Exodus 4:24-26 – a difficult passage

I was doing my “read through the Bible in a year” reading in the Dr’s office earlier today (turns out I have bronchitis and not the flu). I ended up reading two days’ worth of chapters, which included God calling Moses going to great lengths to persuade Moses that He would enable him to do the job He was calling him to do (chapters 3 and 4). Immediately after the narrative finally has Moses starting off in the direction of Egypt, we encounter these verses:

Ex 4:24 At a lodging place on the way(Y) the LORD met him and(Z) sought to put him to death. 25 Then(AA) Zipporah took a(AB) flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’[c] 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)

I really don’t recall reading these verses before – and I sat there and puzzled over them for a while before checking JF&B and Matthew Henry (both of which I have loaded as commentaries using Pocket e-Sword). After all that work God went through to convince Moses that He would see him through the task He set before him, God sought to put Moses to death?? And apparently Zipporah (Moses’ Midianite wife) chose that time to circumcise one of their sons – apparently on the road and quite unwillingly – and that caused God to stop seeking to kill Moses? Whaaat?

Here’s what MH has to say about this passage:

Moses is here going to Egypt, and we are told, I. How God met him in anger, v. 24–26. This is a very difficult passage of story; much has been written, and excellently written, to make it intelligible; we will try to make it improving. Here is, 1. The sin of Moses, which was neglecting to circumcise his son. This was probably the effect of his being unequally yoked with a Midianite, who was too indulgent of her child, while Moses was too indulgent of her. Note, (1.) We have need to watch carefully over our own hearts, lest fondness for any relation prevail above our love to God, and take us off from our duty to him. It is charged upon Eli that he honoured his sons more than God (1 Sa. 2:29); and see Mt. 10:37. (2.) Even good men are apt to cool in their zeal for God and duty when they have long been deprived of the society of the faithful: solitude has its advantages, but they seldom counterbalance the loss of Christian communion. 2. God’s displeasure against him. He met him, and, probably by a sword in an angel’s hand, sought to kill him. This was a great change; very lately God was conversing with him, and lodging a trust in him, as a friend; and now he is coming forth against him as an enemy. Note, (1.) Omissions are sins, and must come into judgment, and particularly the contempt and neglect of the seals of the covenant; for it is a sign that we undervalue the promises of the covenant, and are displeased with the conditions of it. He that has made a bargain, and is not willing to seal and ratify it, one may justly suspect, neither likes it nor designs to stand to it. (2.) God takes notice of, and is much displeased with, the sins of his own people. If they neglect their duty, let them expect to hear of it by their consciences, and perhaps to feel from it by cross providences: for this cause many are sick and weak, as some think Moses was here. 3. The speedy performance of the duty for the neglect of which God had now a controversy with him. His son must be circumcised; Moses is unable to circumcise him; therefore, in this case of necessity, Zipporah does it, whether with passionate words (expressing her dislike of the ordinance itself, or at least the administration of it to so young a child, and in a journey), as to me it seems, or with proper words—solemnly expressing the espousal of the child to God by the covenant of circumcision (as some read it) or her thankfulness to God for sparing her husband, giving him a new life, and thereby giving her, as it were, a new marriage to him, upon her circumcising her son (as others read it)—I cannot determine: but we learn, (1.) That when God discovers to us what is amiss in our lives we must give all diligence to amend it speedily, and particularly return to the duties we have neglected. (2.) The putting away of our sins is indispensably necessary to the removal of God’s judgements. This is the voice of every rod, it calls to us to return to him that smites us. 4. The release of Moses thereupon: So he let him go; the distemper went off, the destroying angel withdrew, and all was well: only Zipporah cannot forget the fright she was in, but will unreasonably call Moses a bloody husband, because he obliged her to circumcise the child; and, upon this occasion (it is probable), he sent them back to his father-in-law, that they might not create him any further uneasiness. Note, (1.) When we return to God in a way of duty he will return to us in a way of mercy; take away the cause, and the effect will cease. (2.) We must resolve to bear it patiently, if our zeal for God and his institutions be misinterpreted and discouraged by some that should understand themselves, and us, and their duty, better, as David’s zeal was misinterpreted by Michal; but if this be to be vile, if this be to be bloody, we must be yet more so. (3.) When we have any special service to do for God we should remove as far from us as we can that which is likely to be our hindrance. Let the dead bury their dead, but follow thou me.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who found this passage difficult! But what MH summarizes and tries to explain makes a lot of sense – though some of it obviously has to be inferred from basic principle, there being so little direct explanation in the narrative itself. And it contains some good points concerning the effects of sin, and what our priorities ought to be – see especially his very last point…

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16 Comments

  1. Thanks Lee, I’m doing the same thing- reading the bible in a year and just bumped into this verse myself. My mom is a bit ahead of me and read it yesterday- she asked me about it today. I was puzzled too and was only able to guess it was the sin of not circumsizing the child- but this explanation is more in depth and very helpful.

  2. Maria – hey, that’s great! I hadn’t even thought about other people starting similar “through the Bible in a year” programs and hitting those same verses at the same time 🙂 I’m glad the quote was helpful to you – and hopefully your mom as well!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Lee,
    We too, are studying the Bible in a year, and there are some members in our group who seem to think that God was going to kill the child, because of Moses’ ignorance about the custom and covenant of circumcision of all first born male children. I did not, and still do not get the same interpretation as the rest. Maybe Moses’ knowledge of his Hebrew custom and covenant with God is limited due to his growing up in the ways of the Egyptians. I have looked at a couple of different version, and still, I get the same interpretation that it was Moses that God was going to kill, and not that of the child.

  4. Darrick – good point about Moses being raised with the Egyptians – though I think it unlikely that he would be that unfamiliar with the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham… I think the plainest reading of verse 24 says that God intended to kill Moses rather than his son. (Though I can see why someone might think that God was going to kill the child, particularly since God had just informed Moses of the lengths He would have to go to in order to convince Pharaoh to release His people – i.e., the 10th plague…)

    For what it’s worth, see the Amplified translation for this passage along with footnote [a] for verse 25.

  5. Darrick – if you’re still following this thread, look at this passage in Joshua:

    Joshua 5:2 At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time.” 3 So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. 4 And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died in the wilderness on the way after they had come out of Egypt. 5 Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. 6 For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the men of war who came out of Egypt, perished, because they did not obey the voice of the LORD; the LORD swore to them that he would not let them see the land that the LORD had sworn to their fathers to give to us, a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised. For they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way.

    8 When the circumcising of the whole nation was finished, they remained in their places in the camp until they were healed. 9 And the LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day. (ESV)

    So we can see that there is indeed precedent for outright disobedience with respect to circumcision in the time of Moses – and that the people knew full-well what they were doing!

  6. HOw could Moses lead God’s covenant people (the sign of which was circumcision) if his own son had not received the sign? Those in leadership must practice what they preach.

  7. Dave – True. And that just reinforce the position that God must have been seeking to kill Moses…

  8. The passage is upsetting. However, since when do we just go and re-write the Bible to suite our sensibility? I don’t know why God would kill Moses, and it disturbs me that the authors did not clearify this. Assuaging Gods anger is easier to reconcile as it is a consistent theme of Biblical narritive.

  9. Feet in the OT is sometimes a euphemism for the male appendage. Some translations use the word member instead of feet. If this is correct then the passage takes on a new meaning. The male sex organ bled at ciricumcision thus proving the blood for the covenant bteween God and that male. The marriage covenant made between a male and his wife is forged by the blood from the female’s sex organ also, to the male via the heyman on to the male’s sex organ. If Zipporah was not a virgin Moses should not have married her because of the impending Levitical Laws which state that a priest had to marry a virgin so that the marriage could be sealed as a true covenant by blood. This is why Zipporah touched his male organ with the closest thing she could use that could signify a blood covenant. This is why she called him a Bridegroom of blood because on her wedding night she was not a virgin and by touching him with the blood of cicumcision he was now a bridegroom of blood.

  10. Savas – first, I hope you had a wonderful celebration of Christ’s birth yesterday!

    Second, thank you for your comment – it is certainly thought provoking! I had to do some digging to find any corroboration (*) for it – what are your sources? I only found one translation (out of 30+) which indicated that this euphemism was in operation here – The Message, which is pretty far out there in terms of dynamic equivalency… Is there another translation that supports this view?

    (*) So far, I’ve only found sources which simply state something like “regel is a euphemism for the male sexual organ”, with no citations. I have found no commentary which alludes to this (I’ve looked in a dozen or so). Furthermore, the 2-3 sites I found which quote rabbinical sources did not say anything about this euphemism.

  11. I have been appointed a Sunday School teacher and had got stuck. Thanks to the explanation. I will approach God and my class with confidence.

    • Lovemore,

      Praise God!

      If you’re following this post still, how did your Sunday School lesson go?

      Blessings,
      Lee

  12. Thank you! Jan 18 2012 and this is still a helpful and relevant post. What struck me most today as I thought about this passage was the way ‘domestic strain’ and disunity in a marriage can seriously hinder our service for God. How important it is to respect and help each other in obeying God, no matter how much it costs us, or how much we don’t naturally like the path God lays out to us. Likely it will involve ‘dying to self’ in many different ways in order to maintain/create the sort of unity that knows God’s blessing as we serve him together.

    I’m not convinced Moses sent Zipphorah home to Midian at this point.. it seems they were getting onto the same page through obedience to the sign of the covenant, and thus their differences reduced?…

    • You’re welcome, Ruth – thanks for your comment! It’s a great application of this passage, and very timely for me to read, let’s just say… (God’s timing is incredible, isn’t it?)

      In terms of the timing of Moses sending Zipporah home – I don’t think there’s anything in the narrative that directly connects this passage with Exodus 18:2, though I suppose there may be some Rabbinical traditional which states that Moses sent her home because of this incident – is that what you’re referring to?

      • Ah, I see. Somewhere between here 4.26 and 18.2 she did get back to Midian. But the Scripture seems silent on when and how, and under what circumstances. Intriguing. I’ve not read up on Rabbinical tradition/teaching, and here MHC hints that she may have been sent home early ‘that they might not create him any further uneasiness’ – but sending her back to Midian may equally have been to protect her and the children from the pressures that lay ahead of Moses, so an act of mercy and love. We are left to imagine, and wonder. Just like Jesus’ parables, God’s word can sometimes speak loudest to our hearts through ‘the hidden things’ He gives us to mull over. Matt 13:35. Bless you, Lee. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Ruth,

    I should have read the MH quote more carefully earlier! I just scanned it, and I missed the part where he talks about them being sent home. I have found that some of the older commentaries I use do occasionally reference Rabbinical writings, though I don’t recall offhand if I’ve ever seen MH explicitly do so. (That’s been my only exposure to them so far.)

    Indeed – “the hidden things”! Thanks again for stopping by, and blessings to you, too!


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