actually gets what God is up to. She finishes the job that Barak was given.
Both of these foreign women demonstrate an understanding of the Law that was severely lacking among the Hebrews. They got that what God says goes and that what God says is the good way of living. Moses clearly knew that circumcision was a prerequisite for being a part of God’s story. Though the text doesn’t explicitly say this, Tzipporah somehow knew about this tradition, and knew that this was the reason for God’s frustration. She had to have heard it from somewhere, Moses is the likely candidate. She demonstrated a desire for the worship of God that extended far beyond her husband’s, the one who would soon lead the nation in that worship.
Jael, another Kenite, understood what needed to be done for the people of Israel to enter back into the worship of God. Against the peace established between her household and the Canaanites, she established true peace on the grounds of the Law. This demonstrates that she had working knowledge of the statutes of God as well. As a result of her desire to worship God, the conquest of the land which had been largely neglected, went one step further, by the hands of a foreigner.
Pentateuch students, what do we do with this? It’s pretty clear that this image of foreign women becoming worshippers of God has some significance, and thus shows up as often as it does. What does this motif mean? What is God communicating through using people like Tzipporah, Jael, Ruth, and Rahab? This is a thought I’ve been chewing on for a while, and I’ve got a couple ideas, but I’m interested to listen to your thinking. Trace the Kenites through the Old Testament. Where do they show up? How does this inform your thinking on this subject? What role do family ties play in these stories? Is there significance in the fact that the Kenites are relatives of Abraham? Be sure to frame your responses by the Law. How do these stories (even though one comes before the Law proper) inform your definition of the Law and its purpose in the life of God’s people?