Edward J. Young
We are to study one of the strangest passages in the entire Old Testament. It is related in three short verses. However its importance is not to be gauged by its brevity. Although the passage is short, it teaches a lesson of permanent importance and relevancy. In the fourth chapter of Exodus we read, “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” (verses 24-26).
Part of the difficulty in understanding this passage is to be found in its shortness. Therefore, it may be well if we paraphrase the thought and expand it where necessary. We must first understand what the Bible is saying, before we can interpret its words. The thought of the passage, therefore, is as follows: At an inn, the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him. Zipporah, the wife of Moses took thereupon a sharp stone and circumcised her son, and in so doing reproved her husband. As a result of the circumcision the Lord let Moses go, and Zipporah said to Moses, “A bloody husband thou art.”
The Demand of the Lord
Moses had taken his departure from his father-in-law Jethro. “Go in peace,” Jethro had said, and Moses with his wife and sons had set out for the land of Egypt. Before him lay a great task. Upon the throne of Egypt sat a Pharaoh who had little sympathy with the children of Israel. He was using their services as slaves and had no desire to part with those services. Moses and Aaron were to stand before him to ask that their people might make a religious pilgrimage into the wilderness. They came in the Name of the Lord of Hosts and depended upon His power. The way to Egypt lay through the desert, and on this way Moses and his family came to an inn, where they would take their rest and probably spend the night. This inn was probably merely a caravanserai, that is, an enclosure in which the travelers and their beasts might find refuge for the night.
Where this particular inn was we are not told. But at the inn a strange thing happened. The Lord met Moses. Furthermore the Lord sought to kill Moses. We are not told how the Lord sought to do this. Some have suggested that Moses was suddenly smitten with a fatal disease. Others have said that some direct act on the part of the Lord was performed. This latter is probably correct, for we are told that the Lord actually met Moses. In all probability the Lord appeared before Moses in human form. He came face to face with Moses and proceeded to attack him.
Brief as this account is, it immediately arouses within our hearts questions. Why should the Lord do this? There are those who say that this story is merely an example of an ancient belief in desert spirits. They would place it upon a par with other stories of ancient superstition. However, such fancies as this we may dismiss without serious consideration. The story is brief, but it is historical. The Lord did actually meet Moses and He sought to kill him, as the text states. But why?
In answer to the question, we may note that the Lord does not act in capricious and arbitrary fashion. He who was sending His servant upon a most dangerous mission would not in mere caprice seek to destroy that servant. No, there is a reason for the Lord’s action. Moses has been disobedient. He has not circumcised his son. His wife, Zipporah, recognizes at once the reason for the Lord’s action, and so proceeds to circumcise her son, with the result that the Lord lets Moses go free. As soon as the child has been circumcised, in other words, the Lord refrains from Moses, and from this fact we learn that Moses had been guilty in not having the youth circumcised.
But was this omission or neglect so serious? It was indeed serious. Circumcision had been enjoined upon Abraham and his descendants as a sign of the covenant. It signified that the circumcised person belonged to the people of God, and in its sacramental meaning separated that person from the people of the world. When the ordinance had been instituted at the time of Abraham, it had been instituted in the utmost solemnity. If a person were not circumcised, then “that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:14). In other words, the penalty for the disobedience of this command was death, for the expression, “cut off from his people” means to be cut off by death. This was a very serious matter. When the ordinance was instituted, the Lord demanded obedience upon the part of His people.
The Sin of Moses
It is a grave mistake to think of a covenant between God and man as a covenant between two equal parties. Not at all. Every covenant that God makes with man has in it the element of grace, for God is the Creator, and man is but a creature. It is therefore not for man, the recipient of covenant blessing, to question the wisdom of the terms of any covenant that the Lord makes with him. Man must obey, and he should obey thankfully and with a heart rejoicing that the Lord has consented to deal graciously with him. To disobey the covenant of grace is equivalent to acting as though one were wiser than the Lord. It is to despise His commands.
Now it was precisely this that Moses did. He had not even bothered to have one of his sons circumcised, and for this reason the Lord met him. But one will ask, Surely the Lord would not slay Moses, the greatest figure in the entire Old Testament economy? But this is just what the Lord would do. Through the grace of God Moses had indeed been exalted to a position of unparalleled superiority in the Old Testament economy. True enough. But God is not a respecter of persons. He is a just God. And if the lowliest of the Israelites, should he neglect the ordinance of circumcision, would be punished with death, so also would Moses.
The lesson which this fact inculcates is of tremendous significance. Let no one think that because he occupies some position of importance in the outward organization of the Church, he can sin with impunity. Nay, rather, if God has honored us greatly in this life, our responsibility is all the greater that we scrupulously observe to do all that He has commanded us. And let us not think that in doing the work of God we can neglect to observe what we think are little things. A little lie, now and then, a little bit of dishonesty, a little sleight of hand ethics, a little “harmless” sin on the side. No, we cannot sin with impunity. We cannot neglect anything that God has commanded us, for the Lord will not hold us guiltless. The picture which this passage presents is one of the heinousness of sin. God’s command has been broken, and the man who has broken that command is not fit to do God’s service before Pharaoh.
The Influence of Zipporah
With what has been said so far, no doubt most readers will agree. Certainly a man who neglects the so called “little” things cannot be trusted in those things which are big. But why, we may ask, did Moses neglect to observe God’s command? Was not Moses a true follower of the Lord? Was not Moses zealous for the honor of the Lord and for the deliverance of his people? Yes, Moses was a true worshipper of the Lord, but, instead of hearkening unto the voice of the Lord, Moses listened to his wife.
Careful students of this passage seem to agree that the reason why the child had not been circumcised was that Zipporah did not wish it. This becomes apparent from her quick action and from the reproaches which she cast at Moses. In all probability Zipporah had thought that circumcision was unimportant; besides it was a bloody rite; why therefore should it be performed? And evidently Moses had given heed to the voice of his wife.
This was a very wrong thing. The husband should surely love his wife even as Christ loved the Church, but the wife should be in obedience to her husband in the Lord. It is a tragic thing when a women seeks to impose her own ideas upon her husband, when that husband is a minister of the Lord. How often have the careers of sincere and God-fearing ministers been brought to nought by the influence of wives who have tried to dominate. This is a wicked thing, and Moses had done very wrong in this instance in hearkening unto his wife. He had not acted as a man; he had been a weakling.
Zipporah, therefore, acts immediately. She takes the first instrument at hand, a sharp stone, and circumcises her son, casting down at the feet of Moses the foreskin. It is almost a defiant act, as though to say, “Now I hope you are satisfied.” At any rate, the command of God has now been obeyed. From this time forth Moses doubtless had a higher regard for the importance of obedience than ever before. He had doubtless learned the lesson that one cannot be a servant of God and at the same time neglect His commands.
Zipporah reproaches Moses. “A bridegroom of blood thou art to me.” Her words are strange, but the meaning seems to be clear. Moses was as good as dead from the attack of the Lord. His life, however, had been purchased, but it had been purchased only by the shedding of the blood of his son. Hence, he was as a bridegroom, new, alive as it were from the dead. But he was a bridegroom that had been purchased by the shedding of blood. Hence she calls him a bridegroom of blood.
Without doubt this event produced a deep impression upon Moses. And it is quite likely that because of this occurrence at the inn, Moses sent back to Jethro his wife and children. Alone now he would go to Pharaoh. But it was better to go alone than to follow the advice that Zipporah would give.
The incident is not without a touch of sadness. We can see Moses taking leave of his wife and children, bidding them Godspeed as they set out for the home of Jethro in the Sinaitic wilderness. But Moses must now face the enemy alone. Before him is the mighty land of Egypt; upon the throne sits an hostile Pharaoh. The people are yet in great bondage. But, as never before, Moses understands the need of absolute obedience and absolute submission to the Word of Him who has the power of life and death. And, strengthened by the occurrence at the inn, Moses sets his face toward the adversary.
Reprinted from the Presbyterian Guardian, Volume 17, No 1, January 10, 1948. The OPC Committee for the Historian has made the archives of the Presbyterian Guardian available online!
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