When It’s Time to Cut Loose

October 25, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Posted in Exodus | 8 Comments
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Moses killed an Egyptian slavemaster and fled from Egypt. He ended up meeting the priest of Midian, who would become his father-in-law.

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land. And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them.

Exodus 2:21-25

Moses had been given signs by God. First, God appeared to him in a bush that burned but was not consumed. Then God gave Moses the ability to turn his shepherd’s rod (staff) into a snake and back into a rod again, the ability to turn his hand leprous and then back healthy again, and the ability to turn water into blood. God’s Word had sealed his fate, and now he was off to obey God and to face difficult circumstances.

And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand. And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.

Exodus 4:20-21

Then comes this very strange and enigmatic passage of Scripture:

And 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 son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

Exodus 4:24-26

First, the ambiguous pronouns make it very difficult to discern exactly who is being met and almost killed, and who is being circumcised. Second, there is very little consensus or agreement among commentators or scholars about the precise message and meaning of the incident. Matthew Henry (the “go-to” commentator for many Bible teachers) says, “This is a very difficult passage of story…” Some believe that Moses’s son, Gershom, hadn’t been circumcised, or at least properly circumcised. The Egyptians practiced a less extensive (and not-acceptable-to-God) form of circumcision than the Israelites. Some believe that the text is talking about Eliezer, Moses’s other son. I suppose, after studying the passage in some detail, that I’m going to land closer to an interpretation that goes something like this: The person that the Lord “met and sought to kill” (v. 24) was Moses’s son, not Moses. Moses is not mentioned by name in the passage. The previous verses address the future death of Pharaoh’s first-born son, so it would make sense to segue into a frightening near-death experience concerning Moses’s first-born son. Moses’s wife was the daughter of a Midianite priest, so she may have had some familiarity with circumcision (although probably not the specific Jewish rite and obligation commanded by God to Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14). When her beloved son became ill (presumably this was how God sought to take his life, although we can’t be sure), she did what Moses should have done eight days after his birth, and circumcised him herself with as much solemnity, propriety, and piety as she could muster under the circumstances. The phrase “cast it at his feet” makes it sound like she threw the foreskin at Moses in disgust or anger, but it may instead be a euphemism for touching the foreskin back to Gershom’s privates as a formal expression of solemnity. The line about “a bloody husband” is often characterized by commentators as a sort of modern British insult against Moses, but the Hebrew word interpreted as “bloody husband,” could mean that she was pronouncing her and her half-Jewish, half-Midianite son as “blood relatives” – under the Jewish covenant-sign of circumcision – with Moses and his one true God, Yahweh. In any event, whatever happened appeased the Lord and everyone lived. We may learn a valuable lesson from this, however we may understand the story: God wants Christian families to all be on the same page, fully obedient to Him and compliant with His commands – especially those families where the husband would take on some type of leadership responsibility in the work of the Lord.

Epilogue: When I taught this passage in (adult!) Sunday School, I said that Moses’s wife had an apt name, and that she cut off Gershom’s foreskin because she didn’t want it to get caught in his “zipper-ah.” A few people groaned, but nobody laughed, so feel free to do likewise.

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