Exodus 4:24-26 The Deadly Circumcision

Exodus 4:24-26 involves a circumcision that happened under pressure from the threat of God’s judgment. It seems God was willing to kill Moses right after calling him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Why would he do that, even after he told Moses that it has to be him when Moses asked him to send someone else? This incident seems to imply there was a failure to properly circumcision in Moses’s family. Since circumcision was a part of the requirements for the Abrahamic covenant and Moses was leading the Israelites, it was important that he at least kept that rule.

Exodus 4:24 (NLT) On the way to Egypt, at a place where Moses and his family had stopped for the night, the Lord confronted him and was about to kill him. 25 But Moses’ wife, Zipporah, took a flint knife and circumcised her son. She touched his feet [reference to penis] with the foreskin and said, “Now you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” 26 (When she said “a bridegroom of blood,” she was referring to the circumcision.) After that, the Lord left him alone.

Various scholars have different theories on this. Some say this was about Gershom’s circumcision. Others say it was about Moses and have deduced that the Israelites had not been properly circumcised while in Egypt, this is based on the Israelites getting circumcised in Joshua 5:2. Gershom, the oldest son of Moses, was born around the time he first came to Midian (Ex 2:21-22). Moses came to Midian when he was 40 years old (Acts 7:23-32) and went back to Egypt at 80 years old so, Gershom would have been about 40 at the oldest. Some say Moses wasn’t properly circumcised since he was raised in Pharaoh’s house and likewise the other Israelites weren’t either so this is why in Joshua 5:2 Joshua had all men in Israel “re-circumcised” themselves. I actually believe another theory, that it was Eliezer that was being circumcised since he would have been the youngest since it seems he was born around the time Moses left for Egypt based on Exodus 18:1-6.

Circumcision was supposed to happen on the eighth day (Gen 17:9-14), and Gershom is a grown man by this time which means he can make his own decision to get circumcised so why would Moses be threatened when God could have targeted Gershom? Furthermore, why would God wait until that specific moment on the way to Egypt to tell Moses to circumcise him? If Eliezer was the new baby at this time then this makes sense since he was born around the time of the burning bush conversation, and they could have stopped at this rest stop eight days after Eliezer was born. As for it being Moses, I don’t know if he was improperly circumcised or not but that has nothing to do with Joshua 5:2 since Moses’ generation (except Joshua and Caleb) didn’t go to the promise because of their sin in Numbers 14:26-35, and Moses and Aaron are banned because of their own sin (Num 20:2-13, Deut 32:48-52). This was about circumcising the next generation who weren’t circumcised when they were born in the wilderness. The rest of Joshua 5 says that their fathers were circumcised but they were dead since they lost out on the promise because of their failure to trust God in Numbers 14, so their sons had to replace them and that replacement begins with their circumcision.

Joshua 5:4 Joshua had to circumcise them because all the men who were old enough to fight in battle when they left Egypt had died in the wilderness. 5 Those who left Egypt had all been circumcised, but none of those born after the Exodus, during the years in the wilderness, had been circumcised. 6 The Israelites had traveled in the wilderness for forty years until all the men who were old enough to fight in battle when they left Egypt had died. For they had disobeyed the Lord, and the Lord vowed he would not let them enter the land he had sworn to give us—a land flowing with milk and honey. 7 So Joshua circumcised their sons—those who had grown up to take their fathers’ places—for they had not been circumcised on the way to the Promised Land. 8 After all the males had been circumcised, they rested in the camp until they were healed.

Moses was with his parents for three months before he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex2:2), so they had time to circumcise him on the eighth day. It’s possible that they didn’t circumcise him to hide his Jewishness so that Pharaoh’s servants wouldn’t kill him, but Pharaoh’s daughter recognized him as a Hebrew when she saw him in the basket, so this can’t be the case either. There is nothing in the text that I see, that suggests he wasn’t circumcised or there was anything prohibiting him from being circumcised.

In Exodus 18:1-6, it says Zipporah and her two sons Gershom and Eliezer are brought to Moses at Mount Sinai by Jethro Moses’ father-in-law. Eliezer is not mentioned in Exodus at all until chapter 18. So either he was born before Moses’ trip back to Egypt or afterward while Zipporah was at home. This chapter reveals to us that Zipporah did not stay with Moses after the circumcision in Exodus 4 and she went back home to her father’s house.

In the Gershom scenario, Eliezer is born when Zipporah is at home with Gershom and her father, all while Moses is in Egypt with Aaron challenging the Pharaoh. In this case, it is Gershom that needs to be circumcised. If it is Eliezer being circumcised scenario, Moses left around the time Eliezer was born and Eliezer was supposed to be circumcised on the way to Egypt, eight days after his birth. However, may have Zipporah objected to it since she says, “Now you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” which can be interpreted as her disgust of circumcision. There is another interpretation that instead of disgust she was simply recognizing that her husband was a worshipper of the God Most High (YHWH). Following the first interpretation, since Gershom is already circumcised, she probably figured that it was enough and didn’t want it to happen again and convinced Moses, not to do it. God had to deal with this because he was breaking the covenant oath from Gen 17 to circumcise all the males from Abraham’s line. 

I don’t believe God intended on killing Moses outright since he wanted to use him to rescue Israel and would not let Moses pass up the job (Ex 4:10-17), God even got angry with him for his insistence on sending someone else and allowed him to take Aaron back to speak for him. Why would God kill him after making it clear that it had to be him? Perhaps God temporarily made him to sick enough to scare Zipporah into giving in and circumcising Eliezer. God can’t have Moses breaking the Abrahamic law and then representing the God of that same covenant to the nation in which the promise is made, so it was necessary for covenant reasons and prevents him from leading the people as a hypocrite with an uncircumcised son. At the same time, God could not have indented to kill Moses if he planned on sending him to lead the people out of Israel.

How do we know if this is Gershom or Eliezer? We learn from Exodus 18:2 sent his wife back home, possibly for her own safety, or maybe she was traumatized by the events of Exodus 4:24-26. They then are reunited with Moses when they accompany Jethro to see Moses after the Israelites came out of Egypt in Exodus 18. The rest of the story proceeds to explain the names of the sons of Moses. The names of the boys were related to the circumstances of Moses’ life when they were born. Gershom’s name means “a foreigner there”, because when he was born Moses said, “I have been a foreigner in a foreign land.” Moses was born in Egypt so he is a foreigner in Midian. He names his 2nd son Eliezer, which means “God is my helper”, and at his birth, Moses said, “The God of my ancestors was my helper; he rescued me from the sword of Pharaoh.” Gershom was born around the time Moses married Zipporah closer to when he first came to Midian as a “foreigner there”. However, Eliezer was born closer to when he left Midian to go back to Egypt after finding out God “delivered him” from Pharaoh. Moses was living in Midian as a fugitive and couldn’t freely go back to see his family in Egypt, but now that the previous Pharaoh is dead, he is free to return, back to his homeland. His son’s births marked the beginning and end of his time as a fugitive.

One could interpret Eliezer as being born when Zipporah was with her father-in-law Moses saw him for the first time in Exodus 18 and named him at that moment. This would imply that the rescue from “the sword of Pharaoh” is referring to the Exodus Pharaoh, not his predecessor the fugitive Pharaoh. However, Exodus 4:19 reveals that God told Moses that those who wanted him dead are dead before he went back to Egypt.

Exodus 4:19 Before Moses left Midian, the Lord said to him, “Return to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you have died.”

This would imply that Eliezer’s name was inspired by the rescue from the sword of those who wanted him dead in Egypt when he fled as a fugitive. The new Pharaoh (of the Exodus event) didn’t recognize or know of Moses when he demands that he let the Israelites go in Exodus 5. The only people that could want him dead are the ones that had something against him, and since the Exodus Pharaoh had never met him before because he was living in Midian it could not be about him. This is only a few verses before the circumcision and when putting those various facts together along with the other variables like Gershom’s age and the name etymology of both sons, I believe Eliezer was born and named right before Moses left for Egypt. This means his naming was in reference to the Pharaoh in charge when Moses became a fugitive. One reason this scripture is complicated is that Exodus 4 does not reveal the existence of Eliezer, but when reading the clues it seems to me that this circumcision was about Eliezer, not Gershom, or Moses, and God’s intent was to get him circumcised not kill Moses since Moses had a calling he could not escape.