Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Why Did God Seek to Kill Moses?
by Herman C. Hanko
Why did God seek to kill Moses? I heard this question on so-called Christian TV, but the answers they gave in reply were unconvincing. The passage to which the questioner refers is found in Exodus 4:24-26: ďAnd it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at this feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.Ē
The passage is indeed a strange Word of God. I know of nothing similar to it in the whole of Scripture. Yet it is extremely important and calls our attention to Godís covenant promises in a striking and unforgettable way.
The history, briefly, is this. Moses had grown up in Pharaohís household, but by faith he cast his lot with the children of Israel, who were slaves of Pharaoh (Heb. 11:24-26). Moses had thought that the time had come to deliver Israel from bondage, and so killed an Egyptian (Acts 7:23-25). But, although Moses thought the time had come for Israelís deliverance, the time was Mosesí choice, not Godís choice. And so Moses was forced to flee Egypt and find a place where he would be safe.
He found this place in the Sinai peninsula in the home of Jethro. There he stayed for forty years tending Jethroís sheep. During this period, he married Zipporah, Jethroís daughter, and they had a son (Ex. 2:16-22). But now the time had come that God would save His people. So He sent Moses to Egypt to deliver Israel.
It was on his way back to Egypt that the event described in the text took place. Exodus 4 states emphatically that God sought to kill Moses (24) but we are not told of the particular means He was to employ. Certain it is that the Lord did not slay Moses, for, through Zipporahís intervention (25-26), ďhe [i.e., God] let him [i.e., Moses] goĒ (26).
We must remember too that, though God sought to kill Moses, He did not fail in His purpose, nor was Mosesí death averted just before Moses was killed. God knew all the circumstances of the entire event and did not intend to kill Moses. That is not the point. But from Mosesí and Zipporahís point of view, Moses was on the verge of being killed by God. And they both looked at what was happening from that perspective.
God reveals Himself to His people sometimes in similar ways. God revealed His purpose to destroy Sodom to Abraham by a discussion with the two angels who were with Him concerning the wisdom of telling Abraham what He was about to do (Gen. 18:17-19). God knew He would tell Abraham these things about the destruction of Sodom, but chose to reveal it in this way, for by this means a great truth was made known.
The same was true of Jesusí conversation with the travellers on the road to Emmaus. Christ seemed intent on continuing on His way when the three men arrived at the destination of the two travellers with whom Jesus talked. These two men seemed to talk Christ out of His original plan. But, of course, the Lord knew exactly what He intended to do (Luke 24:28-29).
So we must ask the question: Why did the Lord try to kill Moses? What lesson did He want to teach Moses and Zipporah? The answer is in the text itself. Jehovahís apparent intention to kill Moses was forgotten when Zipporah circumcised Gershom, their son (Ex. 4:25-26). It all had to do with the circumcision of their son.
God had given Abraham the sign of circumcision when God established His covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:7-14). Notice in this passage that Jehovah told Abraham that any of his descendants who did not circumcise their sons had broken Godís covenant and had to be cut off from Israel (14).
Moses knew Godís command to Abraham, but had nevertheless failed to observe it. One gets the impression from Zipporahís anger in casting the foreskin at Moses feet and saying to him (twice in the text), ďA bloody husband thou art to me,Ē that she had opposed it. Maybe, when Moses brought up the subject of Gershomís circumcision, Zipporah objected. It was, perhaps, in her eyes, an unnecessary and mutilating act on her baby. Moses had not insisted. So Moses had broken Godís covenant!
Two very important truths are emphasized here. The first is that circumcision was the God-given sign and seal of the covenant because it pointed to the fact that Jehovah would establish His covenant and save His people in the line of generations. The second truth is that Abraham and all succeeding generations are saved and brought into Godís covenant only by the shedding of blood. Abrahamís seed was, centrally, Christ (Gal. 3:16). Only through Christís blood, that made perfect satisfaction for all the sins of Godís people, could Jehovahís covenant be realized and salvation come.
To refuse to perform the rite of circumcision was to cast doubt on the coming of Christ and the efficacy of the cross. That is, it was a repudiation of salvation through the shedding of the blood of Jesus as the washing away of sins.
I do not know whether Zipporahís refusal to have her son circumcised was due to the fact that she was born outside the line of the covenant. Though her father was certainly a priest and the worship of God was preserved in his family, she, if we may be charitable, did not understand the truth of Godís covenant. But Moses knew these things and he should have insisted. Moses broke Godís covenant and was worthy of death. How could one who had broken Godís covenant be the leader to deliver Jehovahís covenant people from the bondage of Egypt? Moses was responsible to perform his covenantal obligation before he could be a proper instrument in Godís hand to lead His covenant people to Canaan.
Baptism has taken the place of circumcision (Col. 2:11-13; Belgic Confession 34). Baptism is the New Testament sign and seal of Godís covenant, for it is the sign and seal of the great truth that Godís covenant is established with believers and their seed through the washing away of sin in the blood of Christ. It is a breaking of Godís covenant to refuse to baptize our children and it is a denial of the great truth that God saves His people in the lines of generations through the blood of Christ.
Let us not take Godís anger at Moses lightly. Let us not take the importance of baptizing our children lightly. And let us not deny that baptism is a sacrament that takes the place of circumcision, now that Christ has come.
Prof. Herman C. Hanko was ordained and installed into office in 1955 in the Hope Protestant Reformed Church of Walker, Michigan. In 1963 he accepted a call to serve in the Doon, Iowa Protestant Reformed Church. In 1965 he was appointed to serve as professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grandville, Michigan. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 2001. He continues to lecture widely both in the USA and in the United Kingdom as well as in other countries, including Singapore and the Philippines. He is instructor of a catechism class in Walker, MI.