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Peculiar Passages: The Case of the Bloody Bridegroom

Tim Thornborough | Aug. 6, 2019

As a young Christian, I read through the Exodus story with a wonderful little commentary by Bernard Ramm, called His Way Out. Seeing the gospel in the book of Exodus was foundational for my own Christian understanding, but this little book was a window to a larger theological landscape, and was part of my pathway to eventually studying theology and the job I now enjoy. In particular, Bernard Ramm modelled great Bible handling as he encouraged me not to jump to immediate conclusions, and to think carefully about the context of any Bible passage as I tried to discern its meaning both then and now.

The rather bizarre incident, at least to our modern way of thinking, in Exodus 4 is a good example. Moses—born of a Hebrew woman and raised in a palace—had discovered his true identity, murdered an Egyptian,  fled to a distant land and married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. 

So far, so Hollywood. 

But in Midian, he has a profound encounter with God at the burning bush, where God commissions him to lead and rescue his people from slavery in Egypt. As he returns to carry out this commission, a curious thing happens on the pathway to the pyramids that they didn’t put in The Prince of Egypt:

"At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision."

Confusing detail

This strange incident has been pored over by both Hebrew, Muslim and Christian scholars for centuries. Why would God want to kill Moses? Why is he saved by having his son’s blood on his feet? How did Zipporah know what to do? What did she mean by the curious phrase "Bridegroom of Blood”?

Although the story seems clear as we read it in the ESV above, there is a real problem with the original Hebrew, which has many pronouns, but lacks actual names. So, although it is natural to suppose that verse 24 is about the Lord putting Moses to death, it does not name him — it could be the child. And although verse 25 here says she touched the severed foreskin to Moses feet, the original just has “his feet” — it could be God’s feet. Perhaps the act of God killing him is in the form of a physical angel of the Lord, as some Jewish and Muslim commentators have suggested. 

Zooming out

But if focussing close only brings less clarity about what is going on here, zooming out helps enormously. In Genesis, God had given the rite of circumcision to Abraham as a sign of belonging to the covenant. But there were also warnings attached about the seriousness of disobedience.

"Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:14 NIV).

Moses had clearly not been obedient to this command for his son. Was he hanging back from his responsibilities as a follower of the Lord? His reticence to be obedient is evident in chapter 3, where he is looking for any excuse not to be obedient to God’s command to return to Egypt. Fortunately, Zipporah understands, and completes the obedience for him.

And just before these verses we read the words of Moses’ commissioning by God:

“And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”

Moses was about to speak God’s command to Pharaoh to “let my people go", for which there would be a punishment for disobedience. Pulling back from the details we can see that this story can be read in a way which has all the same elements…

  • There is a failure to obey a command from God (circumcise your children).

  • There is the threat of a punishment (they shall be cut off, if we read this as being the uncircumcised first-born child who is in danger of death).

  • They are saved through an act of obedience and blood

As the story plays out in Exodus, Moses moves from doubt, reticence and disobedience to God, to obedience, trust and commitment to the Lord. And the firstborn children of Israel are saved by the blood of a substitute lamb smeared on the doorposts of their houses, as the angel of the Lord passes over them. Although the details of this story are blurred, the principles are clear and mirrored in the story that follows. And perhaps this is the incident that turns Moses from being a halting follower to a committed leader—ably helped by his wife who urges her bloody husband to man up and get on with it.

Some things for us to learn about Biblical interpretation

1. The ancient world is another country: There are cultural practices and assumptions in parts of the Bible that will feel alien to us — because they are. The Ancient Near East was not like London without cellphones. Ancient Egypt was not New York with camels. We would and should expect parts of the Bible to feel alien to us, and for us to be scratching our heads about what was really going on. Sometimes historians can give us some context and help with this from sources external to scripture. Sometimes not.

2. Sometimes translations do a bit too much of the heavy lifting. Having the Bible in our own language is a wonderful gift, but sometimes, translations make sense of things by deciding on one understanding of a verse, rather than presenting us with something that is ambiguous. It is always worth comparing and contrasting Bible translations, and consulting someone who knows their Greek or Hebrew. We trust in scripture as delivered, not in the NIV or ESV translation committees—as wonderful and helpful as they are.

3. Usually, we can discern the meaning intended from the wider context. As in this case, the precise details of this particular incident may be unclear to us, but within the framework of Exodus as a whole, we can see how it refers to, and reinforces the overall message, and, in a weird way points us to the Lord Jesus who is the bridegroom of the church through his blood.

Tim Thornborough

Tim Thornborough is the founder and Publishing Director of The Good Book Company. He is series editor of Explore Bible-reading notes and the author of The Very Best Bible Stories series, and has contributed to many books published by The Good Book Company and others. Tim is married to Kathy, and they have three adult daughters.

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