This is my Body: Deconstruction, Eucharist, and Community

I’ve been meaning to post this here for some time! This is the revised version of the paper that Keegan Osinski and I presented at AAR last November. The paper explores Derridean ideas at play in the liturgy at St. Lydia’s and at ikonnyc.

Audio from the panel is available at Homebrewed Christianity:

This is my Body: Deconstruction, Eucharist, and Community

Presented by Joel Avery and Keegan Osinski

“Caputo and Derrida in Actual Churches:
Exploring the Influence of (a stream of) Postmodern Thought on Christian Practices”

Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion
Saturday November 23, 2013

The way Derrida speaks of language and text begs to be explored in terms of the sign and symbol of sacrament in liturgy. Though not identifying as a Christian, Derrida plays with ideas of interacting and repeating word and gesture and the temporality and inherent repetition of text that echo profoundly in church sanctuaries as congregations partake in the sacrament of Eucharist. In this paper we will explore Derridean notions of the Eucharist, vis-à-vis John Caputo, and show at length how they are at work at St. Lydia’s, an ELCA-affiliated dinner church, and how they play out differently in the work of ikonNYC. First we will talk about the act of liturgical repetition, followed by the deconstructive notion of Real Presence, then the rupturing power of a ruptured liturgy, and finally the way community can flourish in the challenges of difference.


As Derrida returned to Plato’s writings throughout his life, looking for moments of aporia in each new reading, so too Christians, returning time and again to the Eucharist, open themselves to the possibility of encountering the body of Christ in the presence of the stranger in each gathering. The repetition of liturgy, week in and week out, which may seem like rote and empty ritual, is in fact the mechanism that allows the event to take place. It is the return every morning to find that, yet again, manna has appeared and is ready to be gathered—just enough for each person’s need, leaving open what may become in the future. Manna’s very name is a question—“What is this?”—and cannot be hoarded or contained. It is the daily bread of questions, of uncertainties, of possibilities (Chauvet 1995).

The liturgy is the path we travel together, unsure where it will take us, though it is the same path we have taken for years. Faithfully returning, we take the chance of meeting a stranger on this familiar way—a stranger who could be the Other, the Christ, or even the Self. Stranger still, these three could all be one. Caputo says that “by virtue of repetition, the individual is able to press forward, not toward sheer novelty which is wholly discontinuous with the past but into the being which he himself is. By repetition the individual becomes himself, circling back on the being which he has been all along” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 12). We can take this to mean that by the repetition of Eucharist, the individual becomes him- or herself, a member of the body of Christ—the being which, as a child of God, he or she has been all along, and indeed is still becoming every day and in each gathering. It is the same journey—the same liturgy—that has been engaged by Christians for centuries, and so retains a link to the past while perpetually becoming new into the future.

On the path of liturgy, we face the uncertainty that marks any journey, even familiar ones. And we must be open to possible detours or obstacles we meet along the way, or else never leave home at all. The text of the liturgy, “as a ‘work,’ unfolds before the reader as a possibility” (Chauvet 1995, 68). And it is the repeated return to the possibility of permutation that allows the Eucharist to do its deconstructive work.


St. Lydia’s, a dinner church in Brooklyn, is one place where the possibilities of the path of liturgy are being explored.

Lydians gather to set a table and prepare a meal. Celebration of the Eucharist runs through the entire gathering: the preparation of the food, the breaking of bread to open the meal, the time shared in conversation over dinner, the reading of scripture and the sharing of a sermon, communal responses to the scripture and sermon, offering of prayers, reading of poetry, the sharing of the cup, and the clean-up that closes the time together. All aspects of the gathering are understood as the unfolding of the Eucharist.

The repetition of preparation, celebration, and conclusion (with an invitation to return) occurs in a context that shifts with each gathering. We never know who we will share table with, or where the conversation will go. Although we may know the path, we don’t know who we will encounter there, and how these encounters may alter what we think we know about the path itself. As Caputo observes, “Even to repeat “exactly the same thing” is to repeat it in a new context which gives it new sense” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 142).

In some ways, there is a comfortable predictability to dinner at St. Lydia’s, yet this is a path without guardrails. To share this meal is to become open to the known and unknown Other, the possibility of encountering someone new at the table (or in ourselves), the possibility of encountering something difficult, something that may change what we think we know and who we think we are, to be open to the ever-present possibility of encountering the presence of something real.


When people come to the table, they create space for the possibility of something deeper than historical recollection to occur in this meal.

Liturgy creates a rupture in the everyday where we are faced with the presence of the absence of God and are invited to recognize that we may fill this space as the body of Christ. The trick is to abide in the absence willingly, because the absence is where truth may be found.

Referring to the disciples who greet Jesus as a stranger on the Road to Emmaus and their meal with him in which he is revealed, Louis-Marie Chauvet points out that “their eyes are opened to an emptiness—‘he vanished from their sight’—but an emptiness full of presence” (Chauvet 1995, 170). The moment these disciples truly see and experience that it is Jesus who is present is the moment he vanishes. This negative theophany returns in the eucharistic liturgy, where the presence of Jesus is experienced in the broken bread, in the poured out cup, in the gaps that appear to make space for the possibility of the event.

Chauvet calls the liturgy a “powerful pedagogy where we learn to consent to the presence of the absence of God, who obliges us to give him a body in the world, thereby giving the sacraments their plenitude in the ‘liturgy of neighbor’” (Chauvet 1995, 265). It is in the participation in Eucharist where we may meet the actual, living, risen Christ—in and as the bodies of those gathered with us. In the absence of the presence of a first-century prophet or a transcendent ontological being , there is actually space for God among us, between us, in our bodies, as our bodies, as we partake in the bread that is Christ’s body. Christ’s being is contingent on the communion of his human brothers and sisters, which may bring his true humanity into being.

Christ’s resurrection cannot be separated from the witness of his people, meaning that when Christians gather and receive the elements in the liturgy of the sacrament, they respond to the call of the event of the resurrection of Jesus among them. His body may become alive in their bodies; their bodies becoming as one body—his body. The repeated and shared language of liturgy enacts the somatic efficacy of the elements. “To theologically affirm sacramental grace is to affirm, in faith, that the risen Christ continues to take flesh in the world and in history and that God continues to come into human corporality” (Chauvet 1995, 490).


Early in the service at St. Lydia’s, we light candles and carry them with us as we gather around the tables where we will share a meal that evening. As we stand in a circle, the presider chants the words of institution. At this moment, all attention is focused on the presider, who holds the bread as she reminds us of the one who is absent, the one in whose name we have gathered. Just as at Emmaus, as soon as this name is invoked and this memory evoked, the bread is broken and passed away from the presider to the congregants with the words, “This is my body.” In this manner, the broken bread is circulated from person to person. The focus now is no longer on the presider, or the absence in the middle of the circle in which we stand, but on those who compose the circle and who share the bread.

Each person wears a nametag and so is spoken to by name: “Keegan, this is my body.” Each in turn addresses their neighbor by name as they turn to share the bread. This movement disrupts the notion of the Eucharist as otherworldly and locates it in the reality of the space between two people as they give and receive the bread.  

More than just leaving the door open for the Other to walk through, to call our neighbor by name is to engage them more directly than simply allowing for their presence. Using the person’s name recognizes their substantial, particular materiality, pulling the liturgy out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who enact it, with all their dis/abilities, imperfections, limitations, flaws, and fragmentations.

The conspicuousness of the nametag and the brief pause as one glances at the name written there are reminders that though we call each other by name, we still remain strange to each other in some way. Though this may be a more direct engagement, there is still a significant unknown (and to some degree unknowable) aspect of the neighbor. In these gaps of knowledge between each other (and ourselves) is where there is possibility for surprise.

So even in the Realization of the Presence of the absent Christ in the presence of the neighbor, there yet remains an absence, a “to come,” the nondeconstructable Real Presence that breaks in and breaks down and breaks open anything that would contain the event harbored in the Eucharist.


The most effective way to expose the underlying deconstruction that occurs within the Eucharist—that is, the breaking open of our insular lives in order to receive the trace of Christ’s real presence among us—is to break down the text of the liturgy itself. Challenging and altering norms of the liturgy enables us to dissect and explore the insides of the ritual to see what is real in the sharing of the sacrament. Freedom to manipulate the signs and creatively rethink traditional practices encourages play in the way participants interact with the liturgy. Like a piece of art in a gallery, the Table can be returned to indefinitely, by fresh eyes each time, to be interpreted and experienced anew, and indeed the artist can learn more about her piece from its viewers than perhaps she ever intended.

As Caputo says, “It is not when signs have been put to work that their usefulness is established for Derrida but when they have been put into play” (Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics 1987, 138). A fixed mediation (i.e. unmovable orthodox sacrament) hinders the “play” of the sign/symbol, and therefore obscures its meaning and its efficacy. Steven Shakespeare explains that “Derrida seems to embrace the dissolution of all structuralist ambitions toward certainty. Instead, he turns to the ‘play’ of the chance and the inventive, the open-ended and mobile metaphors that frustrate our systematic desires for totalizing knowledge” (Shakespeare 2009, 49-50). When we play with our rituals, we allow the sacraments we experience within them to play as well, and therefore allow their call to be heard.

This opportunity—indeed this necessity—to let go of the certainty of established norms in order to engage with the play of potentialities can be frightening, uncomfortable, or seem downright wrong. Chauvet asks, “Can we consent to leave the solid, reassuring ground of our represented foundation and the stable, fixed point in order to let ourselves go toward this demanding letting-be in which we find ourselves out of our depth?” (Chauvet 1995, 51). And the answer, if we are to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ among us, in us, and as us, must be Yes.


In many ways, St. Lydia’s is all about play. Play is where children learn how to be in the world, and how to explore new worlds. Play is where the impossible, the not yet, and the to-come cast their shadows.

Dinner at St. Lydia’s is a playful encounter between traditions of liturgy and traditions of dinner, with neither tradition escaping unaltered. Inasmuch as liturgy at St. Lydia’s relocates liturgy in a different setting, and makes room for new events within that setting by allowing for surprises in conversation and shared reflections, it disrupts and opens up traditional liturgy while engaging that same tradition. 

The impossible is a boundary. Play teaches us to transgress boundaries. To pretend, to act “as if”. Play brings new possibilities to light, as well as newly possible impossibilities. Play takes the boundary, the impossible, as its toy, pushing it, throwing it, taking it to pieces, building with it, smashing it, setting it on fire. The impossible, like a toy, can’t be taken seriously, can’t be treated as sacred. The impossible, like a toy, opens up when played with. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is only when it is forgotten that it becomes real.

Each encounter with liturgy at St. Lydia’s is an invitation to play. Play with the recipe. Play with the music. Engage in playful conversation. Play with the scripture. Listen to the wordplay in the poetry shared. Pray in response to this play.

The entirety of an evening at St. Lydia’s, from preparing and sharing a meal to helping in clean up, is play. Play at being the kind of people and community we are called to be, called by the insistence of the Eucharist to manifest a Real Presence. Called to bring into existence what the Eucharist insists on. Called to be a community that is already and not yet.


In deconstructing the liturgy of Eucharist to allow it to exercise its own deconstruction, we witness the formation of a community-without-community—a  broken gathering of broken people. Caputo says that “deconstruction is hospitality, which means the welcoming of the other” (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997, 109-110). By breaking open the patterns of the everyday and its ingrained societal hierarchies and barriers, we make space for welcoming the Other, and being welcomed ourselves. In the Eucharist we who are many partake in the becoming of one body, for we share in the one bread, broken—for us and by us—because “only if there is something that ruptures our communion can we really communicate” (Shakespeare 2009, 104).

Rupture permits unity. This unity is not homogenized or unfaceted, but a unity in which the difference of each individual is preserved. The Other remains an Other even as we together become Christ’s one body, because Eucharist as deconstruction is a repeated “Let the Other come!” which constantly reminds us that we are strangers who come together. Rather than a Hegelian unity-in-difference, Eucharist displays what could be called a Derridean difference-in-unity. In the unity of the deconstructed Table that harbors the deconstructing call of the undeconstructable Real Presence, we maintain and celebrate our differences—true hospitality allows for and encourages difference. And this is difficult hospitality, a pushing past the limits of a superficial welcome. It is the madness of the excess of the unrepayable gift, and it is, as Derrida says, the impossible. Hospitality never “exists,” it is always becoming. But we can catch glimpses of it in our becoming the body of Christ at the Table (Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 1997).

Even in the unity of the Church, “disharmonious voices” flourish with the permission of the “violence” of deconstruction. Without deconstruction, as Steven Shakespeare says, “the dream of perfect peace is also a nightmare in which every disharmonious voice is suppressed” (Shakespeare 2009, 92). The disharmony of the community-without-community of the Eucharist is demonstrated at Pentecost, the “anti-Babel,” when each person hears his or her own language—not all the same one (Chauvet 1995, 522). When our differences are deconstructed by the elements at the Table, we can embrace them not as accidents that keep us apart, but as differences that allow us to be gathered together repeatedly into a unified community of differences. A community-without-community. A “we who cannot say we,” but can say “Oui, oui” to the stranger, to the event.


In a city known for its simultaneous embrace of diversity (in the abstract) and indifference to the other (in actuality), St. Lydia’s exists as a place of rupture that permits unity.

Deconstruction is hospitality, and St. Lydia’s is predicated on radical hospitality. Not the “hospitality” of a host welcoming invited guests, but the more difficult hospitality of a genuinely open door and open table. Once we have come together with the stranger, our various backgrounds don’t determine the roles we play. Cooking and cleaning need to be done and all are welcome and needed to get the work done. Or at least one hopes for this kind of hospitality and equality. In practice, our habits of inhospitality and domination are hard to break. This is one more reason we return again and again to this work together.

The reality of difference-in-unity is that different circles may practice the deconstruction of liturgy in different ways. ikonNYC, another group meeting in Brooklyn, offered an approach to breaking the daily pattern of inhospitality that was different than St. Lydia’s. For the past year, ikonNYC met monthly to create a space where certainties were given enough air to breathe (and rust), where beliefs were exposed (and allowed to rot) and where participants were encouraged to set fire to what they held sacred, sifting the ashes together to see what remained, what was lost, and what was transformed.

At ikonNYC, this transformative work was done in a space of identity-suspension. Identity-suspension differs from the work of Eucharist discussed above. In Eucharist, we gather in a space of difference-in-unity. At ikonNYC, we found it necessary to embrace unity-in-difference as a precondition to embracing difference-in-unity. Temporary suspension allowed for radical hospitality: as beliefs and identities were set aside, all who came to ikonNYC found themselves together as “outsiders”, the “trash of the world”, with no “inside” to enter or guard. This was a “we who could not say we.” Suspending the identities that set us apart in difference and embracing unity as the trash of the world allowed us to resume our lives and return to our identities, but holding them loosely, achieving a difference-in-unity enriched by our experience of unity-in-difference.

As with St. Lydia’s, Eucharist was the focus of ikonNYC. And in Eucharist difference-in-unity was celebrated. The real event unfolded after each month’s liturgical event was presented, as people were invited to gather for Eucharist: this was a time for conversation over food and drink, a time to share reactions to and experiences of the liturgy. In this communion, people transitioned from the space of identity-suspension and unity-in-difference, to a space of difference-in-unity. Here, they began to establish the ways in which their experience that night connected with their experience of difference in their lives. In the same way that calling our neighbor by name at St. Lydia’s makes liturgy real, this was the moment when the liturgy was pulled out of abstraction and into the particular bodies of the people who experienced it.


As we return time and again to the Table, repetition of Eucharist brings us back to an ancient and well-worn path, where we may encounter the deconstructing Real Presence in the strangeness of the Other. Eucharist produces a rupture in routine, and provides a space of radical hospitality in which a community of difference-in-unity may begin to emerge. This work is never complete, never arrives at its goal, is always open to what is “to come.” Take and eat.


Caputo, John D., ed. Deconstruction in a Nutshell. New York, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.

—. Radical Hermeneutics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.

—. What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2007.

Chauvet, Louis Marie. Symbol and Sacrament. Translated by Madeleine E. Beaumont Patrick Madigan. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1995.

Shakespeare, Steven. Derrida and Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

The Art of Losing

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The Broken God

This is the first sermon I’ve shared at St Lydia’s.
It is based on Psalm 22 and Matthew 27.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know of a Psalm with a more striking opener.

If that’s where we’re starting,
where do we go from here?
Where is there to go?

Well, the Psalmist turns directly to the past:

“Our ancestors put their trust in you, they trusted, and you rescued them.”

The Psalmist turns to look at God at work
with other people at another time.

When he turns back to the present in verse 6,
he doesn’t see people being saved by God,
he sees himself and those who scorn him,
mocking him and telling him to

“Trust in the LORD
let the LORD deliver;
let God rescue him
if God so delights in him”

Next, the Psalmist recalls when God was present to him,
in the past, at his birth, and in his youth.

But now?

Now he is surrounded,
“poured out like water”,
and says that
God “has laid him in the dust of death.”

He pleads for God to deliver him, to save and rescue him,
but God is nowhere to be found.

After visiting the past,
and pleading with God to save him in the present,
the Psalmist looks to the future:

“I will declare your name to my people,
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you”

Is he bargaining?

Is he telling God that he will praise God if God will save him?
If God will show his might and rescue him?

Or is he more noble than that?

Perhaps he is proclaiming that he will praise God,
because he “trusts in the LORD, who will deliver”

But these are the words of those who scorn him!

He seems to be adopting their logic.

So, what is going on here?

My relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

The first lines of this Psalm are Christ’s
last words in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

I think this is amazing, really.
Jesus quotes poetry on the cross.
And the line he chooses
is the darkest line of the Psalm.

He doesn’t soften the blow the way the Psalmist seems to,
the Psalmist who looks desperately to the past and to the future,
apparently unable to face the absence of God in the present.

But I should be careful here.

The experience the Psalmist and Christ are describing is subtle.
They aren’t actually talking about the the absence of the experience of God,
they are talking about the experience of the absence of God.

What’s the difference?

If they had no experience of God, they would be talking about the absence of the experience of God.
No God, no experience.

But they are talking to God about God’s absence!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This names an experience of the absence of God,
which entails a sense of loss
and is experienced as abandonment.

We can’t be abandoned by someone that was never with us.

So on one level, Jesus is addressing God,
by talking about God’s absence.
That’s a rich paradox, and I want to come back to that in a minute.

But first I want to look at the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus quotes Psalm 22 because for me,
my relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

In Matthew and Mark, the Gospel writers describe the scene of Christ crucified.
Like the Psalmist, Christ is subject to scorn.
Some standing near the cross say

“He saved others
(the past)
He cannot save himself
(the present)”

“Let Him come down, and we will believe in Him”

Sound familiar?

To my ear, this sounds both
like those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself!

Those who mock Christ,
those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself
all seem committed to what St Paul calls “signs and wonders”.

They want to see God act in might and in power,
otherwise, they either end up mocking or losing heart.

So what does Christ on the cross do?

He hears this mocking challenge,
he cries out again,
and he dies.

But then the Gospel writers bring in a new voice.
Standing at the foot of the cross is a centurion,
a Roman guard, who, after Christ dies,
exclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God”

This may be an even more disturbing line than

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Truly THIS was the Son of God”???

At least in the Psalmist’s cry we have a notion of a powerful yet absent God.
The centurion, by contrast, claims to see God present –
in a weak, suffering, and dying human.

As I’ve been wrestling with these texts,
I’ve been reminded of GK Chesterton’s observation that,
“God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

I am drawn to Psalm 22 and the account of the crucifixion, because I identify with Christ’s cry of abandonment by God.

I guess you could say I’ve pretty much become an atheist at this point, too.

I don’t see the God of Power the Psalmist seems to long for,
and which the onlookers at the cross pledge to believe in
if that God shows up,
and shows off.

As a friend of mine likes to say,
I’m at least a functional atheist when it comes to that God.

As far as my experience goes,
it doesn’t seem like that God exists.

But I hear something that I recognize in the centurion’s cry.

After he watches Jesus suffer,
cry out to the God who has forsaken him,
and die,
it is THEN that the centurion says,

“Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

It is not after the Resurrection,
it’s not after a show of power,
it’s not after Jesus climbs down from the cross
and kicks ass for the Lord.

No, the centurion sees God in this crushed, broken, and suffering human,
in weakness and in doubt, in death and in defeat.

Is God there?

Does God exist?

To ex-ist means to stand out.

This doesn’t seem to me to be a God that ex-ists,
who stands out,
who makes a big show,
who has a mighty presence.

What the centurion sees
seems to be a God
who in-sists,
who per-sists,
who re-sists.

A God who in-sists
on living and dying with the suffering,
who per-sists
despite being crushed,
and who re-sists
calls for shows of brutal power.

This sounds like a God who, to quote the Psalmist,

“does not despise nor abhor
the poor in their poverty,
neither is the LORD’s face
hidden from them;
but when they cry out,
the LORD hears them.”

This seems to be a God who is with those who cry out to God,
a God who takes up their cry,
takes on their suffering,
even their suffering of separation from God.

A God who loses God.

If we are looking for a God of might and power,
we may not find that God to be present,
but if we look to those who suffer,
and hear their insistent,
persistent cries of
we may hear, too,
God’s voice
mingled with theirs.

In my life, I don’t see God, I don’t feel God.
As far as I can tell,
the God of power, signs and wonders
has forsaken us.

What I do see is the the body of Christ.

I see love amidst brokenness, suffering, and despair,
as we share the cup and the bread of our lives.

The Psalmist says

“I will declare your name to my people;
in the midst of the assembly
I will praise you.”

What I can say is

I declare this name, Christ, to you, my friends,
the body of Christ.
And I praise this broken God.


The Man Who Wasn’t There: Exegesis of Exodus 4:24-26

Vincent's Chair With His Pipe, Van Gogh, 1888

Vincent’s Chair With His Pipe, Van Gogh, 1888

Violence, divine intervention, blood, circumcision, strange appellations, and a whole lot of ambiguity.

24At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. 25So Zipporah 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!” 26And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH Translation.)


24On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. 25But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV)

This is a fascinating pericope, or cutting, from Exodus. In it we have violence, divine intervention, blood, circumcision, strange appellations, and a whole lot of ambiguity. The NRSV version tries to remove some of this ambiguity by inserting Moses’ name where the Hebrew only reads “his”, though this decision itself leads to further complications. In this post, I will look at some insights and suggestions others have offered, and then give my take on this strange moment in Exodus.

This dangerous encounter follows Moses’ call by God to lead the Hebrew people out of their Egyptian slavery, and is followed by Moses’ meeting with Aaron in which they do just as God has instructed. So why, if Moses is on his way to do what God has just told him to do, does God attack in the night, seeking to kill?

The main narrative problems I see in this passage are: Who is the LORD seeking to kill? Why is the LORD seeking to kill? Why does the LORD “seek” rather than kill? Who do the masculine pronouns refer to? Which son is circumcised? How does Zipporah know to circumcise in response to the LORD’s attack? Why does circumcision work to cause the LORD to let go? Does circumcision work to this end? What does “Bridegroom of blood” mean, and to whom does it apply?

The deeper problem, the one I will address, is what is the point of this interlude in the Moses story? What does it reveal?

Most attempts to explain this text try to use the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as a key to unlocking this strange story.

First, I want to consider what others have offered in response to this passage. The translators of the NRSV have elected to insert Moses’ name in v 25 as a way of clarifying some of the ambiguity in the passage. It is also a way of tying the action in the passage to Moses, who is central to the texts preceding and following this one. Without this insertion, however, Moses is not explicitly present in this text. But does identifying Moses in this way make the text more intelligible? And does it make it more meaningful?

Most attempts to explain this text try to use the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as a key to unlocking this strange story.

Morgenstern argues against a common reading of the text (advocated by Wellhausen and others) which argues that Moses had failed to satisfy an obligation of circumcision as marriage rite, and is saved vicariously by Zipporah’s circumcision of her son. Morgenstern’s argument rests on two key aspects of Midianite marriage and circumcision.

Midianite marriage was beena marriage, not ba’al marriage. A matriarchal structure, beena marriage traced genealogy through the mother. A child’s father’s identity may not have been known, but the mother’s identity was certain. In this system, a man might establish a beena marriage with a woman, and have children with her. She would remain with her clan, and after a time, he would return to his (mother’s) clan, to which he was responsible. He would then be free to establish another beena marriage with another woman outside his clan. A woman’s clan would be responsible for raising her children, since they were part of the clan by virtue of their mother’s membership.

Patriarchal ba’al marriage, by contrast, occured when a man took a woman from her clan into his clan. Children were part of the clan by virtue of their paternal lineage. The fact that Moses needed his father-in-law’s permission to take Zipporah with him, suggests that her clan practiced beena marriage.

Due to its non-repeatability, circumcision would not have practiced as part of (repeatable) beena marriage, so this was not the motive for the divine assault.

The local deity, Yahweh, seeing what was his being taken away, comes to claim ownership, i.e., to kill the child.

According to Morgenstern, circumcision was a practice that appeased local deities’ claims on children. Much as first fruits offered to a deity allowed for the enjoyment of the rest, offering the foreskin of a male allowed the child to remain with the family, i.e., to live. Since fathers were often absent in clans practicing beena marriage, circumcision fell to the mother’s oldest brother. In this case, the term for “oldest uncle” and “circumciser” would be the same: “One related by blood”. Morgenstern argues that this is the meaning of the phrase translated as “Bridegroom of Blood”.

Morgenstern argues that Moses and Zipporah left Midian having failed to have their second son circumcised. The local deity, Yahweh, seeing what was his being taken away, comes to claim ownership, i.e., to kill the child. Zipporah circumcises her son, acting as the uncle-circumciser, and the threat of death is removed. So Morgenstern has addressed all the major narrative problems within the pericope, but does not connect it to the larger narrative.

Where Morgenstern’s explanation explains the pericope on its own terms, but without any connection to the larger narrative, Propp offers an explanation of the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” that makes two significant connections with the larger Moses story.

In her wisdom, Zipporah makes a way out of no way, circumcising her son, drawing blood from him and applying it to Moses.

Propp argues that the Hebrew word damim, “of blood”, has a connotation of blood-guilt. Taking this as key, Propp argues that Yahweh has competing interests with regard to Moses. On the one hand, the deity wants to employ Moses to liberate the Hebrew people, and on the other hand, divine justice in the matter of the murdered Egyptian remains unsatisfied. So as Moses returns to Egypt, the deity comes to take blood for blood. This results in an impasse between the deity’s conflicting desires. (This would explain why the deity seeks to kill but does not kill directly). In her wisdom, Zipporah makes a way out of no way, circumcising her son, drawing blood from him and applying it to Moses. This appeases the deity, who releases Moses and allows him to continue on his God-ordained journey. Nonetheless, this is a traumatic experience for Zipporah, who is, perhaps for the first time, confronted with her husband as murderer, who causes her to draw blood from her child. He is a “blood-guilty husband” to her.

Propp also points out that this circumcision prepares the son for the coming passover, for which circumcision is required. Why this would need to happen so far in advance, and why the reader would need to know this detail remain undexplained.

Propp’s take on the meaning of the term “Bridegroom of Blood” explains the incident fairly well, and makes connections to the rest of the Moses narrative. However, it directly conflicts with Morgenstern’s account of the meaning of the phrase. So we are at an impasse as far as a conclusive account that explains the story and relates it to the broader narrative. Neither account does more than account for the elements in the story, neither gets at the significance of the story as such, and why it was written.

Instead of explaining this confused story, perhaps we should acknowledge the confusion. Perhaps the confusion is a key to understanding the story.

In another commentary, Propp compares this story to the folk-form of “Sojourner’s Tale”. The story has several key elements of this folk-form, but is distinctive for its lack of happy ending with sojourner returning to rest at home. Moses returns to his people, but only to inaugurate their sojourn.

This discontinuity with the expected outcome of the Sojourner’s Tale is suggestive, however, and so we should return to the text with incompleteness in mind.

Given the structural ambiguities of the text, it is impossible to know what happened to who. Someone got cut. That much is clear.

Instead of explaining this confused story, perhaps we should acknowledge the confusion. Perhaps the confusion is a key to understanding the story.

Something set Zipporah in motion, trying to appease the confusion that struck her family in the night. Acting in the dark, she may have added to the confusion. What is she doing circumcising? Who is she circumcising? Who is she throwing foreskins at? Who is she talking to? Why does she speak? And what does she mean by what she says?

I think she speaks to try and restore order and meaning. She is trying to bring order to chaos by assigning guilt as cause, threat as effect, and circumcision as remedy. In writing, the author further tries to fix meaning. Written words are more definitive than speech. Zipporah cuts her son’s flesh. The author “cuts” this story into the flesh of a scroll. Likewise, exegetes try to make their own cuts, their own attempts at explaining the inexplicable.

Moses, the absent center of this story

It is not that this text is simply difficult to interpret at first, but with proper knowledge and technique one can arrive at a satisfying explanation of what appears confusing. Many texts are like that. Not this one. The text is not presenting a clear meaning that needs elucidation or interpretation. The text is presenting the uninterpretable, the inexplicable, as such. Is this not a necessary supplement to following the commands of God? Is it not essential to recognize that one does not know what one is doing when one acts this way? Divine command is a terrifying thing, taking responsibility from the individual, and placing the individual in a precarious position. Precarious is related to the verb “to pray.” If one enters into this endeavor, one had better pray. Prayer is the admission that one is in suspense. And Moses is the suspended individual par excellence.

My argument, then, is to turn from the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as interpretive key, and focus instead on Moses, the absent center of this story.

This is a passage marked by absence, ambiguity, incompleteness, and suspense. We do not know where the story takes place – it is simply “on the way.” The deity’s motives are not given. The masculine pronouns produce ambiguity of reference. The circumcised son is not named. The son’s foreskin suggests his unmentioned penis. The foreskin itself is a token of fragmentation, of a part that represents the whole. The text does not clarify the meaning of the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood”, nor does it tell us how Zipporah knew how to respond as she did. And finally, it is not clear why the deity relents, we only know that he does. The text does not mention Moses. In the middle of a narrative entirely focused on Moses, he is notably unnamed. (There is a curious reflection here of the treatment of the name of God. Whereas the text contains the name of God, which is read out as “adonai” instead, the text does not contain the name of Moses, which is read into the text by some readers. This is suggestive of Moses’ role as mediator between humanity and God, as reflecting God to humanity. So absence and presence are significant in relation to the mediating prophet.)

The entire structure of this pericope forces us to accept that we are confronting something that is not to be simply interpreted away. It also draws us in to consider what it says about the one it does not name.

This pericope significantly reflects Moses’ condition as mediating prophet, the one suspended in between command and fulfillment, promise and fulfillment, between God and God’s people.

Separated, cut off, incomplete.

Notice how Moses is cut off, alienated, displaced, and absent from home throughout his life. He is born outside of Canaan, under threat of death. He is separated from his family, under threat of death. He is saved by women: his mother, sister, and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Nonetheless, he is separated from the Egyptians, under threat of death. God’s disruption sends him back to Egypt, under threat of death. This does not reunite him, but puts him in conflict with the Egyptians, under threat of death. He has to re-establish relations with his people, though he is never quite able to do so, constantly at odds with them, even to his death, for which he blames them. He has to ward off the threat of the Angel of Death by blood. He is unable to remain in Egypt, and flees under threat of death. He enters the wilderness, an environment full of the threat of death. And he approaches but never enters Canaan, dying on the other side of the Jordan, cut off from the land his entire life. Born, living, and dying outside. Moses is always separated, cut off, incomplete.

His condition is captured beautifully, poetically, in this passage, which brings together elements from his life preceding and following this event. The events in the story occur at night, in the absence of light and understanding (suggesting perhaps how little the deliverer of light and truth sees and understands.) He is (as always) away from home. He is (as always) “on the way”, a phrase repeatedly used to describe the people during the exodus. God shows up as disruption, much as in the burning bush. No motive is given for God’s action – that is cut off from Moses’ understanding. There is, as always, the threat of death.

Moses is saved by a woman. Zipporah is the axis of presence: it is her son/her act/her speech/her bridegroom. She drives the narrative. Moses is the axis of absence.

What is required is a cutting, in order to fulfill a covenant (an agreement cut with God), that Moses was cut off from knowing, yet he is under threat of being “cut off.” A flint, a fragment, is used to accomplish this cutting. As with the passover, the threat of death is warded off by blood. Cut off from everything, Moses ends up a Bridegroom of Blood, instead of Zipporah’s husband: he ends up cut off from Zipporah. (Exodus 18 explains that Moses sent Zipporah and his sons away to her father (which would accord with beena marriage). When they are reunited in Exodus 18, Moses spends all his time with his father-in-law.)

Separated, cut off, incomplete.

So, finally, we return to the “Bridegroom of Blood.” How does this strange appellation work within this narrative? What does it tell us? We have seen how Moses’ experience is one of absence, fragmentation, suspension, incompleteness. Yet what is his relationship to his people as prophet? Is he not to them a “Bridegroom of Blood”? This is a bifurcated name. Nowhere else does “bridegroom” have such a horrible sound. This is a name that bring together the wonderful and the terrible. Fittingly reflecting a prophet whose relationships are cut, split. Moses frees the people, yet that generation dies in the wilderness. Moses is of these people, yet not of these people. He brings them out of Egypt, but not into Canaan. He sets before them a choice between life and death, blessing and curse. As mediator between the people and God, he communicates God’s love and God’s wrath. He provides for their needs, and commands the Levites to wantonly slaughter the people. He is faithful to God, yet denied by God.

This amazing pericope is a portrait of Moses. These three verses capture his experience, and how others experience him. The brilliance of the portrait is that Moses is nowhere to be found in it. It is as if his silhouette reveals more about him than any detailed portrayal ever could.


Bushell, Michael S., and Tan, Michael D., Source: Bibleworks 7, 2003, Bibleworks

Caputo, John D. Source: The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 1997, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press

Morgenstern, Julian. Source: Hebrew Union College Annual, 34 1963, p 35-70.

Pippin, Tina; Aichele, George. Source: Culture, entertainment and the Bible, p 106-123. Sheffield, Eng. : Sheffield Academic Press, 2000

Propp, William Henry. Source: The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol 2, 1998, p 189-243

Propp, William Henry. Source: Vetus testamentum, 43 no 4 O 1993, p 495-518.

Sharp, Carolyn J. Source: Wrestling the Word, 2010, Louisville, KY : Westminster John Know Press

The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH Translation, 2004, Oxford, Oxford University Press

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 2010, Oxford, Oxford University Press