At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. (Exo 4:24-25)
This is a stunning interruption to the narrative. One moment God is calling Moses towards his destiny as Israel’s deliverer; the next moment God is trying to kill him because he neglected to “snip the tip”! It’s stories like this that give God a reputation as a bipolar deity, all happy and loving one moment but furious and smiting the next.
So what is going on here? Why did the Lord try to kill Moses?
This is a good question that has attracted plenty of wrong answers:
Wrong answer 1: Moses broke the law. The law hadn’t yet been given. Sinai was still in the future.
Wrong answer 2: Moses was sinning. So were plenty of others yet God didn’t try to kill them.
Wrong answer 3: It was a test – Moses had to prove himself faithful with his own house before he could be entrusted with the house of Israel. In that case, why didn’t God just say, “Circumcise your son”? Why go all-Rambo on him? God had great plans for Moses. What could he gain by killing him?
Remember that Israel, at that time, was living under the grace-based covenant of Abraham. God had chosen to bless Israel for no reason other than they were Abraham’s descendents (see Gen 12:1-3). All the rules and conditions of the law-based covenant came later.
And yet, circumcision was an important part of that grace-based covenant. Here’s God talking to Abraham about it:
Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Gen 17:14)
These are strong words. To be “cut off” doesn’t mean excommunicated; it means rubbed out, knocked off, eliminated. So circumcision was a serious business long before Mt. Sinai and this wayside event with Moses seems to confirm that.
Excess baggage checked here
Before we try and make sense of this passage, it will help if we remove some of the baggage that often comes with this story. Just to clarify:
1. There is no evidence that Moses was confronted by an angel with a sword. This is how Wesley reads it but it is unsupported by scripture. It’s possible that Moses simply got very sick and concluded that this was a sign of the Lord’s displeasure. Remember, Moses wrote the book of Exodus. This is his version of the events and we need to distinguish the facts (“I nearly died”) from his interpretation of those facts (“God tried to kill me”).
2. God didn’t try to kill Moses. Trust me, if God wanted to kill you, he’d just kill you. There’s nothing you could do to stop him. But as Jesus and the New Testament writers revealed, God is not a killer (John 10:10, 2 Pet 3:9). Those who lived before Christ were often confused about this which is why guys like Samuel would have us believe that God kills babies, even though he doesn’t. If God had acted to kill Moses, he would be contradicting his earlier promise to be with him in Egypt. God doesn’t call you then kill you.
So the facts are these: Moses neglected to circumcise one of his sons, he began to die as a result, and death was only averted when the circumcision finally took place. So this isn’t about sin, obedience, or a double-minded-God-with-a-sword; it’s about the significance of circumcision.
The real question is this: Why did Moses nearly die when he neglected to circumcise his son?
Here’s my take on this passage: It’s a prophetic picture. It’s an Old Testament shadow of a New Testament reality. It’s a role play that shows what happens to all who refuse the Lord’s circumcision.
This has nothing to do with foreskins and everything to do with faith. But don’t take my word for it; here’s Paul writing to the Colossian Christians:
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses (Col 2:11-13, NKJV)
The Israelites of old distinguished the circumcised from the uncircumcised but this was just a shadow. The reality is found in Christ. At the end of the day there will only ever be two kinds of people:
1. those “dead in their trespasses and the uncircumcision of their flesh” (Col 2:13)
2. those who are the “circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11)
Paul is saying, “At one time you were in the first group, uncircumcised and as good as dead. But when you put your faith in Jesus you crossed over from death row to new life and now you’re in the second group.”
A smiting Lord?
Does God go around killing uncircumcised people (i.e., unbelievers)? No. They kill themselves through their unbelief.
When God told Abraham that those who refused circumcision would be cut off, he wasn’t making a threat but stating a fact. If you cut yourself off from the Tree of Life, you will die. This isn’t God’s punishment; it’s cause and effect, choice and consequence. “Eat from the wrong tree, Adam, and you will surely die.”
The worst way to read the Exodus passage is to think if we don’t circumcise ourselves, God will be angry with us and kill us. Don’t you see? You can’t circumcise yourself. Circumcision is not something you ever do to yourself; it’s something that’s done to you. Israelite boys were always circumcised on the eighth day. They weren’t circumcised in their teenage years, like boys in other cultures, but when they were helpless infants incapable of wielding the knife. This is significant for us: circumcision happens at birth.
Two healthy takeaways
The right way to read Exodus 4:24-25 is through Pauline eyes. Paul emphasizes two things: (1) Abraham was blessed before he was circumcised (Rom 4:10) and (2) our circumcision is not done at the hands of man. This leads to two takeaways:
1. We have been blessed by God through Jesus Christ. These blessings were poured out on us 2000 years ago, long before we were saved. There is nothing we can do today to cause God to bless us tomorrow; he has already blessed us. All we can do is receive his blessings by faith, as Abraham did, or reject them through unbelief. To reject the gift of life that Jesus offers is to cut yourself off from the only hope we have – not a good idea.
2. There is no imperative other than the one Jesus preaches: Believe the good news. Don’t go around trying to cut off the sinful nature – you just can’t do it. In the history of the world no eight-day-old boy ever managed to circumcise himself and no sinner ever managed to save himself. Trust Jesus. In Him you are circumcised. It’s a done deal – the old has gone, the new has come. How did this happen? You don’t need to know how; you just need to believe that it has happened and that Christ has done it all.
Read the Old Testament without a revelation of Jesus and you’ll come away with a bunch of scary stories that seem to reveal a scary God who smites people while they’re traveling with small children. But read the written word through the lens of the Living Word and you will find these amazing prophetic pictures and dramas that are all fulfilled in Christ.