At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met him and was about to kill him. 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. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)
Ronald B. Allen says that these three verses comprise “possibly the most perplexing passage in all the Torah.” The Lord was about to kill Moses and only refrained because his wife circumcised their son? I don’t know about you, but when I got to this part of Exodus, I was so bewildered that I read it about six times over, trying to make any kind of sense of it. What in the world is going on here?
Pastor Ken happened to be nearby at the time I was reading it. I went and read it to him and asked what he thought it meant. He laughed, shook his head, and said “I have no idea. No idea.”
Part of the reason this passage is so difficult is that the translation is tricky. For instance, who’s the “him” in the phrase “the Lord met him”? Most Bible translations replace “him” with “Moses,” but in the Hebrew that’s debatable. Some suggest the “him” is actually Moses’ son.
The phrase “a bridegroom of blood” (NIV) or “a bloody husband” (KJV) is tricky as well. J.A. Motyer says these words from Zipporah are “a loving cry as though to say ‘Moses, you’re back with me. You’re my bridegroom and husband all over again. Instead of taking you from me, God has given you back to me because of the blood of circumcision. My bridegroom of blood!'” But compare this to another scholar’s suggested interpretation, in which the reason why Moses’ son hadn’t been circumcised when he was eight days old as commanded in Genesis was that Zipporah, who was a Midianite and not a Hebrew, rejected the custom of circumcision as barbaric, and Moses had agreed not to force it on her. But suddenly, with God attacking Moses, she somehow realized that this attack was the result of their disobedience to Yahweh’s command of circumcision, so she capitulated in that moment, saving Moses’ life from God’s wrath but resulting in her derisive moniker for Moses, “a bloody husband,” and, although this is merely speculation, perhaps even prompting her to leave Moses altogether in a fury, since we don’t see much of her in the rest of Exodus. A diametrically opposite interpretation of the same words.
Another key issue is this: why would the Lord attempt to kill a man whom He had just called to a divine mission? That seems pretty capricious of God at first glance, especially since Moses seemingly receives no warning, in sharp contrast to Pharaoh who gets warning after warning in the coming chapters. But then again, Moses arguably had received warning, given to his forefather Abraham generations before and passed down. And Moses, having lived with his Jewish parents for the first three months of his life before being put in a basket on the Nile, was almost certainly circumcised himself. So you could argue that he should have known better.
No matter where we land on these issues, it seems that “the moral of the story,” if we are to simplify it thus, is that circumcision, and by extension, obedience to God in all matters, is of the utmost importance for those whom the Lord has called.
But what do you make of this strange story? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. You can see a lot more in-depth discussions of the passage through a quick Google search.