The Bible is full of strange stories and passages that we often overlook in the grand narrative. There, tucked in the book of Exodus, after Moses' encounter with the burning bush is just such an odd and disconcerting passage. We are all familiar to the point of over-familiarity with the story of the burning bush because it is taught to us ad nauseum as children in Sunday school, has been taught and preached repeatedly, and has entered even our secular culture that even someone who has never attended a church or synagogue know of Moses and his encounter with the burning bush.
What follows in this encounter is God calling Moses to go before Pharaoh and tell him that "I Am Who I Am" sent him and to let the Israelites go. Moses tries to negotiate his way out of God's call to the point where God's anger was kindled against him. After this scene, Moses returns to Jethro, his father-in-law's, to get permission to return to Egypt. He gains this and, with his wife and sons, they return.
Here's where the story gets really weird.
"At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, 'Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!' So he let him alone. It was then that she said, 'A bridegroom of blood,' because of the circumcision." (Exodus 4:24-26).
What the . . .?
Bridegroom of blood?
What is that all about? It sounds like the title of an episode of Game of Thrones.
Now I have read Exodus numerous times and yet this part of the story has gone overlooked until now. Like many biblical stories, I tend to gloss over such strange passages and focus solely on the more well-known parts. I have probably just read over such side stories and paid little to no attention to them because it didn't fit with the story I remembered. Yet, when I read this section of Moses' life, I just sat there, puzzled and baffled at what this possibly even meant. It's certainly not something I've heard in any Sunday school story or sermon.
I grew up being taught that if it's in the Bible, it has a purpose. So what's the point of this that it got included in the narrative of scripture?
The more I thought about this passage, the more puzzled I became, so I decided to research the meaning, if it even had one. So, down the rabbit hole I jumped.
(Yes, this is how my mind works, so you can imagine what it's like for my poor wife).
Let's start with the first part in verse 24 where it says, "At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death." A very ominous and disturbing verse to read. Why was the Lord wanting to put Moses to death? Was it because his anger had been kindled by Moses' reluctance despite Yahweh had revealed himself to Moses and this was still met with reluctance? Despite agreeing to let Aaron speak for Moses, had God's anger had not been appeased even as Moses was returning to Egypt?
A "lodging place" comes from the word malon, which literally means "resting place." So Moses and his family had stopped to rest. " . . . on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death" is very unsettling. Did the Lord literally go to meet Moses with the aim of killing him? And why wouldn't he have done it earlier at the burning bush when he could have easily consumed him with flames instead of out in the desert with his wife and children? And why would God kill this man He had just called to lead His people out of bondage in Egypt?
It is very cryptic as to why God wanted to kill Moses. Some have interpreted the reason as being Moses neglect of having circumcised his son, but why would God want to kill him for this and without any warning? Besides, Genesis states that neglecting to circumcise was punishable by exclusion from one's people not death. They write that because Moses didn't circumcise their son, Zipporah took matters into her own hand and did it, with great disgust, and that was why she called him a "bridegroom of blood."
Some have interpreted this verse as Moses became deathly ill and Zipporah understood this to be punishment from God. Some have interpreted it to mean that it was their son and not Moses who had taken ill. They take this interpretation because the previous verses had been about sons:
"Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord, Israel is my
firstborn son, and I say to you, 'Let my son go that he may serve me.'
If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son."
Scholars have noted that this text is confusing since it says "the Lord met him and sought to put him to death" without specifying who "him" is in this passage.
I tend to lean towards him being Moses, since there was no mention prior to this verse that would cause a change in perspectives off of Moses. Everything up until this verse has been about Moses and God. My thoughts are, that if this were Moses' son, then he would have either been named or it the verse would have said ". . . the Lord met him and sought to put his son to death."
Whomever the Lord sought to meet and kill, it seems capricious and without reason, which we know is not God. I know I have always struggled with the Old Testament God who seems more prone to wrath and commands the Israelites to kill women, children, and animals of their enemies. Noted atheist Richard Dawkins wrote in his book The God Delusion:
"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character
in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak;
a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic,
capriciously malevolent bully."
Very strong and harsh criticisms that many will immediately take offense of and dismiss his complaints. But when I look closely at parts of the Old Testament, I want to cringe. So how do we square this view of God with the New Testament one that Christ portrays in images like the father running without concern for his own sense of authority or pride to embrace his prodigal son who is returning home? And Jesus keeps reminding his disciples that he and the Father are one. If "Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever," as the author of Hebrews 13:8 writes, then how do we view God in terms of problematic passages that make Him appear more vengeful and angry than filled with the grace and mercy that Jesus proclaims. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes on him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17).
I often think how we view God says more about us than it does God. As Anne Lamott wrote, "We know we have remade God in our own image when He dislikes all the same people that we do."
What this means is that we cannot look at God through any other lens than the one Christ has given to us. We cannot view God through our limited perceptions or even the limited perceptions of biblical figures, who often get things very wrong because they bring to God their prejudices, dispositions, and peculiarities. Too often we see Israel's kings and priests giving God a blood-thirsty voice to justify their human violence, while the prophets of God warn against this and of our remaking God into a god of blood-lust.
When we mistake man's perception of God as to being the real image of God, then we, too, want to cry out in disgust like Zipporah did, "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!"
It is only after she circumcises her son and touched Moses' feet with it and declared those words that the Bible adds, "So he let him alone." Once again, the nouns are nonspecific, though we assume that the first he is the Lord and the second is Moses. Then Zipporah repeats, "A bridegroom of blood," this time "because of the circumcision." She is angry with her husband. In Hebrew the word is hatan means "bridegroom," but in Arabic, it meant "protected" or "circumcised" which would change the meaning to "You are protected by blood." Ultimately, viewed in these terms, we are once again pointed back to atoning blood, which we will next see with the lamb's blood brushed onto the doorposts and lintels of their houses in Egypt and, ultimately, Christ on the cross.
Once more, I am confronted by how I do not know my Bible as well as I think and that it never stops surprising me. It also reminds me that scripture does not give easy answers or, as Rich Mullins said about scripture, that it "does not give us answers fitted to our small-minded questions, but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask."
That's why, when I come across passages that confuse and baffle me, I search out text and context. The Bible is a narrative of love and grace, which points ultimately to Christ. Everything points to a cross that tells us: God loves you and meets you at the place of your common need and brings those who let him to salvation. Scripture, like the book of Exodus, is about deliverance and redemption and how messy and costly this wild, extravagant grace can be.