A Theological Phrasebook entry.
You may be familiar with the story of Moses. In exile in the desert he encounters God as a burning bush. God says, “Hey, guess what, I’m going to bring Israel out of Egypt, and you are the man to make it happen.” And Moses says, “Um, I’m most definitely not, please send someone else.” And God says, “I’m going to be with you, the fact that you’re not particularly impressive is actually kind of part of a larger point I’m trying to make, so let’s get going.” And Moses says, “No really, please, send someone else, I not only don’t want to go, I’m bad at public speaking.” And God says, “I insist.”
And, off Moses goes, and there is the “Let my people go” and plagues and crossing of the Red Sea stuff and it’s easy to see why it gets presented in a Hollywood hero sort of way, what with the plucky underdog facing off against the god-among-men-pharaoh, and the raising of staffs in dramatic moments and whatnot. But, there is a strange little story tucked into Exodus 4 that I have spent a lot of time thinking about in the course of my Christian life.
So, in Exodus 4, God has arm-wrestled Moses into leading the Israelite rescue mission. God has said, “Despite your protestations to the contrary, you are the man for the job, and I’m going to do miraculous things through you.” And Moses starts off back towards Egypt from the desert with his family to fulfill his God ordained mission when, (plot twist): “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him.” (Exodus 4:24). The passage is a tangle on the translation front (I’m using the New International Version this time around), but just to be clear on sequence here: Moses is in exile in Midian – God convinces him after much argument to go back to Egypt as God’s representative for the Israelite rescue mission – Moses starts on his way back to Egypt – God shows up at the local Motel 6 to kill Moses (or, maybe Moses’s son – the pronouns are a little ambiguous – either way, God does not show up to give a pep-talk to his favorite Israelite exile).
The story continues: “But Zipporah [Moses’s Midianite wife] took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’s feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)” (Exodus 4:25-26, NIV again).
And that’s the end of this particular story. Cool. Good. Verse 27 carries on with Moses on his mission, meeting his brother Aaron (who will do the talking), going over strategic plans, and onward to “let my people go” etc. The weird stuff with bloody foreskins and feet is not mentioned again. I am not going to try and explain what’s going on in this passage. I am not sure it is explainable (readers have been puzzled by it for centuries at this point). Circumcision was the special sign of God’s covenant with Moses’s ancestor Abraham (you can read all about it in Genesis 17), and so it is sort of a big deal that God’s special representative had failed to perform this fundamental act in a timely manner with his son. But, you would think it is something they could have hammered out beforehand – the threat of death after everything is already in motion seems a bit much.
It is a wild and strange passage. It makes me deeply uncomfortable, but has fascinated me over the years. The thing is that sometimes God in the Bible is the serene composer of the music running through all creation and sometimes he is hammering on your motel door at 3am with violence on his mind. I’m not always sure what to do with that. God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush with an unspeakable name, as the source of all being, as “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). But this transcendent God, a God past naming, is also deeply enmeshed in a particular story, in relationship with a particular people: the great I Am engaged in argument with a stubborn (and frightened) desert shepherd.
Circumcision is a sign of this particularity, of a commitment to a particular story, a particular people. What this particular commitment means for our understanding of God as the transcendent creator and sustainer of all things is a tension within Christian belief that must be wrestled with. But the wrestling is part of the point – to push things too far in one direction or the other is to drift into idolatry (with a sort of abstract deism on one side, or a narrowly tribal god on the other). The strange story of Moses and his family in their desert motel, waylaid by an angry God along the way, helps me wrestle in the way that faith requires.
- Exodus (the whole book)
- Genesis 17
- If you want at least some attempt at explanation of what’s going this little patch of Exodus, here is one online resource that provides a plausible summary with some helpful context
- I have not touched on the relationship between Israel and the church in this post. For now it’s just enough to affirm that the Christian belief is that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt” (that’s from the first volume of Robert Jenson’s systematic theology – a theologian who wrestled more than most with what it might mean that God has committed himself to a particular story).