The Man Who Wasn’t There: Exegesis of Exodus 4:24-26

Vincent's Chair With His Pipe, Van Gogh, 1888

Vincent’s Chair With His Pipe, Van Gogh, 1888

Violence, divine intervention, blood, circumcision, strange appellations, and a whole lot of ambiguity.

24At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. 25So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH Translation.)

Or:

24On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. 25But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV)

This is a fascinating pericope, or cutting, from Exodus. In it we have violence, divine intervention, blood, circumcision, strange appellations, and a whole lot of ambiguity. The NRSV version tries to remove some of this ambiguity by inserting Moses’ name where the Hebrew only reads “his”, though this decision itself leads to further complications. In this post, I will look at some insights and suggestions others have offered, and then give my take on this strange moment in Exodus.

This dangerous encounter follows Moses’ call by God to lead the Hebrew people out of their Egyptian slavery, and is followed by Moses’ meeting with Aaron in which they do just as God has instructed. So why, if Moses is on his way to do what God has just told him to do, does God attack in the night, seeking to kill?

The main narrative problems I see in this passage are: Who is the LORD seeking to kill? Why is the LORD seeking to kill? Why does the LORD “seek” rather than kill? Who do the masculine pronouns refer to? Which son is circumcised? How does Zipporah know to circumcise in response to the LORD’s attack? Why does circumcision work to cause the LORD to let go? Does circumcision work to this end? What does “Bridegroom of blood” mean, and to whom does it apply?

The deeper problem, the one I will address, is what is the point of this interlude in the Moses story? What does it reveal?

Most attempts to explain this text try to use the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as a key to unlocking this strange story.

First, I want to consider what others have offered in response to this passage. The translators of the NRSV have elected to insert Moses’ name in v 25 as a way of clarifying some of the ambiguity in the passage. It is also a way of tying the action in the passage to Moses, who is central to the texts preceding and following this one. Without this insertion, however, Moses is not explicitly present in this text. But does identifying Moses in this way make the text more intelligible? And does it make it more meaningful?

Most attempts to explain this text try to use the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as a key to unlocking this strange story.

Morgenstern argues against a common reading of the text (advocated by Wellhausen and others) which argues that Moses had failed to satisfy an obligation of circumcision as marriage rite, and is saved vicariously by Zipporah’s circumcision of her son. Morgenstern’s argument rests on two key aspects of Midianite marriage and circumcision.

Midianite marriage was beena marriage, not ba’al marriage. A matriarchal structure, beena marriage traced genealogy through the mother. A child’s father’s identity may not have been known, but the mother’s identity was certain. In this system, a man might establish a beena marriage with a woman, and have children with her. She would remain with her clan, and after a time, he would return to his (mother’s) clan, to which he was responsible. He would then be free to establish another beena marriage with another woman outside his clan. A woman’s clan would be responsible for raising her children, since they were part of the clan by virtue of their mother’s membership.

Patriarchal ba’al marriage, by contrast, occured when a man took a woman from her clan into his clan. Children were part of the clan by virtue of their paternal lineage. The fact that Moses needed his father-in-law’s permission to take Zipporah with him, suggests that her clan practiced beena marriage.

Due to its non-repeatability, circumcision would not have practiced as part of (repeatable) beena marriage, so this was not the motive for the divine assault.

The local deity, Yahweh, seeing what was his being taken away, comes to claim ownership, i.e., to kill the child.

According to Morgenstern, circumcision was a practice that appeased local deities’ claims on children. Much as first fruits offered to a deity allowed for the enjoyment of the rest, offering the foreskin of a male allowed the child to remain with the family, i.e., to live. Since fathers were often absent in clans practicing beena marriage, circumcision fell to the mother’s oldest brother. In this case, the term for “oldest uncle” and “circumciser” would be the same: “One related by blood”. Morgenstern argues that this is the meaning of the phrase translated as “Bridegroom of Blood”.

Morgenstern argues that Moses and Zipporah left Midian having failed to have their second son circumcised. The local deity, Yahweh, seeing what was his being taken away, comes to claim ownership, i.e., to kill the child. Zipporah circumcises her son, acting as the uncle-circumciser, and the threat of death is removed. So Morgenstern has addressed all the major narrative problems within the pericope, but does not connect it to the larger narrative.

Where Morgenstern’s explanation explains the pericope on its own terms, but without any connection to the larger narrative, Propp offers an explanation of the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” that makes two significant connections with the larger Moses story.

In her wisdom, Zipporah makes a way out of no way, circumcising her son, drawing blood from him and applying it to Moses.

Propp argues that the Hebrew word damim, “of blood”, has a connotation of blood-guilt. Taking this as key, Propp argues that Yahweh has competing interests with regard to Moses. On the one hand, the deity wants to employ Moses to liberate the Hebrew people, and on the other hand, divine justice in the matter of the murdered Egyptian remains unsatisfied. So as Moses returns to Egypt, the deity comes to take blood for blood. This results in an impasse between the deity’s conflicting desires. (This would explain why the deity seeks to kill but does not kill directly). In her wisdom, Zipporah makes a way out of no way, circumcising her son, drawing blood from him and applying it to Moses. This appeases the deity, who releases Moses and allows him to continue on his God-ordained journey. Nonetheless, this is a traumatic experience for Zipporah, who is, perhaps for the first time, confronted with her husband as murderer, who causes her to draw blood from her child. He is a “blood-guilty husband” to her.

Propp also points out that this circumcision prepares the son for the coming passover, for which circumcision is required. Why this would need to happen so far in advance, and why the reader would need to know this detail remain undexplained.

Propp’s take on the meaning of the term “Bridegroom of Blood” explains the incident fairly well, and makes connections to the rest of the Moses narrative. However, it directly conflicts with Morgenstern’s account of the meaning of the phrase. So we are at an impasse as far as a conclusive account that explains the story and relates it to the broader narrative. Neither account does more than account for the elements in the story, neither gets at the significance of the story as such, and why it was written.

Instead of explaining this confused story, perhaps we should acknowledge the confusion. Perhaps the confusion is a key to understanding the story.

In another commentary, Propp compares this story to the folk-form of “Sojourner’s Tale”. The story has several key elements of this folk-form, but is distinctive for its lack of happy ending with sojourner returning to rest at home. Moses returns to his people, but only to inaugurate their sojourn.

This discontinuity with the expected outcome of the Sojourner’s Tale is suggestive, however, and so we should return to the text with incompleteness in mind.

Given the structural ambiguities of the text, it is impossible to know what happened to who. Someone got cut. That much is clear.

Instead of explaining this confused story, perhaps we should acknowledge the confusion. Perhaps the confusion is a key to understanding the story.

Something set Zipporah in motion, trying to appease the confusion that struck her family in the night. Acting in the dark, she may have added to the confusion. What is she doing circumcising? Who is she circumcising? Who is she throwing foreskins at? Who is she talking to? Why does she speak? And what does she mean by what she says?

I think she speaks to try and restore order and meaning. She is trying to bring order to chaos by assigning guilt as cause, threat as effect, and circumcision as remedy. In writing, the author further tries to fix meaning. Written words are more definitive than speech. Zipporah cuts her son’s flesh. The author “cuts” this story into the flesh of a scroll. Likewise, exegetes try to make their own cuts, their own attempts at explaining the inexplicable.

Moses, the absent center of this story

It is not that this text is simply difficult to interpret at first, but with proper knowledge and technique one can arrive at a satisfying explanation of what appears confusing. Many texts are like that. Not this one. The text is not presenting a clear meaning that needs elucidation or interpretation. The text is presenting the uninterpretable, the inexplicable, as such. Is this not a necessary supplement to following the commands of God? Is it not essential to recognize that one does not know what one is doing when one acts this way? Divine command is a terrifying thing, taking responsibility from the individual, and placing the individual in a precarious position. Precarious is related to the verb “to pray.” If one enters into this endeavor, one had better pray. Prayer is the admission that one is in suspense. And Moses is the suspended individual par excellence.

My argument, then, is to turn from the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as interpretive key, and focus instead on Moses, the absent center of this story.

This is a passage marked by absence, ambiguity, incompleteness, and suspense. We do not know where the story takes place – it is simply “on the way.” The deity’s motives are not given. The masculine pronouns produce ambiguity of reference. The circumcised son is not named. The son’s foreskin suggests his unmentioned penis. The foreskin itself is a token of fragmentation, of a part that represents the whole. The text does not clarify the meaning of the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood”, nor does it tell us how Zipporah knew how to respond as she did. And finally, it is not clear why the deity relents, we only know that he does. The text does not mention Moses. In the middle of a narrative entirely focused on Moses, he is notably unnamed. (There is a curious reflection here of the treatment of the name of God. Whereas the text contains the name of God, which is read out as “adonai” instead, the text does not contain the name of Moses, which is read into the text by some readers. This is suggestive of Moses’ role as mediator between humanity and God, as reflecting God to humanity. So absence and presence are significant in relation to the mediating prophet.)

The entire structure of this pericope forces us to accept that we are confronting something that is not to be simply interpreted away. It also draws us in to consider what it says about the one it does not name.

This pericope significantly reflects Moses’ condition as mediating prophet, the one suspended in between command and fulfillment, promise and fulfillment, between God and God’s people.

Separated, cut off, incomplete.

Notice how Moses is cut off, alienated, displaced, and absent from home throughout his life. He is born outside of Canaan, under threat of death. He is separated from his family, under threat of death. He is saved by women: his mother, sister, and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Nonetheless, he is separated from the Egyptians, under threat of death. God’s disruption sends him back to Egypt, under threat of death. This does not reunite him, but puts him in conflict with the Egyptians, under threat of death. He has to re-establish relations with his people, though he is never quite able to do so, constantly at odds with them, even to his death, for which he blames them. He has to ward off the threat of the Angel of Death by blood. He is unable to remain in Egypt, and flees under threat of death. He enters the wilderness, an environment full of the threat of death. And he approaches but never enters Canaan, dying on the other side of the Jordan, cut off from the land his entire life. Born, living, and dying outside. Moses is always separated, cut off, incomplete.

His condition is captured beautifully, poetically, in this passage, which brings together elements from his life preceding and following this event. The events in the story occur at night, in the absence of light and understanding (suggesting perhaps how little the deliverer of light and truth sees and understands.) He is (as always) away from home. He is (as always) “on the way”, a phrase repeatedly used to describe the people during the exodus. God shows up as disruption, much as in the burning bush. No motive is given for God’s action – that is cut off from Moses’ understanding. There is, as always, the threat of death.

Moses is saved by a woman. Zipporah is the axis of presence: it is her son/her act/her speech/her bridegroom. She drives the narrative. Moses is the axis of absence.

What is required is a cutting, in order to fulfill a covenant (an agreement cut with God), that Moses was cut off from knowing, yet he is under threat of being “cut off.” A flint, a fragment, is used to accomplish this cutting. As with the passover, the threat of death is warded off by blood. Cut off from everything, Moses ends up a Bridegroom of Blood, instead of Zipporah’s husband: he ends up cut off from Zipporah. (Exodus 18 explains that Moses sent Zipporah and his sons away to her father (which would accord with beena marriage). When they are reunited in Exodus 18, Moses spends all his time with his father-in-law.)

Separated, cut off, incomplete.

So, finally, we return to the “Bridegroom of Blood.” How does this strange appellation work within this narrative? What does it tell us? We have seen how Moses’ experience is one of absence, fragmentation, suspension, incompleteness. Yet what is his relationship to his people as prophet? Is he not to them a “Bridegroom of Blood”? This is a bifurcated name. Nowhere else does “bridegroom” have such a horrible sound. This is a name that bring together the wonderful and the terrible. Fittingly reflecting a prophet whose relationships are cut, split. Moses frees the people, yet that generation dies in the wilderness. Moses is of these people, yet not of these people. He brings them out of Egypt, but not into Canaan. He sets before them a choice between life and death, blessing and curse. As mediator between the people and God, he communicates God’s love and God’s wrath. He provides for their needs, and commands the Levites to wantonly slaughter the people. He is faithful to God, yet denied by God.

This amazing pericope is a portrait of Moses. These three verses capture his experience, and how others experience him. The brilliance of the portrait is that Moses is nowhere to be found in it. It is as if his silhouette reveals more about him than any detailed portrayal ever could.

Bibliography


Bushell, Michael S., and Tan, Michael D., Source: Bibleworks 7, 2003, Bibleworks

Caputo, John D. Source: The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 1997, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press

Morgenstern, Julian. Source: Hebrew Union College Annual, 34 1963, p 35-70.

Pippin, Tina; Aichele, George. Source: Culture, entertainment and the Bible, p 106-123. Sheffield, Eng. : Sheffield Academic Press, 2000

Propp, William Henry. Source: The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol 2, 1998, p 189-243

Propp, William Henry. Source: Vetus testamentum, 43 no 4 O 1993, p 495-518.

Sharp, Carolyn J. Source: Wrestling the Word, 2010, Louisville, KY : Westminster John Know Press

The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH Translation, 2004, Oxford, Oxford University Press

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 2010, Oxford, Oxford University Press