August 22, 2004

Zipporah: On Understanding What God Requires
Exodus 2:15b-22, 3:1-12, 4:21-26

The Bible is full of surprises. There are endless passages that encourage us and inspire us. Other texts challenge us and push us well beyond our present comfort zones. Sometimes we laugh when reading the Bible, or at least we should, and on other occasions we cry. But some portions of Scripture simply shock us. Exodus 4:24-26 surely fits into this final category.

This episode, quite frankly, catches us severely off-guard. I, at least, find myself scurrying back through the previous verses in search of anything that might have prepared the reader for what transpires here. Moses, you will recall, had been commissioned by God to go back to Egypt and instruct the Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave the land. Moses’ reaction to his call was lukewarm at best, and he negotiated with God in much the same way that a high-powered attorney might negotiate a settlement between some corporation and members of the labor union. In any case, those negotiations are now over, and Moses, albeit reluctantly, accepted the challenge. He is ready to go.

Soon after beginning his journey—one senses in reading the narrative that the engine on Moses’ car is barely even warm yet—God visits him at night at a local rest stop with the intention of killing his newest employee. Now the text, to be sure, is very obscure. There are dangling pronouns that make it difficult at times to know who is being referred to, and the reference to a “bridegroom of blood” is virtually impossible to unpack with certainty. Nevertheless, the basic components of this episode seem clear enough.

It is unmistakable, first of all, that God is deeply displeased with something, although the cause of his displeasure is not specifically pointed out. In most cases in the Old Testament when God acts in this way, we know precisely why. Rebels in the camp cause considerable conflict, and the earth swallows them up. Uzzah reaches out and touches the holy ark of God, and he dies on the spot. The man of God compromises his calling, and a lion devours him. We may not understand God’s reactions in such situations or like them for that matter, but we at least are made aware of the reasons behind them.

Not here in Exodus 4:24. All we read is that God approached Moses at night with thoughts of killing him. We are left to conclude that God is either acting in a frightfully arbitrary way, as do other gods in the ancient Near East, or that some important unfinished business remained between God and Moses. God, for whatever reason, is deeply displeased.

We notice, secondly, that Moses’ own reaction to the entire affair remains equally unspecified. If he himself knew the reason for God’s displeasure, the writer fails to inform us about it. Chances are that he remained in the dark, both literally and figuratively. What he soon discovered, however, was a side of God that he apparently needed to take more seriously. We read in 2:15 that the Pharaoh sought to kill Moses, and we further learned in 4:19 that it was now safe for Moses to return to Egypt—“all those who were seeking your life are dead,” Moses is assured. In such a context of apparent safety, then, Moses hardly expected to be in a life-threatening situation so quickly, least of all at the hands of God himself.

In any case, Moses quickly and abruptly encounters a God here who is passionate and even frightening, in a sense. This same God who eagerly converses and even negotiates with people, a God who loves, provides and protects, this same God also refuses to be shoved in a box of indifference or, as is most likely the case in this text, disobedience. Moses had heard the news of God’s wonderful love and grace, for God had said to him just a short while ago:
I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard
their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring
them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk
and honey,…
Now, he perhaps needed to experience another side of God, a God whose love and grace are never to be taken for granted. Moses, as Walter Brueggemann describes it, encounters here the “deep, untamed holiness of God,” and the Moses who journeyed to Egypt the next morning was not the same person as he was the night before. One thinks of Jacob wrestling with God just prior to meeting his brother Esau. Jacob, the consummate wrestler, needed to learn before this major encounter that God is far bigger than either Esau or he was. Perhaps Moses, who himself had just led God through a significant negotiating session, needed to learn such a lesson as well.

And then there is Zipporah, the only person actually mentioned by name in this brief passage. Zipporah has been hiding in the shadows of her famous father, Jethro, and her famous husband, Moses, and she here for the first and only time steps out onto center stage. With remarkable certainty, a certainty that contrasts with her husband’s apparent indecisiveness, Zipporah springs into action, circumcises her son, and performs some ritual with the bloody foreskin. And with that, God left Moses alone. How did she know what to do? What led her to understand what God was so upset about? We’ll never know. But one thing is clear. God might have been displeased with Moses, but not so displeased that he refused to allow for intervention. Zipporah’s actions saved her husband’s life.

As best as I can reconstruct Zipporah’s response, Moses had apparently failed to circumcise his son. Insofar as circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and his people (Gen. 17:9-14), what would it say to the community if Moses, the chosen leader, himself failed to meet God’s requirements? To those in leadership positions, much is expected. In this case, Moses failed to comply with even the basics.

My guess, however, is that the unfinished business between God and Moses went even deeper than that. Chances are that Moses himself had not been circumcised, or at least in the manner associated with God’s covenant. This would explain the rather odd step taken by Zipporah with the bloody foreskin after she circumcised her son. She took the foreskin, we read, and touched Moses’ “feet” with it. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “feet” is sometimes used euphemistically with reference to a man’s genital organs (Ruth 3:4-14; Isaiah 6:2, 7:20). What Zipporah does, then, is to touch Moses’ genitals with her son’s foreskin, a sort of substitutionary gesture. The son was circumcised for both of them, at least until the long and tiring journey to Egypt was over. Moses was spared because of his son’s blood in much the same way that the other Israelites would later be spared because of the blood spread on the tops of their own doorposts.

Zipporah quickly and decisively acted when Moses was surely at a loss. She knew what to do. She knew what was on God’s mind and what he required. Zipporah serves, then, as the fourth in a series of women who were instrumental in preserving the life of Moses, Israel’s great law-giver. His mother hid him in a basket, Pharaoh’s daughter rescued him from the Nile, and his sister arranged for his mother to nurse him, even after he fell into Egyptian hands. One cannot help but wonder where Moses might have ended up had it not been for the women in his life. In this latest episode, one wonders where Moses might have ended up had it not been for his wife, Zipporah. She knew what God required, even when her exalted husband didn’t, and she intervened accordingly during a moment of intense crisis. In the following scene, Moses is on his feet, alive and well, and on his way to Egypt.

Where would Moses have been without the women in his life? A caring mother? A supportive sister? A courageous and godly wife? Where might you and I be without such women in our own lives? Grandmothers. Mothers. Sisters. Daughters. Sunday School teachers. Godly wives. Zipporah might rank among the lesser known characters in all of Scripture, but Moses was a blessed man to have her.

I remember a story that a woman told me way back when I was still pasturing in New York. Anna had been an unusually rebellious teenager—well beyond the norm—and she violated virtually every guideline and rule put in place by her parents. You name it. Whatever they wanted her to do, she delighted in doing the opposite. And of course, whatever they wished for her not to do, that is precisely what she did. One night, Anna came in extremely late, and she tried to sneak into the house through the back door. She came in quietly, tip-toed around the corner and headed down the hall toward her bedroom. Suddenly, she stumbled and fell on the floor. Anna had tripped over her mother, who was kneeling in the hallway praying for her. Anna served as our worship leader in New York, and she now is on staff at Christ Community Church, just a few miles from here along Route 15. Where might Anna be today had it not been for a mother who dared to go before God on her behalf?

But as my heart and mind take this theme one step further, I can’t help but appreciate the profound symbolism reflected here in Exodus 4:24-26. The writer was fond of symbolism, and he frequently used foreshadowing as a means of anticipating coming events and experiences. The circumcision of the boy and the bloody foreskin, most scholars agree, serves as a bridge of sorts to the Passover, when the first-born Israelite males were spared because of the blood smeared across the top of the doorposts. If that is true, then we can’t help but realize that this same event—a circumcised boy and a bloody foreskin—serves also to remind us of another person way on down the road who knew what God required, even when people like you and I don’t. Jesus, with God and his untamed holiness looking down on a terminally-ill world, stepped in on our behalf and touched us with his own blood. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.
Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for
a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love
for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath [the untamed holiness] of God. For if while we were enemies,
we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely,
having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life (Rom. 5:6-10).
Or in the words of John the Revelator, speaking of Jesus Christ, “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1:5-6).” Where would we be without those who step into God’s presence on our behalf? Where might others be had we not stepped into God’s presence on their behalf? And where would all of us be had not the Lord Jesus stepped into God’s presence on our behalf?