Explaining Exodus 4:24-26

by Carey Scott

"And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses' feet, and said, "Surely you are a husband of blood to me!" So He let him go. Then she said, "You are a husband of blood!" -because of the circumcision" (Exodus 4:24-26).

I have done some preliminary investigation and with the assistance of others, whom I respect, and by use of commentaries by well-studied scholars, I feel that I can answer questions about this passage that is in accord with revealed scripture. "But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Peter 1:20-21). We must answer biblical questions with the information provided by Scripture. This is done in several ways:

  1. By providing scriptural commands such as book, chapter, and verse.
  2. By drawing lessons from what is written about others. (Read I Corinthians 10:6, 11).
  3. By drawing necessary implication of understanding by what is said, and being very careful not to go beyond that which is written, to go too far in our presumption or supposition, because of something that is not said specifically in Scripture. (Read I Corinthians 4:6; Romans 15:4).

When it comes to the exact meaning of the passage above, it becomes impossible, with any certainty, to explain the specifics. There are, however, several clues in this passage by which we can offer an explanation that is plausible, or possible.

Exodus 4:24 "sought to put him to death"

Some versions insert the name of Moses; however, the original language was sufficient to just say "him". Scholars vary as to which of three possible people we could be discussing. Moses, Gershom, or Eliezer were the only "him's" in this scenario.

Also note that if God desires something to happen, then it is as good as already done. We have a similar story in Numbers 22, in which the angel of the Lord was ready to strike Baalam, and had it not been for his donkey, he most certainly would have perished. By this, we learn that there were conditions placed upon the "him" that put him in peril of death. As we will see, had he not taken the necessary steps he would have died.

The next question is why try to put him to death.

The answer is found within the context of the passage. We see in Exodus 4:25 that Zipporah circumcises her son. This action obviously spared the "him" from certain death. Let's see why this action is at the root of this answer.

Genesis 17:10-14 describes the covenant with God and Abraham. The specifics of the rite were to be through all the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 17:9,10). Every male, including servants, was to be circumcised (Genesis 17:11). The age of eight days was to be the time when this happened (Genesis 17:12). Emphasis has to be understood where there is a specific, all other options are removed. In this case, not seven or not nine, but specifically "eight". Failure to do this action would result in being cut off from God's people (Genesis 17:14). The severity of being cut-off is realized when you compare passages from Exodus 12:15,19 and Leviticus 7:20,21,25,27.

Failure to circumcise his son would have removed Moses from a covenant relationship. We use a pattern of speech from time to time in which a part is substituted for the whole. If a part of the family of Moses was to be cut-off, then the whole family had to be cut-off. (Look what happened to Achan's family in Joshua 7:22-25). This would have made Moses unfit for the task that God had appointed for him. Compare also the statement in James 2:10, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all."

Moses was certainly under a covenant law at this time, though not the Law of Moses because the Law from Mt Sinai had not yet been given.

This most certainly was indicated to Moses and Zipporah in some way, form, or fashion. We are left in the dark as to how they were given this information. We only can see the result of obedience to this small part of God's covenant: Exodus 4:26 "so He (GOD) let him (?) alone."

There should really be no problem with this narrative even though it is so brief. God has always revealed to His people what He expects from them. It would most certainly be cruel if God expected something that He had not revealed to us. Thank God for His Holy Scriptures.

Important Facts

As to the time of this narrative, several facts jump out.

  1. They were staying at an encampment. Possible some sort of prepared shelter for travelers of that day. This would cause us to assume that it was evening or night.
  2. They were on their journey back to Egypt so that Moses could fulfill his mission. We are left in the dark as to what season of the year it was.
  3. This was the eighth day of the birth of Moses' son. We cannot possibly know for sure which son. Exodus 2:22 records the birth of Gershom, but also in Exodus 18:2-4 we have a record of two sons.

The fact that Zipporah did the circumcision has led many to conjecture that Moses was struck so severely, that he could not possibly have performed this act. Exodus 4:25 does seem to indicate that Zipporah was not very happy about this event; "she threw it at Moses' feet." In Exodus 4:26 she speaks harshly, "You are a bridegroom of blood."

Lessons to be Learned

Even with all the possibilities which seem to be too numerous to try to explain, debate, or even understand, we can still learn lessons from this.

  1. One must obey all the law in order to be right with God.
  2. One must do the things of the law in the proper order and time and manner.
  3. One must do the things of the law with a clear conscience and pure heart. It must be done out of a sense of duty and honor. Especially; serving God must come from the motives of the heart.
  4. All people are subject to God's laws. Either the people immortalized in God's book or the nameless ones throughout human history (including you and me).
  5. No one is too great to be above the law.

I do not know if I have answered all the questions about this passage, or if I have even explained it correctly. I do know that I have not entertained any thoughts that would contradict Scripture elsewhere. Maybe in eternity, we will have the time to learn all of this, but most likely, by the time we get there, this will seem unimportant.

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