The Book of Exodus begins with the children of Israel in Egypt, suffering the pains of enslavement. God "remembers" His people, and sends a savior -- Moses -- to liberate them. During Moses' initial encounter with the Divine, at the Burning Bush, Moses displays extreme hesitation in accepting the role of savior. God shows Moses various manifestations of His power, and, finally, Moses acquiesces.
As Moses sets off on his journey to Egypt, the Torah shares the following episode:
And it came to pass by the way in the inn that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zippora took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and threw it at his feet, and said, "Surely a bridegroom of blood are you to me." So he let him go, then she said, "A bridegroom of blood you are, because of the circumcision." (Exodus 4:24-26)
The text is enigmatic and confusing. Why did God wish to kill Moses? Why choose him as a leader and savior and cajole him into returning to Egypt, only to execute him on the way? What is the significance of the circumcision? Why does it need to be performed at this juncture? How does Zippora know that this will bring healing?
How does Zippora know that this will bring healing?
On one level, the story reminds us of Jacob's strange battle prior to his meeting with his brother Esau, where he, too, is stalked by a celestial assailant.1 There, Jacob's thigh is wounded; here, a full-scale circumcision is performed.
These episodes may be seen as sharing four thematic elements:
- anticipation of a long-awaited rendezvous with a brother after years of separation -- in Jacob's case Esau, in Moses case Aaron;
- an attack from above;
- a resolution related to progeny (in Jacob's case the thigh is taken as such a symbol);2
- the mystery of the attack itself.
AN ATTACK ON WHOM?
A certain ambiguity is noted in this passage:
And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.
We are not told who the "he" is. Although the text points toward identification with Moses, the text remains enigmatic and obscure. Based on the context one may posit that the victim is not Moses but his son!
And the Lord said to Moses, "When you go to return to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in your hand, but I will harden his heart, so that he shall not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus said the Lord, "Israel is my son, my firstborn. And I say to you, Let my son go, that he may serve me. And if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn."' And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.3 (Exodus 4:21-24)
The topic was sons and the killing of sons, specifically the firstborn. Perhaps the contextual evidence points to Moses' son as victim and not Moses. In the Talmud this point is debated. The first opinion states that the intended victim was Moses:
Rabbi Joshua ben Karha said, "Great is circumcision, for all the meritorious deeds performed by Moses our teacher did not stand him in stead when he displayed apathy towards circumcision, as it is written, And the Lord met him, and sought to kill him."
Rabbi Yose said, "God forbid that Moses should have been apathetic towards circumcision, but he reasoned thus: 'If I circumcise [my son] and [straightway] go forth [on my mission to Pharaoh], I will endanger his life, as it is written, And it came to pass on the third day, when they were sore. If I circumcise him, and tarry three days, but the Holy One, blessed be He, has commanded: Go, return unto Egypt.' Why then was Moses punished? Because he busied himself first with the inn, as it is written, And it came to pass by the way, in the inn. (Nedarim 32a)
Here, a rationale for the attack is also presented -- Moses should not have displayed "apathy" toward this commandment.4 As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Moses should have done it.
The Talmud explains the source of Moses' ambivalence: He has two commandments to worry about. The first was to heed the word of God and save the entire nation. The other he saw as more parochial: the circumcision of his own son.
The Talmud's point is that now, when he was in proximity to Egypt, he could have performed the procedure, but instead, he was busy with lodging arrangements.
There is, however, a second opinion in the Talmud:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: "Satan did not seek to slay Moses but the child, for it is written, Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it as his feet, and said, 'Surely a bloody chatan art thou to me.' Go forth and see: who is called a chatan? Surely the infant [to be circumcised]." (Nedarim 32b)
Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, assumes that the resolution of the episode, the circumcision of the child, is intrinsically related to the entire event. According to this opinion, the intended victim is not Moses but his son.
The motive for the attack remains obscure.
While this would clarify the identity of the victim, the motive for the attack remains obscure. When we recall the context, the discussion of the death of the first-born of Egypt, the threat of a child's death becomes more intelligible -- Moses' hesitation in coming to redeem the people indicated some type of indifference to the nation described as "the first born of God." Therefore, Moses' own first-born is in peril.
In spite of this deductive reasoning, it is interesting to note that there is no consensus among the Midrashim regarding the identity of the child.
As we know, Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.
The birth of Gershom is noted in the text:
And Moses was content to dwell with the man [Jethro]; and he gave Moses Zippora his daughter. And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said, "I have been a stranger in a strange land." (Exodus 2:21-22)
Yet when Moses takes leave of Midian and sets out for Egypt, two sons are mentioned, but not named:
And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God in his hand. (Exodus 4:20)
Only later in the Torah we are told the name of the second son, Eliezer:
...and her two sons; and the name of one was Gershom; for he said, "I have been a stranger in a strange land." And the name of the other was Eliezer, for he said, "The God of my father was my help, and saved me from the sword of Pharaoh." (Exodus 18:3-4)
Presumably, the birth of Eliezer was immediately prior to the family's departure from Midian -- perhaps at this juncture he did not even have a name. Now we may understand Moses's difficulty: This child is but a few days old. How could he make such a journey, especially with a fresh wound. Yet God called upon him to begin the Exodus, so leave he must.
There is, however, a bit more intrigue surrounding the birth of Gershom. The name denotes strangeness, isolation. The birth is noted as representing Moses' dwelling in a strange land. Undoubtedly this strangeness caused Moses spiritual angst; nonetheless the Torah speaks of a certain level of "comfort" which Moses achieves.
And Moses was content to dwell with the man...
The Mechilta detects something ominous about this comfort.5 According to this opinion, Moses had agreed that his first-born son would belong to Jethro and would be dedicated to cultic service. Jethro, introduced as "priest" of Midian (Exodus 2:16), wrote this clause into the marital agreement for his eldest daughter, and Moses acquiesced.6 If this was the case, it was then quite likely that Gershom, the son who embodies and personifies Moses' strangeness, was not circumcised; indeed, he was never seen as part of Moses' people.7
Gershom, the son who embodies and personifies Moses' strangeness, may not have been circumcised.
Nevertheless, upon leaving Midian, Moses takes both of his sons. According to the Mechilta, the attack on Moses was due to his earlier abandonment of his first-born. Now in the inn, on the way to redeem God's first born, Moses is in peril. This is the last test, the final criteria for being deemed a worthy representative of the people of Israel -- he must liberate his first-born.
In this light, yet another parallel between Moses and Jacob is striking: both were leaving pagan fathers-in-law. Echoing Abraham's iconoclasm, Rachel tried to wean her father from his idols, and Zippora8 performs the circumcision on her own son, rejecting her father's claim on the child.
The man whom Zippora married was a Jew who dressed like an Egyptian,9 a fugitive from the justice system of Egypt. He was comfortable with the deal struck with Jethro. But Moses has changed -- he becomes a prophet of God, a man with a mission. In this episode, Zippora indicates her own metamorphosis -- she takes both of her sons, and she circumcises Gershom, her father's nascent follower. She is symbolically and physically displaying her fidelity to God, to His messenger Moses, and to the mission Moses has undertaken. In a sense, she is retaking her vows with Moses, Moshe Rabbenu, not the wanderer she had married years ago.
After this stop at the inn, where Moses puts his own house in order, he may continue his journey toward Egypt and the reunion with his brother Aaron who awaits his arrival.
According to the Torah, Aaron has been waiting for some time:
And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses, and He said, "Is not Aaron the Levi your brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he comes forth to meet you; and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart." (Exodus 4:14)
This verse, the final argument God uses to deflect Moses' hesitation, is recorded before Moses takes to the road for Egypt. But what was it that precipitated the anger of God? Moses' constant refusal to begin the mission.
Moses' modesty and feelings of inadequacy would not allow him to accept the challenge. However, God's repeated assurances of His active participation should have defused Moses' self-doubt.10 According to our Sages, Moses was punished for his excessive hesitation:
What anger was there? The priesthood was taken from Moses and given to Aaron. Our Sages said, this is the meaning of Is not Aaron thy brother the Levi? Since it says thy brother, do we not know that he was a Levi? But God said to him: "You were worthy of being a priest and he a Levi but since you reject my words, you shall be a Levi and he a priest." (Midrash Rabbah -- Exodus 3:17)
Due to Moses' hesitation, the Exodus is delayed, and Aaron will be Kohen, "priest," in Moses' place. According to the Rashbam,11 the anger of God mentioned here is the cause of the attack at the inn. A textual oddity supports this line of association.
The text describes Moses' meeting with Aaron:
And the Lord said to Aaron, "Go into the wilderness to meet Moses." And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. (Exodus 4:27)
The Hebrew word for "met," vayifg'shehu, is used only one other time in the entire Hebrew Bible, in the previous section where it states:
And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.
The juxtaposition of this singular usage leads us to conclude that there is some type of intrinsic connection between the two meetings. Had Moses set out earlier to meet his brother and set the process of Israel's redemption in motion, the ominous meeting with God at the inn would have been averted.
ANGER AND WRATH
It is fascinating that God's anger, first kindled here, seems to echo in other places. The Talmud identifies the force which attacked Moses as af, "anger" and chemah, "wrath."
Rabbi Judah b. Bizna lectured: "When Moses was lax in the performance of circumcision, af and chemah came and swallowed him up, leaving nought but his legs. Thereupon immediately Zippora took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son [and threw it at his feet] and straightway he let him alone. (Nedarim 32a)
Moses himself becomes full of this same anger at a later juncture:
And it came to pass, as soon as he came near to the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses' anger (af) burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands, and broke them beneath the Mount. And he took the calf which they had made, and burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink of it. And Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people to you, that you have brought so great a sin upon them?" And Aaron said, "Let not the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are set on evil." (Exodus 32:19-22)
The breaking of the tablets results when Moses displays the anger which burns within. Could the source of this anger be the anger which God had earlier directed toward Moses himself?
Later, when Moses recapitulates and describes these events in his farewell address (Deuteronomy), he employs the same terms used in the Talmud's description of the forces which attacked him, af and chemah:
And I looked, and, behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God, and had made yourselves a molten calf; you had turned aside quickly from the way which the Lord had commanded you. And I took the two tablets, and threw them out of my two hands, and broke them before your eyes. And I fell down before the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights; I did not eat bread, nor drink water, because of all your sins which you sinned, in doing wickedly in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and wrath (af and chemah) with which the Lord was angry against you to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me at that time also. And the Lord was so very angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him; and I prayed for Aaron also the same time. (Deut. 9:16-20)
Now the anger is directed toward the entire people. At Sinai, Moses did not actually tarry in completing his mission; his tardiness existed only in the minds of the people. Is it possible that the entire chain of events leading up to the sin of the Golden Calf could have been avoided had Moses set out to meet his brother and perform his duties as redeemer with more enthusiasm?
Is it possible that the entire chain of events leading up to the Golden Calf could have been avoided?
Had he done so, he would have retained the priesthood, and the people would never have turned to Aaron to build them a calf. Perhaps the people, redeemed only that little bit sooner, would not have slipped to such depths of depravity, would never have even desired to build a graven image. Either way, the world would have been spared this particular form of anger and wrath.
Something very significant took place in that mysterious stop on the way to Egypt. Because of the stop, Moses' family was healed and spiritually fortified but a power was unleashed which later attacked the entire people with a vengeance.
Who was the victim of the attack, Moses or Gershom? Even though the two explanations offered appear mutually exclusive, the terseness of language is deliberate, leaving the text purposely obscure and, as a result, leaving us with two valid approaches.
If we look at the previous section, where God speaks of his "firstborn Israel," we are led to explain the section vis-a-vis Moses' son, Gershom. On the other hand, when we note the next verse, which speaks of the "meeting" with Aaron, we are forced to compare Moses with Aaron and especially the loss of the Kehuna. Elu v'elu divrei Elokim Chaim. "These and these are the words of the living God."
- Genesis 32:25-33. (return to text)
- For example see Exodus 1:5: "And all the souls who came from the thigh of Jacob were seventy souls; for Joseph was in Egypt already." (return to text)
- These verses, dealing with the choseness of the Jewish people, has been the subject of polemical debate with Christians for millenium. The Talmud Sanhedrin 43a cites these verses as part of a debate between Jesus's disciples and the court. In Sanahedrin 107b there is a fascinating account of the origin of the apostasy of Jesus, with the crucial scene taking place in an inn on the way to Israel from Egypt where a woman is the downfall of the supposed savior, while in the Exodus text a woman, "saves" the "savior." Please note that both of these passages have been expunged from most editions of the Talmud. (return to text)
- According to the Zohar there is an intrinsic relationship between circumcision and possessing the land of Israel, perhaps Moses is further punished by not being allowed to enter Israel as a result of this indiscretion. See Zohar Berishit 93b. (return to text)
- The Michilta (Yitro Amalek chapter 1), actually translates the word vayoel as a vow, which is the vow Moses made with Jethro, see Torah Shelemah Shmot note 166, for a fuller discussion on this Michilta, and explanations how Moses could have made such a vow. (return to text)
- The Baal Haturim (2:16) insists that Moses knew that one day Jethro would come to join God, and therefore made this deal. He further notes that Moses was nonetheless punished and the descendants of Moses did in fact one day become idolaters. See Baba Batra 109b and Shoftim 18:11. See Rabbi E.Y. Waldenberg Tzitz Eliezer 18:53. (return to text)
- See Targum Yonaton Ben Uzziel on 4:24,25 where the Mechilta is incorporated into these verses, and Gershom is identified as the child who was now circumcised. (return to text)
- There are sources which indicate that Zippora too was a descendent of Abraham through Ketura. See Torah Shelemah Sh'mot note 170, where Rav Kasher cites this "tradition" in the name of Josephus, Antiquities 2:11. Rav Kasher assumes that Chazal must have had the same tradition, especially when one notes that one of Ketura's children is called Midian (Genesis 25:2). (return to text)
- The description of Moses as an Egyptian man when he arrives in Midian is explained in the Midrash as a reference to his clothing: Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 1:32
And they said: "An Egyptian delivered us out of the hands of the shepherds." (ib. 19). Was then Moses an Egyptian? No, he was a Hebrew but his dress was Egyptian. (return to text)
- Exodus 4:11-12 And the Lord said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Who makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Is it not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you shall say." (return to text)
- The comments of the Rashbam are on the verse dealing with the struggle of Jacob (Genesis 32:29), although the Rashbam does not note the series of parallels I mentioned above. (return to text)