I know I say this all the time. But this - truly - is one of the strangest stories in the Torah.
The Exodus is about to begin. God has just appeared to Moses at the burning bush, and announced His plan to free the Israelites from slavery. Moses has been chosen as God’s prophet, the one who will lead them out of Egypt. Now he must take leave of his father-in-law, Jethro, and head back, with his wife, Tziporah, and their children, to the land of his birth. Jethro gives them his blessing: “Go in peace.”
So they gather their things, load up a donkey, and head out. But then, in the middle of their first night on the road, we’re suddenly confronted with this mysterious episode:
At a night encampment, on the way, the Lord encountered them and he sought to kill him. So Tziporah took a sharp rock and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his leg, and said, “For you are a Bridegroom of Blood to me!” And then he retreated from him, so she said, “A Bridegroom of Blood because of the circumcision.” (Exod. 4:24-26)
What?!? What is going on here?? The commentators explode with a flurry with questions. Why is God trying to kill someone? What does circumcision have to do with it? How does Tziporah suddenly know what to do? And what is this bizarre phrase she repeats, “A Bridegroom of Blood”?
And on top of all that, the pronouns here are ambiguous, so it isn’t clear who’s doing what to whom. Who are all these ‘he’s? Is God trying to kill Moses, or one of the sons? Or is God even the one doing the attempted killing, and then retreating? And who is the Bridegroom of Blood?
Nothing here makes any sense. So first, we turn to the commentators, whose job it is to answer these questions. Rashi, the standard-bearer, gives us the following account, which many of the later commentators will sign on to:
[The Angel of God] “sought to kill” Moses, because he had not circumcised his son Eliezer.
Moses is being punished, Rashi says, because he had not yet circumcised his second son, and it seems he was overdue on the requirement to circumcise on the eighth day. There is some debate over why he might have delayed. Maybe he was too focused on the more important task of returning to Egypt. Maybe he was worried that the trip would be too dangerous for an infant, just after surgery. Rashi himself simply says he was “negligent” (נתרשל), almost suggesting a kind of lazy carelessness.
Whatever the reason, God is going to kill Moses for it. Tziporah knows that her bridegroom, Moses, is going to die because he hasn’t performed the blood ritual, so she quickly performs it herself, and God is seemingly appeased.
Well, that version answers most of the “who’s who” questions, but it doesn’t make the story much easier to digest. Because it still seems crazy that God would suddenly try to kill Moses, the one he has just appointed as the redeemer, just for being lax in one commandment.
But in fact, Rashi has chosen one side a debate that takes place in the Talmud (in Nedarim 32a) over whose life is in danger. The other opinion is that God (or God’s angel) was trying to kill the child - presumably Moses second son, Eliezer. So let’s try to imagine how that might fit into our story.
In the middle of the night, Moses and Tziporah suddenly encounter some terrifying Godly force - be it an angel, or just a mysterious illness - which seems out to kill the baby. At first, they are stunned, as mystified as we are. Suddenly, Tzipora realizes that the baby is not circumcised, while Moses is. This would have been noteworthy to her, because Moses must have been the first man she had ever met who was circumcised. She even had a special term for his unique feature; he was her ‘Bridegroom of Blood.’ In other words, “when I first came to know you as my groom, I learned that you were different than other men, and that this difference had been achieved in blood.” Now Tziporah has learned that Moses also different than other men in his closeness to God. So when she sees God threaten Moses’ son, after giving Moses himself such special consideration, she quickly focuses on the one obvious difference between Moses and the boy. She immediately circumcises the boy, explaining to Moses, “Because you are a Bridegroom of Blood to me,” and if you have a special relationship to God, it must be that God is unhappy that your son is not similar to you in that way. Then, when God, “retreated,” (v. 20) she realizes that she was right, and concludes, now their son will also, one day, be “a Bridegroom of Blood, because of the circumcision.”
This makes a bit more sense. It is the baby who is going to die, because he is uncircumcised, and so circumcision saves that baby. It’s all much more direct. And we are learning, it seems, that circumcision is not just a ritual, or a requirement, but a protection against death.
The logic of this version is a bit easier to understand, but it still requires us to swallow some difficult theological propositions. Would God really kill an innocent baby for the negligence of the parents? And does God care that much about circumcision, that any baby who is a few days late is automatically a forfeited life? The whole thing still seems rather capricious - barbaric, even.
But the biggest problem with either of these answers is that while they attempt to explain this little story, they have nothing to do with the larger story. Why are we reading this now, in the middle of the grand narrative of the Exodus? What does this have to do with God’s great promises of deliverance? Is this just an odd interruption, or does it in any way act as a transition between Moses’ quiet life in Midian and his arrival in Egypt as the savior? Neither Moses’ delay in this ritual nor the fact of little Eliezer’s uncircumcised body seem relevant to the main plot, the revolution that is about to take place.
There is, however, one more person whose life God might have been threatening, one more “he” in this group that we have not yet named. That is Gershom, Moses’ older son. Most of the commentators do not consider this possibility, because Gershom was the firstborn, so surely he would have already been circumcised by now.
But maybe not. According to one midrashic tradition, there was a prior arrangement between Moses and his father-in-law that might have kept Gershom from being circumcised:
When Moses asked Jethro to marry Tziporah, Jethro replied, “If you accept one condition, then I will let you marry her.” He said, “What is it?” He replied, “The first son that you have shall be dedicated to idolatry. Any other sons you have can be dedicated to the Heavenly Name.” And Moses accepted it.(Mekhilta de Rabbi Yishmael, Yitro 1)
Now this is a startling suggestion. It contradicts all kinds of traditional assumptions about these characters. We tend to assume that Jethro was tolerant, and even supportive, of the Israelite faith - the ultimate “righteous gentile.” But even more shocking is this depiction of Moses - our hero, the greatest of all the prophets - so easily corruptible that he was willing to give his firstborn son over to idolatry.
It’s an outrageous claim. Almost impossible to believe…
Except that it does make sense of some other details in the story. We know that Jethro was called a “Midianite Priest” (Exod. 3:1), so he surely had some serious religious commitments outside of the Abrahamic covenant. And we also know that Moses chose the name Gershom for his firstborn because it means, “for I was a stranger in a foreign land” (2:22). Could this be a reference to Gershom’s foreignness, and a kind of confession, explaining why Moses wasn’t consecrating this child to the Lord?
But beyond these little details, the idea that Moses had handed his firstborn son to idolatry gives us a much more compelling motivation for the attack on the road to Egypt - whether it was Moses or the boy whose life was being threatened. The notion that Moses would be heading back to represent God, to do battle with a deified dictator and his necromancers, but to be secretly harboring a child dedicated to the same dark forces - this was unacceptable. It was an insult, a betrayal - an offense God would not tolerate.
This hypothesis also makes sense of the placement of our nighttime episode in the midst of the larger narrative. Because it so happens that the last thing God says to Moses, just before he leaves for Egypt, is all about firstborns:
You shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn child. I have said to you, let my firstborn go, so that he may worship Me. But you refuse to let him go. So I will kill your firstborn son.”(4:22-23)
God is pointing ahead to the end of this battle, the final plague: the killing of all the firstborn sons in Egypt. This will be the blow that finally breaks Pharaoh. This terrible devastation will end the war, but at great cost. It is almost too great a punishment, and God is only able to justify it because, He says, “Israel is my firstborn child.”As you have afflicted my firstborn, so I shall afflict your firstborn.
But to think, in the midst of all that painful conflict, that the man who is delivering the news, God’s representative on earth, would be keeping his own firstborn aside, uncommitted, out the fray. And worse, that Moses would be asking Pharaoh to sacrifice his firstborn son for God, when Moses hadn’t even brought his own firstborn into that God’s covenant. No, says God, that will not do. You cannot play both sides. If you are willing to go to war, you must be willing to sacrifice - as your people have sacrificed, and as their people will sacrifice.
That, ultimately, is the question that Moses must finally answer. Who are his people? He grew up half-Israelite, half-Egyptian. And then, when those identities came into conflict, and he was forced to choose, instead he fled the country. He married a foreign woman. He became a stranger in a strange land. And perhaps, when he had children, he thought he could split the difference, dedicating each child to a different god, and to a different part of himself.
That will not do. God will not allow it. Tziporah knows it. Pharaoh will call it to question. “Who is the Lord,” he will ask, “that I should heed Him?” Who are your people, that I should let them go?
Who are your people, Moses? Who are you? It’s time to decide.
Questions for Further Discussion:
1. Which version of this incident on the road made most sense to you? Or do you have another interpretation of what happened that night?
2. Why is circumcision such an important ritual in Judaism? In what way does it represent the covenant?
3. How is Tziporah able to figure out what God wants, when Moses cannot?
4. What do you think of the Plague of the Firstborn? Was it a fair punishment? Do you believe there should be certain things allowed during a war or a revolution that would otherwise be considered unethical?