"Over against all that reason suggests or would measure and fathom, yes, all that our senses feel and perceive, we must learn to cling to the Word and simply judge according to it."
by: Stephen C. Lomax
-- tempera on canvas by --
William Blake (1757-1827), English
Exodus 4:24-26 ~ circumcision of the son
Even after many readings, some Bible verses and passages are obscure and seem to stand isolated from the larger narrative, like an unexpected intruder. One such text is from the Old Testament -- Exodus 4:24-26.
(v.24) And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
(v.25) Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.
(v.26) So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.1
Abrupt and unsettling, it is hard to deny that this passage appears to lie unconnected to everything surrounding it. As Christians, we are certain it has something to teach us. As Lutherans, we believe that, like the rest of Scripture, it in some way points to the Messiah, the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). Below, we will be examining commentary that illumines and which is in accord with the entire Scriptures.
An older, widely respected German commentary2 was first published in English between 1866 and 1891. Known for its orthodoxy and exact scholarship, Keil and Delitzsch (hereafter K&D) is considered reliable.
“In what manner [God sought to kill Moses], is not stated: whether by a sudden seizure with some fatal disease, or, what is more probable, by some act proceeding directly from Himself, which threatened Moses with death. … This hostile attitude on the part of God was occasioned by his neglect to circumcise his son; for, as soon as Zipporah cut off the foreskin of her son [i.e., circumcised him] with a stone, Jehovah let him go. … From the word ‘her son,’ it is evident that Zipporah only circumcised one of the two sons of Moses (v.20); so that the other, no doubt the elder, had already been circumcised in accordance with the law. … Although in the passage (Gen. 17:14) it is the uncircumcised themselves who are threatened with death, yet in the case of children the punishment fell upon the parents, and first of all upon the father, … He [God] threatened him with death, to bring him to a consciousness of his sin.
… Still He did not kill him; for his sin had sprung from weakness of the flesh, from a sinful yielding to his wife, which could both be explained and excused on account of his position in the Midianite’s house. That Zipporah’s dislike to circumcision has been the cause of the omission, has been justly inferred by commentators from the fact, that on Jehovah’s attack upon Moses, she proceeded at once to perform what had been neglected, and, as it seems, with inward repugnance.
“… it follows, then, that the words ‘a blood-bridegroom art thou to me,’ were addressed to Moses, … ‘because she had been compelled, as it were, to acquire and purchase him anew as a husband by shedding the blood of her son.’”3
Speculation has been kept to a minimum. Where speculation is necessary, it is candidly but lightly indulged and the reader is not left uncertain as to its identity. The facts in the text are summarized rather thoroughly.
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) maintains a web-based Q&A site.4 A puzzled inquirer in an e-mail to the site has asked a number of questions regarding Exodus 4:24-26. Not surprising, they are questions ones we also would ask. WELS’ reply follows:
“The reference you cite from Exodus chapter 4 leaves us with perhaps more questions than answers. The brief narrative is somewhat obscure, and we need to always take care not to add where Scripture is silent. But what can we glean from these couple of verses?
Verse 24 tells us that the Lord was about to kill Moses. How? We are not told. Why? Again, no specific answer. Although some conjecture that Zipporah’s reference to Moses being a bridegroom of blood gives us a hint as to the reason. Moses’ son (was it Gershom, whom we meet in Ex. 2:22 or a second son perhaps?) had not been circumcised. Moses’ life is spared when Zipporah circumcises the boy. Yet her comment seems to suggest that such a bloody ritual is offensive to her.
At any rate, Moses realizes that even though called by God to go and lead his people out of Egypt, he still needs to understand how serious the Lord God is about his Word and his will. Genesis chapter 17 gives us the background for the covenant of circumcision, so read through Gen. 17:1-14.
Moses, by not having a son circumcised, had broken the covenant God had established with Abraham. How could Moses faithfully serve as a public servant of God and his people, if in his private life he neglected the Lord’s Word?5
[To corroborate further what the WELS expert has already said, a section relevant to the passage from their “People’s Bible Commentary” series has been added at the conclusion of the Q&A section on the website.]
“Did Moses neglect to circumcise his son because of Zipporah’s dislike for circumcision? Is that why Zipporah now called Moses a ‘bridegroom of blood,’ indicating that it was only through this bloody act that she could bring her husband back to life? These are possible explanations for an incident which is told us in but a few words. This incident does make very clear, however, that God expected a man who was to serve as a leader of his people to be faithful to his covenant of grace in his own family. Failure to obey the command to circumcise brought with it the threat to be ‘cut off’ from God’s people.”6
We marvel too how Moses could expect his disobedience would be overlooked. Discussion of the text is for the most part cautious. WELS’ response in fact is a bit more circumspect than K&D.
We interject here that a number of internet sites putatively dealing with the passage were reviewed. Some were shallow, others were tendentious, others were exegetical non sequiturs, and still others were more interested in promulgating an agenda unrelated to the passage (even so far as promoting their own “scholarship” at its expense) than attempting a fair and candid explication of it. For those who wish to see for themselves that we have not mischaracterized them, online site locations are listed below.7 None offered commentary of any value. (For more detail, please see this link to the addendum for this article)
The “Concordia Self-Study Commentary”8 incorporates commentary and gloss-notes into the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. Old Testament annotation is by Dr. Walter R. Roehrs. A strong caution must be lodged here. The RSV, captive to rationalist presuppositions, in its translation methods often suppresses prophetic OT passages.9 Prof. Roehrs comments:
“4:24 - Sought to kill him … The encounter of Moses with God was more mysterious than Jacob’s at Peniel (Gen. 32:22-32). It demonstrated that even God’s ambassador had no right to existence unless he himself accepted the status of reconciliation with God that the sign of the covenant of grace provided. His failure to circumcise his son, perhaps in deference to his wife, exposed Moses to the threat of being “cut off from his people.” (Gen. 17:14; cf. Josh. 5:2-15).
4:25 - feet … Some interpreters hold that this is a euphemism for genitals (Also in Is. 6:2; 7:20); a bridegroom of blood … Through the blood of his son’s circumcision Moses was restored to Zipporah as if he had again become her bridegroom.”10
Here too restraint is evident about anything but fact. Dr. Roehrs also is especially reluctant to reach beyond the text; he is most reserved in a matter which he claims has been touched upon by other commentators. It seems he fears exegesis in this area might easily veer into unwarranted notions of dubious propriety.
From earlier in our Synod’s history, we bring forward comments from an English translation of lecture notes11 (first published 1896 in German) by Prof. George Stoeckhardt, who ministered a Missouri Synod church in St. Louis and taught at its Seminary. The professor is regarded one of the finest teachers in Synod’s history. Note that Rev. Stoeckhardt brings a new element into this discussion.
2. The Seriousness of the Covenant of Circumcision:
Israel is here called the firstborn son of God, pointing to the later-born children, whom God would gain from the heathen nations.
As Moses was on the way and was lodging in an inn, he was confronted by God who was intent on killing him. He had invited God’s wrath by not circumcising his sons, because of the cowardly yielding to the wishes of his wife, who considered circumcision a covenant of shame and disgrace.
Circumcision was the covenant which God had established with Abraham and his descendants. This was a strict covenant, because God had threatened to destroy all those of Abraham’s seed who were not circumcised. This threat also pertained to the parent’s who refused to have their children enter this covenant. He who refused to be circumcised and despised it, despised God’s covenant.
Zipporah, whose guilt was the greater, now obeyed the will of the Lord and saved her husband’s life, calling him her bloody husband.
3. Dare not Despise Baptism:
The sign of the New Testament covenant is baptism, and he who despises baptism, despises the covenant and grace of God, and excludes himself from life and salvation. With this historical account our God has shown us that it is not a trifle with Him when His covenant of grace in His sacrament are delayed and despised.“12
First -- “With this historical account” -- Prof. Stoeckhardt locks-and-loads to disperse enemies of God’s Word who would allegorize or mythologize the passage away, denying it actually happened. In drawing the parallel between the OT “first-born” of Israel and the Church of the NT (Gal. 6:16b … Israel of God; Heb. 12:23 … church of the firstborn), he thus shows the text gazing far ahead to the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism, a Scriptural means of grace, is the antitype, the reality of the blessed gift come of our Savior to which this OT rite (circumcision) points.
We value highly the “Popular Commentary”13 of Paul E. Kretzmann. It is thoroughly orthodox and trustworthy in its judgments. In four volumes, comprising 3,000 pages, he examines the entire Bible.
“v.24 - In the place where Moses and his family encamped for the night while on the journey, the Lord threatened to take his life by a sudden disease, because he had neglected to circumcise his second son, Eliezer. [Eliezer: “The second son of Moses and Zipporah (Ex. 18:4; 1st Chron. 23:15)”]14 Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and His people, and could not be omitted without grave consequences.
v.25 - (laid it [the foreskin] down so that it touched the feet of Moses) … The entire incident seems to have been a source of great displeasure to Zipporah, and her words indicate that she considered her husband regained by the blood of her child.
v. 26 - (or bridegroom) … She vented her displeasure after the recovery of Moses was assured. It seems that this incident caused Moses to reconsider his intention of taking his family along to Egypt. At any rate, it was not until his return to the peninsula of Sinai that his father-in-law brought his family to him (Ex. 18:2). As circumcision was a sacrament in the Old Testament, so Baptism is a sacrament in the New Testament, and the Lord’s zeal for the use of the means of grace is as great as ever.”15
P.E. Kretzmann also underscores the gravity of Moses’ neglect. He as well finds application to the Biblical-NT sacrament of Baptism. He speaks of circumcision as “a sacrament in the Old Testament” and Baptism as “a sacrament of the New Testament.” The parallel and what it teaches about God’s appointed means of grace -- that they are everlasting (Heb. 13:8) -- is undeniable.
At this time let us gather up loose ends and see if a clearer understanding of the passage is possible and if an application of it to present day circumstance is valid:
(v.24) And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
(v.25) Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.
(v.26) So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
1. Antecedent pronouns, to be sure, are difficult to assign. But the object of God’s anger and whom He was seeking to kill can be no other than Moses. As has been observed, in the case of a child, the parent -- specifically the father -- is responsible for seeing the rite of circumcision is performed.
2. There is question about the method God might have used to kill Moses. Some opt for an instant means direct from God; others think a means indirect, perhaps a dreadful, rapid spreading disease. Nonetheless, the means used is much less important than that, clearly, God intends to kill Moses.
3. We learn through the larger context (Ex. 3:11; 4:1, 10) that Moses had already found excuses for not doing work set before him, leading God’s people out of bondage. He wondered aloud how God could want someone as ill-equipped for this great mission as he. Did he really believe that God in haste or through insufficient planning had overlooked his stuttering? Yet God patiently suffered Moses to utter his misgivings and evasions and then, one by one, overcame each with His solution. But neglecting circumcision of his son would not be tolerated and no amount of “reasoning” could mitigate the consequences.
4. Why is this so important? Because Moses, God’s chosen servant and minister to the court of Pharaoh had ignored and, in effect, disobeyed God’s ordinance.
5. See Gen. 17:10-14, below:
(v.10) This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised.
(v.11) And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.
(v.12) And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.
(v.13) He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.
(v.14) And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.
This is a command: we find no exceptions or loopholes in it, thus a non-negotiable command at that. “Token of the covenant” (v.11) speaks of circumcision as a visible, outward sign. On the eve of his mission to Egypt Moses had continued to neglect to appropriate to his own house the visible sign of God’s covenant of grace with His people. From within the entire Israelite nation, laxity, dilatoriness, or outright disobedience in one man was least to be expected in Moses. He was no common foot-soldier in the approaching confrontation with Egypt’s sovereign, Pharaoh.
6. The text makes no mention of the reason(s) why Moses failed to circumcise his child. Based on context and the practice of pagan tribes such as the one from which his wife Zipporah came (Midian), many commentators believe that he allowed himself to be unduly influenced by her. Her repugnance to the rite of circumcision is evident throughout the passage. Even after her expeditious action with the stone knife in consummating the bloody rite, effectually rescuing her husband from certain death, her distaste for it remains unabated. Surely a central ideal of married life is the cultivation of domestic peace. This policy is Scriptural and also is consistent with the wisdom of the ages. But in so important a matter, nothing avails but following the Word of God (Matt. 12:30; Lk. 11:23). Perhaps Moses and Zipporah could find no acceptable common ground because of the great religious (and cultural) divide separating them. His deference to his wife, a pagan who could not see past the “mechanics” of the rite (II Cor. 5:7, “For we walk by faith, not by sight“), rendered his failing no less inexcusable.
7. We must compare the passage from Gen. 17 to one spoken by Jesus Christ at His departure from His disciples. At first glance one would see little in common between the two, but closer comparison reveals otherwise:
(v.19) Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
(v.20) Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
As in Gen. 17 (“ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin”), words of Jesus Christ are likewise unalterable in the command to teach all nations “to observe all things [including baptism] whatsoever I have commanded you” (v20). As in Gen. 17 (“my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” v.13), in the sacrament of Baptism an outward visible sign of God’s covenant of grace is a seal, a surety of faith in the Triune God -- a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost (Dr. Luther) -- received by His children and His Church.
8. Martin Luther had much to say regarding baptism:
“Secondly: The Blessings of Baptism.
What does Baptism give or profit? -- Answer. It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
“Which are the words and promises of God? -- Answer. Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’
“Thirdly: The Power of Baptism.
How can water do such great things? -- Answer. It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: ‘By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.’”16
9. Because we wish to discover suitable application of the Ex. 4 passage and we believe we have found it in particular in the sacrament of Baptism, and further, in sacraments as “means of grace” generally, we have provided at this juncture a lengthy but thorough explanation of Biblical Sacrament as is taught in God’s Word and so understood by the historic Christian Church:
“The Sacraments are sacred acts of divine institution, by which, whenever they are properly performed by the prescribed use of the prescribed external elements in conjunction with the divine words of institution, God, being, in a manner peculiar to each Sacrament, present with the word and elements, earnestly offers to all who partake of such Sacraments forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation and operates toward the acceptance of such blessings or toward greater assurance of their possession. This definition, though not found in Scripture in the same terms, is Scriptural inasmuch as it states the marks common to two peculiar institutions described in Holy Writ which in the Christian Church are designated as Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As these institutions are not termed Sacraments in the Holy Scriptures, there is no cogent necessity of restricting the term to these two institutions. Any sacred rite or performance or institution, e.g., the act of absolution, the administration of an oath, the rite of confirmation or ordination, might be called a Sacrament. But when the Lutheran Church maintains that there are but two and shapes its definition as above, we mean that the Scriptures know of but these two institutions admitting of this definition taken from Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as institutions intended for the Church of the New Testament, and that, whatever else may be called a sacrament, is not of the same nature as these institutions to which we apply and restrict this term in theology. The proper performance of these sacred acts, in order that they may be sacramental acts, requires the prescribed use of prescribed external elements in conjunction with the words of institution. These elements -- water in Baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist -- are essential to the respective Sacrament and so is their prescribed use. In Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper, when these Sacraments are administered, the divine Author of these institutions is, in a peculiar way, present in and with the word and the elements in their sacramental use. The spiritual blessing dispensed in the Sacraments is the benefit of Christ’s redemption, forgiveness of sins, the salvation which Christ, the mediator, has merited for all mankind. And this appropriation of such benefits to the individual sinner is all the more apparent as, in the Sacraments, God takes each candidate for Baptism and each communicant, separately and individually assuring him, to whose body the sacramental water is applied, or him who eats and drinks his Savior’s body and blood, that his sins are forgiven unto him. And here, again, the full pardon thus freely and unconditionally offered and extended to the sinner can be, and often is, rejected, its acceptance refused. The Sacrament is not a charm, a magic lotion or potion, but a means of grace [emphasis added]. Being but another form of the Gospel, it, too, is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”17
And at last, Dr. Luther refutes those who snigger at the simple external appearance of sacraments and deem them mere rote recitation or empty gesture:
“The world is now full of sects which exclaim that Baptism is merely an external matter and that external matters are of no use. However, let it be ever so much an external matter; here stand God’s Word and command which institute, establish, and confirm Baptism. However, whatever God institutes and commands cannot be useless but must be an altogether precious matter, even if it were less than a straw in appearance [emphasis added].”18
10. Nowhere are we suggesting that Baptism is always and under every circumstance absolutely necessary to salvation. If such were true, then the promise of paradise with Christ to the malefactor on the cross (Lk. 23:43) is not trustworthy.
11. Do we neglect or misuse the sacraments? Have they become for us mere rite or sacred tradition, or something that has power (if by chance such power exists) ex opera operatum? Have we set aside God’s appointed means of grace, Word and Sacrament, as they are found in the Bible? God has chosen and called men through His Church into the ministry to properly administer and distribute these means. Moses was responsible for seeing all was done in good order in his house as well as at the head of the Israelite nation. In this one thing he had been sorely remiss, even disobedient (Gal. 6:7). Is this true of us also in the Lutheran church?
12. The churches of Christendom for a long while have devised means of grace to suit themselves. We should note that, when we dispose of God’s given “means,” we hardly ever cashier the idea of them altogether but continually, under the influence of our own flesh, exercise a desire for some kind of outward sign or sacrament as a substitute “means”: entertainment, mass psychology, business models, behavior manipulation, social eclecticism, or a crass political program. How common is our preference instead wresting God’s Word to meet “felt needs” rather than crushing “felt needs” with God’s Word. This is the way of church today and we grow indignant if God deigns not to bless it quickly enough or meet our expectation of numerical and spiritual growth (Prov. 14:12).
13. We note from our Confessions the critical distinction between God’s established “means” and our own baleful desires (Col. 2:16-17):
“Since righteousness of the heart is a spiritual matter, quickening the hearts, and it is evident that human traditions do not quicken hearts, and are not effects of the Holy Ghost, as are love to one’s neighbor, chastity, etc., and are not instruments through which God moves hearts to believe, as are the divinely given Word and Sacraments [my emphasis], but are usages with regard to matters that pertain in no respect to the heart, which perish with the using, we must not believe that they are necessary for righteousness before God. [They are nothing eternal; hence, they do not procure eternal life, but are an external bodily discipline, which does not change the heart.]”19
14. Thus both Prof. Stoeckhardt and Prof. Kretzmann in emphasizing the connection to baptism and means of grace in general in this passage have expounded it to great profit for us. By these gifts God creates faith and forgives sinners.
Persistent and heedless despite for God’s means of grace invite judgment in the congregation. Right worship and practice is not an option to be cavalierly discarded for the latest church fad or innovation. St Paul prophesied how, in the last days, believers will turn from the Bible, “and will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; …” (II Tim. 4:3). It is no less true in our time than it was under the OT Covenant, such blindness and willful disobedience will result in the removal of the lamp in our congregations (Ps. 132:17; Rev. 2:5), hardening of hearts (Ex. 7:3), and loss of faith.
-- SDG --
1 All Scripture quotes used in this study are from KJV (Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1769, Concord text edition - 8vo)
2 Keil, C.F. and Delitzsch, F.; Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch: Exodus: Hendrickson Pub., 1996 / 10 volume reprint edition, p.298-299
3 Ibid: K&D, p. 298-299
5 Ibid: WELS
6 Ibid: WELS
8 Eds., Roehrs, Walter R. and Franzmann, Martin H.; Concordia Self-Study Commentary: RSV Edition: Concordia Publishing House, 1971, 963 pgs.
9 The difficulty with the RSV has no affect on commentary on Gen. 4:24-26
10 Ibid: Roehrs and Franzmann, pg.64
11 Trans., Beck, Rev. Arthur E.; George Stoeckhardt: The Bible History of the Old Testament: Wisdom for Today: St. Peter’s Ev. Lutheran Church, 1969, p.74
12 Ibid: A.F. Beck, p.74
13 Kretzmann, Paul E.; Popular Commentary of the Bible: Old Testament, vol. I&II; New Testament vol. III&IV: Concordia Publishing House, 1921-1924
14 Ed., Green Sr., Jay P.; The Classic Bible Dictionary: Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 1988, p.386
15 Ibid: Kretzmann, vol. I, p. 119
16 Eds., Dau, W.H.T. and Bente, F.; Concordia Triglotta or Book of Concord: The Symbols of the Ev. Lutheran Church: CPH, 1922, 241 pgs. (Repristination Press reprint edition, 1999, “Small Catechism: The Sacrament of Baptism,” p.162
17 Eds., Fuerbringer, L., Engelder, Th., and Kretzmann, P.E.; The Concordia Cyclopedia: CPH, 1927, pgs. 672-673 … (article author, A.L. Graebner)
18 Ed., Plass, Ewald M.; What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian: CPH, 1959, 1667 pgs; #119 “Baptism important because divinely instituted,” p. 43
19 Ibid: Concordia Triglotta, pg. 75