Question: “Who was God going to kill in Exodus 4:24-26?”
Exodus 4:24-26: 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.
This is a very difficult text. Who God sought to kill and why is not stated explicitly. In his comments on the book of Exodus, Jeffrey H. Tigay introduces Exodus 4:24-26 by remarking, “This episode...is extraordinarily puzzling because the motive for God’s attack is unclear, the pronouns are equivocal, and Zipporah’s remarks are enigmatic.”[i] How true! God has commanded Moses to go back to Egypt and tell Pharoah, “Let my son [Israel] go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.” What follows next seems rather abrupt and shocking.
The most common interpretation seems to be:
Moses had not yet circumcised one of his sons. At a rest stop on the way to Egypt God struck Moses will sickness for neglecting the sign of the covenant. Zipporah (and perhaps Moses) perceived the illness was a result of this neglect and she circumcised the boy. After that God recovered Moses from his illness that he might go on to Egypt.[ii]
Immediately preceding the incident we find God telling Moses to go to Egypt and tell Pharoah to let Israel go free. It concludes with Zipporah circumcising one of the sons. Immediately following the incident Moses meets Aaron in the wilderness and then they go to meet with the elders of Israel (before going to Pharaoh).
the Lord met him. Either Moses, Gershom, or Eliezer (his two sons, Exodus 18:3-4) are most likely the “him” of the passage – though a few have suggested Pharaoh’s son. Whomever the Lord met he also sought to kill.
Then Zipporah took a sharp stone. Related (apparently, by the connector “then”) to this in some way is Zipporah’s act to circumcise her son.
So he let him go. After the circumcision, someone let someone go – So he (the Lord, apparently) let him (whomever he sought to kill) go.
A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. Zipporah connects the blood and circumcision with seeming disgust – though why she is disgusted is not so apparent.[iii] Some suggest that the Midianites did not practice it, but the fact that (1) the Midianites were descendants of Abraham through his second wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2), and that (2) Zipporah knew how to circumcise the boy, militate against that conclusion. The disgust might rather toward Moses for her having to do what he already should have done.
Genesis 17:9-14 describes God establishing the covenant of circumcision with Abraham.
- The covenant was between God, Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (17:9-11).
- Every male child, whether born of them or of their servants, was to be circumcised (17:12-13).
- Every male child was to be circumcised when eight days old (17:12-13).
- The uncircumcised male child was to cut off from his people, having broken the covenant (17:14).
The phrase “cut off from his people” from Genesis 17:14 is severe and used several times in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers (about 17 times). But the punishment seems to always be exclusion from the covenant rather than death – and God exhibited mercy to all the children who had not been circumcised during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Compare Joshua 5:4-9.
There are some recurring themes in the context that are intriguing and suggestive, though not determinative.
- Seeking someone’s life: v. 19 with v. 24 “Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.” | “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.”
- The “sons” motif: verses 20, 22, 23, 25- 26 “Moses took his wife and his sons” | “Israel is my son, even my firstborn” | “Let my son go” | “I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn” | “Zipporah...cut off the foreskin of her son” | “So he let him go”
After all this I have not satisfactorily answered the question, and have many unanswered questions myself. How and why did God seek to kill this person? I don’t know; he just did. Why did Zipporah perform the circumcision? I don’t know, but she – rather than Moses – did it? Which son was involved? We know Moses had two sons. I don’t know which; we are not told. What do Zipporah’s words “a bloody husband” mean? I don’t know, other than that it was because of the circumcision.
Difficult texts such as Exodus 4:24-26 teach us humility and patience. We should not skip over or dismiss texts just because they are difficult. But when we engage them, a good dose of humility will serve us in good stead. The short sentence “I don’t know” is often the best and most honest answer. Coupled with humility, patience is another exegetical virtue. Our interpretations of difficult texts (and others as well) can be tentative – accepting what we do know about them and seeking God for greater light on what we don’t know. Sometimes interpretations must be amended, advanced or even abandoned. Persons who never change what they believe are either not learning or they already know everything! Perhaps our greatest insight at times is the discipline of study itself rather than the grand analysis we think we’ve accomplished.
[i] The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation of the Jewish Publication Society, Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 113
[ii] There are all sorts of variations on this basic story.
[iii] In “Another Look at Zipporah and Her ‘Bloody Husband’ (Exodus 4:24-26)” Bob Hayton references the unique and intriguing view of Duane A. Garrett in A Commentary on Exodus. Nevertheless it requires reinterpreting Zipporah saying, “You are hatan damim (a member of my community by virtue of the blood of circumcision)” about the child rather than to Moses. I am aware of none who translate the term that way. (Duane A. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus, Kregel Exegetical Library, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013, pp. 225-226)