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).

Obedience even before much faith—Exodus 4:18-21

God’s signs had put the fear of God in Moses, enough to make him obey. But Moses’s obedience is still half-hearted, and (as will become obvious in the next lesson) incomplete.

After receiving this astonishing commission and these signs from God, Moses returns to his father-in-law and asks permission to go visit his siblings in Egypt (Exod 4:18). Moses owes respect to his father-in-law (e.g., 18:7), and it was respectful not to take leave of one’s family service prematurely (Jethro is a much friendlier in-law to Moses than was Laban the Aramean to Jacob; Gen 31:27-31). Did Jethro by now (vs. Exod 2:19) understand that Moses was an Israelite rather than an Egyptian? It may not have made a difference, but certainly by Exodus 18:1 Jethro knows, so it is not unlikely that he understood this earlier.

While Moses dare not disobey this God who called him, however, he says nothing to Jethro about God’s commission. He is still half-hearted, not knowing what will happen in Egypt. He says he wants to go to see if his relatives are alive (4:18). (His concern as to whether his relatives remain alive may also be legitimate; Moses is about eighty in this narrative, and his brother and sister are even older; 7:7. Many Israelites Moses knew may have by now passed away.)

Possibly a more urgent concern regarding survivors of his generation is whether those who wanted him killed are still alive. Thus, before Moses leaves Midian, the Lord again calls him to return to Egypt, informing him those who had sought his life are now dead (4:19).

Yet the Lord does not make Moses’s calling easier at this point by watering down what Moses will face. In fact, he warns him up front what he is in for. God will harden Pharaoh’s heart (4:21) and Moses is to warn Pharaoh that God will kill Pharaoh’s son for his disobedience (4:23). One needs little imagination to envision how Pharaoh, who fancied himself divine, would take an ultimatum and threat from the god of his slaves.

What God calls us to do often leads through serious hardships. Our hearts may not even be in his calling at first. That can be true whether we are thinking of God’s calling for all of us to make disciples, or of more specific aspects of our calling. But God has a plan, and one dare not disregard God’s commands—as Moses will soon discover. Confronting Pharaoh may be dangerous, but disobeying God nearly gets Moses killed (4:24).

The staff of Moses becomes the staff of God—Exodus 4:2, 17, 20

If you’re like me, maybe you have thought, “God healed people in the Bible, but is there any precedent for praying for stalled cars or frozen computer screens?” Perhaps it’s only some of us who are very picky who think that way, since the Bible offers much more general promises of prayer. And I have seen God answer prayer for stalled cars; such a prayer once even saved the life of my brother-in-law when he was fleeing war.

Look what God chose to do through a shepherd’s staff (4:17). There was nothing special about a shepherd’s staff per se. God meets us where we are, and uses us where we are. For an ancient shepherd, he might use our staff or sling; today he might use airplanes or computers. (If the power grid goes down and we can’t use computers, I think that maybe I did save my old manual typewriter.) My point is just that whatever is at hand, God can use it. God uses Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:15-16) and Paul’s face cloths (used to wipe off perspiration while he was working and maybe snatched without him knowing!—Acts 19:12). God isn’t limited to what he can use—or whom he can choose. Moses’s own staff (4:2, 17) becomes the staff of God (4:20).

I might joke about Moses’s staff (with puns that probably work only in English), but the Bible has a very serious message for us. God can work through instruments that could do nothing on their own. What matters is that God is with us.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

A commission whether you like it or not—Exodus 4:13-17

As long as Moses is raising logistical problems, God has solutions. But finally Moses is out of objections and simply asks God to get someone else, still more convinced that this is not the job for him than trusting the God who has called him. As Paul later points out, however, if we’re not willing to accept God’s call willingly, as a gift, then we will have to do it anyway, under duress (1 Cor 9:16-17). Life-hardened, old Moses is no young Isaiah, who when touched by God offered, “Here I am! Send me!” (Isa 6:8). Although God has offered to be with him and teach him what to speak (Exod 4:12), Moses responds, “Please, Lord, send just by the agent you will send!” (4:13). In other words, “by someone other than me!”

Honestly, none of us is worthy of God’s service. He doesn’t call us because we’re worthy in ourselves, so we shouldn’t kid ourselves with either pride or despair. We can’t turn down God’s service because we’re unqualified. Referring to the call to proclaim the good news of Christ, Paul asks, “For matters such as this, who indeed is adequate/qualified?” (2 Cor 2:16). He soon answers about his confidence for his calling, “Not that we are adequate/qualified by ourselves so that we should consider anything as coming from ourselves! No, instead our adequacy/qualification is from God, who also has qualified us as ministers of the new covenant” (2 Cor 3:5-6). Think, for example, of Gladys Aylward, rejected for service with a major mission to China because her poor academic performance apparently disqualified her from being able to master the Chinese language. Convinced that God was sending her, however, she found a way to China, learned Chinese, and became Chinese, including adopting Chinese citizenship.

Moses’s reluctance had finally crossed the line from reasonable concerns to polite refusal, and God was angry (Exod 4:14). This anger against Moses becomes more evident later when God nearly has to kill him to secure fuller obedience (4:24), apparently because he was more afraid of his wife’s anger than of God’s (4:25-26). Moses’s reluctance will again emerge later when he complains again to the God who called him that Pharaoh will not listen to him because he is such a poor speaker (6:12, 30).

Nevertheless, at this point God simply resolves this final logistical complaint, Moses’s insistence that he should not be the one to speak even if God teaches his lips. The Lord explains that Moses’s brother Aaron, whom God knows to be a good speaker, can speak for him. (God does not make mistakes: he knew exactly who he had called, and knew his family too.) Nor can Moses now try to object that Aaron might not be able to meet with Moses; God had already taken care of that and Aaron was on his way (Exod 4:14)!

Just as God had offered to be with Moses’s mouth and teach him what to say (4:12), so Moses was to provide words in Aaron’s mouth, and God would now be with both their mouths and teach them what to do (4:15). In other words, Moses had gotten out of nothing. His surprise commission still stands, though he now had an assistant, one that God may have already planned ahead for anyway. Moses would give God’s words to Aaron and Aaron would deliver them to the people (4:16).

The reluctant prophet is caught between a rock and a hard place. Confronting Pharaoh is terrifying. But resisting this God who summons Moses is more dangerous still!

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

You’ve got the wrong person, Lord—Exodus 4:10-12

Moses thus raises another objection: even if signs would persuade the people through someone, Moses is not the right one to speak (4:10). Sometimes we may have faith in principle, affirming that God has power to do something, yet deny that God can do that through us. If God should choose to act through us, however, who are we to question his call? Our belief in our inability may be correct, but it dare not take precedence over belief in God’s ability to perform his will—even if he chooses to do so through us.

Moses objects to God’s call that he is not a good speaker; as one who had been near Pharaoh’s court, he knew the sort of eloquence demanded there. Moses is claiming that his ability does not match God’s call (4:10). (He can hardly assume, however, that God simply picked whoever would stop by this bush, rather than set his flare here to call Moses in particular. There were undoubtedly not many Hebrews out here in the wilderness of Sinai. But would a God strong enough to reveal himself in a bush in the Sinai, a desert place in which Egypt’s gods lacked interest, have much power in Egypt?)

Moses’s objection unfortunately and irrationally implies that the Lord has made a mistake, an implication that the Lord immediately yet patiently corrects. God is not dependent on human ability; God is the one who supplied or withheld that ability to begin with (4:11), and he is capable of enabling one to speak, supplying the right words (4:12). (“Heavy tongue” in 4:10 might be idiomatic for speech difficult to understand; the same Hebrew expression appears in Ezek 3:5-6.)

God often calls us to do what we cannot do in our own strength. Later, when Jeremiah (a youth in contrast to Moses’s age) fears that he does not know how to speak (Jer 1:6), the Lord similarly declares that he is with him, that he will give him the right words (1:7-9). Not surprisingly, many of the people God called in the Bible recognized their inadequacy to fulfill their commission; but God is not limited to our ability.

Unable to dissuade God about Moses’s suitability for the task, Moses is about to refuse it anyway (Exod 4:13). And that will prove to be a very big mistake.

God equips Moses with signs—Exodus 4:1-9

God dismisses Moses’s concern about Moses’s own inadequacy; God himself is more than adequate (Exod 3:11-14). Moses now raises the objection that the Israelites would not believe that the Lord had spoken to him (4:1). This is a reasonable concern—people often disbelieve our testimonies of divine encounters, and Moses’s last experience with Israelites offered him little reason for confidence that they would trust him (2:14). It is a concern that God easily addresses by offering signs that would evidence Moses’s divine commission (4:2-9).

The Lord asks Moses what is in his hand (4:2). This is of course a rhetorical question, something like the Lord asking Cain where his brother was (Gen 4:9) even though he knew the answer very well (Gen 4:10). The question highlights, however, that no trick is involved; this is the staff that Moses himself has brought with him. (A staff could be a distinctive possession; cf. Gen 38:18, 25.)

The transformation of Moses’s rod to a snake is relevant to the cultural setting into which the Lord is sending him. Egyptians practiced snake magic, including stiffening snakes so that they could appear like staffs. But here Moses’s ordinary staff becomes a snake, and Moses flees (Exod 4:3). The Lord’s command to take the snake by its tail requires an act of at least some faith in God’s command, because grasping the tail does nothing to restrain, but rather acts to provoke, the dangerous head that will ordinarily strike rapidly in its defense. Moses dare not disobey the God speaking in the bush, so he obeys, and the snake again reverted to its condition as a staff. Magicians tried to turn one substance into another, but the creator of the universe could do this at will. Egyptian snake magic was often meant to ward off snake bites; the Lord truly controls snakes.

The next sign that God offers reveals his power to transform human flesh (4:6-7). God not only controls creatures that can harm humans; he can strike or heal the human body directly. Israel does not learn these lessons well, however. Later, in the wilderness, God has to strike his recalcitrant people with snakes (Num 21:6-7) and, in one case, with leprosy (Num 12:10). (In the ordinary course of events, however, neither snake bite nor leprosy is necessarily divine punishment; cf. Lev 13; Acts 28:3.)

The Lord notes that Israelites might disbelieve the first and second sign (4:8-9). If the first sign might resemble Egyptian snake magic, the second sign might possibly be dismissed as a trick from inside Moses’s garment. Presumably, however, the leprous skin was deteriorated and realistic enough that no one would mistake it for white powder. God is also ready to turn water into blood in front of them (4:9). When Moses later performs the appointed signs, the people do believe (4:30-31).

But Pharaoh would not prove so easily persuaded, nor would such signs sustain in the long term the faith of the people far more attentive to their desperate sufferings. God knows in advance that Pharaoh will not heed the signs (4:21), a factor in which Moses undoubtedly finds little comfort. God’s promises are wonderful; but the path to them normally leads through hardship.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Striking the striker—Exodus 3:20

God enacts justice, though mercifully tempered by his restraint. God had not punished the oppressors’ injustice immediately, but now his impatience was coming to an end. Harsh taskmasters struck God’s people (Exod 2:11; 5:14, 16); Moses had struck an oppressor in retaliation (2:12), but in an act of virtual futility against the greater might of Pharaoh. Now, however, the Lord himself will strike his people’s oppressors (3:20).

Through Moses’s staff, God “strikes” the Nile (7:17, 20, 25) and the earth (to produce an insect plague, 8:16-17). God sends hail to “strike” whatever is in the field (9:25, 31-2), and ultimately will strike down the firstborn of people and animals, striking the land (12:12-13, 29). But for his mercy, however, God could have struck them much harder than he did, destroying all the people from the face of the earth (9:15).

God will strike the oppressors with “wonders” (3:20), the sort of language in Hebrew that applies also to Sarah bearing a child (Gen 18:14), drowning Pharaoh’s army (Exod 15:11 in context), and other works to come (34:10).

But God was not just about striking. God will also give the people favor (Exod 3:21; 11:3; 12:36) with the Egyptians, just as he did for Joseph (Gen 39:4, 21; 50:4). Thus they would not leave Egypt “empty-handed” (Exod 3:21), just as God did not let Laban send away Jacob “empty-handed” after his years of toil (Gen 31:42), and just as Israel’s law later prohibited sending away former servants “empty-handed” (Deut 15:13).

Instead, they would “plunder” the Egyptians (Exod 3:22; 12:36)! (The term more often means “deliver,” but it also can often mean “snatch away”; here they are relieving their former oppressors from some of their possessions.) Egypt had achieved much of its wealth on the backs of slaves; now the slaves were about to get remuneration.

The Israelites plunder Egypt without fighting; they have the “favor” of the Egyptian people, who voluntarily recognize that the Israelites have been unjustly exploited but are now defended by their God. Nevertheless, “plundering” or “snatching” goods is what one normally does after battle. The oppression began because Pharaoh falsely assumed that the Israelites might war against him (1:10). Pharaoh’s unjust action, however, ultimately precipitates the very judgment it sought to evade!

God is patient, but he is also just. Some people today charge the God portrayed in these narratives as impatient and brutal; sometimes the same people deny that a God could exist in this world of injustice. God has been patient with their own unjust characterizations of him. But for them, and for other wrongdoers who refuse to change, a day of justice will come.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

God’s scary promises—Exodus 3:18-19

The Lord was now “visiting” or paying attention to his people (3:16; 4:31), as Joseph had foreseen (13:19; Gen 50:24-25). Scripture also had already used this dramatic language earlier for God enabling Sarah to conceive (21:1). God does not act in equally dramatic ways at all times and in all places, but we must give heed. Sometimes when he has not been acting in a given way in our lives we question whether he has done so anywhere (cf. Judg 6:13; 2 Pet 3:4). Also sometimes when he does act dramatically we are unprepared for this new reality (e.g., Exod 14:12).

Moses himself does not seem particularly enthusiastic about this commission. Asking Pharaoh for a three-day break in the wilderness (3:18) must not sound like a very practical solution, especially when the Lord himself says that Pharaoh will not be readily persuaded (3:19). (That Pharaoh would not let them go [3:19] is fair warning that should prepare them for some difficulties before freedom, but it also would not sound very encouraging.)

A three days’ journey (Exod 3:18; 5:3) would not allow the Israelites to escape Pharaoh’s chariots if Pharaoh pursued. Anyone who knew the story of Jacob’s flight from Laban would recognize that three days was not enough (cf. Gen 30:36) when those fleeing had flocks and small children. Therefore even had Pharaoh granted this request, they could not have escaped his chariots. God thus elaborates his further plans.

For Moses, however, these might sound like merely grandiose plans; Moses has lived through disappointments and might be thinking more of his people’s tribal god at this point than of the universe’s omnipotent creator. That God can take a disillusioned and reluctant servant like Moses and make him a trusting friend of God (33:11) can remind us that there is hope for us. No matter how old or set in our ways or past disappointments we are, the Lord can build us into people of faith with a trusting relationship with him. Happily, God is the initiator; we simply need to respond.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)

Resisting God’s calling—Exodus 4:1-17

When God calls Moses to confront Pharaoh, God not only promises to be with Moses; he also gives Moses a sign to confirm that God is with him. Unfortunately, this first-offered sign will be obvious only once what God has just commanded is fulfilled! The sign is that, after Moses brings the people out of Egypt, they will worship at the very mountain where Moses has met God (3:12). But that won’t happen until AFTER Moses brings them out of Egypt, and Moses’s worry is the logistics that lay before that event.

Sometimes we have to carry out our mission based on the best faith we have. Afterward, though, we can look back and recognize that what God has promised us has been fulfilled. Life is sometimes hard, but the hardships we face for God have their rewards!

Yet Moses’s first objection (“Who am I?” in 3:11) is not the end; he ultimately voices three objections (two more after this first one), each of which God answers. Finally Moses, out of objections, tries to reject the call outright (4:13), at which point God gets angry but appoints someone to help Moses anyway (4:14). God finally has to nearly kill Moses for still resisting (4:24). Others in the Bible, such as Gideon (Judg 6:13-17) and Jeremiah (Jer 1:6), feared their calls; still others, such as Isaiah, recognized their own unworthiness in the face of God’s holiness (Isa 6:5; cf. Luke 5:8). In each case, however, God reminded them that whatever their own inadequacy, God was more than adequate to make up for it (Judg 6:12, 14, 16; Isa 6:6-7; Jer 1:7-10; cf. Luke 5:10; 2 Cor 2:16; 3:5-6). Of those afraid of their calling, Moses—who a generation earlier had tried heroism in his own strength—was perhaps most reluctant of all.

Moses thus objects that he does not have a proper name for this God to give to the Israelites (Exod 3:13); “God” was hardly sufficient, since the Egyptians had lots of those. This is the only true God, the only God worthy of the title, but he answers Moses anyway. This God with no image worthy of him also has no normal name worthy of him, but he is the self-existent one, “I am who I am” (3:14). YHWH, the God of the patriarchs whom they remembered in their stories, was now active among them again (3:15).

If this revelation was difficult for Moses, who was experiencing it, it was surely going to be much more difficult for Moses’s people to accept (4:1). We hear about God’s works in the past and often say we believe them, but many of us are far less ready to expect God’s work among us today. After all, if God really cares about his people, where has he been in all the times of suffering beforehand? God doesn’t always give us an answer about the past, but that doesn’t make his present revelation or demands on our faith any less compelling.

(For other posts on Exodus, see http://www.craigkeener.com/category/old-testament/exodus/.)