I bet you won’t hear a sermon preached on this!

As I pointed out in another post, Fundagelicals tend to skip over Bible verses that seem a bit inconvenient. The positive attitude towards sex and sexuality in Song of Songs doesn’t get a lot of play time on the Fundagelical preaching playlist. However, If you want an obscure bit of Bible weirdness, try Exodus 4:20-26.

“And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand. And the Lord said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn. And it came to pass by the way in the inn, 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 his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4:20-26, KJV)

Ummm… Ok. So, where shall we start with the questions?

  1. Who was God trying to kill? Moses? His Son?
  2. Why was God trying to kill whoever it was?
  3. God’s anger is appeased by circumcision? Really?
  4. Why did Zipporah do the circumcisn and not Moses?
  5. Do we want to discuss the whole euphemism about feet?
  6. Whose “feet” did she throw the foreskin at?
  7. What’s up with this bloody husband stuff?

In A Handbook on Exodus, Osborn and Hatten say, “These three verses are among the most difficult to translate in the entire book of Exodus. They record an ancient tradition about which we know very little. They raise questions that we cannot easily answer: Why did the Lord try to kill ‘him’? Who is ‘him’? Why did Zipporah suddenly circumcise her son? What is meant by ‘bridegroom of blood’”?[1]

The “plain reading” method popular with Fundagelicals would go like this: After commissioning Moses to free the Israelites, God decides to kill him. So Moses’ Midianite wife grabs the nearest sharp object and gives God a blood sacrifice. God is appeased by the blood offering and lets Moses live. She gets mad at Moses because his God is a jerk requiring a bloody foreskin from a child and calls him a bridegroom of blood.

A more nuanced version of this suggests that God was punishing Moses because he hadn’t circumcised his child. If he was going to be a leader of the Israelites, he should set a good example and follow the Abrahamic covenant. In other words, it was a righteous smiting. Remember kids, obey God or else.

Other explanations say that God wasn’t trying to kill Moses, he was trying to kill the child. After all, Moses was on his way to do God’s work. Does that make it better?Remeber kids, obey God or he’ll kill a family member.

Modern scholarship, very unpopular with Fundagelicals, puts it this way. God has informed Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart and possibly slay the Pharaoh’s firstborn. God’s threat against Pharaoh’s firstborn can be seen as a holdover from Israel’s tribal god stage in their religious development. Israel’s tribal god had a right over all firstborn males. Think about Abram willing to sacrifice Isaac. Abram doesn’t challenge God’s request.

Isaac is replaced with a Ram. This is a significant change; Israel’s tribal god doesn’t demand human sacrifices. However, he still has the right of firstborn among animal sacrifices. Read through the Levitical code to see God’s right over the firstborn. The idea that a god would demand the firstborn wouldn’t have been unusual to the people of ancient Israel. The firstborn motif is made even stronger by God threatening Pharaoh’s firstborn because Pharaoh is holding God’s firstborn, Israel, in bondage.

Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, by Zipporah. The “He” God was trying to kill would probably be Gershom. It fits with the motif of a claim on the firstborn son. Zipporah, a foreign wife, performs a foreign ritual. She cuts off her son’s foreskin and holds it to the genitals of God. (Some translations clean this up by saying “The Angel of the Lord” instead of God and keep the Hebrew euphemism “feet.”) The phrase “a bloody husband thou art” appears to be part of a ritual to indicate blood kinsmanship. In effect, Zipporah transferred ownership of Gershom to God and indicated God was now his father. (Its kind of a “his penis is your penis” kind of thing.) Thus was Gershom’s life spared. God now had full claim on Gershom the firstborn.

It is easier for me to believe that the Bible records a leftover bit of tribal folklore about a Midianite woman performing a Midianite ritual to save her son than it is for me to believe that God demanded a bloody foreskin to appease his death-lust for a child.

Interestingly enough, Zipporah and the children are sent back to Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, and disappear from Exodus until chapter 18. Speculation about why can now begin. I’m guessing the kid had to stay behind to heal up.

So when was the last time you heard a sermon on this passage? Fundagelicals tend to skip weird stuff like this. It takes too much nuance. The “plain reading” of this passage isn’t very pretty. So, next time some Fundagelical insist on a plain reading of the Biblical text, ask them about this passage. By the way, I won’t be preaching on it anytime soon, I get squeamish at the sight of blood.

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[1]Noel D. Osborn and Howard A. Hatton, A Handbook on Exodus, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1999), 97.

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