Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son’s foreskin
This passage of scripture has been interpreted in a multiplicity of ways. I don’t pretend to have determined it’s meaning with absolute resolve but I do believe the following interpretation has sound support scripturally, linguistically and culturally.
Whether we presume a Mosaic or redactive authorship of the text, the fact remains, we must accept that the author—inspired by G-d—intended for this rather unusual section of Biblical narrative to be understood in the wider context of the surrounding text and with respect to the metanarrative of Hebrew/Christian Scripture. With this in mind we must consider several important pieces of information prior to beginning to unravel Shemot/Exodus 4:24-26.
The narrative of Exodus 4 is concerned with several key issues that directly affect the mystery of verses 24-26. The text focuses on the following:
1. Moses return to Egypt
2. Moses position as G-d’s mouth piece
3. The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart
4. The fact that Israel is G-d’s first born
5. The tenth plague—the death of the first born
6. The concept of covenant circumcision
Moses is taking his wife and two sons with him on this journey. He is aware that G-d has specially chosen him as His representative, to warn Pharaoh and lead Israel out of Egypt.
Moses had returned to live among his captive people Israel prior to fleeing Egypt and finding solace in the wilderness of Midian. Therefore he would have been aware of the Abrahamic covenant concerning circumcision practiced by the Hebrews in Egypt. However he married Zipporah in Midian where circumcision was most likely practiced as a coming of age ritual rather than at the required Abrahamic covenant age of eight days. Moses sons’ names were, Gershom (Stranger, sojourner) the first born, and Eliezer (My G-d is powerful/strong) the second born. Moses himself was the younger brother of Aaron (first born) and Miriam (his older sister). The Midianites worshipped G-d as El or Elohim, but did not Know Him as “I AM” or as El Elohay ha-Yisrael—G-d, the g-d of Israel. The Midianites practices of worship were different from Israel’s and they did not yet understand the special covenant and call G-d had placed on the nation of Israel.
“Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the L-rd encountered him and sought to put him to death.”
Who is the “him” in this verse?
A number of English translations render the Hebrew “him” as “Moses,” Why? One of the reasons is that English grammar usually refers back to the nearest named object when an unspecified pronoun is used to name a speaker. However this is not always the case with the Hebrew language. In fact the Hebrew language often places emphasis on the verb rather than the noun/object. In this case, what is happening to “him” is the key to “his” identity.
Another clue to the identity of the “him” in verse 24 is the theme of “first born sons.” The verses directly prior speak of the fact that Israel is called G-d’s “first born son,” followed by a warning regarding the coming tenth plague, the death of the first born sons of Egypt.
In addition we can assume that Moses was circumcised at eight days of age due to the devote nature of his parents and their willingness to hide him from pharaoh’s murderous edict against Hebrew boys.
It remains that Moses two sons are the only candidates for not having been circumcised—covenanted to G-d as Israelites through the rite of circumcision. Given that the theme of the text is in reference to the “first born,” I believe we can, with some confidence interpret the “him” in question to be Gershom, Moses first born son. For whatever reason, Gershom had not been circumcised and therefore had not entered into the covenant of G-d’s “first born,” that is, Israel. G-d is no hypocrite, nor does He abide Hypocrisy. He could hardly threaten to kill Egypt’s first born for their disobedience when His own spokesperson had not obeyed G-d by sanctifying his first born son through the blood covenant of circumcision. Moses was to represent G-d’s house, therefore Moses own house must be in order.
It is interesting to note that the Septuagint—an ancient Greek translation made by Jewish Rabbis—translates the Hebrew “L-RD” as “Angel.” We can therefore read “The Angel of the L-rd.” This links the passage to other famous physical meetings between G-d and men like Abraham, Jacob, Joshua etc.
Perhaps the best reading of Exodus 4:24 is:
“Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Angel of the L-rd encountered Gershom and sought to put him to death.”
“Then Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at his’ feet, and she said, ‘You are indeed a husband of blood to me.’”
The son in question—if we agree that Gershom is the threatened individual in the previous verse—is Moses first born Gershom. This is pretexted by the reference to Israel as G-d’s first born and the warning against the first born sons of Egypt.
It is interesting that it is Zipporah who conducts the circumcision. Where is Moses? If a father’s son is threatened surely he would be the first to act? Clearly Zipporah understood the importance of her husband’s G-d’s covenant requirements. Perhaps Zipporah, thinking the Israelite practice to barbaric, had prevented her husband from circumcising her sons? Is Zipporah’s prompt response an act of submission to the G-d of Israel? The circumcision itself initiates Gershom into the Abrahamic covenant and makes him a member of the house of Israel. The blood is a symbol of that covenant.
Who’s feet did Zipporah touch?
There are three possibilities:
1. The feet of the Angel
2. The feet of Moses
3. The feet of Gershom
The Angel of the L-rd requires no sanctification so to touch His feet would be redundant.
Moses is unlikely due to the fact that he does not seem to be otherwise mentioned in this brief encounter.
Why does Zipporah touch the child’s feet with the bloody foreskin?
The most likely answer is that Zipporah touched Gershom’s feet with the blood as a symbol of sanctification.
One explanation is that this is a foreshadowing of the blood protection of the lamb on the doorposts of Israel’s homes in Egypt.
Feet are a symbol of journey. Perhaps this indicates the sanctification of Gershom/Israel’s path forward from this point.
Another less likely view is that feet is a euphemism for genitals.
The most important aspect of this circumcision is the covenant aspect. By the practice of this rite Zipporah is submitting the life of her son to the G-d of Israel, entering him into the blood covenant of Israel. By doing this she protects him from the Angel of the L-rd, thus foreshadowing the blood protection of the Passover Lamb.
To who was Zipporah speaking when she said, “You are indeed a husband of blood to me”?
Given that Moses has not yet been referred to in our interpretation and she could not have been speaking to her son, the most likely answer is that she was speaking to the Angel of the L-rd. As previously mentioned, while Midian may have known G-d as Elohim they did not know Him as the G-d of Israel. Here Zipporah is acknowledging her marriage to the G-d of Israel, her submission to El Elohay ha-Yisrael—G-d the god of Israel.
Perhaps the best reading of Exodus 4:25 is:
“Then Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son Gershom’s foreskin and threw it at his’ feet, and she said, ‘You are indeed a husband of blood to me.’”
“So He let him alone. At that time she said, ‘A husband of blood’—referring to the circumcision.”
The result of Zipporah’s action was that the L-rd let Gershom alone. This was only possible through the blood covenant of circumcision which brought Gershom into the people of Israel, protecting him from the L-rd’s judgment. The statement, “Husband of blood” is repeated to emphasis the importance of the blood covenant in redeeming G-d’s people. This is seen as a foreshadowing, not only of the Passover lamb of Egypt but also of our Passover lamb the Messiah Yeshua—Jesus. It is also important to note that the placement of the second “Husband of blood” statement after the relenting of the L-rd, affirms the probability that Zipporah is referring to G-d rather than her earthly husband Moses. In this we can also read a foreshadowing of the references to Israel as G-d’s wife in the Prophets and Writings of the Tanakh, and later the references to the Ecclesia—Church—being the bride of Messiah.
In conclusion it seems that the more helpful translation of the text of Exodus 4:24-26 would be as follows:
“Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Angel of the L-rd encountered Gershom and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son Gershom’s foreskin and threw it at his’ feet, and she said(to the L-rd), ‘You are indeed a husband of blood to me.’ So the L-rd let Gershom alone. At that time she repeated the statement, ‘A husband of blood’—referring to the (covenant of) circumcision.”
Or… I’ve got it completely wrong and the NIV translation is correct?
© Alastair Brown 2013