Can we make sense of a seemingly senseless story?
Probably the strangest and most troubling story in the whole book of Exodus is the incident recounted in Exodus 4:24-26. It is a postage stamp of a story, very short, and yet it raises all kinds of questions.
The incident takes place as Moses and his family are journeying from Midian to Egypt. Moses, somewhat reluctantly, is responding to God’s call to return to Egypt to direct Israel’s liberation from Pharaoh’s bondage. The family has stopped for the night.
During the night God tries to kill Moses. Moses’ wife Zipporah comes to the rescue. She circumcises one of her sons and touches the excised foreskin to Moses’ feet (probably meant as a euphemism for Moses’ genitals).* This works. Moses survives. But Zipporah is shaken. She exclaims to Moses cryptically, Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!
We are far from the first generation to scratch our heads over this story. How are we to make sense out of what appears a senseless story? Generations of Bible commentators have struggled with this story without any consensus of interpretation emerging.
The question that jumps up for all of us is: Why? Why does God, who has just commissioned Moses to his world-changing mission, try immediately to kill Moses? Why is Moses saved by the circumcision of his son? Why does in fact this story even appear in the book of Exodus? What significance did the book’s editors see in the story that they had to include it in their narrative?
The text gives almost no clues to interpretation. When we try to blow away the obscurity, it just resettles back in.
I will say right up front: there are no conclusive answers to these whys. The text gives almost no clues to interpretation. When we try to blow away the obscurity, it just resettles back in. All we can do is speculate, which I will do.
When I said there are almost no clues to interpretation, that almost reserves space for one possible clue. That is the story’s placement within the narrative of Exodus. It comes after Moses’ call at the burning bush, but before Moses’ arrival in Egypt. The journey Moses and his family are making marks an important transition.
Moses is leaving behind his 40-year life as a Midianite shepherd living within the family tents of Jethro. In Egypt Moses will embark on a fearful mission of political provocateur and freedom fighter, then later in the wilderness as spiritual and political leader of an emerging nation.
Cultural Associations with Circumcision
In the realm of world cultures, the rite of circumcision often serves as an identity marker. It establishes a man’s identity within a group. The rite is also associated with times of identity transition.
For example, in Judaism, a male child is circumcised eight days after birth. Circumcision seals that boy’s membership within the covenant circle of Israel. This comes through clearly in the account of the institution of the practice of circumcision recounted in Genesis 17:9-14. There it is said that any Israelite boy who remains uncircumcised shall be cut off from his people, for he has broken my covenant (Genesis 17:14).
In other cultures, especially some African tribal cultures, circumcision is a rite performed when a boy at puberty transitions from the status of child to a full-fledged member of the tribe’s adult males. It forms an important element of the initiation ceremonies that take place at that time.
My speculation is that we need to keep these cultural associations in mind as we read this particular story in Exodus.
Moses in Transition
As I said earlier, the journey marks an important transition in Moses’ life. He is also moving from one identity to another. Although born a Hebrew, Moses was raised in an Egyptian household, presumably acquiring many of the cultural attitudes and mindsets of Egyptians. Then he spent another 40 years living in the tribe of Midian, presumably adapting to the life style and cultural attitudes of that Bedouin tribe.
In his new role Moses will be living in and leading an Israelite people. He will need to identify and adapt to this new cultural setting. He will have to sever any lingering ties he may still have to his Egyptian upbringing and to his Midianite life. His identity must now be completely and fully with the Israelites.
In his new role…[Moses’] identity must now be completely and fully with the Israelites.
Exodus does not tell us if Moses was circumcised as a child or not, but if he was not, he will now have to be as a part of this psychological transition. Is it possible that this short incident is a disguised recognition by the editors that Moses had to undergo this identity marker himself?
The transition that Moses must undergo in his identity is one his family must undergo as well. They too will now have to identity fully with their new Israelite cousins and neighbors, severing any lingering psychological ties to the Midianite family and heritage.
If Moses’ son has not been circumcised, then there is a serious deficiency in Moses’ family as the family moves into the circle of the Israelite people. Moses’ mission as liberator is undermined by inconsistencies in his own family. The family must complete its transition into the new social circle. Zipporah is possibly recognizing this harsh fact when she blurbs out about Moses being a bridegroom of blood. The transitions Moses and his family are going through are painful and disruptive.
Baptism as a Christian Rite of Transition
In the Christian church, baptism replaces circumcision as the identity marker that identifies an individual as a member of the community of believers. In the early church baptism was regarded as a serious affair. It marked the decisive transition point when an individual passed from the community of pagans or Jews and one entered fully into the new family that constituted the Christian family.
Interestingly this rite of transition was regarded as an experience of spiritual death and resurrection (see the apostle Paul’s exposition of that belief in Romans 6:1-4). And in terms of the real social consequences many early Christians experienced by their decision to become a Christian (such as ostracism or persecution), Paul’s language takes on real psychological weight.**
On the basis of this analogy, one may argue that this incident in the desert is Moses’ spiritual baptism into his new role as God’s appointed man to assist in God’s creation of this new people of Israel.*** Certainly both of these rites–baptism and circumcision–carry these associations with transition.
I freely admit that what I have just expounded is pure speculation on my part. It is importing insights from non-biblical cultures into the interpreting of scripture. And some of my readers may regard that as inappropriate.
Nonetheless, the story remains an enigma. It possesses an ineradicable ambiguity. It reminds me of Japanese haiku poems like the one by the Japanese poet Basho.
The autumn full moon:
All night long
I paced round the lake.
The poem has an ineradicable ambiguity, too. What does it mean? It all depends upon what one associates with the poet’s night walk around the lake. Is it a pleasant night stroll or is it a fretful walk as the poet contends with some great agitation in his mind? The poet gives us almost no clues apart from the possible suggestion made by the word paced. We usually do not use the word pace to describe a relaxed, peaceful walk.
This story in Exodus functions somewhat in the same way. We ultimately cannot nail down its meaning definitively. And in that characteristic it may bear witness to an uncomfortable feature about divine activity in the world. Sometimes God’s ways can seem so absurdly senseless. We cannot detect the divine motive or purpose for things that happen in our lives, if there is even one. Yet the biblical witness is that God is at work in the world to accomplish his purposes, purposes which move towards healing and fulfillment. But we cannot always see that clearly. So we live our Christian lives by faith rather than by sight.
* The antecedents of the pronouns are ambiguous in the Hebrew. Does Zipporah apply the excised foreskin to Moses’ feet or her son’s feet? It is not clear. Many translations (like the NRSV) assume the ‘his’ means Moses’. Here we have a clear example of how translators sometimes make assumptions that go beyond the Hebrew text proper.
** The radical nature of Christian baptism got lost when Europe turned into Christendom. In that setting baptism became more a symbol of citizenship.
*** Here I am not trying to Christianize Moses’ experience. Rather I am trying to call attention to the similar effects that both Jewish circumcision and Christian baptism have on the respective spiritual status of their recipients.