24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 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!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.
Don’t you hate when your wife throws foreskins at you.
This is by far one of the most confusing portions of Scripture. First of all, why did God want to put him to death? Who’s “him” anyway?? Why was the resolution to this problem a circumcision? Why did Zipporah touch Moses’s feet with a foreskin?
Before we get into all that..
Why was Moses’s son not circumcised?
God was clear that circumcision was a sign of the covenant, and that Jewish boys had to be circumcised on the eighth day of life. The explanation could possibly be because of Moses’s marriage to a Midianite woman. Midianites practiced circumcision as well, but it was not until right before a groom was married. Moses could have been trying to please his Midianite in-laws by not circumcising his son. (quick note, we know he had at least two sons. Exodus 18:3-4)
Who is “him”?
Typically, whenever a portion of scripture is confusing like this, the first step is to zoom out and read the verses around it. However, in the specific case there are not a lot of clues in the verses surrounding this portion as to what is going on. The only clue from surrounding verses we get is in verses 21-23 of this chapter. God tells Moses to warn Pharaoh that if the Israelites are not freed from Egypt, that He is going to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn. So, the only clue is that God is willing to kill a man’s firstborn.
There are different views, however, on who God is seeking to put to death in this passage. It could be either Moses’s son or Moses himself. The evidence pointing to God coming to kill Moses’s son, is because of the previous portion where God is talking about taking the life of Pharaoh’s firstborn. Thus, leading a smooth transition into the near-death experience of Moses’s son.
The evidence pointing to Moses is linguistic. Since Moses was spoken of and to in the previous portion, it would make sense that the “him” in this portion is the subject of the previous portion. Moses. Moses’s son was not introduced into the scene until verse 25 when Zipporah circumcised him. I tend to think this is the more logical view.
Was it God or an angel?
Next, was the one who “sought to put him to death” God or an angel of death? The Septuagint (a very early Greek translation of the Old Testament) translates this as “an angel of the Lord.” The Targum Onkelos (another early translation) and Arabic versions of the Old Testament also say “an angel of the Lord.” However, we don’t quite see that in the original Hebrew text. It just says “the Lord.” So, although this could be an angel of the Lord, it’s probably just God. He appeared in a form that could be seen and understood by people several times in the Old Testament.
So what exactly is God doing to Moses?
The Bible says that the Lord “sought to put him to death”. Although it isn’t very clear, there could be a couple of options. One option is that God was physically there in a threatening position, similar to the angel that appeared to and threatened Balaam and David. Another option is that God could have struck Moses with some sort of illness or stroke that caused him to be incapacitated and would eventually lead to death. This seems to be a good view, because Zipporah clearly had an aversion to circumcision and it was Moses’s job to circumcise; He should have been the one doing the circumcision, but Zipporah was forced to. So, to me, it makes sense that Moses was incapacitated in this moment.
I believe there is one more component to understanding the first part of this crazy part of Scripture.
Why is God trying to kill Moses for not circumcising his kid?
Circumcision was the sign of the covenant and God took it very seriously. We see the consequences of not being circumcised in Genesis 17:14. “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.” This command was clearly a warning to the parents of an uncircumcised child, since the circumcision was to happen on the eighth day of a baby boys' life, and the child probably doesn’t have the capability of chopping off his foreskin at that age- therefore, this was a command for the parents.
Your follow up question might be that the command says the consequence of uncircumcision is a “cutting off from his people.” That makes it seem less serious than capital punishment. However, if you look forward to the ten commandments, you see that “cutting off” is equated to death.
You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
God was confronting Moses about his disobedience. Moses was to be the face of God’s people and lead them through one of the most important times in their history as a people. However, here we see Moses disobeying God’s commands in his home. This reflected his lack of faith in God which we see again down the road when Moses disobeys God in the wilderness. God used this moment to humble Moses, just like He did to Jacob when they wrestled in the wilderness. God was forcing Moses to acknowledge His sovereignty, so that Moses would learn to put his faith and trust in Him. It is clear that God was after the circumcision of Moses’s son, because v. 26 says that “he let him alone” after Zipporah circumcised the boy.
So here’s what we have so far. It seems that God struck Moses with an incapacitating disease that leads to death, because Moses disobeyed God’s command. The next confusing part of these verses is –
What the heck is Zipporah’s deal?
Clearly, to support the fact that the reason God afflicted Moses because of his uncircumcised son, Zipporah circumcised the boy in order to satisfy God’s call for obedience. But why did she then follow that up with a snarky comment, and touching Moses’s feet with the severed foreskin? There is some division on what Zipporah is actually doing here. Some say she is just touching Moses’s feet with it. That comes from a direct reading of the English version. Other say that she is actually touching Moses’s genitals with it. The Old Testament occasionally uses the term “feet” as a euphemism for genitalia. We see that in Ezekiel 16:25, Deuteronomy 28:57, and a few other places. However, most commentators believe that Zipporah actually threw the boy’s foreskin at Moses’s actual feet.
It seems that Zipporah was repulsed by the idea of circumcising her baby. The Midianites didn’t practice circumcision in this way, and her motherly instincts clearly wanted to protect her son from harm. We see that by her comment, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” Zipporah understood that Moses’s God required circumcision of her baby. That is why she immediately jumped into action when Moses was struck. It was probably a recurring topic of conversation between them. Zipporah’s bridegroom was on his way to death, and the only way to save his life was for her to circumcise her baby boy – something that she truly did not want to do. In Zipporah’s eyes, she was harming her child in order to save her husband’s life. On top of that, this was Moses’s responsibility! He was supposed to circumcise their son and she could have been absent for the procedure. However, in the circumstances she was forced to perform the emergency circumcision. I can’t see that situation sitting well with many moms.
In response to the horrible situation, Zipporah throws her son’s foreskin at Moses’s feet and calls him a bridegroom of blood – a statement that I believe is said out of anger towards Moses.
Was that confusing enough?
The good news is that this is one of the most difficult scriptures in the whole Bible to interpret. If you can somewhat wrap your head around what’s going on here, you should be proud of yourself!
Although there are a million ways to interpret this portion of Scripture, I believe this is probably the correct way –
God struck Moses with an incapacitating disease that leads to death, because Moses did not circumcise his son. That caused Zipporah to jump into action and save Moses’s life by circumcising their son. However, Zipporah had an aversion to this and angrily reacted to the situation. Her anger caused her to throw the foreskin at Moses’s actual feet and insult him.
How’s that for a weird verse!
Ding on Dingers!