Michael S. Heiser
Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 4:21–26 is arguably one of the strangest, most confusing events recorded in the Bible. In this passage, Moses is en route to Egypt—seemingly following God’s call to deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh’s vice-like grip. But then something shocking happens:
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”
At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 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!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.
This passage is not only difficult and confusing, but it raises numerous questions. Why would God want to kill Moses right after calling him to deliver Israel? In addition to this theological conundrum, there are other uncertainties. We’re startled and confused when Zipporah, Moses’ wife (Exod 2:21), deals with this threat by immediately circumcising her son Gershom and touching the foreskin to Moses’ “feet.” What does that mean? And why would her action pacify God’s wrath?
Doing the Wrong Thing: Moses’ Negligence
If we look at the original Hebrew text of this passage, we would notice that the name “Moses” does not actually appear in the phrase translated as “touched Moses’ feet.” The text literally reads, “touched feet.” Consequently, Zipporah could have taken the foreskin and touched either Moses or Gershom, which would affect our interpretation. However, since Moses is the major character in the wider context, it seems logical to conclude that God is angry with Moses, not Gershom.
Why is God angry? We can infer the answer from two considerations: the difference between Egyptian circumcision and that prescribed by the Abrahamic covenant (Josh 5:2–9; see Gen 17), and the circumstances of Moses’ birth and childhood (Exod 1–2).
Circumcision was practiced in Egypt, but Egyptian circumcision did not remove the foreskin; instead, the foreskin was split. Any Israelite born in Egypt who was circumcised in this way would not have been in accordance with God’s covenant. Since Joshua 5:2 says some Israelite men were being circumcised “a second time,” we can infer that something was unacceptable about their Egyptian circumcision. Therefore, the ceremony in Joshua 5 would be a second circumcision for some men, but the first circumcision for those males born in the wilderness (Josh 5:4). Circumcision was not only a sign for Israelite men, but also for women, who needed to be certain they were marrying Israelites and not men who worshiped other gods. Every married Israelite man was thus a “bridegroom of blood”—a man who had undergone the blood ritual of circumcision.
Since the other Israelite males were circumcised prior to the conquest at Gilgal (some a “second time”; Josh 5:2), we can reasonably assume that Moses had never been circumcised or was circumcised according to Egyptian custom. Had he been marked by Hebrew circumcision, he would likely have been in danger in Pharaoh’s household.
God’s anger at Moses in Exodus 4 is apparently due to Moses’ negligence in obeying God’s covenant ritual as a free man in Midian after he had fled Egypt. Exodus informs us that the Midianites knew the God of Sinai and practiced circumcision—Zipporah knew how to perform the ritual (Exod 4:25). Since God chose Moses as His representative to deliver Israel, Moses’ laxity in covenant obedience became an issue. Doing the Right Thing: Zipporah’s Courage
What about the meaning of touching the foreskin to the “feet”? This is not part of the normal circumcision ritual. However, the Hebrew word translated “feet” (רגל) is also used as a euphemism for genitalia or genital functions, including sexual exposure (see Judg 3:24; 1 Sam 24:3; Ezek 16:25; Ruth 3:4, 7). The phrase in Exodus 4:25 makes sense only if Zipporah circumcised her son, Gershom, and then symbolically transferred that circumcision to Moses by taking the foreskin and touching Moses’ genitals.
Performing this rite was not only prudent, but courageous. Circumcision in Israel was performed only by religious duty—and only by men. Moses had neglected the ritual, and now he, Zipporah, and little Gershom were already on the road back to Egypt. A circumcised Moses would be unable to travel, so Zipporah performed the ritual on Gershom and, symbolically, on Moses. Her deed was unprecedented, but necessary. Zipporah acted in faith, and God relented. She saved Moses’ life and also atoned for his negligence. Moses was now a proper “bridegroom of blood.”
Will It Preach?
We shouldn’t shy away from the difficult passages of Scripture. By exploring the context of this passage, we understand God’s anger. This odd episode also presents us with several lessons. We must not neglect to do what God requires. Had Moses been obedient to the covenant ritual of circumcision after leaving Egypt, his life—and his role as God’s servant—would not have been in danger. We also need the courage to do what’s right, even if it seems out of place. Failure in any of these regards will create obstacles to God’s desire to use us for His glory.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).