Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Bridegroom of Blood: Interpreting Exodus 4:24-26

One of the most bizarre narratives in all of Scripture is undoubtedly Exodus 4:24-26 which tells what happens while Moses and his family were returning to Egypt from Midian. The NASB translates it as follows:
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.
The general interpretation is that Moses had failed to circumcise his son(s) and thus God struck him down with a severe illness that threatened to take his life. Realizing this, Moses calls from his sickbed, or perhaps even his deathbed, and asks his Midian wife Zipporah to circumcise their son thus removing the deadly curse upon him. She did so reluctantly calling him a "bloody bridegroom" and subsequently abandoned Moses not to reappear until Exodus 18.

But what if there is another interpretation? Until I came to this text while preaching expositionally through Exodus, the above was my preferred interpretation, but in his commentary, Dr. Duane Garrett proposes an alternative that I find convincing.

The main debate regards the interpretation of "him" in verse 24. The text lacks an antecedent. Is the "him" Moses, the main character of the book, or Moses' son who is circumcised in the story? The answer to that determines one's conclusion. Garrett takes the latter. He makes his defense in a series of bullet points which I will summarize below.

First, nowhere in the text does God say he tried to kill Moses. In fact, Moses is never explicitly mentioned in the Hebrew text. "Within the confines of this brief episode, there are only three explicit persons: YHWH, Zipporah, and her son. The pronoun 'him' would most likely be read as a prolepsis, pointing forward to Zipporah's son." (226) This technique forces the reader to ask, "Who is God trying to kill?"

Secondly, Genesis 17:14 gives no indication that the father of an uncircumcised male should be "cut of" from his people, only the male himself. Thus there is no basis for Moses to be punished for Gershom not being circumcised.

Thirdly, the boy is identified as Zipporah's son ("her son") not "his son." Had God been attacking Moses, we would expect the latter.

Fourthly, in the text, Moses never tells Zipporah to circumcise their son. The presumption is that she did it freely and thus we should not assume she was angry at her husband.

Fifthly, many translations suggest that Zipporah threw the foreskin at Moses's feet. Yet the Hebrew simply indicates Zipporah simply "touched the 'feet' . . . It does not say or imply that she touched the 'feet' with the foreskin." (227) Garrett also points out that "feet" is often a euphemism in Scripture for the genitals (see Deut. 28:57; Judg. 3:24; Ezek. 16:25) which would make sense regarding circumcision.

Sixth, there is "no reason to think that the 'feet' she touched belonged to Moses. The most logical antecedent to 'his' (in 'his feet') is 'her son' and not Moses, who is never mentioned. (227)

Seventh, "the use of the word 'touch' in Exod 12:22, where blood is applied to the doorframe in the Passover ritual, suggests that her touching of the 'feet' is a ritual act, not an outburst of anger. . . . Touching the 'feet' completed the act of consecrating the boy." (228)

Eighth, if Zipporah did not address Moses nor throw her son's foreskin at his feet, then there is no reason to assume "her statement is an angry outburst." (228)

Ninth, the phrase "bloody bridegroom" is difficult to translate and interpret. Even the text has to explain that it is referencing circumcision. Therefore, it is likely that even native Hebrew speakers found the expression obscure and difficult to understand. Garrett suggests the etymology comes from Arabic (which Zipporah probably spoke). Thus, the "bloody bridegroom" language seems to be a unique reference to the act of circumcision.

Tenth, the text never says that Zipporah and her children abandoned Moses and returned to Midian. We simply "know nothing of the domestic life of Moses and Zipporah." (228)

I find the above ten summarized points convincing. I would add one more that Garrett leaves out and that regards context. In Exodus 4:23, God tells Moses that if Pharaoh does not emancipate the Jewish slaves he will slay the king's firstborn son. Immediately following that prophecy is a narrative about the potential death of Moses's firstborn son. I do not believe that is accidental. The difference between the two men is the covenant symbolized by the blood of circumcision.

Nevertheless, this text remains a difficult one to interpret, but not impossible. I do believe that Garrett's argument should be given more credence moving forward.
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