Aaron’s obedience and God’s call—Exodus 4:27-28

Quite in contrast to Moses’s reticence to return to Egypt, the narrative in 4:27 appears to assume (or at least does not qualify) Aaron’s ready obedience to God’s command. Instead of explaining his divine commission and risking shame if it fails, Moses has told Jethro that he will go to Egypt to see if any of his brothers remained alive (4:18). Here God undermines that excuse, sending Moses’s brother to meet him while Moses is still in the wilderness at the mountain of God. God is well able to communicate with us even very specific information when we need that.

When did Aaron meet Moses at the mountain (4:27)? Perhaps it was before Moses started on the journey (4:18, 24) and surely before he returned to Egypt (4:20). Exodus 4:24, however, suggests that they met after the journey has begun (Aaron does not appear in that account); perhaps Moses and his family had started their journey from the side of Mount Horeb further from Egypt, the mountain lying between Egypt and where Jethro’s tents were currently located. Aaron’s sending was already announced in 4:14, but the meeting is finally mentioned here in 4:27 to prepare for the ministry of Moses and Aaron together in 4:28—5:1. (The awkward chronology of this section might reflect the stitching together of separate sources or stories, but, with many narrative critics, I am suspicious of our ability to reconstruct these very securely.)

Moses recounted to Aaron what the Lord had shown him (4:28). Even when we hear from God, he usually reveals to us only part of the message; God sent Aaron, but Aaron still needed to hear from Moses the details of God’s revelation to Moses. Again we see God’s right to choose as he sees fit. Aaron seems more obedient than Moses here, so why is Moses the main agent? Yet God knows what he will make of Moses, as well as knowing Aaron’s future weakness under distress (32:1-5). We are wise not to despise or be jealous of others’ gifts or callings; we should each do our best with the particular mission God has entrusted to us. (Compare similarly John 21:19-22, climaxing the apparent friendly rivalry between a young Peter and beloved disciple.)

The Bible Exposes Sexual Harassment

The media is currently awash with public exposures of sexual harassment, harassment that had been going on behind closed doors for a long time. Its victims knew it all along, but “polite” society tended to avoid the topic publicly.

The Bible reflects a culture very different from our own. Genesis recounts stories from an ancient Middle Eastern culture in which women lacked many of the rights that we take for granted today. Nevertheless, Genesis reveals quite openly the dangers that some women faced. Granted, Genesis recounts these stories to show God’s protection of Israel’s ancestors, and thus to affirm how the Israelites owed even their very existence to God. In their world, attacks on women’s sexuality also entailed attacks on the men to whom the women were attached.

Yet no one could hear these accounts and not recognize that harassment was an ever-present danger. When Abraham goes to Egypt, Sarah faces severe threats to her sexual security there (Gen 12:14-15). In Egypt, Joseph faces threats to his sexual security (Potiphar’s wife held less direct physical power to enforce her harassment, but because Joseph was a slave she exercised plenty of coercive power in other respects). When Isaac stays in Canaan, Rebekah also faces potential threats to her sexual security (26:7, 10). The Bible also reports terrible incidents of sexual violence (Gen 34; 2 Sam 13) and God’s punishment on David for his affair with, and abuse of power regarding, Bathsheba. Such actions always appear negatively in Scripture.

Cultures have changed, but human nature has not. Biological impulses designed for procreation are not bad; we owe our existence to them. But they need to be controlled and channeled appropriately (biblically, within marriage in which one who wants access to another’s person also commits one’s life to them). Scripture opposes people overstepping their bounds and demanding from others something not their due, action that effectively reduces another human being to merely an object of gratification for one’s biological urges. God summons us, and welcomes us, to something better than that.

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).