Why would God seek to kill Moses in Exodus 4?

by | Feb 21, 2023 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

I have never noticed Exodus 4:24–26 like I did reading it this morning. Why would God seek to kill Moses when he was on his way back to Egypt to free the Israelites? And, what is the significance of what Zipporah did with the circumcision? 

ANSWER

I like your question because it doesn’t try to dance around what Moses himself (let’s not forget) clearly records for us: “the LORD met him and sought to put him to death.” Let me break your questions into two parts.

1. Why would God seek to kill Moses?

The simple answer is that Moses had sinned grievously against God. From the fact that it is the circumcision that turns God’s wrath away from Moses, we deduce that Moses’s offense lay in having not circumcised his son. Circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, and it continued as an essential sign of God’s covenant with His people through the entire Old Testament era. To not keep this sign was considered by God to be a rejection of His gracious covenant.

But why would Moses not keep the sign of the covenant? The text does not explicitly answer that question, but John Calvin and Matthew Henry both say that Moses’s failure to do so likely resulted from his non-Israelite wife’s pressure that he not shed her precious son’s blood in this way. Men bowing to their wife’s weakness and thus failing to do what God commands is a common theme in Scripture, and something we should be on guard against. Men must strive to lead their wives in godliness, even when their wives don’t like it. And women must strive to help their husbands stand firm in obedience to the Lord and not cave under pressure. 

By God’s mercy, it is Zipporah who eventually gives in and takes the necessary action to preserve Moses’s life. I think she throws her son’s foreskin at Moses’s feet because Moses was clearly the one God was holding responsible for the serious sin of omission. In a sense, the circumcision gets credited to Moses’s account when the blood is found at his feet. It’s difficult to tell whether Zipporah’s exclamation of Moses being a “bridegroom of blood” comes from bitterness or godly resignation, but she clearly came to accept that there was no other way forward than through the God-ordained shedding of blood for the preservation of His people, and that she could not (or at least should not) stand in the way of God’s calling on her husband.

2. Why would God seek to kill Moses when he was on his way back to Egypt to free the Israelites?

Moses was chosen by God, but he was not thereby exempt from having to keep the covenant ordinances. On the contrary, we should understand that Moses was under a heightened obligation to keep those ordinances, since he was God’s prophet. Of all the people who needed to keep the sign of circumcision, Moses—through whom God was going to make His next covenant with His people—was probably the most important man to keep this sign, and therefore the most in danger of destruction should he fail to keep it. Moses’s failure to keep this sign in his own family was a disqualifying sin, and we see in this passage that God was willing to reject him should Moses prove unfaithful.

This is surprising to us, but I think largely just because we know the rest of the story. We know that Moses was God’s man, delivered God’s Law, and led God’s people through their forty years of wandering in the wilderness. It’s difficult for us to imagine Moses being in danger of dying—especially at the hand of the LORD—when his mission had hardly even begun.

One lesson here for us is that no man—no matter how pious he is, and no matter how righteous his mission from God—is above falling into serious sin. We often put men up on pedestals and think of them as incapable of committing error. But men in high positions are perhaps most in danger of falling into sin. The temptations of power and influence are very great. One of the most intense temptations for such men is listening to the praises of others and beginning to think highly of themselves. They “become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6).

Scripture often warns God’s chosen people of the dangers of falling into sin. These warnings are not theoretical. They weren’t even theoretical for Moses, God’s chosen prophet. There was real danger of failure (his failure, not God’s) if he did not keep God’s word. In fact, we later see God discipline Moses for failing to follow the LORD’s instructions for how to provide water for the people in the wilderness (see Num. 20:8–13). Let us not forget that God disciplines those whom He loves (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6); He loved Moses greatly, and He disciplined him severely—by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land!

Though it didn’t end up happening here in Exodus 4, there have been times in the history of God’s people where men who were chosen by God ended up failing in their mission and they had to be replaced. This did eventually happen with Moses. He was required to hand off his work to Joshua. But Joshua eventually died too, and God had to provide another leader, and another, and another, and another. Some prophets, priests, and kings would prove to be more faithful than others. Some would utterly betray the Lord. Jesus hand-picked the Twelve, and yet one of them was a devil (John 6:70).

Let us give praise and thanks to God that Jesus Christ is faithful. He perfectly kept God the Father’s word and inaugurated a New Covenant for us by the shedding of His own blood for our sins. And He “is able to keep [us] from stumbling, and to make [us] stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24).

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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