September 19, 2014

Difficult Scriptures: Exodus 4:24-26

I am often asked what the purpose of Internet Monk is. What are we trying to do? Depending on who is asking, and on whatever mood I’m in, I might answer in a variety of ways. But the response I give most often is that we are a wrestling mat where ideas are tossed. Our community of readers then get down on the mat and wrestle with one another to come up with, if not a definitive answer, at least perhaps a better way to frame the question.

So I want to introduce a new, periodic feature for all of you iMonk grapplers called “Difficult Scriptures.” This is where we will introduce a verse or passage that requires more than just a cursory explanation to have it make sense. Then we will stand back and let you share your insights. Rules are the same as always: No eye gouging, no hitting below the belt. Feel free to disagree all you want with another commenter, but treat that person as you would like to be treated. Keep your answers concise and on topic. No fighting, no biting. Other than that, have fun!

Today’s scripture:

Exodus 4:24-26 (NLT)

24 On the way to Egypt, at a place where Moses and his family had stopped for the night, the Lord confronted him and was about to kill him. 25 But Moses’ wife, Zipporah, took a flint knife and circumcised her son. She touched his feet with the foreskin and said, “Now you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” 26 (When she said “a bridegroom of blood,” she was referring to the circumcision.) After that, the Lord left him alone.

What is this? God was about to kill Moses? Why? Other translations render this, “God tried to kill Moses.” How could God try but not succeed in killing him?  Just what does mean?

Comments

  1. The part about the flint knife jumps out at me. The entire OT would be so different if the Israelites were a “technological people” rather than sheep herders. I suspect it would be much easier for our society to understand.

    Not that that has any bearing on why God confronted Moses and wanted to kill him, but shedding blood as an appeasement / offering / atonement to God is inherent to the OT and the Gospels. Blood sacrifice dates back to the very origins of religion, perhaps when we were prey and not predator.

    • The reason for the flint knife, Fish, is because it is surgically sharp. Knives made from native glass-like rocks such as flint or obsidian are far sharper than steel knives (which they didn’t have in even the most technologically advanced societies then) or the bronze knives used in Egypt. Makes for a cleaner cut and a quicker recovery.

  2. Brother Bartimaeus says:

    I wrestled with this several months ago and here’s the best I can do. If you are reading the NIV it says that “the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him.” If you read the NRSV it says that “the Lord met him and tried to kill him”, with the key distinction of replacing Moses with him. What I’ve seen, the “him” was really Gershom, Moses’s son. So, the idea is that Moses neglected to circumcise Gershom who would have been killed in the plague of the firstborn. Zipporah quickly corrected this and pronounces that Gershom is a “bridegroom of blood to me”, which I also saw translated as a “blood relative”. So then God let them proceed to Egypt.

    P.S.: In dialog with an earlier comment I made, these are the type of thought provoking posts I like to see at iMonk. Thank you for them.

    Peace

    • I remembered a footnote about this passage from the Scofield Study Bible (sure, Scofield’s got his issues, but that’s a topic for another day):

      Compare Gen. 17:14. The context (v. 25) interprets v. 24. Moses was forgetful of the foundation sign of Israel’s covenant relation to God. On the eve of delivering Israel he was reminded that without circumcision an Israelite was cut off from the covenant.

      The NAS renders the phrase the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. I wonder if sought or tried points out that God’s commands still apply to Moses and his family. Or perhaps, put another way, although God has singled out the Israelites, they weren’t without responsibility, nor were Egyptians without any hope—e.g., at the Passover, the firstborn of the Israelites without blood on the lintel still perished and and the firstborn of any Egyptians who heeded those instructions were spared.

    • Brother Bartimaeus,

      Your analysis seems pretty spot on. I’d be interested to see what it actually says in Hebrew–I’m not sure of how pronouns work in the ancient language.

    • Wow! What a great discussion. This is the sort of text that stops me dead in my tracks when I’m reading the Bible. I will look forward to the next installment!

  3. Why don’t you start this series with a really difficult passage? :)

    I think Jewish scholars invented some new Yiddish curse words and phrases to express their frustration at trying to understand this passage.

  4. Here is what Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says in his THE LIVING TORAH (translation and transliteration and notes):

    http://bible.ort.org/books/torahd5.asp?action=displaypage&book=2&chapter=4&verse=22&portion=13

    4:24 When they were in the place where they spent the night along the way, God confronted Moses and wanted to kill him.
    Vayehi vaderech bamalon vayifgeshehu Adonay vayevakesh hamito.

    4:25 Tzipporah took a stone knife and cut off her son’s foreskin, throwing it down at [Moses'] feet. ‘As far as I am concerned, you’re married to blood, she said [to the child].
    Vatikach Tsiporah tsor vatichrot et-orlat benah vataga leraglav vatomer ki chatan-damim atah-li.

    4:26 [God] then spared [Moses]. ‘[You were] married to blood because of circumcision,’ she said.
    Vayiref mimenu az amerah chatan damim lamulot.

    wanted to kill him
    Moses, for not circumcising his son. According to others, it was for delaying (see Exodus 4:27; Rashbam cf. Nedarim 34a). Some say that God wanted to kill the uncircumcised infant (Nedarim 32a).

    her son’s
    Some say that it was her newborn son Eliezer (Sh’moth Rabbah, Rashi; Ibn Ezra). According to others, it was the older son, Gershom, who was not yet circumcised (Targum Yonathan; Sefer HaYashar).

    throwing it down
    (Rashi). Literally, ‘touching;’ see note, this verse ‘Moses’ feet.’

    Moses’ feet
    (Rashi; Rashbam; Ibn Ezra). In the Talmud, one opinion is that it was at Moses’ feet, another that it was at the child’s feet, and a third, that it was at the feet of the angel who wanted to kill him (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 3:9). Others have, ‘the blood ran down [the child's] feet’ (Ralbag); or, ‘She peeled back [the foreskin] toward his legs’ (Malbim).

    married
    Literally, ‘a bridegroom of blood.’ Some interpret the Hebrew word chathan here to denote a newly circumcised child (Ibn Ezra), because the child is being initiated into new joy (Radak, Sherashim).

    to blood
    Or, ‘you are like a murderer to me’ (Ibn Ezra; Radak; Sherashim; Tur); ‘you are the murderer of my husband’ (Rashi); or ‘You are bleeding so much’ (Ralbag). According to the opinion that she was addressing Moses (see note, this verse, ‘to the child’), she said, ‘Through this bloody child you will remain mine [and live]‘ (Rashbam; Targum Yonathan); or, ‘Your marriage to me requires this blood’ (Sforno; Chizzkuni; Tur; cf. Targum). Or, ‘the circumcision blood of [my son] is staunched’ (Septuagint).

    to the child
    In the Talmud there is a debate as to whether she was addressing Moses or the child (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 3:9).

    • Thank you!

      I’ve heard the question posed (at http://www.torahclass.com), “Who was Tzipporah mad at? Moses, because he had “chosen” this God that demanded such a thing. See, that was the thinking in those days because men were not chosen by the gods, gods were picked, and sometimes dumped in favor of another, by men. Don’t like your gods?……get a whole new batch!” She did not want her son circumcised, and Moses, not being a natural-born leader, went along with his wife’s wishes despite knowing God’s clear instruction on the issue. So, when God came to kill “him” (Moses or the son, whichever one), Zipporah was basically throwing up her hands and saying “FINE! I’ll do it! But I don’t like you for it!”

      • Erin:

        At some near or far point I’ll have all of Jacob Neusner’s Talmud (both Bavli and Yerushalmi) in my Logos software, so I can read all that the rabbis of those days have said about this passage.

        Re: Tzipporah – As that eminent Jewish poet and songwriter Robert Zimmerman would put it: “Just like a woman!”

  5. cermak_rd says:

    Moses deserved death because he had not circumcised his son. The requirement was given to Abraham. Now, did Moses delay because the child would have been unable to be moved for 3 days afterward (flint knives–ouch!)? If so, that would have been mitigation, clearly the Almighty thought his motivation might be something else.

    Zipporah understood the source of displeasure and did the necessary requirement understanding that had Moses been killed, it would have been because of Eliezer, so in effect, Eliezer would have been the murderer of her husband.

    Bottom line: circumcise your sons at the right time because even a man who can talk directly to the Almighty is not immune to this requirement.

  6. Rick Ro. says:

    Wow. Cool idea. I’m not sure I have much to offer on these particular verses, but I look forward to reading what others have to say!

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Ever wonder if verses like this were included just to mess with the readers’ minds?

    • The Lord does seem to have a rather strange sense of humor, doesn’t he?

    • If I were God, I’d make my Word less confusing to the reader.

      • cermak_rd says:

        I would guess that at the time it was written, it was well understood what was meant. But as cultures changed and times changed things became less clear you can see this in other religious works too such as the cursing of the fig tree, at one time that was probably well understood.

        • If I were God I’d make my Word timeless and independent of culture, capable of being fully and unmistakeably understood by anyone in the world at any time in history. The very words on the page might change before your eyes, as you moved through life and as the world changed around you.

          • He did. And He does. :)

          • cermak_rd says:

            I think we may be trying to read these stories differently than the original audience did, certainly different from what the oral accounts were intending. I think most of the stories have a lesson or moral something that should (circumcise your son) or should not (sacrifice your son) be done then a story is told around that central point.

  8. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

    There is definitely a pronoun issue in the text. The Hebrew uses a lot of “hims” without specifically naming Moses as the antecedent. However, Moses is definitely the subject of the previous passage, so most scholars agree that the “him” is Moses.

    In Robert Alter’s translation/commentary, he discusses a non-traditional interpretation that has become more common with some modern scholars. To whit: it’s a leftover bit from and older, more primitive version of the story. He writes:

    The story is an archaic cousin of the repeated biblical stories of life-threatening trial in the wilderness, and, as modern critics have often noted, it corresponds to the folktale pattern of a perilous rite of passage that the hero must undergo before embarking on his mission proper.

    While definitely in the “source critics” vein of scholarship, I think this take is as good as trying to force the passage into something more traditional. It’s a rough bit o’ text!

  9. Jim Park says:

    Jeff, I had to smile when I saw the verses you chose for this. Your mention of Moses in your earlier “Orville & Wilbur” essay immediately brought this passage to my mind this morning. Looks to me like God had some second thoughts about having assigned the exodus job to Moses and didn’t know how to get out of it gracefully!

    This passage has long impressed me as some kind of scribal nonsequitur. It smacks of folklore, legend and fable. It may have resulted when a scribe attempted to fill in an earlier copyist’s omission (e.g., the Great Commission portion in Mark), or we may be actually missing the portion of the original that would have given us the proper context for the events. Either way, our Greek mindset screams to us that this is a literal description of an actual event because it is stated as such in The Bible and we wrestle with the illogic of it.

    I think of it as a colorful sidebar, perhaps something to spice up the spoken story around a desert campfire to a rapt audience of Hebrew children. It could be theater. Could even be humor in an earlier warrior culture …”those primitive Midians, using a flint knife! Why don’t they come into the late bronze age with the rest of us, eh Achmed?” (Might it be significant that a “flint knife” is specifically mentioned here?)

    • It is versus like these that continue to test my faith and fuel my doubts, even after reconciling Evolution with Genesis. I like Jim Park’s and Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) interpretations the best, but yet, they are the most “dangerous” for me in terms of my faith, because I’m left wondering what else is “fiction”?

      That said, I am looking forward to learning people’s ideas about difficult scriptures – what a great idea. The Internet Monk community is probably the only place where we can honestly talk about these versus without fear of judgement or claims of heresy.

      • I certainly empathize with you, like a child. But, if you accept that The Bible is what God intended it to be and that his hand is present in its care and maintenance, then you need also to accept that the larger truths of life are sometimes best communicated in full dimension by other than a mere recital of “the facts”. God uses music. God uses poetry. He uses stunning visuals, sounds, aromas …we must not limit his communications tool bag to our expectations alone. Even fiction teaches (e.g., Jesus’ parables), if fiction this be.

        I believe his Word is inerrant, but our understanding of it is not. That’s why we continue to delve into it and to explore every nuance. Exodus was not written for a Western, scientific oriented, technologically adept audience. Still it speaks to us in the present and challenges us to ask hard questions, daring it to prove itself. That’s how we grow. I see The Bible as an organic thing, a product ot all the flesh and blood that put pen to paper across some 1200 years, all under God’s watchful eye and inspiration. Any errors, omissions and cultural quirks simply add to its richness and beg to be examined.

        • I understand your viewpoint, and I sincerely wish it was easier for me to have faith. Maybe I’m unique, but I’m struggling the essentials of Christianity (the “Grand” Miracle). Honestly, I’m not really bothered with versus like these, as I lean towards the metaphoric mythical-poetic viewpoint as you described.

          • I can’t speak for others, but I know the queasy, cold and very stark fear that all this is made up somehow …that it’s just one of several rationales that man has invented to combat the fact that he is alone and doomed to dust. But the rational me senses that there is, in fact, a discernible, singular Truth. Otherwise why would we all be searching for essentially the same kind of salvation? Why would so many share the same vision of a loving, just and merciful God instead of a bazillion possible alternatives? It seems more than mere hope to me. It is a collective memory of what once was.

            Aside from faith, my rational mind says that Christ is the only sensible explanation for what is. When faith waivers, I have that certainty to fall back on. I pray you do, too. If not …let’s work on it! :>)

      • cermak_rd says:

        There are also dangers in too literal a reading. David Plotz waded through the entire Torah and HafTorah and blogged about it on Slate (Blogging the Bible). He read it without expert commentary and wrote his takeaway from each section. I think he wrote a book too on the experience. He started this exercise as an agnostic Jew and ended it as an agnostic Jew who was deeply disappointed in the Divine. I think his faith might have been better served by taking Rashi and modern scholarship along for the ride.

        • I quite enjoyed Plotz’s blog. I taught an online Torah class a few times for a budding bible school and used three main texts (beyond the Scripture passages themselves) the commentary from Zondervan’s study bible, the commentary from the Stone Chumash by Artscroll, and Plotz’s blog. I wanted the students to see three different perspectives and be able to wrestle with the text as-is. By giving them three other (often disagreeing) perspectives to deal with, I hoped to get past some of the pre-conceived notions.

          • cermak_rd says:

            I would have loved that class. Always nice to get multiple perspectives. And Plotz plodding through the text was positively pleasant (sorry, got struck by the alliteration).

      • I took a graduate class on the Pentateuch and Former Prophets a couple semesters ago. The professor gave me a new appreciation for some of the “modern” theories, not because I buy them, but because I now understand them in a way I didn’t before. Here’s an example of the reasoning my professor helped me understand. Let’s assume that some of the evidence for the Torah being compiled later (like near the Exile) is true. Let’s also assume that God genuinely has inspired the Scriptures. The story folds out in this way:

        1. God says something worth remembering or an event happens that’s worth remembering.
        2. Some of that record is passed orally, some of it is written down.
        3. Much later, someone decides to compile the record into a single text
        4. That compilation is copied and passed down
        5. God’s people decide what is the ‘authoritative’ version of the story; that authoritative version becomes part of the Canon of Scripture

        So, here’s the question: at what point has God inspired it? If we believe in inspiration, the answer is: at all points. God’s hand guided the whole process. As such, whether what we’re reading is exactly what Moses wrote isn’t quite as important as some folks would like it to be because the important thing is that what we have is God’s Word as God intended it to be. Does that require a leap of faith? Sure. It requires us to trust God to get us his message in the manner he intends. But it also allows us to wrestle with the difficult parts of the text without losing our faith.

        • Jim Park says:

          …and, particularly for us lay people, separating what we actually read from what we have been taught about what we read becomes the challenge. A guided Bible study can be a huge help, but we must not be afraid to receive the message directly in the way that seems most correct to us. If we then encounter a perceived discrepancy or outright contradiction, we must examine our premises.

  10. Remember that in the few previous verses YHWH has instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh that the consequences of not following the wish of YHWH will be the death of Pharaoh’s first-born son. In this light the saving of Moses’ son by the shedding of blood is not just a reminder of the Abrahamic covenant, but also an indication that without the blessing of God, the same fate would await Moses’ son as would Pharaoh’s son.

    Better still though, for the Midianites (Zipporah was one), the throwing of blood at someone was a sign of protection. So we have Moses, who should die for rejecting the covenant sign of YHWH with Abraham (by not circumcising his son) being saved by blood covering him. Rev 7:15 anybody?

  11. FWIW, from the New American Commentary on Exodus:

    4:24–26 This unusual story has engendered many different interpretations and attempts at explanation.112
    112 To review all of them fairly would require scores of pages. The reader interested in digesting the full range of theories and their supporting argumentation takes on a major task. A brief review is provided by G. Vermes, “Baptism and Jewish Exegesis: New Light from Ancient Sources,” NTS 4 (1958): 309–18 and in more detail by J. Morgenstern, “The ‘Bloody Husband’ (?) Once Again,” HUCA 34 (1963): 35–70. We draw with appreciation on Durham’s succinct and lucid overview (Exodus, 57) in this summary: Some scholars (Kosmala, Morgenstern, Schmid et al.) have suggested that these verses were originally part of an older Kenite or Midianite story that was not about Moses at all. The Hb. of vv. 24–26 does not mention Moses; his name is supplied in both cases in the NIV. Such a view requires that the mention of Zipporah and “her son” be regarded as an interpolation into the story on the part of a narrator to make it apply to Moses. Others (Gressman, Meyer et al.) have concluded that Yahweh was not the one who sought to attack Moses in the original version of this story; it was instead a demon, and the story was eventually adapted to refer to Yahweh as the attacker rather than a demon. Vriezen argues instead that Yahweh’s seeking to kill Moses was actually an act of grace whereby he stopped Moses in his tracks and gave him the sign of grace, i.e., the covenant of circumcision. Others (Aurerbach, Beer, Beltz) have sought to identify the reason for the inclusion of the story at this point in terms of its being an early etiology for circumcision; according to this line of reasoning, the story teaches how circumcision first came about and makes Gershom’s circumcision something of a model for that of all future children. A variation on this (Buber, Gunkel et al.) concludes that the story is an etiology explaining how circumcision shifted from being a premarital rite to a childhood or puberty rite. Against this approach, Childs and Durham, among others, argue (correctly in our opinion) that the story is far too specifically linked to Moses and Zipporah and their family to be a general etiology for circumcision in Israel (which is in fact provided not by this passage but by Gen 17:10–27). The differences between the Hb. and the Gk. translation of the LXX are variously explained as the result of a different Hb. Vorlage (e.g., Hehn) or a different understanding of circumcision (e.g., Junker) or a conscious rewording of the text by a mystified LXX translator (a far more common circumstance than might be realized). Such scholars as Cassuto and Fohrer consider Yahweh’s attack to have been aimed mainly at Gershom because he had not been circumcised (the “him” in v. 24 is taken, rightly, we think, to refer to Gershom, not Moses), while Hyatt and many others opine that it was Moses himself who had not yet been circumcised and was therefore the target of Yahweh’s wrath. The following are well worthy of examination by anyone interested in the various approaches to the passage, though they are hardly the only sources: J. Derby, “Why Did God Want to Kill Moses?” JBQ 18 (1989–1990): 222–29; D. Gelernter, “Tsipporah’s Bloodgroom: A Biblical Breaking Point,” Orim 3 (1988): 46–55; L. H. Fink, “The Incident at the Lodging House,” JBQ 21 (1993): 236–241; G. W. Ashby, “The Bloody Bridegroom: The Interpretation of Exodus 4:24–26,” ExpTim 106 (1995): 203–5; W. Dumbrell, “Exodus 4:24–26: A Textual Re-examination,” HTR 65 (1972): 285–90; C. Houtman, “Exodus 4:24–26 and Its Interpretation,” JNSL 11 (1983): 81–105; T. Lescow, “Ex 4, 24–26: Ein archaisher Bundesschlussritus,” ZAW 105 (1993): 19–26; A. S. Maller, “The Bridegroom of Blood,” JBQ 21 (1993): 94–98; B. P. Robinson, “Zipporah to the Rescue: A Contextual Study of Exodus IV 24–26,” VT 36 (1986): 447–62; W. H. Propp, “That Bloody Bridegroom (Exodus iv 24–26),” VT 43 (1993): 495–518.

    Stuart, D. K. (2007). Vol. 2: Exodus (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

  12. The LXX (Brenton) reads:

    24 And it came to pass that the angel of the Lord met him by the way in the inn, and sought to slay him. 25 And Sepphora having taken a stone cut off the foreskin of her son, and fell at his feet and said, The blood of the circumcision of my son is staunched [or: is accomplished; stands; is made to stand; estê - aorist active indicative 3rd person singular of histêmi], 26 and he departed from him, because she said, the blood of the circumcision of my son is staunched [or: is accomplished; stands; is made to stand; estê - aorist active indicative 3rd person singular of histêmi].

    Brenton, L. C. L., Sir. (2009). The Septuagint version of the Old Testament (Ex 4:24–26). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

  13. I am glad you have added this “Difficult Sciptures” feature, Jeff. I was just thinking recently that it would be great if we could do that here. I will likely do a lot more reading than responding, as I have not studied the books of the Bible as much as many folks here and I know none of the ancient languages.

    I hope we spend as much time, if not more, with difficult scriptures from the books of the New Testament as we do the Old.

    Thanks!

  14. Christiane says:

    More, more, more !!!!
    This kind of discussion about ‘difficult’ or ambiguous scriptures is fascinating.

    BRING IT ON !!!!

  15. I heard a story about a Jewish rabbi being invited to teach a class or a session at a Christian seminary, and he opened the class by saying something like: “If you haven’t read the Old Testament (sic) in Hebrew, you haven’t read the Old Testament.”

    He had a point.

    • cermak_rd says:

      I took an Old Testament (yes, that’s what they called it) class at Loyola and it was taught by a Rabbi, as was the Intro To Judaism class I took(where I learned a lot about the traditions I grew up observing in my family–my father is Jewish. I am too, now, though I took a winding path to get here.

  16. SearchingAnglican says:

    LOVE this new feature. And I’m ashamed to admit that although I’ve read through Exodus a few times as I’ve read the Bible cover to cover, I can’t say I’ve ever really paid attention to this passage.

    It’s not part of the lectionary…right??? :-)

    Thanks to all of you with a knowledge of and passion for these things…

  17. “Zipporah”? Is that why they’re called “zippers”? :-)

  18. This might be out of left field, but maybe this passage has something to do with Moses’s earlier murder of an Egyptian, which was the reason he fled from Egypt in the first place. Now that Moses was on his way back to Egypt to carry out God’s mission, maybe that unattoned sin somehow threatened God’s purposes. Perhaps Satan — like the White Witch demanding Edmund’s blood as an appeasement to the deep magic — was demanding Moses’s death, according to the law that God would soon be revealing to his people through Moses. And perhaps God, bound by His own laws, was actually about to kill Moses before his wife intervened with a sign of covenant obedience and blood offering — which, because of the blood of Christ “shed before the foundation of the world”, trumped Satan’s demand by invoking an even deeper truth than the law. Maybe God outwitted Satan by inspiring Moses’s wife to do what she did. It’s just a thought.

  19. Varia Lectio says:

    Maybe this is like when God said to Moses that he would kill the Israelites and make the nation out of Moses’ progeny? It depended on the response of the listener to what God said.

    I honestly don’t know. One thing I am thankful for is that circumcision (even though the circumcision of today is different than that of Moses’ day) is not required (and in fact discouraged quite strongly) under the New Covenant. I don’t believe that Christians should circumcise their sons, at all.

    • cermak_rd says:

      Is it discouraged? Because prior to 1980 it was pretty much the default position in the US and you had to make an effort not to have it done if you were birthing in hospital. If it were something that’s obviously anti-Christian, I don’t think it would have been that way. I think the admonishment about not forcing circumcision on folks was for adult converts. Certainly the converted Jews (that term always reminds me of instant rice for some reason) would have balked at the idea of not circumcising their sons.

    • The discussion about circumcision in the NT isn’t about a medical procedure; it is about a legal conversion to Judaism. Paul argues against requiring Gentiles being required to convert into a legally Jewish state for salvation and the other apostles agree with him. Yet, Paul has Timothy undergo circumcision precisely because he is Jewish by birth heritage and therefore is “obligated” to be circumcised in Paul’s eyes because of that. It helps to read the words “legally Jewish” and “legally Gentile” in place of circumcised and uncircumcised respectively when reading Paul’s letters regarding this issue as this is the real heart of the matter that Paul is driving at in those passages.

  20. I shared this one with my father and he wrote this response which I loved and am sharing with his permission.

    From Dad,

    So here’s my thought: those 3 verses are just kind of stuck between God’s instructions to Moses about his upcoming confrontations with Pharaoh, and His instructions to Aaron to lend his support and expertise to his brother. I’m thinking this may be Zipporah’s one and only contribution to the Exodus; its text and its historical events. I’m thinking someone spilled some wine on her account and when Moses or a scribe put her words into the scroll he, or they, left out some stuff that just didn’t seem at the time to be very clear. I think Zipporah’s original story may have gone something like this:

    “My father gave me in marriage to a foreigner named Moses. He was running from the law and came uninvited and undocumented looking for work. He was, however, a kind and good man, though full of faults common to men; like being stubborn, a procrastinator and a bit of a whiner. My father assured me that given time he would improve; say maybe 40 years or so. He would also, given time, eventually receive amnesty for entering our country illegally. (Actually he would do it again and again; his amnesty came not from man but from God.)

    “God’s instructions to Moses were clear and we set off for Egypt. I was not thrilled about the trip or about God’s calling, but Moses was determined to be obedient. At a good lodging place along the way my husband became deathly ill; as usual he claimed God was killing him. Maybe God was, and so, I’ll not argue the point. The man was quite delirious at times yet conversed with God about his eminent death. Moses had many conversations with God during our lifetime together, I doubt not this one.

    “So I asked my husband why God would want to kill him after having so recently given such a momentous assignment. He at first was unsure, but as he lay on his mat weak with fever, searching his mind for an answer, it occurred to him that he was not obedient to God in all things, and specifically not obedient to God’s command to circumcise his son. So he ordered ME to circumcise our son Gershom.

    “I was not happy with Moses or with God, nor was I inclined to obey. Was this not his sin of omission? Did not God command the patriarch to perform this rite, a rite foreign to me and my people? Why, in his weakness and his guilt, should this task fall to my boy’s mother?

    “Gritting my teeth and fighting down my fear, reservation, and consternation, I took a flint and cut off the boy’s foreskin. I know not if I performed the task well, or if I inflicted the least amount of pain possible, but for certain I was angry. I threw it at Moses’ feet and cried out, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me!”

    “For reasons beyond my understanding God then let Moses alone. I do not understand my role is these events, but, lest Moses forget them when the fever leaves, I have, with thoughts shrouded in mystery, written them down; and I pray, “God forgive my presumptuous and self-righteous thoughts, deeds, and words.”

    “With all due respect,
    Zipporah.”

  21. Well, here’s my take on this tricky narrative.

    First, look at the immediate context. In these four verses we find three firstborn sons, each of whom will live or die dependent on obedience to the will of God:

    You shall say to Pharaoh, The LORD says Israel is my son, even my firstborn:
    And I say to you, Let my son go, so that he can serve me: and if you refuse to let him go, see, I will slay your son, even your firstborn.
    It came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
    Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her (firstborn) son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely you are a husband of blood to me.

    Now pull back and just follow the flow of the story.

    In verse 18, we are in Midian.

    Moses went back to Jethro his father in law, and said to him, Let me go, I pray you, and return to my brothers in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace.

    In verse 19 we are in Midian, but this verse precedes the conversation reported in verse 18:

    The LORD said to Moses in Midian, Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.

    In verse 20 we find ourselves in Egypt:

    Moses took his wife and his sons, set them on an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt. Moses took the rod of God in his hand.

    In verse 21 we are in the wilderness, and again this verse precedes what was reported in verse 20:

    The LORD said to Moses, When you set out to go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have given you to do, but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.

    Next follows the incident described in verse 22-25 which we have already quoted. Note that it happens “by the way, at an inn”, so is placed neither in Midian nor in Egypt.

    Now we read of Aaron meeting Moses – a meeting which takes place in the wilderness in the place where Moses originally met Jethro’s family. Note however that Moses had been told way back in verse 14 that Aaron was coming to meet him!

    The LORD said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him at the mount of God, and kissed him.
    And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him.

    Finally we are in Egypt:

    Moses and Aaron gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel:
    And Aaron spoke the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people.
    And the people believed: and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.

    The surrounding narrative is dislocated, both in terms of place (geographically) and in terms of time (chronologically). The point of this is to play up the confusion: are we in Egypt or not?

    Remember that Moses was introduced to Jethro as “an Egyptian”, and that in verse 18 Moses refers to a return to his brethren in Egypt. This plays up the same confusion in Jethro’s mind: is Moses an Egyptian or not?

    In the incident itself we find this realisation finally breaking into Zipporah’s mind: is her son an Egyptian or not? Why hasn’t Moses protected his son with the sign of the covenant God has with Israel?

  22. I’m going to cheat by posting this :D http://www.tektonics.org/lp/mosesweird.html

  23. My take on the passage is that if God wants you dead, you are or very soon will be. The comment is I believe directed toward Moses’ uncircumcised son. The point is obedience is required of Moses and it’s NOT about Moses, all of history and scripture is about God. Moses was a mere mortal who might well have been replaced at any point. Moreover, great has he may have been he failed just as you and I fail more than we may know.

  24. I think Bill gave a pretty good explanation as far as Zipporah’s possible initial influence to refuse the circumcision of her son and her attitude towards Moses (and the ritual itself) in this situation is concerned.

    The direct connection to what God said previously about His coming severe judgment on Pharao by means of killing his son (V.23) makes it probable that Moses’ disobedience in not circumcising his own firstborn was about to be equally judged, although it seems that God really wanted to kill Moses and not Gershom.

    Here is another link for a more in-depth discussion of the passage, even though I don’t agree with all of it:

    http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/02-exodus/Text/Articles/Allen-Ex4-Bloody-BSac.pdf