There is a peculiar verse that commentators seem to have a hard time explaining. I think I can help clear things up. These are the three peculiar verses:
“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.” (Ex. 4:24-26)
So we have this situation: after speaking with God in the burning bush, Moses takes his family and they return to Egypt to set the Israelites free. But on their way, God tries to kill “him.” Who is “him”? Some translations really confuse the case by trying to guess. The ESV is guilty of this:
Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
The ESV guesses that Zipporah touched her son’s foreskin to Moses’ feet. But it has a footnote next to the word “Moses” that tells us that the word translated as “Moses” is actually the Hebrew word for “his.” So they don’t really know.
What happened? Did Zipporah get mad at Moses, circumcise her son, then toss the bloody foreskin at Moses’s feet in anger? That’s what some commentators say. They say that Zipporah, being a Midianite and not an Israelite, wouldn’t have known about the covenantal requirement of circumcision, and that Moses should have known better but, acting out of rebellion perhaps, he chose not to circumcise his son against better knowledge.
But this simply isn’t the case.
In the Old Testament, the land, the earth, acted as a covenantal agent on God’s behalf. This started very early on. If innocent blood is spilled, the earth cries out for vengeance. This brings the issue to God’s attention. This began with Cain and Abel:
“And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand” (Gen. 4:10-11).
With the situation in Egypt, the earth had put a curse on the people responsible. Something terrible had just recently gone on inside Egypt’s political and geographical borders:
“And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.” (Ex. 1:22)
The Nile River had run red with the blood of all of Israel’s male children, especially the firstborn male children. This is why Moses’ mother placed him in a basket (literally, an “ark”) when he was three months old: to save his life (Ex. 2:2-3).
God’s justice is righteous. He tells us about his standard of vengeance in the way that he demands we execute vengeance (through the civil government): “And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut: 19:21; Ex. 21:23-25).
The key here is life for life. Pharaoh had murdered the sons, indeed the firstborn sons, of Egypt. Their sins would ultimately be repaid on the night of Passover:
“And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.” (Ex. 12:29)
There was a curse on the land because of the blood spilled by Egypt. This is the key for answering the question of who “his” is. Especially in context. The verse prior reads as follows:
“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.” (Ex. 4:23)
This is what God told Moses to tell Pharaoh while still on the mountain, “When thou goest to return into Egypt.” So, Moses goes to return to Egypt. And on the way, God assaults Moses’ party and tries to kill Moses’ firstborn.
But why is Moses’ firstborn the target? Moses is the good guy. He is not an Egyptian. Why is Moses’ son under attack from God? I thought this curse only applied to the responsible party: the Egyptians?
Ah, but there’s the rub. Why did an evil king rise up and begin oppressing the Israelites in the first place (Ex. 1:8)? All things are ordained by God, so for some reason God placed a tyrannical king over the Israelites. But why?
The answer is given later, in the book of Joshua:
“Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in truth: and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the LORD.” (Josh. 24:14)
God caused a bad king to rise up over them because the Israelites fell away and began worshipping the Egyptian gods. It was the Israelites’ job to witness to the gentiles. They were supposed to evangelize the Egyptian culture. Instead, they fell away into pagan Egyptian culture. This kind of thing does not make God happy.
The point, then, is that it’s not just the Egyptians who are to blame for murdering the sons of Egypt. The Israelites share in that blame. If they hadn’t fallen away, then they would have converted the Egyptian culture. Or maybe they wouldn’t have. But if that were the case, it doesn’t seem like God would also curse their children during the Passover for crimes they really didn’t commit.
But, as we know, even the Israelite children would not be spared a visit from the Angel of Death the night of Passover.
That is, unless they carried out God’s special commandments.
THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB
There was a way that the Israelites could be spared:
“And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it…For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 12:7,12-13)
The Israelites were to obey God’s command to take a lamb, slay it, spread some of its blood on the doorposts of their house, then eat the remainder. Doing this distinguished them from the Egyptians. Their faith in God, in other words, allowed them to trust his word. Through their faith they trusted him, and thus obeyed him. Those who did so were distinguished: Israel from Egypt.
“And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the LORD’S passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped.” (Ex. 12:26-27)
MOSES’ SON A PREFIGURATION OF THE PASSOVER
Essentially, then, the attack by God on Moses’ son is a pre-figuration of the corporate Passover that was yet to come. Moses’ son was not circumcised. He didn’t have to be, since they lived outside of the nation of Israel. But once they began approaching the borders of Egypt, the curse of the land fell upon Moses’ family also. Only the nation of Israel was circumcised, which was a requirement to enter the covenant. It was the covenant sign and seal. Moses’ son, even though he was a good guy, was indistinguishable from the Gentiles as they approach the borders of the nation of Israel. Therefore, he had to be circumcised to spare his life and distinguish him from an Egyptian.
The rite of circumcision was a bloody ordeal. Its leftovers (the foreskin) were then smeared on Gershom’s legs. The doorposts to the house are symbolic of the legs of a person. So, the smearing of blood on Gershom’s legs/feet was analogous to the smearing of blood on the doorposts of the house on the night of Passover.
The result was the same: the firstborn sons’ lives were spared destruction from the Angel of Death.
Later on, in Numbers, the role of the Blood Avenger is described. The nearest of kin becomes the Blood Avenger if his kinsman is killed but no witnesses are around to see it (Num. 39). The Blood Avenger must seek vengeance for his slain countryman. The land is calling forth the Blood Avenger to seek vengeance against the person who killed the kinsman and avenge the death of the innocent. The Blood Avenger chased the killer into a city of refuge. There, he would stand trial for his crime. If the congregation in the city determined that he did not murder his victim out of coldblood, then they would “deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest” (Num. 39:25).
But if that person ever left the city of refuge before the High Priest had died, then the land would call forth the Blood Avenger again, and should they meet outside the walls of the city the Blood Avenger would slay the killer (vs. 26-27).
The blood defiled the land, and only blood could cure the defilement (Num. 39:33). But the city of refuge protected the killer. The blood of the High Priest set him free.
CITIES OF REFUGE
The first cities of refuge were the houses of the Israelites who had smeared the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. Tucked away inside, the Blood Avenger (angel of death) passed over them. They remained safe as long as they remained in the house. Then, as the darkness of night gave way to the light of dawn, the Israelites stepped forth through the doorway of their houses and into new, redeemed lives as God’s chosen nation.
Think about Noah and his family, emerging from the ark after the flood to repopulate the earth. Think about Moses, emerging from his ark (basket) unscathed from the threat of being drowned in the Nile like all the other babies so that he could lead a new nation of peoples into the world. Think Jesus Christ, in whom his believers become a new creation: “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
Jesus Christ is our ark. He is our city of refuge. He is the High Priest whose blood grants our freedom. “Return, ye ransomed sinners, home,” for “the year of jubilee has come,” as Charles Wesley wrote in his beautiful hymn.
So, we have answered the two questions:
1) Why did God try to kill Moses’ son on his return to Egypt? Because the blood of the murdered Israelite babies had called forth a curse by the land of Egypt, and that curse required eye-for-eye vengeance: firstborn to firstborn. Moses’ son was his firstborn. He had not been circumcised. So the Avenger of Blood did not, at first, recognize him as an Israelite as he crossed the border into Egypt. He had to be circumcised in order to be distinguished from the firstborn of the Egyptians.
2) Whose foreskin touched whose feet? It was Moses’ son’s foreskin that touched Moses’ son’s feet. This is because the blood of the circumcision had to be smeared on his own legs as the blood of the lamb was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites’ houses in Egypt. This identified them as Israelites, God’s faithful people who heard and obeyed his word. Gershom’s blood, produced by his circumcision, identified him as an Israelite.
But what about Zipporah’s cryptic message: thou art a bridegroom of blood to me, because of the circumcision?
We’ll explore this in the follow-up article.