Two well-known movies tell the story of Moses: The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt.1 As one might expect, both movies take significant liberties with the biblical text. While grateful for biblical themes which emerge, we know better than to rely on Hollywood for biblical history.
The apostle Paul states, “Study and be eager and do your utmost to present yourself to God approved (tested by trial), a workman who has no cause to be ashamed, correctly analyzing and accurately dividing [rightly handling and skillfully teaching] the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, AMPC). To understand the Bible, therefore, we need to study it for ourselves. Otherwise, we might never learn about some of the most important events in Moses’ life—such as when God sought to kill him.
An odd story
Why would God want to kill Moses, His chosen messenger to Pharaoh? It is not that Moses had intentionally offended God or schemed to get the job. The record actually states that Moses did everything he possibly could to get out of being God’s messenger, offering multiple excuses about why God should send someone else. Throughout the conversation with Moses at the burning bush, God made it abundantly clear that He was sending Moses, even if Moses did not want to go (Exod. 3:10).
Exodus 4 reports that God gave Moses several powerful signs to show Pharaoh that He meant business, and He arranged for his brother Aaron to soon meet him on the desert journey. And then things took a strange turn. “At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him [Moses] 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 [the LORD] let him alone. It was then that she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood,’ because of the circumcision” (Exod. 4:24–26).2
Oddly, immediately after this event, the narrative continues as though nothing had happened. This point is put into the background. In fact, most people have forgotten it or hardly noticed this diversion from the main narrative. Moses afterward meets his brother, Aaron, and together they appear before Pharaoh.
In many ways, the story makes much more sense without the awkward interlude where God almost kills Moses. Nevertheless, this incident is recorded in Scripture, so it’s worth examining.
The covenantal sign
We have limited information about Moses’ family life. He married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and their firstborn son was named Gershom (Exod. 2:21, 22). They had a second son, Eliezer, whose name appears only later in Exodus (Exod. 18:2). Nevertheless, we know that both sons were born in Midian before Moses went back to Egypt because Exodus 4:20 says that Moses brought his sons with him to Egypt. We also know that Moses failed to circumcise one or both boys.
Circumcision was an important sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and was typically performed eight days after a male’s birth (Gen. 17:11–13). This rule was meant not only for Abraham but also for all his male descendants—Moses and his sons included. The consequence for ignoring this command was severe. Uncircumcised males were cast out from God’s people because they had broken the covenant (v. 14).
Moses could not claim ignorance. All Israelites knew the importance and necessity of circumcision. Failing to circumcise his sons, then, was negligence of the highest order. It meant disregarding God’s law. Moses was signaling to all the people and to God Himself that the covenant between God and Abraham was not a significant one. It brought the wrath of God—and Moses had no excuse.
Neglecting the covenant
However upset Zipporah had been with Moses, to save his life, she hastily circumcised at least one of her sons on the spot (the text mentions only one son). Circumcision is difficult enough when done on an eight-day-old. One can only imagine how awkward and painful it was for an older boy and how unpleasant it must have been for his mother to do it. No doubt when Zipporah called Moses a “bridegroom of blood,” it was not a term of endearment.
God could not simply overlook Moses’ sin. No such sinful person could lead the Israelites out of Egypt and later deliver God’s law to them at Mount Sinai. A glaring problem like this needed to be dealt with right away, and God was prepared to use severe measures to get His point across. And the lesson for us, today?
Being right with God
Suppose God calls you to an important and highly public ministry. Perhaps you will be called to enter pastoral ministry or become a Bible professor. Whatever it is, James 3:1 provides this sober reminder: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Public ministry is a serious calling; you had better make sure, then, that you are right with God before embarking on it.
If you are going to be in a public ministry role, make sure you do not have any glaring sins that could bring you and your organization into ill repute. For example, before promoting biblical principles of family life, make sure you are not unfaithful or abusive in your own family. Before becoming a Bible instructor, make sure you are not cheating on your taxes. Before accepting a pastoral role, make sure you are not negligent in paying or robbing God in tithes and offerings. Just as Moses had no business leading the Israelites out of Egypt if he could not bother to circumcise his own son, you have no business leading God’s people if things in your life are not right with God, therefore disqualifying you from public ministry.
God might not meet you at a lodging place to kill you, but you can be certain that He knows all of your sins. “ ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known’ ” (Luke 12:2). Now is the time to address your areas of weakness and correct the things you were supposed to have done a long time ago but did not.
Not surprisingly, this story of God seeking to kill Moses was in neither The Ten Commandments nor The Prince of Egypt. However, the account is in the Bible, so we, especially as ministers, would best take heed to its message. “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James. 4:17).