In the recent article on “Israel as God’s People” (Part 2) we looked briefly at the tradition recorded in Exodus 4:24-26; given the enigmatic nature of this short narrative, it is worth examining in a bit more detail. The brevity of the narrative is largely the reason for the confusion surrounding it. Most likely, at the time of its inclusion in the book of Exodus, it represented a tradition that would have been much more familiar to the audience (and better understood), and so could be presented in an abbreviated form requiring no further explanation. This, however, is no longer the case for readers today. There is immediate ambiguity and confusion in the opening statement of the narrative:
“And it came to be on the way, in the place of lodging (for the night), (that) YHWH encountered him and sought to cause him death [i.e. kill him].” (v. 24)
The “him” of this statement is ambiguous, and it is not at all clear to whom the pronominal suffix refers. Since Moses was the subject throughout chapters 3 and 4 (up to this point), it would be natural to assume that he is being referred to here as well, and that it was Moses that YHWH sought to kill. However, the context of the narrative itself (that is, what follows in vv. 25-26) indicates that it was not Moses, but rather his son, who was in danger of death. Indeed, Moses is not mentioned in the narrative at all.
Adding to our confusion is the fact that no reason is given for YHWH wishing to kill Moses’ child. Perhaps this was explained more clearly in earlier (and longer) versions of the story. However, in some ways, there was no need for any explanation. At the historical level, the threat to the child need not have meant anything more than that he had been struck by a sudden and life-threatening illness. According to the thought-world of the ancient Near East, such illness, as might afflict a young and vulnerable child, was regarded as the action of a deity (or semi-divine being); and, from the standpoint of Israelite monotheism, ultimately these threats to life could only originate from YHWH Himself, and were under His control.
At the same time, there is a deeper significance, when the episode is considered in terms of the thematic and literary structure of the wider Exodus narrative. The threat to Moses’ son, for example, mirrors the threat to his own life, when he was an infant (2:1-10). At that time, according to the Exodus account, the Pharaoh sought to curb the Israelite (Hebrew) population by putting the newborn/infant males (i.e., their sons) to death (1:15-22). Again, Moses’ life was threatened following the incident in 2:11ff; in verse 15 the text states that Pharaoh sought to slay Moses, using the same verb (vq^B*) as here in 4:24. The wording is perhaps even closer in 4:19, where the phrase is “the men seeking to bring death to your soul”.
Even more important is the motif of the firstborn son, and the threat to its life. In 4:22-23, God declares that the people of Israel, collectively (and symbolically), are His firstborn son; I discuss the Old Testament background for the idea of Israel as God’s “son”, along with the importance of the firstborn (as consecrated to God, belonging to Him), in Part 2 of the aforementioned article. The threat to Israel (God’s “firstborn”), already prefigured in chapters 1-2, takes on greater prominence as a theme in the Plague-narrative cycle, where the situation is reversed, and YHWH threatens the life of the firstborn of Egypt, while the Israelites themselves are protected.
This brings us to the remainder of the narrative in 4:25-26. In response to the threat (from YHWH) to her son, Moses’ wife Zipporah takes an urgent action, performing circumcision on him (i.e., cutting off the foreskin of the child’s genital). Again, the exact reason why this was done is unclear, in terms of the original tradition (and how it is recorded here), and when considered at the historical level. According to (subsequent) Israelite tradition, a male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day of life (Lev 12:3, etc); however, in earlier times, and perhaps among the Midianites, this may not have been the established practice, and so the child had simply not yet been circumcised at the time of this incident. In light of the sudden (and unexpected) danger to the child’s life, Zipporah may have been driven to perform circumcision in the hopes of averting his death.
The magical quality attributed to the blood in ancient times, and even so among the Israelites (and reflected to varying degrees in the Torah rituals), doubtless would have played a role in this thinking. The action described in vv. 25-26 may reflect details of ritual now lost to us. In addition to the circumcision itself, two specific details are recorded:
- Zipporah “touches” (vb ug~n`) the child’s “feet” with it— “it” presumably being the detached foreskin, with the emphasis perhaps being on the blood of the foreskin. In Hebrew idiom, “feet” can be used as a euphemism for the male genitals (e.g., Judg 3:24, etc).
- After YHWH ‘releases’ the child—i.e., when the life-threatening illness or condition subsides—Zipporah makes the declaration:
“A µ¹t¹n of blood for (the) cutting off (of the foreskin)!”
The meaning and force of the declaration in verse 26 is most obscure. The root meaning of /tj itself is unclear; as it occurs in the Old Testament, the noun /t*j* (µ¹t¹n) and its related forms typically refer to a relative of the wife (or bride) and her family. It can also refer specifically to a man (i.e. groom) who marries into the bride’s family. Perhaps the implication of the declaration is that the relationship between the two families—of Moses (Israel) and Zipporah (Midian)—is more firmly established now through the circumcision of the child. There is also the linguistic indication that the root µtn (or a separate root with the same consonants) also denotes the idea of protection, as is attested in Akkadian and later in Arabic (cf. Sarna, p. 26). This meaning would be appropriate, both in the immediate context of this episode, and in the wider setting of the Exodus narrative. Along these lines, perhaps the meaning of the declaration is something like, “the blood of the circumcision was protection for him”.
However we may determine the significance of the original tradition (and much of that is simply lost to us today), its place in the Exodus narrative has given the episode a new meaning and importance. As I have previously noted, the juxtaposition of the firstborn-circumcision motifs, in 4:21-26, represent a theme that frames and binds the entire narrative of 4:19-13:16:
- Israel as God’s firstborn son (4:22-23)
- Consecration of the firstborn as belonging to God (13:1, 11-15)
These motifs, as they appear in seminal form in 4:21-26, highlight two central themes: (1) belonging to the community of the people of God (the “firstborn” of YHWH), and (2) the protection this brings (from death, etc). While the firstborn of Egypt are killed (by YHWH) on the night of Passover, the firstborn of Israel are protected, and the Israelites (i.e., those who are circumcised) themselves given freedom/release from bondage. There is every reason to think that, at the historical level, the threat of death coming from YHWH simply refers to the occurrence of illness or disease (plague), over which God has ultimate control, and which can be “sent”, personified as a divine being or “messenger”, to afflict a population.
References above marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).