Monday, February 20, 2006

Exodus 4: 24-26 What do these verses say and mean?

Exodus 4.24-26: A Biblical Conundrum

In our Sunday Bible Class, we’re studying the book of Exodus under the direction of Dr. Patrick Nnoromele. Yesterday Brother Patrick asked us to look ahead at three verses that have not easily been understood: Exodus 4.24-26. Inasmuch as June and I will be out-of-town next Sunday, I thought it might be helpful if we take a look at these verses to prepare ourselves for the upcoming discussion. Here are the “tough to understand” verses as presented in several translations:


24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met {Moses} and was about to kill him. 25 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. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)

24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 25 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. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
New Life Version

24 The Lord met Moses at a resting place on the way and would have put him to death. 25 But Zipporah took a knife and cut off her son's piece of skin and threw it at Moses' feet. And she said, "For sure you are a husband of blood to me." 26 Then the Lord let him alone. Zipporah said, "You are a husband of blood," because of the religious act of becoming a Jew.

There are at least six questions we may ask about these verses:

1. Why is God so suddenly angry?
2. With whom is God so suddenly angry?
3. Why does Zipporah take a flint knife and circumcise her son?
4. What does it mean when the narrator says she “cast [the newly amputated foreskin] at Moses’ “feet”? Why does she throw the foreskin at Moses’ feet?
5. Why does Ziporrah call Moses (depending on the translation) “a bridegroom of blood” (NIV), “a bloody husband” (KJB), or “a husband of blood” (New Life Version).
6. Why is this little story in the Bible? What application may we Christians make of it?

What follows are my reflections as I look at the verses in my Jerusalem Bible:

1. The context

It’s important to see the context of verses 24-26. Earlier, claiming he’s not eloquent enough, Moses has been trying to excuse himself from being God’s messenger to Pharaoh. Genuinely peeved and quite “angry” at Moses in verse 4.14, God responds by introducing Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece; that is, Aaron, soon to arrive upon the scene, will “speak to the people in [Moses’] place (17). Apparently this arrangement proves satisfactory to Moses. Going back to his father-in-law, Moses asks Jethro for his permission to return to Egypt and obtains a yes-you-can-return blessing from his wife’s father (18). The LORD then urges Moses to get going, assuring him that everyone “who wanted to kill you” is now dead. Immediately Moses takes off with his wife and son, that is, with Zipporah and Gershom (see 2.22); he also takes the “staff of God” God gave him at the beginning of Chapter 4. God then reminds Moses that he is to “think of the wonders I have given you power to person” (21), and he tells Moses what to expect from Pharaoh after he hears Moses’ message; ultimately, God says, Pharaoh will experience the death of his “first-born son” because he will refuse to let Israel, God’s “first-born son” leave Egypt.

2 The problem with the antecedents of the two pronouns: “him” and “his”

Now we come to the “tough” verses. On his way to Egypt, Moses stops off at inn and discovers that God is trying to kill “him!” Who is the him? Moses? Before you say, “Yes, it’s Moses whom God is trying to kill!” note the next verse, 25: “Then Zipporah, taking up a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin and with it touched his [whose? Moses?] feet . . . .” Some readers suggest Zipporah’s quick action indicates that the baby’s life is in danger! Thus at this point we have two possibilities:

1. God is trying to kill Moses.
2. God is trying to kill Moses’ son, Gershom.

The text can be read both ways. Here’s why:

1. God is trying to kill Moses because he—in his great haste to get to Egypt has completely forgotten to circumcise his very own “first-born son” Gershom into the Great Covenant! How in the world can he preach to Pharaoh about the importance of respecting Israel, God’s “first-born son” (23) when Moses himself has failed to realize the importance of taking care of his own flesh-and-blood, little Gershom, who travels along outside the covenant with God! Moses thus deserves to die because he’s proved himself completely insensitive to the will of God which has been made absolutely clear to the Patriarch Abraham: the covenant relationship must always be sealed by circumcision (Genesis 17)! No wonder God is angry at Moses!

2. God is angry at Moses’ uncircumcised son, Gershom. Just as God will put to death the “first-born” of Pharaoh because of his father’s refusal to obey God, so here God will put to death the “first-born” of Moses for the same reason: Moses has not obeyed God by not fulfilling the covenant requirement that all Israelite males are to be circumcised. It seems to me that the first reading is preferable: God is trying to kill Moses because in his haste to get going to Egypt he has completely forgotten how the Abrahamic covenant is to be ratified: Moses has forgotten to get the knife and cut off the foreskin of his own son! Moreover, it should not surprise us that God is angry with Moses again; after all, he was angry with him in verse 14.

3. Zipporah’s quick saving action

At this point we should make special note that it’s Zipporah who “saves the day”! It’s a quick-witted woman who knows exactly what to do. When her pre-occupied, negligent husband (no doubt busy taking care of the donkey, making motel reservations, and looking at road maps) forgets his number-one responsibility (circumcize the boy!) and thereby prompts God to anger, Zipporah reaches into her handbag, gets out the penis-knife and goes to work. Snip! Snip! Snip! Good for her! Her hands all bloody, she makes it possible for Gershom to be in the covenant and thus stave off God’s anger at the irresponsible parent—Moses.

Notice what else she does. She takes the bloody little foreskin and throws it at Moses’ “feet.” Well, that’s what the Bible says, but you should know that in the Bible the word feet often means a man’s genitals, his penis and testicles. As The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains,

"Foot" or "feet" is sometimes used euphemistically for the genitals (Deuteronomy 28:57; Ezekiel 16:25). "To cover the feet" (1 Samuel 24:3) is synonymous with obeying a call of Nature. Even today "to speak with the feet" is expressive of the eloquence of abusive and obscene gesticulation among oriental people, where hands, eyes and feet are able to express much without the use of words (Proverbs 6:13).

Zipporah’s throwing--you see the rather violent action?--Gershom’s foreskin on Moses’ private parts is reinforces the dramatic quality of her foreskin-cutting activity. Notice what she says when she make the throw, “Bloody husband”! Her scorn, given voice by this invective, is full of irony; she’s calling her husband exactly what he isn’t. After all, he’s not bloody; she is! And she’s a good bit put out that she has had to do the cutting, the snipping, the circumcising! Can you image the looks she must have given Moses!

4. How to apply the story of our lives

Well, that’s how I read the story. Now I ask: why is this episode in the Bible? I think the narrator/editor made sure it’s there for three reasons:

First, to make sure we know that God takes covenant business seriously. Second, to show us again that Moses is full of faults even though he is to be the leader of God’s chosen people. Third, to remind us that often it’s women who act decisively on God’s behalf. And four, to remind us that all of us take our own covenant with God seriously. In other words, get your kids into God’s covenant and take your parental responsibilities seriously. Some would argue that these verses, read by New Testament Christians, encourage us to take the baptizing of our children seriously.

I wish I could be with everyone in this Sunday's Bible class, but--alas!--I have to be in Louisville. Let me know how you all make sense of these verses!


Blogger Swedophilia said...

Religion is sin.
The people who are into such practices are quite clearly very lost individuals who are easily susceptible and also gullible enough to be dragged into cults.

My Religion teacher once told me that King James had edited out pasrts of the bible where Jesus has homosexual doings with his disciples

Monday, 20 February, 2006  
Blogger Andrew Harnack said...

Interesting rumblings. -- Andy
PS: It looks as though it's time to restrict comments to those who have appropriately been invited to participate. I'll do that now.

Monday, 20 February, 2006  
Blogger Andrew Harnack said...

To Anthrakia's readers: Although I've now restricted abilities to post comments to those who are on the blog's invited participants, I've also written Swedophilia a note offering the possibilities of some correspondence, letting him know that I've gently placed him in my morning prayers.

Tuesday, 21 February, 2006  
Blogger Andrew Harnack said...

I need to be a bit more careful before sening out email. Although I wrote to Swedophilia, I forget to mention to him that he's in my prayers. I trust he can read between the lines; he's smart enough to surmise, I imagine.

Tuesday, 21 February, 2006  
Blogger Jimtom said...

Sorry, Swedophilia, but without religion there is no concept of sin. While there is most definitely sin in religion (through human effort and lack therof), pure religion is the means by which we recognize sin, and know ourselves to be sinners.

As for your religion professor's allegation concerning the suppressed scriptural documentation of homosexual activity by Jesus and His disciples, it hardly seems likely that one descibed as "blameless", and "without spot", would indulge in a practice that is roundly and soundly condemned as sin, a capital offense, in both the Old and New Testaments. It is equally unlikely that such an act of suppression would be undetected for these centuries. I rather suspect that your religion professor is engaging in a smear campaign based on lies and innuendo, to undermine a truth he finds personally discomforting. What's especially sad in all this is that you (and he) are letting your God-given intelligence come between you and God. Nevertheless, I pray: God save you, God help you, God keep you, God bless you, and all Godspeed.

Thursday, 23 February, 2006  

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