Why did God want to kill Moses (Exo. 4:24-25)? (Q&A)

Q:  About Exodus 4:24-25:  Why did God want to kill Moses? And why did Zipporah cut off her son’s foreskin and cast it at Moses’ feet? Why did she say Moses is truly a “bridegroom of blood”? –Ruth C.

A:  Zipporah called Moses a “bridegroom of blood” because of the circumcision of their son (Exo. 4:26).  This refers to the small amount of blood produced in a circumcision.  But we know little else about this incident. 

It’s especially puzzling that the Lord wanted to put Moses to death, since he was in the process of going to Egypt to do exactly what the Lord had asked him to do (Exo. 4:24).  But something similar happened to the prophet Balaam when he went to prophesy over Israel.  He, too, was on his way in obedience to the command of God (Num. 22:20).  But even though he was obeying God, God was angry with him (Num. 22:22).  In the Balaam story, it’s clear that God wanted to put fear in Balaam’s heart to make sure that he only spoke the words that God wanted him to speak (“and the word that I speak to you, only that will you speak,” Num. 22:35).  So perhaps this is also what God was doing with Moses.  We know that people often go through a big spiritual struggle when God is calling them to do some great thing, and this seems to be what Moses was going through. 

But there’s also the possibility that the Lord wasn’t seeking to kill Moses but rather his son: the Bible only uses the pronoun “him.”  This assumes a connection with the immediately preceding verse in which God told Moses to threaten pharaoh’s first-born son with death if he didn’t let Israel go (“I will kill your son, your first-born,” Exo. 4:23).  In the same way, God’s covenant with Abraham threatened death for all his male descendants who weren’t circumcised (“that soul will be cut off from his people,” Gen. 17:14).  This was understood to mean death at the hand of God. Perhaps God was coming to kill Moses’ son because he wasn’t circumcised, and relented once the circumcision was performed.

This raises the question of why Moses’ son hadn’t been circumcised previously.  God’s covenant with Abraham required circumcision on the eighth day after birth (Gen. 17:12).  But Moses hadn’t done this.  Many assume this is why God attacked Moses, and that Zipporah saved the day by circumcising her son.

But it’s also possible that Moses had wanted his son to be circumcised, but up until now Zipporah had refused.  Only when she saw Moses’ spiritual struggle did she finally relent and circumcise him herself.  But there’s not enough information to decide between these possibilities.

The same is true of her calling Moses a “bridegroom of blood.”  While many assume that this is because she was upset about the circumcision, the verse doesn't actually say that she “threw” her son’s foreskin at Moses’ feet (as often translated), implying anger on her part.  Rather it says she “made it touch his feet” (v’taga l’ragelav, Exo. 4:25).  This can be understood as laying it at his feet.  This would make it rather an act of submission or even of reverence.  Since blood was often used in making covenants, she may even have seen this as establishing a deeper covenantal bond between herself and Moses, rather than as something negative.  But here again, there is not enough information to decide between the different possibilities.

(For more on this and related topics, see our Great Discoveries of the Bible Seminar.)

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