Print

Why did God want to slay Moses after He had commanded him to free Israel from Egypt?

The question addresses a seemingly difficult passage in Exodus 4:24-26, which reads:

“And
it came to pass on the way [to Egypt], 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’ [literally: his] 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.”

Please note that this incident occurred after God
had prophesied to Moses how Pharaoh would react to his demand to let
the people of Israel go (verses 21-23). It would therefore make little
sense to assume that God had changed his mind a few hours later to kill
Moses. Note that verses 22-23 record God’s words to Moses, which
immediately precede the above-quoted passage: “Then you shall say to
Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say
to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let
him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘”

The
context of the passage in Exodus 4:24-26 shows that God did not intend
to kill Moses [whom He was sending to Egypt to free the Israelites],
but one of Moses’ two sons, who had not been circumcised. At the time
of Moses, there was in effect a temporary law that God had given to
Abraham, to circumcise every male child (Genesis 17:9-13). God
specifically stated that “the uncircumcised male child, who is not
circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off
from his people” (verse 14).

It is apparent that Moses and
Zipporah had neglected to circumcise one of their sons, even though
both knew better. God, true to His Word, was about to “cut off” or kill
the uncircumcised son, due to Moses’ and Zipporah’s disobedience–God
later killed the firstborn sons of Egypt, when the Egyptians refused to
be obedient to God. God could not use Moses to be His servant, as long
as he refused to faithfully obey God’s commands. Zipporah might have
influenced Moses not to circumcise their son; so she immediately acted
in obedience to God’s command, whereupon God ceased from attempting to
kill the son.

When reading seemingly difficult passages, it is
important to study the passage in context and in light of other
Scriptures. For example, we read about Noah’s curse of his
grandson Canaan for something that–so it might seem–Canaan’s father
Ham had done. We find this passage in Genesis 9:20-25. As in the case
of God’s attempt to kill Moses’ son, a careful study reveals that it
was not Ham, but Ham’s son Canaan, who disgraced Noah and was cursed as
a consequence. The passage reads:

“And Noah began to be a farmer,
and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and
became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the
nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem
and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went
backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were
turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. So Noah
awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.
Then he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to
his brethren.'”

The context of the passage shows, of course,
that more was involved than mere “nakedness” of Noah. Apparently,
somebody had violated Noah, while he was drunk. But who did? We read
that Noah awoke and knew what “his younger son” had done to him. This
is not a reference to Noah’s son Ham, but to Ham’s son Canaan. A
correct rendering of Genesis 9:24 states: “And Noah awoke from his
wine, and knew what his YOUNGEST son had done unto him.” But Ham was
not Noah’s youngest son–Japheth was–while Canaan was the youngest son
of Ham. According to Jewish tradition, Canaan either “castrated” Noah
or he “indulged a perverted lust upon him” (compare Soncino, page 47).
In any event, Ham saw on his uncovered father the terrible signs of
Canaan’s evil deed or perverted lust, and Shem and Japheth covered Noah
with a garment.

It is not that uncommon throughout the Biblical
narrative, that subjects, objects or pronouns might be referring to
another person other than what might be suspected at the first reading
of a particular passage. For a last example, let’s consider Exodus
34:27-28 (Authorized Version):

“And the LORD said unto Moses,
Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made
[better: I will make] a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was
there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat
bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the
covenant, the ten commandments.” The question is, Who wrote the words
of the covenant on the tablets of stone? A superficial reading might
suggest that it was Moses. But a study of other Scriptures reveals that
it was God, not Moses.

After Moses had destroyed the first
tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments, because of his anger over
the sin of the Israelites who had built a golden calf, God had Moses
cut two new tablets of stone (Exodus 34:1). But God also said, in the
same verse: “… I will write on these tablets the words that were on
the first tablets which you broke.” The fact that it was God–not
Moses–who wrote the Ten Commandments a second time on the tablets of
stone, is confirmed in Deuteronomy 10:4: “And He wrote on the tablets
according to the first writing, the Ten Commandments, which the LORD
had spoken to you.. and the LORD gave them to me.” Moses wrote these
words, including with other statutes and judgments, and even temporary
ritual laws, in a book–which became known as the “Book of Moses.” But
he did not write the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone–God did
that.

In conclusion, it is important to read “difficult”
Scriptures in context and in conjunction with the rest of the Bible. A
correct understanding reveals that God did not try to kill Moses, but
Moses’ son, who was not circumcised. Noah did not curse Canaan for an
evil deed perpetrated by Noah’s son Ham, but for an evil deed committed
by Ham’s youngest son, Canaan. And it was not Moses, but God, who wrote
the Ten Commandments twice on two tablets of stone.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link