The Day God Threatened to Kill Moses
By James Donahue
From Exodus 4:24-26 (NIV) : “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. 26 So the Lord let him alone.”
Described as one of the more perplexing conundrums of the Pentateuch, these three Old Testament verses have been studied and debated by Bible scholars. What caused God to decide to kill Moses and what has Zipporah’s act of radically circumcising Moses’s son with a flint stone got to do with saving Moses from God’s wrath?
Zipporah was Moses’ wife at the time of this incident. She was one of the seven daughters of Jethro, a Kenite shepherd who was a priest of the region of Midian, a place where Moses lived in exile for 40 years after killing an Egyptian. He met Zipporah at a local watering hole, defended the daughters from some local shepherds who wanted to water their flock at the same time, and won her hand as a prize.
Moses and Zipporah were parents of two known sons, Gershom and Eliezer. The verses in Exodus do not reveal which son is involved in the story but we might assume it was their first-born.
One of the best explanations of this peculiar verse was that God threatened to kill Moses after Moses sinned. But what was his sin? It obviously had nothing to do with the killing of the Egyptian that launched the 40-year exodus of the Hebrew people with Moses from Egypt. The Bible story makes it clear that Moses was especially groomed by God for the things that were occurring. So why would God threaten to kill Moses in the midst of the great exodus?
The answer to the sin question seems to have been found in the next verse, which tells us how Zipporah saved the day and saved Moses’ life by performing a crude cutting away of her son’s foreskin and then tossing the bloody skin at Moses feet. This very act satisfied God and Moses was spared.
So it strangely appears that following God’s commandment that all male Hebrews must be circumcised was so important that God considered failure to do it constituted a worse sin than murder. It seemed that his failure to perform the circumcision amounted to Moses’ failure to have his house in order and in God’s eyes, a sin punishable by death.
Strange that even though Zipporah was not a Hebrew by birth, she understood God’s commandment and acted quickly to correct the problem and save her husband and possibly the life of her son.
This brief little story must have frightened the Hebrew people enough that they never overlooked this simple bloody initiation of their male children. It made such an impression that most Christian families have also practiced circumcision of their boys to this day. It is only in recent years that the practice has been questioned by the medical profession.