A Strange Return to Egypt
This is a strange, supernatural, and thick chapter in the Bible. It’s packed with features that echo through the pages of Scripture. There is a staff that turns into a serpent. There’s leprosy, the dreaded skin disease that leaves its mark from Leviticus to Matthew.
There’s the infamous Nile River, where Pharaoh sought to drown the Hebrew boys. We have two meetings at the mountain of God, one between Moses and Yahweh, and one between Moses and Aaron. We have references to firstborn sons, anticipations of the plagues on Egypt, and then the strangest passage of them all—we have circumcision and a bridegroom of blood.
Now passages like this immediately provoke lots of questions. Why does God give Moses these three particular signs? Is there a deeper meaning to each of them? Why does God mention the firstborn son already? The angel of death won’t show up until Exodus 11 and 12, but here in chapter 4, before Moses even arrives at Pharaoh’s court, we already have promises of hardening and threats of death to firstborn sons. And then of course, the bizarre passage about Zipporah—Why does God want to kill Moses? Why does Zipporah think circumcising Gershom will help? And why does she touch the legs with blood? This is a strange passage of Scripture.
So I want to first remind you about how we should approach strange passages in Scripture. Back in Genesis, when God revealed himself to Abraham in a flaming pot between the carcasses of animals, I said, “Don’t let the strange keep you from the simple. Don’t let the simple keep you from the strange.”
On the Mountain
So, to begin, 4:1-17 is an extension of chapter 3. In truth, there really shouldn’t be a chapter break here. This is simply the continuing conversation between the Lord and Moses. And this conversation is structured around five questions or statements from Moses, two in chapter 3 and three in chapter 4. If we pay attention, we’ll see the way that the conversation progresses and then escalates. As Pastor Jonathan noted last week, Yahweh begins by testifying that he has seen the affliction of his people and heard their cry and has come to deliver them from bondage and take them to the land flowing with milk and honey. And he’s going to use Moses to do it. And so Moses asks a question.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)
Moses’ first question is about himself and his identity. Who am I? Moses feels his inadequacy and voices it to God. And then God responds, “I will be with you, and this will be a sign for you, after you’ve brought them out, you will serve God on this holy mountain.” Moses expresses his inadequacy; God promises his presence.
Naturally then Moses asks, “Who are you? What’s your name? What should I tell the people?” And God responds with his personal, covenantal name: I Am Who I Am. I Am. Yahweh, the one who was, and is, and is to come. The self-existent, self-sufficient, sovereign causer of all things that are. That’s who God is. “And so, gather the elders Moses. Tell them Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has sent you to deliver them. They’ll listen. Pharaoh won’t (at first). But I’ll make him. I’ll compel him with a mighty hand, and he’ll let the people go.”
But then Moses objects again. “But what if the elders won’t listen to me? What if they don’t believe me? What if they say, “God didn’t appear to you, old man. Go back and keep your sheep.” (4:1) And so God gives Moses three signs that are designed to persuade the elders of Israel that the Sovereign God, the Author of everything, the LORD, is with Moses. He can turn his staff into a serpent, and back again. He can make his hand leprous and then whole again. “And if the first two don’t work, pour some water from the Nile on the ground, and watch it turn to blood. Don’t worry, Moses. They’ll believe you.”
But Moses is still not convinced. He still feels his inadequacy. “I’m not eloquent. Never have been. In fact, I’m slow of speech and of tongue.” (4:10). Now we actually don’t have any evidence that Moses was slow of speech and of tongue. But Moses protests anyway. And God reminds him:
“Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Exodus 4:11-12)
In other words, “Moses, I’m Yahweh. I am. I’m the Author of everything. I made your mouth. And when I say that I will be with you, I mean that I will be with you. I will be with your mouth. I will speak through you. I am Yahweh.”
Now up until this point, I think that Moses is showing an appropriate humility and asking appropriate questions. Who am I? Who are you? What if they don’t listen? What if I’m not enough? The Lord draws out Moses’s fears and inadequacies and he points him to the presence and power of almighty God. But then, Moses crosses a line. His humility becomes defiance. “Send someone else.” That’s unbelief. God has just said, “Moses, I know who you are. Let me tell you who I am. Let me show you what I can do. I will be with you every step of the way.” And Moses says, “Not good enough.”
And there’s a lesson in here for us about humility and its dangers. We all recognize the dangers of pride. If God had showed up and said too Moses, “I’m sending you to Pharaoh,” and Moses said, “Of course. Why wouldn’t you? I’ve got this,” we would all recognize the pride and self-reliance beneath it. But this passage shows us that pride can hide behind the greatest show of humility. Pride is so subtle and slippery. It works its way into everything, even our sense of inadequacy. Moses says, “I know my weaknesses, and not even Yahweh, the God who Is, could use me.” That’s pride. It looks humble. It sounds humble. But it does not please God. The Lord is not hampered by your weaknesses. He’s not hindered by your personality or your past. And if you use your weaknesses and shortcomings as an excuse for disobedience, the Lord may give you a little growl. His anger may rise up. Instead, know who you are, feel your insufficiency and weakness, and then remember who God is and what God can do, and obey.
Notice that God’s anger at Moses doesn’t lead him to discard Moses entirely. Moses isn’t getting out of this. Instead God gives him help. He enlists Aaron, Moses’s brother, as a spokesman, and this establishes an important pattern. Moses is the prophet, the one who stands before God face to face and knows his mind. As the prophet, he speaks to the people. The prophet is “as God” to the people. He can say, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” But Aaron is the priest; he repeats the words of the prophet to the people. And so we have this pattern: God to the prophet, prophet to the priest, priest to the people.
The encounter with God ends with a reminder to take the staff. It will be the visible means for doing the signs and wonders before the elders. Before moving on, let’s consider the significance of these signs. I suspect that there may be layers of meaning here. But here’s what seems to me to be obvious.
Sign 1 (staff to serpent) demonstrates Yahweh’s power over nature. He is not bound or restricted by the laws of nature. He made the laws of nature. The laws of nature are his normal way of running the world. But he’s capable of altering them, of showing his power and might over them in order to remind us that he himself is not bound.
Sign 2 (the leprous hand) shows Yahweh’s power to curse and to bless, to wound and to heal. Leprosy is a sign of uncleanness in the ancient world. In Israel, the leprous will be shunned. Moses’s sister Miriam will be struck with leprosy for defying Moses, the man of God. So this sign is meant to show the elders that their God can curse those who curse them and bless those who bless them.
Sign 3 is even more specific. Turning the Nile to blood demonstrates Yahweh’s power over Egypt and her gods. The Nile is the sacred river of Egypt. It is a god in itself. And Yahweh makes the god bleed. These signs together show that Yahweh is the Creator God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. He is the Judge and the Healer, the God who curses and blesses, who wounds and restores. And He is the warrior God who fights for his people and will bring ruin on their oppressors. Those are the signs that Moses is to show the elders in order to awaken their faith before Moses goes to Pharaoh for the main event.
The Return to Egypt
After the encounter on the mountain, there are five elements in the remainder of the passage. First, Moses wishes to return to Egypt to see whether his brothers are still alive, while God assures him that those who sought his life are dead. And there’s a subtle irony here. Pharaoh had sought to kill the sons of Israel, Moses and his brethren. But eighty years later, Pharaoh is dead, and Moses and his brothers, the sons of Israel, are still alive.
Second, Yahweh tells Moses about what is to come. “Go, perform the signs before Pharaoh. But I will harden his heart so he will refuse. Then you will say to him, ‘Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go, or I kill your firstborn son.’” In a future sermon, we’ll talk about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. For now, we want to think about why we have the threat against the firstborn here. It seems like an odd place for it. I’ll come back to that in moment. For now, we’ll just note the threat against the firstborn and the anticipation of Passover, when the angel of death will slay the firstborn of Egypt while the Hebrews protect their sons with blood on the doorposts.
Third, we have the incident at the inn on the way to Egypt with Zipporah and Gershom.
Fourth, Moses meets Aaron at the mountain of God and they form their team. Moses tells him the plan and shows him the signs and Aaron is now on board.
Finally, the two of them gather the elders of Israel. Aaron speaks, Moses does the signs, and the people believe. “When they heard that Yahweh had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped.” After 400 years, Yahweh is on the move. They’ve seen the signs. They know that he rules nature, that he curses and blesses, and that he can crush the gods of Egypt, and he has seen their affliction; he’s heard their cries, and he has come to deliver them.
Zipporah and the Inn
So then, what do we do with this strange incident with Zipporah and Gershom? The passage has a number of puzzles. First, it’s not clear what exactly is happening. The passage literally reads this way, “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 his 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.” It’s unclear who the “him” is in the passage. Is it Moses? Or is it Moses’s firstborn son? Who is the target? Why does God want to put Moses/Gershom to death? What did he/they do wrong? How does circumcision fix it? And why is there the odd addition of the blood on the feet?
I’m not entirely sure. I have some ideas; I’ve gotten help from some scholars. Let me try to unpack not just what I think the passage says, but how I go about dealing with confusing passages like this. One place that I often look for help is in literary structure. The Bible is a carefully structured book. When biblical authors tell a story, they often structure it carefully. One of the most common structures is a chiasm. You can think of a chiasm like a mirror, in which each half corresponds to the other half. Or, it’s like a mountain, where you walk up one side and down the other. In the present story, it seems likely that the first six chapters of Exodus are one large chiasm.
A: Oppression by Pharaoh through taskmasters and heavy labor because the people are too many (Exodus 1:1-22)
B: Moses comes to Pharaoh’s house as a baby (Exodus 2:1-10)
C: Moses departs from Egypt to Midian after being rejected by his brothers. He marries Zipporah and has Gershom
D: The Call of Moses at the Mountain of God (Exodus 3:1-4:17)
C: Moses returns to Egypt with Zipporah and Gershom and he is accepted by his brothers (Exodus 4:18-31)
B: Moses comes to Pharaoh’s house as an adult (Exodus 5:1-4)
A: Oppression by Pharaoh through taskmasters and heavy labor because the people are too many (Exodus 5:5-6:13)
That seems to be the big structure. Other commentators have gone even more narrowly than that, finding additional structures within each section, and drawing out more connections between passages.
How Chiasms Help
One thing that a chiasm does is to give you a paired item that helps you to understand puzzling passages. In the present passage, we have God seeking to kill Moses. Where have we seen something like that before? In Exodus 2:15. The passages are almost identical in Hebrew. Pharaoh seeks to kill Moses. God seeks to kill Moses. So why does Pharaoh seek to kill Moses?
In the passage, it says “When Pharaoh heard of it” (literally, “When Pharaoh heard this thing”). What thing? In the previous verse, Moses says, “The thing is known.” What thing? His killing of the Egyptian. But if we look carefully, this story isn’t just about murder. Remember that there are two incidents. Moses comes out from Pharaoh’s house to look on the burdens of his brothers. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, “one of his brothers” (2:11). So he strikes down the Egyptian and hides the body. The next day, two Hebrews are fighting and Moses rebukes the one who is in the wrong. He responds, “Who made you prince and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” In other words, what is Moses really up to? Is he defending his people as a brother? Or is he judging them as an Egyptian ruler? That’s the fundamental issue in those events. And Moses is afraid because “the thing is known.” Not just the killing of the Egyptian, but the question of Moses’s loyalty and identity. That’s what Pharaoh hears, and that’s why Pharaoh seeks to kill Moses. Where are Moses’s true loyalties? Is he a Hebrew brother, or an Egyptian prince?
Interestingly, I think we have confirmation of this interpretation in the New Testament. In Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, he comments on Moses killing the Egyptian like this, “He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand.” Stephen tells us that Moses’s motive is to deliver his brethren from oppression in Egypt. He feels the call of God on his life. That’s why he goes to see the burdens of his brothers. Slaying the Egyptian is his early attempt to fulfill God’s call. But God is not going to deliver his people through Moses’s arm; he’s going to deliver them through his own might hand and outstretched arm, through signs and wonders. (Incidentally, this is also likely why Moses is so reluctant when God calls him to go too Pharaoh, and why he doubts that the people will believe that God has appeared to him. He’s already tried once; it didn’t work. He’s spent 40 years in the wilderness reflecting on his failure to deliver the people, on their failure to follow him. He knows he’s not enough. But now God is ready to use him).
So the issue in chapter 2 is about Moses’s loyalty and standing—is he a brother to the Hebrews or a prince of Egypt? That’s why Pharaoh seeks to kill him, because Moses appears to be attempting to usurp his authority by force of arms. How does that help us to think through chapter 4? Well, don’t we have the same issue here? Moses has been formally commissioned by God to deliver the people. He has “the staff of God in his hand” (4:20). However, he has not circumcised his son. So where are his loyalties? Is Moses all in? Is he a son of Israel, or is he an Egyptian prince? Is he God’s prophet, or is he a political rival to Pharaoh? I think that that’s why God seeks to kill him, and why Zipporah circumcises Gershom in order to turn aside God’s anger. Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses must be bound to Yahweh by blood, by circumcision.
Moses’s Anticipatory Passover
Now, I think there’s at least one additional layer to this story. In Exodus 2, Moses is placed in a basket and set in the Nile River. And as Pastor David noted, this recalled the story of Noah. Moses has his own tiny ark, covered in bitumen and pitch, and like Noah, God delivers him faithfully through the waters. But salvation through the waters doesn’t just look backward; it also looks forward. God’s deliverance of Moses through the waters anticipates the greater passage through the waters later in Exodus. Just as Moses is saved from the waters of the Nile when Pharaoh seeks his life, so the Hebrews will be saved through the waters of the Red Sea when Pharaoh seeks their lives. Moses has a mini-Exodus in his infancy.
With that pattern in mind, consider God threatens the firstborn of Egypt, if Pharaoh will not let his firstborn son Israel go. That’s a reference to the angel of death and the final plague. How were the firstborn of Israel saved from the angel of death? They took blood and touched it to doorposts, so that the angel passed over them. And then death threatens Moses, and he is only delivered when blood is placed touches his legs. Just as Moses was saved through the waters, anticipating the Exodus, so now Moses is protected from death at God’s hands by blood, anticipating the Passover. Before he can lead the people out, he must first endure his own personal passover and exodus. He must first be fully committed to Yahweh and his people.
If we had time, we could consider additional layers to the story. In our series on Genesis, we discussed the fact that circumcision is a symbolic cutting off of the flesh so that God’s people were not totally cut off when God makes war on sinful human flesh. Circumcision is a symbolic death to avoid ultimate death. Thus, it makes sense that God institutes circumcision in Genesis 17, and then immediately follows with the total war against Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19. Similarly, God is about to bring catastrophic judgment on Egypt for oppressing his people. And so both Moses and the people must be touched with blood in order to endure the day of God’s judgment.
But I want us to land this sermon here at the Table with two observations. First, today’s passage is thick with imagery. God communicated to Moses and his people through a staff, through leprosy, through turning the Nile to blood. God uses earthly things to demonstrate who he is and what he’s done. He gave them signs so that they would believe that he was with them and mighty to save. And so it is at this Table, as God shows who he and what he’s done through bread and wine.
Second, in this passage, for all of its strangeness, what’s clear is that blood turned aside God’s angel of death. When Moses’s true loyalty was unclear, circumcision and blood covered him and delivered him from death. So it is at this table. Maybe your allegiance to God hasn’t been clear. Maybe you’ve had one foot in and one foot out. Maybe you’ve not obeyed God to the full. This table points us to the blood that covers all of our sins. It points us to the cross, to the fulfillment of circumcision, the circumcision of Christ, where he put off the body of the flesh, in order that he might be raised by the mighty hand of God to deliver his people from the oppression of sin and death. So come and welcome to Jesus Christ.
Why Circumcision? (by Joe Rigney)
Appendix F in Law of the Covenant (by James Jordan)
Zipporah and Gershom (by Alastair Roberts)
The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (by David Dorsey)