In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today, we’re looking at a pretty strange passage. It seems to be a transitional passage – between Moses’ calling and Moses’ meeting with Pharaoh – but it’s an odd sort of transition. Let’s take a look at the passage. There are a couple of elements of this passage which are odd. Basically, the structure of the passage looks like this:
- 18: After Moses’ call from God to go to Egypt and free the Israelites, Moses says good-bye to his father-in-law, Jethro.
- 19-20: Moses and his family depart for Egypt
- 21-23: God tells Moses that he will encounter resistance from Pharaoh
- 24-26: This weird passage with Zipporah and Moses’ son’s circumcision
- 27-28: Moses meets with Aaron29-31: Moses and Aaron meet with the Israelite leaders
Verses 24-26 strike us, in my opinion, as the particularly odd bit – what is this passage doing here? How does it fit in to the narrative? What is it supposed to mean?
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.)
There are several questions that arise from this passage: Why did God want to kill him? Who is “him”? (the NIV inserts Moses, but it’s not clear in the Hebrew). Why wasn’t Moses’ son circumcised to begin with (i.e. after the 8th day)? Why is only one of Moses’ sons mentioned? Is there some significance to touching Moses’ feet? And why is this passage in the story at all?
There are a lot of factors involved and even more opinions and theories about this passage to wrap our heads around. We will consider what might be the narrative function of this passage (how does it contribute to, or play a part in, the story of Moses?) – keeping in mind that we are doing the best we can with what we know, but we are not claiming to be conclusive.
Passing by some of the significant ambiguities in this passage, it nevertheless appears that Moses (and/or his family) was not going to make it back to Egypt without observing the rite of circumcision. Specifically, it is the circumcision of Moses’ son that seems to avert the Lord’s “anger.”
So we need to pay attention to the significance of the act of circumcision. In Genesis 17:12-14 , we read:
12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.
What we read in Genesis is that circumcision is the mark, of the people, of God’s covenant. The failure to be circumcised is to be cut off from the people.
This incident may serve, then, to remind us that this story is a continuation of the story of Abraham – of God’s covenant promise with His people to restore creation to His purposes. For this purpose, Abraham’s children are a people set apart. In this context, we remember that a covenant is a “bond in blood, divinely administered” (O. Palmer Robertson). Now, allowing for the possibility that “The Lord…was about to kill him” is some form of exaggeration, at the very least, we can infer that the issue of circumcision is a very serious one. Or to put it another way – and probably more accurately because the N.T. tells us that circumcision as a rite is no longer important – participating in God’s covenant is extremely important.
So, in other words, this event might simply be a sort of, “are you in or are you out?” moment for Moses (and his family).
Now, presumably Moses has already agreed in some form to God’s calling – but maybe there’s a difference. Maybe there’s a difference between saying, “yes, I’m in” to being really in. Maybe there’s a difference between saying, “yes, I am a Christian” and really choosing God and actually following Him wherever He leads.
The second element of this story that I want to talk about is vv. 21-23 – the part where God says regarding Pharaoh, “I will harden his heart.” The phrase, repeated throughout the exodus story, does not indicate a lack of responsibility or free will on the part of Pharaoh or his officials (of whom this is also said).
It’s notable that scripture doesn’t try to resolve the apparent conflict between free will and determinism. Repeatedly throughout scripture, we see that human beings are responsible for our actions – we freely choose and receive the consequences of our choices, for good or bad. We also see that God is sovereign over everything. Nothing escapes or is outside the will or providence of God. I understand that we can’t work that out in our minds, but that doesn’t negate the truth of the matter.
What we see in Exodus, essentially introduced here, is that God exercises sovereignty over Pharaoh. Again, this doesn’t negate Pharaoh’s responsibility for his own choices towards evil, but God is in charge.
Why is this important? One of the key themes of the Exodus story is the supremacy of God, YHWH, over the Egyptian gods and, by extension, all other gods. Like a lot of empires, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, occupied a place in society essentially, if not explicitly, as the culture’s God. Inasmuch as Pharaoh made claims to be divine, YHWH’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart demonstrates not just sovereignty, but judgement. Statements like this (God hardened Pharaoh’s heart) peppered throughout the Exodus account inform us that, in some sense, even Pharaoh’s free rebellion against YHWH (and it is, indeed free) is not outside of the sovereign will of God. God is still in control. And what we will see in the outcome of the Exodus story (if we are not already aware) is that God will emerge victorious.
This is the framework, the context, for the first commandment:
1 And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
By YHWH’s mighty works, the redemption of His people, which is for the redemption of creation, God demonstrates that there is no other god. There is no other name by which we will be saved.
Again, I don’t claim to have exegeted this passage perfectly. It’s an odd passage. There’s undoubtedly stuff that I’ve missed and probably things that I’ve read into the passage. However, I trust that by the grace of God, we can see how this story might fit into the greater story of Exodus, which is part of the greater story of God’s salvation.
So What Now…?
So the questions that I would put to us today for reflection are two-fold:
Have we picked a side? And I mean, have we really picked a side? Have we really decided to live as the people of God? Not just going along for the ride. Not just making an appearance. But have we, are we willing to, actually commit to the kingdom life?
The second question is related to the first. Do we really believe in the promises of God? Do we really believe that it is only in God alone, through Christ alone, that we find life. Do we really believe that God’s kingdom triumphs over every other kingdom? That our God, YHWH, Jesus Christ, triumphs over every other god?
Or do we actually, surreptitiously, put our trust elsewhere? Do we believe that if we’re just rich enough, powerful enough, popular enough, fit enough, that we will be happy? Do we think that happiness, as defined by the word, is actually the thing? Is that what we’re seeking, what we’re serving?
None of us do this perfectly. Most of us, myself included, don’t even really do it very well. We are really good at doing things half-way. We’re really good at hedging our bets. We’re really good at “just in case.” The story of God’s deliverance of His people in Exodus is not just about Israel being freed from Egypt. It’s the story of God delivering us from every power, every principality, every philosophy that keeps us in slavery, keeps us from life, keeps us from God. It’s the story of God victorious. And that victory belongs to you and me.