Since January 1st many of us at EBC have been reading Scripture according to a plan that will get us through the whole Bible in 2 years. For some, this may be the first time they have ever read through the entire book, and they may even be surprised by some of the things they find. It’s no secret that the Bible contains numerous passages which are difficult to understand, and others which are plain enough but are not easily brought forward to the present day for application in our lives. As a pastor, I look forward to getting questions about these verses, even though they may be difficult to answer, because it shows that we are reading and thinking about God’s word. Even if we never fully understand everything we read in Scripture, we will certainly benefit from meditating on its truths. Recently, I received just such a question, and I’d like to share it today.
And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, 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 Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!” – because of the circumcision. -Exodus 4:24-26
What are we supposed to do with this little piece of Scripture? Not only is it strange to our modern ears, it isn’t entirely clear whom the Lord met and sought to kill, or why Zipporah performed this impromptu circumcision and where she put her son’s foreskin after it was completed (notice that the name Moses is in italics, indicating that it was supplied by the translators for clarity but is not present in the original Hebrew.) On the whole, this is one of those passages that most of us would just like to skip or at least ignore because it seems very crude and foreign and doesn’t seem to apply to us in any way. However, with a little bit of digging, we can come to a reasonable understanding of its meaning and even some valid application to ourselves.
First of all, this incident occurs when Moses and his family are heading down to Egypt to deliver God’s message to Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites, God’s covenant people, out to the land of Canaan which was to be theirs. The basis for God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf here in Exodus is the covenant promises he made to Abraham, and the sign of circumcision was an obligation of this covenant for every male descendant. In fact, the Lord had said that any son who was not circumcised on the 8th day would be “cut off from his people” because “he has broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:14). This means that Moses’ sons were supposed to be circumcised in obedience to God’s command and as a demonstration of his faith in God’s covenant with Abraham. However, apparently, this he had not done, at least to one of his sons.
As they paused their journey and made camp for the night, we are told that Yahweh himself met him and captured him in a death grip. The language here describes Moses being caught by the very hand of God; no doubt this was a theophany, an appearance of the Son of God in his pre-incarnate form. This kind of appearance is not without precedent, as we read of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of Yahweh and being surprised that he survived the encounter (Gen. 32:30). In order to save her husband, Zipporah quickly took a flint knife and circumcised her son, and afterward spoke in obvious anger at being forced to do something which she apparently found distasteful.
To whom did she speak? And what exactly did she do with her son’s newly removed foreskin? Well, those are questions of some debate. As we have understood it so far, the text may indicate that she spoke those words to Moses, as a kind of last word in their debate over the circumcision of their sons, and then touched his feet with the foreskin to emphasize that this was all his fault. But it may also be that she was saying this to the Lord himself and touching his feet with the foreskin as a sign that she had fulfilled what was required for him to release Moses from his death grip. Either way, Zipporah’s response shows that she circumcised her son unwillingly, as she remained defiant against this particular spiritual obligation, refusing to submit either to her husband or to Yahweh, and afterward, she and her sons left Moses and returned to her father’s house (cf. Ex. 18:1-6).
How do we apply this text to our own selves today? Gleason Archer, in his book New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties suggests that “since Moses had been appointed for a responsible role of leadership, he was duty bound to serve as a good example to the people of Israel and to show faithfulness to the covenant obligations inherited from Abraham.” In other words, as a leader of God’s people, it was imperative that Moses live in obedience to the stipulations of God’s covenant with them. Since he had not yet obeyed fully in circumcising both his sons, he was attempting to go forward in his role of leadership while neglecting this most fundamental point of obedience, and this could not stand. Great acts of service and dedication to God can be undone by small acts of disobedience, and so we must strive to be obedient in all things and not neglect those commands which we may find distasteful or difficult, even for the sake of “getting along.” Truly we can say with the apostle Paul that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable.”