Why Is Moses’ Life Saved by His Wife Circumcising His Son?

QUESTION: Why is Moses saved by Zipporah circumcising his son in Ex 4:24-26?

On the trip, at an overnight campsite, it happened that the Lord confronted him and sought to put him to death. 25 So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at Moses’ feet. Then she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So He let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” referring to the circumcision. (HB)

ANSWER: No matter how you slice it, this passage is a little strange!  We seem to be plunged into some kind of weird spat that lacks any description of prior context, and without detail of important preceding action that might tell us what this is all about.  So even the best scholars are left with a fair amount of speculation to fill in those blanks.  This answer will therefore have plenty of speculation, but a core lesson is still very clear.

We begin to make sense of it, if we consider a few of the bare facts of the story:  Moses has had two sons.  They are clearly several years old by this point, and yet they have never been circumcised.  Why not?  This is a critical question but it’s never answered in the text.

Moses is a Hebrew, and circumcision is what they do – it was a command given to their forefather Abraham and all his descendants (Gen 17:9).  Some have speculated that the Jews, living under Egyptian oppression, weren’t allowed to for hundreds of year, so Moses also didn’t do it.  But this cannot be true since there is no mention of a society wide neglect of this sign of the Abrahamic covenant for hundreds of years.  In fact, we do know the Hebrews neglected this rite when the freed slaves lived through the desert wanderings for forty years (Joshua 5:5).  But that very verse also notes that the previous generation that first came out of slavery were all circumcised.

So it might have come from family pressures, from Zipporah and/or Jethro (his father-in-law).  They were Midianites and thus probably ‘outsiders’ to circumcision.  Zipporah`s harsh reaction in 4:25 seems to indicate that the whole thing is arcane, disgusting, strange or unnecessary to her.  But Moses is not an outsider to circumcision; he must know it’s a required sign of his participation in the Abrahamic covenant with Yahweh – the God his mother no doubt taught him about, the God he met personally in Midian at the burning bush.

Therefore, there is an implicit disobedience being exposed in this story.  And that begins to explain the seeming blindside God gives Moses as he travels from Midian to Egypt to challenge Pharaoh.  What if this is no blind side at all?  What if this is the culmination of a long standing tension between Moses and God and perhaps also between Moses and his in-laws?  What if Moses has not circumcised his sons, to please his in-laws ahead of pleasing God?  A God whose character and laws he is going to represent to the world in very short order!  And yet he, the law giver, hasn’t obeyed the first, most simple law!?

It’s like a preacher getting ready to go on a church planting tour and he’s never been baptized himself!  Or he’s never explained the gospel to his own family! 

Now, the weird thing is, Zipporah knows God is about to take his life for this offense.  So Moses’ predicament can’t be a private revelation known only to himself.  Somehow, Zipporah knows that Moses is on death’s door.  And she also seems to know immediately what will turn away the curse.  This is interesting because it probably mitigates the horror we feel that God “sought to kill” the very man he, moments ago, chose graciously to be his instrument of liberation.  We should ask, how does she know Moses life is in danger?  How does she know it’s God who is threatening that life?  And how does she know what to do about it?

I would suggest, all this implies that God had not made a verbal confrontation with Moses (as he had at the burning bush), but that perhaps Moses had become deathly ill on the journey.  The English says “God confronted him” which sounds like a harsh, physical fight, or a private threat.  But the Hebrew word simply means “came in contact with” – pagash.  So “confront” is not a bad translation, but I think we can put out of mind any kind of physical fight like the one between Jacob and the Angel.  There’s no record of any words spoken in this confrontation.

Instead, a circumstance like a deathly illness would clearly be interpreted by them both as the hand of God and not some random event – especially since they were on such a great mission directly from God.  So perhaps Zipporah might have asked Moses why God was seemingly against them.  It might have been that Moses might then have confessed the problem:  “I haven’t done the simplest act of obedience to the Lord and his hand is against me.”

There’s a subtle but important difference if we view the events unfolding like this.  To read that God sought to kill Moses, seems like God would off him for what we think of as a minor misdemeanor, meanwhile jeopardizing the much more important mission of liberating the Israelites without a care for either.  But what if the situation was more like Jonah?  The storm is a threat and directly allowed by God, and it was potentially deadly.  And Jonah knows it’s deadliness is directed at him (Jonah 1:5).  It looks to Jonah and the men of the boat that God has come to kill the negligent prophet.  But no matter what it looks like in the short term lens, we know God has great plans for Jonah and the deadly storm will not end in death, and killing Jonah was never the point.

So likewise, here in Exodus, if circumstances came about which were potentially deadly, and were interpreted as discipline from God, the ancient author might look at the potential end (death) and speak of it as the end God was seeking.  But in reality it merely would be the threat of death which God wanted, in order to bring about change in Moses, before his great calling could come to pass.  The end of the story proves the threat of death was God’s true aim, not to actually kill the man he has just commissioned.

So, if you are Zipporah and the threat of the death of your husband is before you, and he, (or you by some revelation) are told that disobedience in circumcision is the cause, you might feel manipulated!  Especially if it’s your resistance to the rite which you know is the reason Moses hasn’t performed it on his sons.  “You’re going to die unless we do this repulsive thing?  Great!”  But now, what choice does she have?  So in anger she does the deed – is none too happy about it judging by her comment in verse 25!

You might ask why, if Moses knows the problem, can’t he fix it himself?  Well, this is another reason to presume a deathly illness has fallen on him that they interpret as God’s death threat: if he’s literally on death’s door, he can’t do it himself… so she has to.  Then, she brings the evidence and throws it at his feet with her comment about him being a “bridegroom of blood”.  In other words, “you have become a husband who required of me a strange, bloody sacrifice to keep you alive.”  The threatening plague (or whatever it was) lifts, Moses is healed, and off he goes to his greater mission, having finally (by force!) taken care of business at home – his first mission.

Now, regarding her phrase, “bridegroom of blood…” one scholar I read had a much softer and more romantic interpretation.  He also speculates that Moses has somehow come under a curse, an illness perhaps… but he says that it is Zipporah alone who is given insight from God as to the reason for this plague or curse of imminent death.  She is therefore heartbroken at the potential of losing her husband, and also that there is a standing offense against God in their home!

So, resolutely, she circumcises their son, and she touches Moses feet with the foreskin to associate the act with the father.  Not in spite or anger (the more natural reading), but rather as a request to God to graciously accept it as coming from Moses whose responsibility it should have been to do it.   All of this is an act of servanthood and love on her part.

But what about her comment, “Bridegroom of blood”?  This interpreter said it was a way of saying, “you were on death’s door, you were lost to me, but now, by this blood, its like you were given to me all over again, my ‘bridegroom of blood’.”  In other words, it’s a reference to her gratitude in getting Moses back from the dead, “From Blood (Death), a Groom!”.  Or yet another way: her marriage was threatened with termination but it’s renewed through blood and she’s relieved and happy to have her husband back.

This second view is a much nicer way to read Zipporah’s attitude, certainly!  She’s a loving wife who hears God, takes action, and saves the day and is thrilled with her husband’s recovery vs. begrudging rescuer not at all thrilled with her man.

But either way, the passage has this to say:  Moses has clearly been disobedient about ‘first things first’.  So you can see that this strange little story contains a profound lesson for ministers of the gospel needing to attend to their first ministry before they ever seek to venture into their larger Kingdom callings.  As Paul says to Timothy, when examining potential elders – make sure their “house is in order” first.