Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Stump the Priest: What is going on in Exodus 4:24-26?

Question: "What is going on in Exodus 4:24-26?"

The passage as it is found in most translations is fairly obscure. This is how it reads in the New King James Version:

"And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision."

The wider context of this passage does not offer a lot of help. It is not entirely clear even who it is that the Lord was seeking to kill, though most commentators see this as being Moses. Though why the Lord was seeking to kill him is not entirely clear, though it clearly has something to do with his son not having been circumcised. Zipporah, who performs the circumcision, was Moses' Midianite wife. This is considered to be one of the most obscure passages in Scripture.

However, the Septuagint text is a bit easier to decipher:

"Thus it came to pass on the way at the inn, that the Angel of the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipphorah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son, and fell at his feed and said, "The flow of blood from my son's circumcision is stopped." So He departed from him, because she said, "The flow of blood from my son's circumcision is stopped" (Exodus 4:24-26, Orthodox Study Bible).

Rather than the Lord Himself seeking to kill Moses, here it is the Angel of the Lord. And rather than flinging her son's foreskin at her husband, here Zipporah falls to the feet of the Angel of the Lord, and because of her having circumcised her son, and her plea, the Angel of the Lord departs.

The Angel of the Lord speaks and acts for the Lord, and is usually spoken to as if He were the Lord. The Fathers usually see the Angel of the Lord as the pre-incarnate Christ.

St. Ephrem the Syrian explains the meaning of this text as follows:

     "At the place where they were spending the night, the Lord came upon Moses and wanted to kill him, because he had discontinued circumcision in Midian for one of his sons who had not been circumcised. From the day that [the Lord] spoke with him on Horeb, he had not been united to his wife, who was distressed; and she was under judgment because she had not put full faith in his word. [Moses] blamed her for keeping his son from being circumcised. They spent the night [preoccupied] with these thoughts. Suddenly an angel appeared for both of these reasons, while seeming to appear only because of circumcision.
     [The angel] appeared to Moses in anger so that his departure [from Midian] would not be ridiculed because he had discontinued circumcision without necessity, while the Hebrews had not interrupted it in spite of the death of their children. Now whom should he have feared, God, who prescribed circumcision, or his wife, who had stood in the way of circumcision?
     When Moses' wife saw that he was about to die because she stood in the way of circumcision, about which and on account of which he had argued with her that evening, "she took a piece of flint" and, still trembling from the vision of the angel, "circumcised her son," letting him be splattered with his [own] blood. Then she held the angel's feet and said, "I have a husband of blood. Do not cause suffering on the day of the celebration of circumcision." Because there was great joy on the day Abraham circumcised Isaac, she said, "I too have a husband of blood. If you do not [refrain from harm] on account of me, who circumcised my son with my own hands, or on account of Moses, refrain on account of the commandment of circumcision itself which has been observed" (St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Exodus 4:4:1-3, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Vol. III, Joseph T. Lienhard, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2001) p. 32).

So Moses had up to this time given in to his wife's objections to circumcising their son, and God was prepared to take his life, had she not yielded, and performed the circumcision, which was the sign of the Old Covenant. The reference to Moses being a husband of blood means that she had redeemed his life by the blood of her son's circumcision.

What this should tell us is how seriously parents ought to take the baptizing of their own children. They should not put it off out of laziness, indifference, or frivolous reasons. And if God would have killed his own prophet Moses for failing to perform such a rite, how seriously ought we take the sacrament of Baptism, of which circumcision was a type and shadow?