Exodus 4:24-25

“Why did God try to kill Moses on the way to Egypt?” This question was recently put to me by a reader and it is based on the following passage:

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

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.

Exodus 4:24-25 was a bad day for Moses, but it is foreshadowed a good day for those who trust in Jesus.

Related posts:
- Exodus 4:11
- God doesn’t change; we do
- Does God give and take away?

Comments

  1. Awesome read, Paul! You’ve done well clarifying the confusing verses in Scriptures…thank you!

  2. Love it Paul. You have such a great way of showing truth from the Bible.

  3. Paul; absolutely stunning explanation! One of your best yet!

  4. Awesome revelation!

  5. Fred Parker says:

    WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY CONCERNING BAPTISM, CIRCUMCISION, OLD & NEW COVENANTS?…

  6. Great perspective on a hard to digest portion of scripture. Also, you gotta love the comic!

  7. Thanks for writing this article.
    The Bible is not a rule book, or a history book, or a religious book. It is a story book.
    When I tell a story, I include some details and leave out others, in order to make my point. If the ‘when’ is the point, I will include dates, but I may leave out the names of the people involved. If the ‘who’ is the point, I will include the names of the people, but I may not mention the dates.
    As you so aptly put it, the point of this story is not about God killing someone, the point is circumcision. Not because it is a religious requirement, but because it points to Jesus.
    Let us thank our heavenly Father for revealing the beauty of Jesus to us.

  8. Fiona Ogilvie says:

    Hi Paul, I read a lot of articles where people use the word “schizophrenic” as meaning split-personality. I just want to point out that’s not what it is. I think people who have schizophrenia would probably find it hard to read your article if you use the word wrongly and in such a negative way. Don’t mean to offend, just trying to help.
    Thanks Fiona

  9. Thanks Paul, one more aspect from the OT, which appears difficult at first, begins to make sense; God’s truth is our best medicine, and when we are open to receive, He gives in the right amount and at the right time.

  10. I think the first half of your answer is wrong. If the OT states that God was about to kill Moses then indeed that was what he was about to do. And that is simply a fact. Unless we are saying the OT is not entirely factual… We may not know or fully understand what is going on but that does not negate the facts of the OT account. That notwithstanding the second half of your argument where you essentially answer an un-asked question is spot on. Thanks & God Bless :)

    • Hi Jon, thanks for your comment. I believe the Bible to be Spirit-inspired but that does not mean I allow those in the Bible to contradict the revelation of God given to us through Jesus Christ. The written word can mislead us if we read it without a revelation of the Living Word.

      Taking the position that “everything in the Bible is literally true” is not only dangerous but impossible. Consider that the OT says that Moses saw God face-to-face (Ex 33:11) but the NT says no one has seen God but Jesus (John 1:18). Since these statements are directly contradictory, they cannot both be literally true. I have no doubt that Moses had an encounter with God, that he did “see” him in some amazing way. But the revelation of God that comes to us through Moses is nothing in comparison to that which comes through Jesus – as John says and so does Jesus himself (John 6:46).

      Moses said God came to take his life; Jesus said he came to give life and it is the thief who takes (John 10:10). Since God the Son is the express revelation of God the Father, it is inconceivable that one would act contrary to the other. As I say in the post, if God really wanted to kill you, he would. Unlike us he doesn’t “try” he just does. But the good news is that God is a Giver and a Lover not a thief and a destroyer. Jesus is right; Moses was, on this occasion, mistaken. Every person in the Bible except Jesus was mistaken at one time or another. It happens.

  11. i saw this verse, and the surrounding verses, as a picture and foreshadow of what is about to happen on the first passover in egypt… which is also a clear picture of Christ and what He would accomplish at the cross.
    i read it as the Lord sought to kill moses’ firstborn son – a picture of the final plague of egypt – the angel of death… and the wrath of God against the world’s sin that Jesus took upon Himself for us. the circumcision of moses’ son represents the blood sacrifice of the passover lamb – and Jesus – and the new covenant. God had just revealed to moses what was ultimately going to happen when he went to egypt… that pharaoh/egypt would refuse to let israel (His firstborn son) go, so He would bring death to egypt’s firstborn…. perhaps this revelation was fresh in zipporah’s mind…?

    i guess what caught my attention when i read these verses, wasn’t that the Lord sought to kill moses or his son, but that after the covenant of circumcision was performed, moses’ wife threw the foreskin at his feet (doesn’t actually say it was moses’ feet – so it could’ve been the Lord’s feet) and when she proclaims “you are a bloody husband to me!”… the Lord let him alone! this is just like the angel of death passing over the house of israel! what stands out to me the most is that “you are a bloody husband to me” is mentioned again – “because of the circumcision.” this is quite a clear picture of Jesus – the “cutting off” of the first born, the new covenant and the church’s relationship with Christ as our “bloody Husband”

    • ooh. just got some new insight on this…
      when the israelites were circumcised and celebrated passover in gilgal, before they entered the promised land in Joshua 5, God said “today i have rolled away the reproach of egypt from you” (vs 9)… reproach means condemnation… so it seems clear that the act of circumsision symbolically represents the removal of condemnation (which is why the Lord required it as part of His covenant with abraham and his descendants). in light of the verses above, condemation was literally thrown at the feet of moses (or the Lord) – which is indeed a picture of Jesus – Who took our condemnation! because condemnation brings death! (john 5:24 & rom 7:13)

  12. Francesco Ferrante says:

    Hey Paul. So when Moses wrote that “God sought to kill Moses” that Moses didn’t know what he was saying? Is this what you’re trying to say?

    • Francesco…. read his article again, as well as the comments above, he”s sufficiently addressed this.

      Thanks

  13. Alex Erway says:

    That was very helpful, Thank you! You really opened my eyes to a new perspective.

  14. Brother paul I was glad to find and read your divinely inspired explanation of this Scripture. Straight to Jesus. I’m blessed. Keep listening and posting. You are helping the brethern!

  15. THANK YOU JESUS, I found the answer here. PAUL thank u too, u r called according to GOD’S purpose.

  16. So, your solution is that Moses is a liar. Okay, but it makes the same doubt apply on the whole Pentateuch then. Congrats, great solution.

    • Better a lying Moses than a killing God.

      But I never said Moses lied. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, perhaps you could give us your take on the passage.

  17. Thanks for your insights, you’ve made your points clear and understandable. Good bless!

  18. chrisvanrooyen says:

    Jesus met Moses in front of three witnesses how can you believe that Moses died.

  19. Hi Paul,
    I was reading somewhere that in the Kjv it actually never says the name Moses but rather ‘him’ and because the previous versus were talking about Pharoahs son and the last plague that perhaps it was talking about God wanting to kill him (which eventually he did die) and that Zipporah circumcising the son wasthe start of a different story…your thoughts.

    • I think that interpretation is intriguing but a bit of a stretch. The KJV says the Lord met “him” at the inn. Was Pharaoh at the inn? And why would Zipporah invent circumcision – something she clearly wasn’t thrilled about – for no reason?

      • That’s what I was thinking, I’m pretty sure the Pharoah and his son would be within their own house…thanks for the quick reply, i just found EZR last night and have browsed through nearly every post, its amazing thank you!!

  20. Very well stated Brother Paul, especially seeing the significance of circumcision (it reveals the head – Christ). When the foreskin of sin is cut away on will see the head of our life which is and should be Christ

  21. Angelica says:

    Thanks for the clarification…it’s only thru the “blood “, were redeemed. The blood shed-covered Moses…just as a foreshadow of the blood Christ shed to cover us/cleanse us- to keep us from judgement. Only the blood of Jesus redeems us. By us taking a step of faith, n the finished work of His sacrifice.

  22. Really enjoyed your take and it really helped me through this passage. I do have a question though. I want to preface it with the fact that I dont think any of this matters to our faith in Jesus Christ. Here is my question: You stated that God is not a killer. I would like to believe that. But God is sovereign so he can be whom ever he pleases in certain circumstances, thoughts? If God is not a killer at certain times then how do you explain Soddom & Gomara? Or the Flood? If you believe these are only stories then obviously these questions are irrelevant and that it is only a story would be your answer. The last thing I would ever want to do is bring a comment to this board that tripped someone’s faith up so as I mentioned this is only meaningless chatter. I would love to hear your feedback.

    Thanks

    • That’s a good question Brent and I don’t have a good answer. But here’s my best answer anyway. I think we need to draw a big fat like between two points: (1) God doesn’t kill people – not ever – he loves them, and (2) prior to the cross there were some dramatic and prophetic pictures of judgment where God poured out his wrath on sin… and people got in the way. In other words, sin kills people and God kills sin.

      Why destroy the world with a flood? Well man had basically ruined it already. The earth was corrupt and full of violence. The damage done by man had gotten so bad that it threatened to scuttle God’s redemptive plan. God needed a virgin to carry his son and he needed a good man to raise him but we were running out of both. Plus, the time was not right. The law hadn’t been given. The prophets hadn’t spoken. If Jesus had come then the good news would not have had Roman roads to travel on. So mankind was basically messing things up for all of us. God waited until we were down to the last decent family before acting. The flood was bad news for them but, in a manner of speaking, good news for us.

      Why destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Because their sin was grievous and the outcry against them was so great (Gen 18:20). The people weren’t grievous, but their sin was. And look how God responds. He doesn’t fire long-distance nukes. He goes down there to see for himself. It’s like he’s looking for excuses not to do what must be done. So he comes in the flesh to Sodom and rescues righteous Lot – how is this not a prophetic picture of Jesus? So even in this judgment of sin there’s a lot of mercy there. Ninevah is another example like Sodom. It’s sin was grievous so God sent a man. Unlike Sodom they repented and were spared.

      One more thing: the destruction of Sodom was complete and total. The Sodomites are not still being tormented somewhere in the plains of Israel. This proves that God’s wrath is finite. Sin is not so great that God has to keep judging it and judging it. God is greater than sin. Jesus said the complete destruction of Sodom is a picture of the ultimate destruction of all ungodliness and unrighteousness (Luke 17:29-30).

      Anyway, this may not be a satisfactory answer, but it’s the best I’ve got.

  23. mrsqajones says:

    Thanks this really helped with my morning reading. May our Lord bless your ministry.

  24. mrsqajones says:

    Thanks for the help. I never recalled these few verse, and it left me stumped. I couldn’t move forward in peace until I read an explanation. Thank you and our Lord bless your ministry.

  25. Barry Gorsuch says:

    God is a Just Judge, Holy different than us, The Penalty of sin is death, apart from the saving grace of God. God killing two cities, flooding (killing) the world except Noah and his family, or killing Pharaoh’s first born… These are the actions of a Just God punishing sin justly. Moving to Exodus 4:24-26, the previous verses show God giving the condition for pharaoh to let Israel go, or “I will kill your first born son.” God is a just God, He has to be Just. Eventually He allowed for his own son, Jesus to be killed for the sake of Justice. This is grace, being given a gift not deserved (life not death).

    If pharaoh refuses, his son is killed. Is Moses refusing to do something? Is Zipporah a culprit in this as Moses’ wife and mother of the child?

    According to the text, she has an action and a phrase which she says at two different times.
    She cuts the flesh and touches “his” feet with it. (Moses feet, the child’s feet, or YHWH’s, we do not know). Who was the one demanding the circumcision? YHWH. Her emotional response communicated by “…a bridegroom of blood” is directed to Moses or YHWH. And it is possible that it is both. If she threw the flesh at Moses, the first comment was for Moses, the following verse (26) YHWH let him alone, then she repeats the phrase, possibly saying it to YHWH.

    God was demanding the circumcision of one of the boys. obedience brought a release of the death grip.

  26. The Holy Spirit lead me to this passage in Exodus 4. I am thankful for a revelation of the grace of God, so I can now go back and see this throughout the old testament. One cannot deny the love of God, when they see His grace. Even though Moses wife may have been against what God ordained, she could not deny it’s worth and value and love. Thank you.

  27. I think this is being interpreted wrong by everyone, and perhaps even a mistranslation or missing content. Thanks for the explaination, but it does not ring true for me. First because “Living word” or no “living word”, the bible says what it says. You can chose not to believe the story, but you can’t change it. It clearly says that God tried to kill someone on that night, and failed! Maybe he knew that he would fail but had a point to prove. Secondly God supposedly tries to kill Moses in the context of the first born being slain, but Moses was not the first born, so this interpretation of moses being the victim is clearly wrong.. Did God not sayeth thay he would be with him and be his mouth? Moses channels God with every miracle! When God says “i sayeth unto you” he is no longer relaying a message to the pharoah, he is directly telling Moses that he will kill his son if he does not obey and help free god’s children. When it says that god met moses, it doesnt have to mean he did so in the flesh. Maybe God possessed Moses and forced him to attempt killing his own son whom for lack of circumcision was unprotected and separated from his people. This was God’s way of assuring Mosses that he wasn’t bullshitting. All the non-hebrew, first born would die, even that of his own prophet! When god let Moses go, dispossesing him and he comes to, his wife explains to him what happened, why he is bloody. Maybe my interpretation is wrong but it’s based on what is actually written.

  28. Ana Vitorino says:

    What a blessing Paul. Thank u for this large sized nugget. You’ve blessed me greatly. May the Lord continue blessing you with His revelation and knowledge.

  29. Maurizio Pescatori says:

    My personal opinion: I disagree with those who force a New Testament interpretation of an Old Testament reading.
    On the other hand, considering the abundance of pronouns and that there are far too many translations from the original text (which was, according to aerchaeologists, written not in Hebrew, which did not exist yet, but either in akkadic or in the aramaic in the form which existed in 1500-2000BC) we can try a “detective’s read”:
    “…the Lord (better still, his Envoy, who acted under the authority of God) wanted to kill the uncircumcised son of Moses, who was called Gershom, because the Law given unto Abraham (circumcision of all males) had not been observed; Zipporah realized what was coming and quickly circumcised Gershom herself, casting the cut foresking to Moses – so that Moses could show it to the Lord/his Envoy, saving the boy at the last moment.”
    It makes sense, creates no contradictions and is also in line with the trial put upon Abraham to sacrifice his own son Isaac – saved at the last moment.
    As to those who claim “Moses was not circumcised”, this is a wrong opinion on two accounts: 1) Moses was an Israelite, and 2) all Egyptian royalty were circumcised (the Bible doesn’t say so but archaeology does).

  30. This was so helpful to me. I used biblegateway.com and read several versions of the scripture and one said God tried to kill and one said that Moses was very I’ll so maybe when folks are unsure of a certain scripture, they can read several versions is, King James, NIV, and The Message (my favorite), for further clarification.

    Thanks again. This was so insightful.

    Jill

  31. vd.martin says:

    Thank you for this, now I understand it better, almost passed through it not giving it much importance but i seek to understand The word of God a little more.

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