Note: If you don’t like talking about circumcision, I’d recommend you stay away from this one, even if it’s super interesting! It’s not graphic or anything, but I know some people can be queasy about it.
I’ve been reading Exodus lately. The whole Exodus story has been used in a variety of ways in Christian theology, from prefiguring the arrival of Christ through the preservation of his Israelite elders to being a vote of solidarity for the poor and oppressed, especially in churches during the Civil Rights Movement. But here’s one thing you probably hadn’t thought about: a lot of weird stuff happens in this book!
Take the section where Moses murders an Egyptian who is attacking an Israelite slave. It’s interesting that this happens and basically never gets mentioned again (apart from everybody in Israel knowing that Moses capped a guy). Furthermore, circumcision (a sign of consercration and holiness) almost leads to Moses’ death. Seriously, for being educated at the highest standards for his time, he sure finds his way into the most dangerous positions possible. Check Exodus 4:24-26, for example. Moses just had the burning bush experience, he’s finally got the call and is about to meet Aaron, his brother, when all of a sudden we get this:
24 Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.” 26 So He let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood”—because of the circumcision.
Some translations say some like “God crept up on Moses and sought to kill him”. Either way, what is even going on here? God, or YHWH to be more specific about it, tells God to save the Israelites, Moses pleads and begs not to do it, eventually God just sends his brother along with Moses, and they’re supposed to meet in the desert. So, God decides “hey, now would be a fine time to kill Moses because his son isn’t circumcised”. As far as the narrative goes, it doesn’t make any sense at first glance.
Moses isn’t an idiot; he knows, for example, that the agreement made with Abraham and his ancestors was marked through circumcision. So why, even after meeting God, would you let something so essential simply go? Furthermore, his wife, Zipporah, isn’t even an Israelite (remember, she’s Midianite, from Jethro’s) and she knows what has to be done almost immediately! What exactly did she see, if we give the benefit of the doubt to the text, that frightened her enough that, reacting quickly, she reached for her son, circumcised him real quick, and made God go away (this must be the only place on earth where that sentence would make any sense at all).
Some scholars have noted, for example, the use of the phrase “bridegroom of blood”, which was current in Biblical time – it basically means something to the effect that the groom of a bride doesn’t actually have to be circumcised before the prescribed date of marriage. However, after the marriage, God wasn’t even willing to give Moese the benefit of the doubt. Hence, this makes Moses a “bridegroom of blood”, as circumcision requires blood to be spilt in some fashion (goodbye, readerbase!) This would fit in line with Genesis 17 regarding the covenant:
10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. 13 A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
So yeah, Moses isn’t too good remembering his own heritage, but he was basically raised by two mothers, so that’s understandable. But it doesn’t say God will kill the uncircumcised guy, does it? I certainly couldn’t find it! John Calvin, on the other hand, thinks that Moses was caught up in “domestic quarrels” with his Midianite family members, and thus he forgets to circumcise his second son (the first, apparently, is circumcised, although Moses’ children barely even get a mention). That, with all due respect to Calvin, seems highly speculative.
My take on it? Christianity is serious business. While we certainly don’t deal in terms of the Abrahamic covenant, we are spiritual descendants of that same covenant. As it was first presented to the Jews, it has now become a reality to Gentiles (that’s all us non-Jews) as well. In churches nowadays, we usually get the graceful God of love every time, all the time. While God is, in fact, love, that does not mean that love cannot take many different forms. Loving acceptance and “tough love”, as we Americans might call it, work in equal measure. A God of love also demands justice and asks for His commands to be followed. Even if we don’t have God creep up on us and try to kill us because, say, I told a white lie, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act as if it doesn’t matter. Romans 6:23 hold relevance here:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord
You may have heard that one a hundred times before, but think of it within Exodus’ context. Paul was trained as a Pharisee; his knowledge of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament would, at the very least, also extend to this story as well. Not circumcising your first born was a sin as much as any other – death remains the consequence for crossing God’s line. The shift from arbitrary commands to an examination of intentions hasn’t lessened God’s forcefulness on the matter. That’s why Paul is so serious about it as well; the punishment remains the same, but God grants grace. The circumstances have changed, but not the message: trust and obey. Sometimes, that second part takes a lot more courage to accept, if Moses is any example. How many times can you make excuses when God appears in the form of a giant flaming bush? Perhaps you’ll get something a little more subtle (He needed to “grab his attention, as it were”), but that doesn’t mean it won’t have the same impact on you.
God means serious business. We need to be just as serious about it.