“And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him [Moses], and sought to kill him.” (Exodus 4:24)
This verse occurs in the midst of the account of Moses traveling from Midian back to Egypt from which he had fled 40 years earlier. God was sending Moses on a mission to deliver the Israelites from slavery. It would seem to be a very strange thing indeed for God to suddenly decide to kill Moses, His chosen servant, as he was on his way to fulfill the mission God had called him to do.
Moses had just been told what he was to say unto Pharaoh and then, suddenly, these three short verses are inserted:
“And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.” (Exo 4:24-26)
Many people would just see this as further evidence that God does in fact kill people. But if God would suddenly get mad at his servant Moses and kill him without a reason even being obviously stated then are any of us safe from God’s wrath? Surely there must be more going on in this story.
Many Bible versions translate the last part of the verse “as God tried to kill him.”
One obvious question is if God actually sought to – wanted to – kill Moses, why wasn’t Moses dead at that point? How could God want to do something and fail to achieve His objective? Did He take a shot at Moses and miss?
Let’s get more background to understand what is really happening here. An earlier verse documents the beginning of this trip:
“And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.” (Exo 4:20)
As it mentions that Moses’ wife and both sons were riding on one animal, the boys must have been quite young. Since verse 24 mentions the circumcision of only one son, it seems that must have involved Eliezer, the younger son. As that circumcision seemed to settle the issue, it is assumed that Gershom, the elder son had previously been circumcised.
The ordinance of circumcision was specified in connection with the covenant between God and His people:
“This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.” (Gen 17:10-11)
It is obvious that Moses’ younger son had not previously been circumcised and therefore Moses was in violation of that command. Why had he not obeyed on this point? Perhaps there was some opposition from Zipporah (“the Ethiopian woman whom he had married” – Num 12:1) who may not have been as familiar or comfortable with this practice.
Moses was headed to Egypt – essentially enemy territory where those in power did not acknowledge God (“I know not the LORD” – Exo 5:2) and there would be grave threats to meet him there. He would especially need God’s protection which is promised on condition of obedience:
“The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.” (Psa 34:7)
“My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt.” (Dan 6:22)
“Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; … he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.” (Psa 91:9,11)
Was Moses in danger of losing the protection of angels because of his neglect and fulfilling this requirement? God spoke like this of Abraham:
“For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” (Gen 18:19)
Abraham had fulfilled the requirement of circumcision showing his trust in God to keep his promises. Now here was Moses who also had a special place in God’s plan and yet he was not keeping all the ways of the Lord regarding his household.
So as they traveled somehow Zipporah came to understand that Moses life was in danger and she quickly took care of the matter herself. Her subsequent action and words to Moses seem to indicate her disgust at the whole matter.
God Said to Do What He Does Not Prevent
Regarding the statement that God sought to kill Moses, it needs to be recognized that, in scripture, God is often said to do that which He merely permitted or allowed. This has been widely-recognized in the past.In this case, He would have had to allow the destruction of Moses (as Moses had forfeited protection) had not the requirement been fulfilled. In mercy, He brought the matter to attention before it was too late.
Punishment was not Death
It should be pointed out that the penalty for failing to circumcise was not death but exclusion from God’s people:
“And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” (Gen 17:14)
While that verse specifies that it is the child who was to be cut off, it seems that, in this account, it was Moses who was considered guilty.
Some Other Theories
One idea is that the Lord had merely revealed to Moses the presence of an evil angel ready to destroy him. If God had to withdraw His protection because of Moses’ disobedience then this angel could have certainly taken his life and prevented him from completing his assigned task.
Another theory on the “he let him go” in verse 26 is that Eliezer was older (not just an infant or young child) by this point and Moses had to hold him while Zipporah did the circumcision. Then it is “Moses let Eliezer go” once the operation was completed. The substitution of pronouns sometimes introduces uncertainty as to who is being referred to. Of course, it can also be that God let Moses go – let him continue on his way to Egypt as it was now safe to proceed. And it is obvious that Moses and his family did so.