Why Did the Lord Seek to Put Moses to Death? Moses, Circumcision, and the Abrahamic Covenant (Exodus 4:24–26)

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Helping others to read the Bible for the first time is among my deepest joys, and it’s led me to develop a list of Bible FAQ’s. After studying Exodus with several new readers, the question that I am most frequently asked pertains to Exodus 4:24–26. Verse 24 is jolting: “At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him [Moses] and sought to put him to death.” It comes immediately after God instructs Moses to confront Pharaoh and deliver Israel from Egypt. Why would the Lord seek to put Moses to death, especially since Moses was on his way to obey God by leading the exodus?

A Bridegroom of Blood

Verses 25–26 reveal the answer. But first, consider the phrase “sought to put him to death.” If God was seeking to kill Moses in the way that a hunter seeks to kill his prey—fully determined to put him to death as soon as the opportunity presented itself—the book of Exodus would end at verse 24. The God who rained fire and brimstone from heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah was fully able to strike Moses down in an instant. God later strikes down Uzzah at the moment he disobeys God by touching the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:7).

With this in mind, the phrase “sought to put him to death” actually contains hints of God’s mercy. Whatever sin Moses committed, it was serious enough that God’s justice demanded punishment; however, God in his mercy was giving him time to repent and obey.

The phrase “sought to put him to death” in Exodus 4:24 actually contains hints of God’s mercy. God was giving Moses time to repent and obey.

Verse 25 is almost as jolting as verse 24: “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!” Zipporah’s reluctant circumcision of her and Moses’s son satisfied God’s anger: “So he [the Lord] let him [Moses] alone. It was then that she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood,’ because of the circumcision” (Ex. 4:26).

God sought to kill Moses because Moses had broken the covenant by failing to circumcise his son. Moses had likely delayed the circumcision to appease his Midianite wife Zipporah who was unfamiliar with circumcision and was repulsed by the bloody practice. Once the circumcision was accomplished, God was satisfied.

Why was it so important for Moses to circumcise his son? Why would God seek to kill Moses over his failure to do so? To answer these questions, we must read Exodus 4:24–26 in light of the Abrahamic covenant.

The Abrahamic Covenant

In Genesis 12, God promises to make Abraham a great nation, to curse those who curse him, and to bless all the families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:1–3); he also promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s offspring (Gen. 12:7, cf. 15:18–21). Immediately thereafter, Abraham and Sarah flee to Egypt during a famine (as Israel and his sons later fled to Egypt over a famine). When Abraham’s small family was threatened by the Egyptians, “the LORD afflicted Pharoah and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife” (Gen. 12:17). The events foreshadow God’s later deliverance of Israel from Egypt through the ten plagues.

In Genesis 13, God adds the promise to multiply Abraham’s descendants until they are unable to be numbered (Gen. 13:14–17, cf. 15:1–5, 16:10). This time, God confirms the covenant by passing through halved animals (an ancient custom that says, “If I break covenant, let me be cut apart like these creatures”). In the middle of the dramatic ceremony, God foretells the exodus in Egypt:

Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. (15:13–14)

The exodus is established as the pivotal moment in God’s fulfillment of the covenant.

In Genesis 17, God reaffirms his promises to make Abraham into a multitude of nations, to give him the land of Canaan, and to be God to him and his descendants. In verses 9–14, God gives the sign of the covenant: circumcision. God said to Abraham,

As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. (17:9–10)

The remainder of Genesis begins the unfolding of God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant is renewed with Abraham’s children: first to Isaac (26:3–4), then to Jacob (28:13–15). Once in Egypt, Joseph tells his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth” (Gen. 45:7), that is, to safeguard God’s covenant to multiply Abraham’s descendants.

Jacob (Israel) and his family join Joseph in Egypt because God reaffirms the covenant: “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Gen. 46:1–4).

Once in Egypt, Jacob passes the covenant promise on to Joseph and his sons (Gen. 48:3–4, 15–16). Genesis ends with Joseph passing away. His last recorded words: “God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (50:24).

Moses and the Covenant

The Book of Exodus opens by informing us that “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (1:7, cf. 1:9, 20). Let the reader understand: the Abrahamic covenant is being fulfilled!

When Israel was oppressed by the Egyptians, “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (2:24). God appears to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6, cf. 3:15, 16; 4:5). Moses’s role is to cooperate with God in his redemptive plan through the unfolding of the Abrahamic covenant. Moses is God’s chosen vessel to fulfill his covenant promises. Through Moses, Israel will be delivered and the people will inherit the land (3:8, 10, 17), as God promised.

The exodus, the pivotal moment in God’s fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, is entrusted to Moses.

Moses broke the central requirement of the Abrahamic covenant that he was called to fulfill, thus jeopardizing all of God’s people.

It is in this context that Exodus 4:24–26 should be interpreted. God sought to kill Moses over more than a single act of disobedience; by failing to circumcise his son, Moses broke the central requirement of the Abrahamic covenant that he was called to fulfill, thus jeopardizing all of God’s people and the salvation of the whole earth through Abraham’s seed.

God never needs to be acquitted, but the context of the Abrahamic covenant helps us to understand the rightness of his anger against Moses. His promise to Abraham, and thus the glory of his name in all the earth, was at stake. Recognizing that she had endangered her husband’s life, Zipporah submitted to the covenant, and Moses went on to lead God’s people out of Egypt and into the land. We are the recipients of all the blessings that ensue.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.