Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bizarre Bible Stories 3: Exod 4:24-26

In Exodus 3-4, Yahweh commissions Moses to return to the Hebrews in Egypt and appeal to Pharaoh for their release. Moses reluctantly accepts the mission, gets permission from his father-in-law to leave his household with his wife and sons, and sets out to return to Egypt.

On the way, Yahweh shows up completely out of the blue. No speech is reported, but somehow Zipporah, Moses' wife, knows Yahweh's there to kill Moses. The entire incident is recorded in a brief 3 verses.
Exod 4:24-26 (my translation)
24 It so happened that along the way Yahweh encountered him at a lodging place and sought to kill him. 25 So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched it to Moses' "feet" [likely a euphemism] and said, "For you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" 26 So he withdrew from him. At that time, she said, "A bridegroom of blood," because of the circumcision.
Stories like this make me seriously question the single-mindedness of composition that theories like Finkelstein's attribute to the Hebrew Bible. If it's all a deliberately crafted narrative, why include this story? The story flows well (probably better) without it. I'm at a loss to explain what particular purpose it might serve. There are no difficult linguistic or textual problems as far as I can tell.

The NET Bible has this explanation:
The next section (vv. 24–26) records a rather strange story. God had said that if Pharaoh would not comply he would kill his son – but now God was ready to kill Moses, the representative of Israel, God's own son. Apparently, one would reconstruct that on the journey Moses fell seriously ill, but his wife, learning the cause of the illness, saved his life by circumcising her son and casting the foreskin at Moses' feet (indicating that it was symbolically Moses' foreskin). The point is that this son of Abraham had not complied with the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. No one, according to Exod 12:40–51, would take part in the Passover-exodus who had not complied. So how could the one who was going to lead God's people not comply? The bold anthropomorphisms and the location at the border invite comparisons with Gen 32, the Angel wrestling with Jacob. In both cases there is a brush with death that could not be forgotten. See also, W. Dumbrell, "Exodus 4:24–25: A Textual Re-examination," HTR 65 (1972): 285-90; T. C. Butler, "An Anti-Moses Tradition," JSOT 12 (1979): 9-15; and L. Kaplan, "And the LORD Sought to Kill Him," HAR 5 (1981): 65-74.
If I ever decide to delve further into this bizarre story, I'll check out those references at the end, but their answer (while plausible) seems to be reading in quite a bit. First, do we know Moses wasn't circumcised? He was with his biological parents for the first few months of life and then his mother was his wet nurse according to the birth narrative (Exod 2). Second, how would circumcising his son fulfill Moses' own obligation to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant? Third, if he was uncircumcised and needed to fix that, why hadn't Yahweh brought it up during their encounter on Horeb (Exod 3)?

The NLT Study Bible suggests the problem was that Moses' son was uncircumcised:
This incident is shrouded in mystery. That Zipporah responded immediately and circumcised her son suggests that she and Moses had discussed the possibility of doing so previously and had decided it was not necessary. Why would having an uncircumcised son lead to God’s intent to kill the rescuer he had carefully prepared and called? Perhaps if Moses had arrived in Egypt claiming to represent the God of the Israelites’ ancestors and yet had not done the one thing God had commanded of his followers to this point (Gen 17:10), then the people would have been less inclined to follow God in a radically exclusive way.
At least we can all agree it is a "rather strange story" that is "shrouded in mystery."


  1. Douglas,
    Good question! I also have struggled with this text. Here is what I have concluded:

    My translation: “Now it happened along the way at a lodging place that Yahweh encountered him and sought to put him to death. And Zipporah took a flint, and she cut off her son’s foreskin, and she touched his feet, and said, 'you are circumcised with blood to me.' And he let him alone. At that time she said 'circumcised with blood' with reference to the circumcision.”

    First, even though hatan damim is usually translated "bridegroom of blood" I think that “circumcised with blood" fits better, given that hatana means "circumcise" in Arabic and that Moses and Zipporah are traveling from that country (Midian). Additionally, the author seems to indicate that the reader would not understand the phrase, so he explains it at the end.

    Second, the natural inference about the circumcision is that Zipporah touched the “son’s” feet. It’s more likely that “feet” is used euphemistically of the genitals.

    Third, I think we have an elliptical story here, with not a lot of details. Working backwards, the one whom the Lord sought to put to death is the son. The son gets violently ill and looks like he is going to die. Zipporah recognizes that it is a divine act; he hasn’t been circumcised. She saves his life. The focus is on her who cut off the foreskin and the son doesn’t die. Moses doesn’t enter into the story.

    Therefore, the passage goes along with the context. Moses is shown as a dutiful son and father (4:18-20), God is shown as a protective father (4:21-23), and then Zipporah is the good mother who is watching over her son (4:24-26).

    Lastly, in the context of the Passover God gave instructions with one specific point: whoever is not circumcised may not take the Passover. So just after God says that he will take Pharaoh’s firstborn son in 4:23, you have Zipporah circumcising her son, which is probably not insignificant.


  2. Doug, quite strange. I always thought that it was their son.

  3. Josh: Thanks for your thoughts. I was just following most major versions that read the pronoun "his feet" to refer to Moses because of the "bridegroom of blood" statement, but it is technically ambiguous and perhaps is better in reference to the son. The connection with what is said about the first-born son in Exod 4:23 makes sense, too.

    However, I usually cringe when we have to punt to Arabic to give a word a different meaning than it usually has in Hebrew. Too bad Hebrew never clearly uses it to mean "circumcise" (though BDB does list the verbal root based on the Arabic, but gives no examples).

    TC: I agree; it's just a strange story all around and none of the translations really help. I think NLTSB is closest to the most plausible interpretation, and Josh's comment helps some.

    I think this Bizarre Bible Stories series could go on forever. Any suggestions for part 4?

  4. Doug, Kaiser makes a similar argument in his "Exodus,"in EBC.

  5. TC, thanks for the reference. Are you saying he makes a similar argument as NLTSB? That it was the son who needed to be circumcised? NET Bible was rather confusing on this one, I thought.

  6. Doug, yeah, the son. I agree that NET is quite confusing.

  7. Doug,

    I'm not sure if this would qualify as "bizarre," but I have always found Exodus 5:1-3 to be an interesting account. YHWH told Moses that he was sending him to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from the Egyptians in order to bring them to a spacious land (Ex 3:8, 10). However, the message that Moses and Aaron actually deliver to Pharaoh is quite misleading. Rather than tell Pharaoh that they are there to deliver Israel from the Egyptians, Moses gives Pharaoh the impression that the Israelites will return to Egypt after a three-day pilgrim feast in the desert.

    A similar story of deception is found in 1Samuel 16:1-3. YHWH tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint David as king, but Samuel fears that if he does so, Saul will hear about it and have him killed. Thus, YHWH tells Samuel to say that he is in town to sacrifice to the Lord rather than say that he is there to anoint a new king.

    In both of these accounts, the deception is obvious. What intrigues me in these passages is that YHWH appears to be the one responsible for promoting the delusive statements. What do you think?

    Oh, and let's not forget 1Kings 22:20-22. Here, YHWH proposes that one of the members of his heavenly assembly deceive Ahab. A very strange story indeed.

  8. Anon, unless you ARE John Anderson, commenting anonymously for some bizarre reason, you may find his blog interesting since that's his favorite topic - the Divine Trickster. Your examples seem to be exactly the kind of passage he finds most interesting. Check out Hesed we'emet. I don't know if they'll work for this series since they're not bizarre enough.

  9. This is a strange story, indeed, and it actually gets at the heart of the composition-of-the-Pentatuech problem. When you think about the priests who edited the Torah, doesn't it seem odd that they would leave a story like this in the text? One argument is that the base text (J?) had authority and couldn't be reduced but only recontextualized (as in Genesis 1-2, the Flood Story, Exodus 14, etc.) The same is true, according to Bernie Levinson, in the Deuteronomist's reworking of the Covenant Code.

    Another argument would be that the text was composed more or less whole-cloth much later. If that is the case, why would weird things like this get in?

    Assuming that the issue is that God was angry with the non-circumcision of Moses and/or his son, you could argue that the text is a theological statement about the need for circumcision. If so, it functions poorly in that regard, being so elliptical. Also, the picture of God sneaking up and trying to kill Moses on account of it doesn't help at all.

    Deb Sunoo's dissertation from PTS, "God Bursts Forth" deals with this passage as well as the story of Nadab and Abihu in Lev 10, and the death of Uzzah in 2Sam 6.

  10. Thanks, Bryan. I tend to agree with Levinson that some stuff like that made it in because they couldn't take it out. (kind of like passages that are still in our NT b/c the KJV has them and everyone expects them to be there, but text criticism suggests they don't belong). It just doesn't make sense to create this kind of bizarre episode later because like you said, it fails to clearly teach even the one point we can come up with for it.