If you were to make a short list of the strangest paragraphs in the Bible, Exodus 4:24–26 would almost certainly be on it. Moses has just met God at the burning bush and been given an exalted commission: go and speak to Pharaoh, and serve as God’s agent for the redemption of his people. He’s been called and equipped with miraculous powers, and now he begins to move out in fulfillment of his mission.
We’re not prepared for what comes next:
At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision (Ex. 4:24–26).
What in the world is that all about?
Besides being unexpected, the text is difficult to make sense of because of the obscurity of the language. For example, it isn’t clear who “him” is in verse 24. Is it Moses or his son Gershom? We’re also not entirely sure who or what Zipporah touched with the foreskin of Gershom in verse 25; the ESV adds the word “Moses,” but that word is not in the Hebrew text.
And there are cultural obscurities equally hard to penetrate. The drama of the text seems to be driven by the disparity between the Midianite traditions surrounding circumcision and the Hebrew traditions as dictated to Abraham in Genesis 17. Given that we don’t have access to the Midianite traditions, reading Exodus 4:24–26 is a bit like listening to one half of a phone conversation.
Our best reconstruction is as follows.
Understanding What Happened
As Moses and his family were traveling from Midian to Egypt, God somehow arrested them and assaulted Moses (Moses is probably the “him” in verse 24). Perhaps Moses had a seizure or became suddenly ill; we aren’t sure precisely how this attack was carried out. We know his wife Zipporah understood immediately what was going on, and we can also infer that the attack was slow-acting enough for her to respond in some sort of atoning way. This suggests that the attack was never intended to be fatal. It was a warning, and it produced the intended result.
The main human actor in the story is Zipporah. Moses was incapacitated by the divine attack and Gershom was a child. That Zipporah knew precisely what to do in order to appease the Lord’s anger suggests that this wasn’t the first time she and Moses had discussed the issue of Gershom’s circumcision.
That Zipporah knew precisely what to do in order to appease the Lord’s anger suggests that this wasn’t the first time she and Moses had discussed the issue of Gershom’s circumcision.
Here our reconstruction is complicated by limited understanding of the Midianite ritual. Many historians suggest that the Midianites conducted the ritual just prior to the ceremony of marriage. Once a young man was betrothed, he’d undergo circumcision, followed by a time of recuperation, after which he’d marry his wife and consummate the marital union.
If that understanding is correct, then it would seem that Moses had effectively raised his son as a Midianite. He hadn’t circumcised him on the eighth day as God had commanded Abraham and all his descendants to do (Gen. 21:4). Perhaps Moses had deferred to Midianite customs out of respect for his father-in-law Jethro. The fact that God deals directly with Zipporah, however, suggests that she had been part of the reason for this inappropriate delay.
It would seem that Moses had effectively raised his son as a Midianite. He hadn’t circumcised him on the eighth day as God had commanded Abraham and all of his descendants to do.
Perhaps realizing this, Zipporah immediately takes the flint knife and circumcises Gershom, thus breaking with Midianite custom. With Moses incapacitated, however, she has no option but to perform the ritual the way she was familiar with. She takes the bloody foreskin and marks the child with it. Again, the word “Moses” isn’t in the Hebrew text of verse 25. Translators and commentators must therefore decide whether she is touching Moses or Gershom with the foreskin. It seems better to assume that touching the child was part of the Midianite ritual. As Douglas Stuart notes:
Zipporah touched the foreskin of Gershom to Gershom’s genitals from which it had been removed. “Feet” is one of the Hebrew euphemisms for genitals. She thus had physically circumcised Gershom, then immediately she symbolically used the removed foreskin to touch Gershom’s genitals and said the “right words.”
The ESV then has Zipporah saying, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” (Ex. 4:25). However, the word translated as “bridegroom” equally means “kinsman.” Whether you translate it as “bridegroom” or “kinsman” is determined entirely by whether you believe she’s touching the foreskin to Moses or Gershom. It seems more likely that touching the young male with the foreskin made sense in the Midianite ritual. It was a way of saying: “By this blood and through this ritual you join and extend the family.”
God accepts the use of these words as an indication that the act was done in faith and obedience—and the story proceeds on from there.
Two Practical Takeaways
If our reconstruction is correct, then two lessons are suggested by the narrative.
1. Leadership Begins at Home
Moses, God’s chosen leader, had thus far declined to follow God’s instructions regarding circumcision. Keil and Delitzsche remark, “But if Moses was to carry out the divine commission with success, he must first of all prove himself to be a faithful servant of Jehovah in his own house.” If you’re going to step out as a leader of God’s people then you’d better be leading your own family. Get yourself sorted out, and get your wife and yourself on the same page, before you attempt to function as any kind of leader or officer in the Lord’s house.
If you’re going to step out as a leader of God’s people then you’d better be leading your own family.
We see the same thing in the New Testament. Regarding the qualifications for a church elder, the apostle Paul says, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4–5).
If a man isn’t leading his own house in the Lord’s ways, then he isn’t qualified to lead the congregation. This doesn’t mean perfection, but it does mean effort, courage, and attention to basics within the home.
2. Faith Makes an Ordinance Effectual
Zipporah used words and actions more associated with Midianite practices than with Hebrew when it came to the circumcision of her son. She had limited options given the urgency of the situation and the incapacitation of her husband. Nevertheless, God accepted her version of the ritual because it was done in humility and faith.
The same sentiment appears in the New Testament with respect to the sacrament of baptism. Commenting on the analogous relationship between our salvation and the salvation affected for and through Noah, Peter states that it’s not the mere ritual of baptism that saves us, but rather “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21).
If the act of baptism represents our appeal in faith to God for justification and absolution through the work of Jesus Christ, then it is effective. Not because we say magic words, and not because we use magic water, but because the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is itself powerful and effectual unto salvation.
Of course that doesn’t mean we should be sloppy in our practice of the ordinances. Zipporah wasn’t sloppy; she was ignorant. And ignorance, if it be paired with faith, is typically met with mercy. Thanks be to God!