The bloody foreskin—Exodus 4:24-26

In Exod 4:23, God warns that he will kill Pharaoh’s son because Pharaoh has refused to release God’s son, namely his people (4:22). Why then does the text move directly from this threat to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn (4:23) to the Lord seeking to kill Moses (4:24)? And what does the Lord’s plan to kill Moses have to do with Moses’s own son (4:25)?

Stubborn Moses’s encounter with the Lord here contrasts starkly with the Lord’s benevolent appearance to faithful Abraham in Gen 18. Likewise, Jacob struggled at night with the angel of the Lord and came out with a limp, but he at least persevered until he got a blessing. Moses’s confrontation with God here nearly precipitates his death. This account in Exod 4 is so concise that its meaning seems ambiguous, perhaps clearer to earlier hearers who had heard fuller versions of the story. But the connections between Pharaoh’s son and Moses’s son may suggest a meaning.

Apparently Moses’s offense is not circumcising his firstborn son (4:25); such circumcision would mark Moses’s son as a member of the covenant people that are God’s own son (4:22). God would slay Egypt’s firstborn to redeem God’s own firstborn (4:23), but Moses has not surrendered his own son to God. Moreover, Moses’s resistance is apparently because of his wife’s refusal to allow the circumcision (although she surrenders, she seems quite unhappy about the Lord’s demand in 4:25). (Even in Egypt, Israelites practiced circumcision, as Josh 5:5 testifies; Egyptians also used flint knives when they circumcised, although for them it was not a sign of the covenant. Although Gen 25:2 lists Midian as a child of Moses and Moses presumably circumcised all his children [17:12-13, 26-27], Midianites, or at least Zipporah, did not want to follow the practice.)

If Zipporah has been the one resisting circumcision, why is Moses the one to face punishment? Moses is the Israelite and the one to whom the Lord has spoken, so he is responsible to act on God’s will; the Lord is going to punish him, not his wife, if he refuses to obey. So Zipporah has to sacrifice her son’s foreskin to save Moses’s life. We don’t know the son’s age at this point, but it is not clear that he is merely a baby. He may well have been old enough to voice his own concerns. Of course, even a baby can communicate his displeasure with pain vocally even if he cannot do so verbally.

Zipporah touches the bloody foreskin to Moses’s feet, by this blood from her firstborn apparently atoning for Moses. This act may resemble the way that God later accepted the Passover lamb’s blood in the place of the death of Israel’s firstborn when God struck the firstborn of Egypt. (God later required Israel to redeem every human firstborn with the firstborn of a donkey or a lamb; Exod 13:13; 34:20.) Why she touches Moses’s feet is hard for us to understand at this remove. Perhaps it was because feet were considered one of the dirtier and more disgusting parts of the body; or because they were traveling (though it is not clear that YHWH’s attack on Moses involved this); or as a sign of submission (given the association of the soles of feet with conquest; also cf. 1 Sam 25:41); or an accusation of violence (1 Kgs 2:5); or, perhaps likelier, because of an association with marital duties (cf. Deut 25:9; Ruth 3:4, 7-8) connected with her complaint about him being a “bridegroom involving blood.”

God would defend God’s son by killing Pharaoh’s son. Moses needed to circumcise his own son, identifying fully with God’s covenant, or God could kill him as God could kill Pharaoh’s son. Whatever else this may mean, it offers us a warning. The servant of God with a mission remains responsible to obey God’s covenant at home as well as in public.

God’s son versus Pharaoh’s son—Exodus 4:22-23

The Lord continues to reaffirm his commission to Moses to perform the wonders God had commanded, but also warns that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21). The Lord also gives Moses a difficult message to give to Pharaoh when he refuses to release Israel. Israel is like a firstborn son, precious and special to God (4:22). YHWH says to Pharaoh: I told you to send away my son that he might serve me (4:23a). Pharaoh had been making Israel serve Pharaoh (1:13-14; 6:5), and planned to continue to do so (5:18). Now, however, YHWH demanded that Pharaoh let them serve YHWH (7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 26). The LORD alone is God, and his people must serve and worship him alone (Exod 20:5; Deut 5:9; 6:13).

In some ancient Near Eastern legal customs, whatever one did to another’s child could be done to one’s own child; but certainly one dare not do harm to anyone precious to a powerful deity. Because Pharaoh (whose predecessor had drowned Israel’s babies) refused to release God’s firstborn, God would kill Pharaoh’s firstborn (4:23). In God’s mercy, he provided various warning plagues first; but the final plague, the one that would break Pharaoh’s resolve enough to let the Israelites leave the land, would be the death of the firstborn, both Pharaoh’s and his people’s (11:5; 12:29).

The Bible is very realistic: in this world, people do wicked things to other people. But those who do such things had better watch out. And especially when they do it to God’s own children, to those special to God because of their special trust in him, they had really better watch out. God does things different ways every time, so this is no prediction that God will always slay the sons of Pharaohs. It does remind us, however, that justice will ultimately come about (cf. also Rev 18:20-24).

Dreams and Destiny: the Lord is in control—Genesis 37:9

In Genesis 37:9, Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon, and twelve stars bowed down to him. Joseph was just seventeen years old, and there was no way that he himself could have planned his destiny and imposed it onto a dream. This was God’s plan for him, God’s choice, no less than God’s choice of Jacob when he and Esau were both in the womb (25:23). These dreams are God-initiated rather than Joseph-initiated; God remains the main Actor behind the scenes.

It made sense neither for Joseph to boast as if it were his own plan (though the text does not specify that Joseph was boasting) nor for Joseph’s brothers to be jealous as if they could control their own destinies. It was God’s plan—and ultimately it would prove to bring about the deliverance of them all.

As in the case of Cain’s jealousy of Abel, however, there was something in the character of the human actors that would be consistent with God’s plan. Sin was crouching in Cain’s heart, leading to his murder of Abel (4:5-8), and many of Joseph’s brothers would want to kill him (37:20). Joseph, by contrast, kept serving the Lord, (39:9) and in his hardship continued attributing the honor to the Lord (40:8; 41:16). God has planned it so that human responsibility is part of his plan; God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are complementary, not mutually exclusive, options.

Yet despite the grandeur of the sun-moon-and-stars imagery—a step above his brothers’ sheathes bowing to him in 37:7—God does not reveal that all Egypt and Canaan will bow down to Joseph. Joseph will not need advance warning about that; when it happens, Joseph will have no reason to refuse it! God reveals only that his family will bow down to him, because Joseph will later need to recognize that as God’s plan.

Joseph’s exaltation over Egypt would rescue his generation of Egyptians and Canaanites. Yet the restoration of his family was a key part in God’s plan, since God had a special plan for his family that would extend beyond that generation and through history. Joseph may have been satisfied to be exalted over Egypt, but when his brothers unknowingly bowed down to him in Gen 42:6, Joseph remembered his dreams (42:9). God calls us, but we do not know all the details in advance. He is the one who orchestrates our lives, and he works through our obedience even when we do not understand.

We tend to exalt the human heroes of the stories when we retell them to children. But the real hero, though often behind the scenes, is the Lord himself. Let’s neither be proud of ourselves nor jealous of others that God exalts. Let’s praise the wise Lord of history and embrace gladly his wise plan.