Moses was eighty years old. He had just stood in awe before the bush that burned but was not consumed, and had received instructions from the Angel of the Lord to appear before the Pharaoh of Egypt and command him in the name of the Great I Am to release the Hebrews from their bondage. After some deliberation and hesitation, Moses accepted the mission, and immediately began making preparations. He obtained permission from his father-in-law to return to Egypt with his family, then packed up his wife and two sons and headed south. It seems they had not gone far, perhaps only the first day’s journey, when a peculiar circumstance arose. As they made arrangements to sleep for the night, the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him (Exodus 4:24). In response to this turn of events, Moses’ wife Zipporah circumcised their uncircumcised son and threw the foreskin at his feet, screaming, “You are a husband of blood!” After this, the Lord “let him go” (4:26).
This story is particularly difficult to understand because of its brevity, and the unusual wording of verse 24: “The Lord sought to kill Moses.” Though the phrasing of the verse may elicit dark images of God slinking about the encampment, waiting to ambush Moses, the fact that God would kill someone is not unusual in other contexts. The wicked were slain by God in the Great Flood because of their violent and ungodly actions (Genesis 6:1-7). The Lord killed Er and Onan, two of Judah’s sons, because of their overt rebellion (Genesis 38:7,10). In Moses’ later years, God would legislate the death penalty for those guilty of disobeying certain laws (Leviticus 20). In these instances and many more, God “killed” a person or persons, albeit indirectly. In Exodus 4, we can be assured that Moses was afflicted because he was guilty of some sin, since disobedience is the only act God punishes with death.
The sin of Moses is not stated explicitly, but the surrounding events give substantial clues as to the nature of Moses’ transgression. God had instructed his messenger to warn Pharaoh to free Israel, or risk losing his firstborn son (Exodus 4:21-23). Moses had been specially groomed by God for eighty years for this mission, and now the time for action had come. Moses was to lead his people out of Egypt, and to be an example to Pharaoh’s house, to the nation of Egypt, and to all the nations that heard of those happenings (Exodus 18:10-11; Joshua 2:10-11). Accordingly, Moses’ personal life had to be in order before he could direct the spiritual lives of the Hebrew people. It seems that Moses had neglected to administer the sacred rite of circumcision, the act that symbolized the Almighty’s covenant with His chosen people. Perhaps this was the result of pressure from his surrogate Midianite tribe; more likely he was persuaded by Zipporah not to circumcise his son, since she apparently found the practice revolting (4:25). This would explain her violent outburst; she felt that she had saved her husband from death by shedding the blood of her son. Whatever the cause, Moses’ outstanding sin made him unfit to serve as a spiritual leader, and the situation had to be rectified before he could carry out his mission effectively. Indeed, as soon as Zipporah performed the act, the Lord “let him go.”
Though the details of this mysterious story are absent, the underlying message is plain. Disobedience, whether by acts of omission or commission, result only in punishment and ultimately death.
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