Last Sunday, someone from my church came over after one of the services and said “Matt, I have a biblical question.”. “I am ready for this” I thought – nothing I can’t handle.

This lady had taken the excellent decision at the beginning of 2013 to read the whole bible in one year. To help this process she was using a bible reading plan that ensures she reads everything. As a result she is coming across stuff that she hasn’t really read before. She’s reached the book of Exodus. You know, parting the red sea, burning bush, manna, 10 plagues etc. etc. But what about these verses in chapter 4 that she discovered:

Exodus 4:24-26 : 24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood”, because of the circumcision. (ESV translation)

The context is describing Moses’ journey back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and to free the Jews.

But what is going on? On first reading, it seems that God is turning up to kill Moses or his son (the Hebrew just says ‘him’ – so we can’t be sure who the writer is referring to). Moses wife circumcises Moses’ son, puts the foreskin on his (who’s?) feet and the Lord then leaves him (who?) alone. Seems really weird.

This passage has puzzled Jews & Christians for centuries. There is a Wikipedia page devoted to it.

I must have read Exodus 20 times – but this bit never stuck in my mind, and have just passed it by. So, what might be going on here? Do we believe this story, and what does it say about God? Does it confirm the ideas of those who say God is capricious, unpredictable and a bully?

Here’s my thinking (at least for today – it may change tomorrow).

The passage doesn’t say who the ‘him’ is. Traditionally it has been taken to be Moses. The NIV translation puts in the words Moses. I wonder if it isn’t referring to Moses’ son, probably his firstborn son Gershom.

Why do I think this? Well, because of the context. If you read the previous verses, God has been speaking to Moses about the curse on firstborn sons that god will bring on Pharaoh if he doesn’t let the Jews go.

Exodus 4:21-23: 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”

Straightaway, after God gives his warning that he will kill the firstborn son (of Pharaoh) he immediately turns up to ‘kill’ Moses son. The apparent reason for this was because Moses’ had neglected to circumcise him, when God had specifically commanded his people to do this and said that if they disobeyed they would be cut off (Genesis 17:14). Moses had disobeyed, and was running a risk.

What is God doing here? I believe he is teaching Moses. He is teaching him that God is not to be trifled with. He said you have to circumcise your baby boys. God meant what he said (for good reasons) and Moses has disobeyed for years (perhaps because Zipporah was not keen).

God has also just said that he would kill Pharaoh’s son if he did not obey. God is now wanting Moses to learn that God is serious, this is not a game. Moses needs to be convinced that God will back up his words with action.

That night, Moses and Zipporah realise that God has turned up to kill their firstborn because they have disobeyed. They know what they must do. Zipporah realises that she must obey what they have known all along – she circumcises the boy. God leaves them unscathed. Did God plan to go ahead with the killing, or like with Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac – did God know he would provide an alternative way?

Zipporah, in her understandable anger and in her guilt at not having obeyed cries out to Moses with anguish. Her son was screaming from the bloody procedure, and she says to Moses “You are a bridgegroom of blood to me” – she was angry with him and ‘his God’; she was feeling guilty for having disobeyed. A relative of mine felt obliged to have her sons circumcised because of the wishes of their father. She wasn’t happy with him. I can understand Zipporah’s reaction.

 

So, perhaps not so weird after all. Maybe this is Moses’ opportunity (like Abraham’s when sacrificing Isaac) to convince God that he really will obey him, and that Moses is learning that God is serious about what he says. Moses would never forget this lesson – which was to prove important to him again and again in Egypt, and in the wilderness.

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