8 Things I Learned from God Seeking to Kill Moses in Exodus 4

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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” (Exod 4:24-26).

Yesterday, someone asked me about the text above. His pastor told him that the LORD sought to kill Moses because he was sick and could not perform his mission of leading Israel out of Egypt anymore!

“The Circumcision” by William Blake, ca. 1799-1800

The three verses above are very brief and the details are sparse. Thus, many questions are inevitable. Why did the LORD want to kill Moses? Why does the next verse say that Zipporah cut off her son’s foreskin, and then called Moses “a bridegroom of blood”? Finally, why did the LORD relent from killing Moses?

This incident also seems disconnected from the immediate context. The LORD just commissioned Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt (Exod 3:1-4:23). So, on his journey from Midian back to Egypt, Moses stopped at a lodging place where this incident takes place.

Why did the LORD want to kill Moses? The answer can be found if we go back 500 years in time to God’s covenant with Abraham. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his covenant people, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant … ” (Gen 17:7). And the sign of being in this covenant is circumcision, “You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you … throughout your generations …” (Gen 17:11-12). What if a member of the covenant people is not circumcised? He and his father shall be put to death, “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” (Gen 17:14). To “cut off” means to put to death (Gen 9:11; Exod 31:14; Isa 53:8).

We know from verse 25 that this is exactly the reason why God sought to kill Moses: he did not circumcise his son. Zipporah knew this, so she immediately circumcised (“cut off”) her son to appease God’s wrath. But in her repugnance against this covenant sign, Zipporah touched Moses’ feet with the foreskin, and then called Moses a bloody husband, “a bridegroom of blood,” in her displeasure. So as soon as the child was circumcised, the LORD relented from killing Moses, “So he let him alone” (v 26).

Why is this “excursus” inserted into the story of the appointment of Moses as the leader of God’s covenant people? Is there anything to learn from this incident? Most importantly, since Jesus himself said that all Holy Scriptures point to him, what is here to learn about him? These and other questions will be answered from 8 things I learned from this short passage.

1. God is not what your church taught you. He is not merely a God of love. In addition to the speculation that Moses had a terminal disease, the pastor of my friend also added that God is not so cruel and arbitrary as to kill Moses for such a trivial thing as circumcision. And this is what we hear today in most evangelical churches—that God is a loving, merciful God who wants you to be happy and blessed and prosperous.

No, God is not only a God of love. He is also a holy and just God who cannot wink at sin. He is wrathful against evildoers, and hell is full of people from Sodom and Gomorrah and Noah’s flood. His holiness demands that his created human beings also be holy (1 Pet 1:15).

2. Nothing has changed about sin since Adam. The penalty for disobeying God’s law is death. A few verses before this incident in Moses’ life, the LORD commanded him to go to Pharaoh and demand, “Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son” (Exod 4:22-23). There’s a bit of irony here: in breaking God’s covenant law about circumcising all covenant sons, Moses provoked the LORD to seek to kill him.

God was not in a joking mood when he warned Adam not to disobey on the pain of sure death. Or when he warned Israel that breaking any of his covenant laws would result in curses, exile and eventually, death. One act of disobedience resulted in the death of all human beings, because all have sinned in Adam. It hasn’t changed today, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

3. God is not a respecter of celebrities. No one is exempt from sin, and no one is exempt from God’s wrath because of sin. Not Adam, not Abraham, not David, not Israel, not Peter. Surely not even Moses. Would he have been exempted from death because the LORD chose him as Israel’s leader? What would happen to God’s plan to redeem his people from Egypt if he killed their leader? But it is clear from this incident that God expected his appointed leader to be holy and righteous before him and the people. As leader, he has to be the role model of the people in obeying God’s covenant laws, especially his holy sign and seal of circumcision.

This should give pause to pastors, teachers, elders, deacons and other leaders in the church. No one is exempt from God’s displeasure in officebearers who fail in shepherding the flock according to God’s Word. They have more accountability to God.

4. According to covenant theology, neglecting infant baptism is a deadly sin. As I said above, many uninformed evangelicals think that God is so loving and merciful that he would pass over such minor sins as Moses not circumcising his son. Since there is overwhelming Biblical data on the connection between OT bloody circumcision and NT water baptism (see No. 5 below), it is also “a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance” (Westminster Confession of Faith 28:5).

Not that you’ll be struck dead by God if you don’t have your infant baptized by the eighth day, but it’s still a great sin, and I shudder at the thought of giving an account to God on Judgment Day why I despised the sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace, of “righteousness by faith” (Rom 4:11). This is why Baptists would rather not talk about covenant theology (and also early church history), and if they do, they would arbitrarily say that there is no continuity in the covenant signs of circumcision and water baptism.

5. God spared Moses’ life because of Christ’s work. Did the circumcision of his son itself caused God to spare Moses’ life? No, circumcision did not atone for the sin of Moses. Circumcision, the cutting off of the foreskin, involves the shedding of blood, and the shedding of blood results in death. Atoning for sin has always been through the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22).

Much more, circumcision was applied on the reproductive organ of males, symbolically cutting off the means by which the sinful nature was passed on from Adam, the head of the covenant of works, to the whole human race. Circumcision therefore is symbolic of God’s promise of forgiveness of sin through the shedding of human blood.

Paul says that we have been “circumcised … by the circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11). This means that we have been “cut off” from bondage to Adam’s disobedience into freedom from sin and death because of Christ’s obedience. This he accomplished by willingly being “cut off out of the land of the living” (Isa 53:8; Dan 9:26). By his “circumcision” at the cross, Christ has united us to him in his life, death and resurrection:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:11-12; emphasis added).

Notice that his death was his “circumcision” and his burial was his “baptism.”

Moses, therefore, was forgiven of his violation of God’s covenant law of circumcision by the “circumcision” of Christ. Like his father Abraham, Moses looked forward to the heavenly reward, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb 11:26; see also Heb 11:10).

6. Doing God’s will, however reluctantly, is pleasing to God. Because of our sinful nature, our earthly passions and desires are difficult to overcome. This is why the Bible is filled with injunctions and exhortations to “circumcise your heart” (Deut 10:16), which means to “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Rom 4:12), to keep the commandments of God, whether circumcised or not (1Cor 7:19; Gal 6:15), to no longer walk in our former ways (Eph 4:17), and to be a “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:2).

So Zipporah’s reluctant obedience—even her repugnance—to God’s law of circumcision made satisfaction for Moses’ sin.

7. Marrying unbelievers is always a bad idea. Notwithstanding your pious and grand intention of bringing your BF or GF to the LORD, marrying an unbeliever is always a bad idea. Because God did not set his people apart from the world so they will intermarry with the world and be “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (Deut 7:3-4; 1Kgs 11:2; 2Cor 6:14).

In fact, it’s an extremely horrible idea: to marry an unbeliever is equivalent to having an agreement with Satan! “What accord has Christ with Belial?” (2Cor 6:15).

Exhibit A: Moses.

Exhibit B: Solomon. “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women … For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God … So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD …” (1Kgs 11:1, 4, 6).

The consequence: “Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, ‘Since … you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant'” (1Kgs 11:11).

Exhibit C: Ahab. “And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him … he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him” (1Kgs 16:30-31).

The consequence: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood … The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel. Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat” (1Kgs 21:19, 23-24).

8. Husbands who submit to their wives’ wishes are losers in a heap of trouble. From Adam to Moses to the Israelites at Baal-Peor to Samson to Solomon to Ahab to Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and to Jim Bakker, this is the oldest story in the world. Husbands acquiescing to their wives’ desires to keep the peace usually swallow the bitter pill of trouble with God and neighbor.

This is so because after the Fall, one of the pronouncements against Eve is, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16). Women will always desire to subvert the natural order that God has established between husband and wife—that of male headship in marriage—and the result is most often disastrous.

Exhibit A: Moses.

Exhibit B: Adam. “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’ … Because you have listened to the voice of your wife …” (Gen 3:12, 17). Pathetic men would give such a lame excuse for their stupid mistakes, this one having universal and eternal consequences.

Exhibit C: Israelites at Baal-Peor. “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor.” The consequence: “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel'” (Num 25:1-4).

Exhibit D: Samson. “And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death. And he told her all his heart, and said to her, ‘ … If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man'” (Jdg 16:16-17). The consequence: “And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles. And he ground at the mill in the prison” (Jdg 16:21).

Exhibit C: Ahab. “And Jezebel his wife said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite'” (1 Kgs 21:7). And we know the rest of the story from No. 7 above.

Exhibit D: Jim Bakker. Read about him and his wife Tammy Faye, always appearing “in overstated outfits and heavy makeup,” here. The consequence: the downfall and imprisonment of Jim Bakker.

Exhibit E: Ferdinand Marcos. Read a summary of the ostentatious and ambitious life and times of Imelda Marcos, wife of the Philippine president, as depicted in a pop opera, “Here Lies Love.” The consequence: the downfall and exile of Marcos in 1986.

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