Why did God want to kill Moses?


In Exodus 4:24-26, God was going to kill Moses. Why? His wife, Zipporah, circumcised their son and God let Moses alone. When did God tell Moses that he needed to circumcise his son? I know circumcision began in Abraham’s time. Should Moses have know that?

Also, in my Catholic Scripture Bible, Exodus is titled the Second Book of Moses. What’s the first book of Moses?


My understanding is that this is considered a typology; as baptism is required for salvation so as not to die spiritually, here it’s made manifest that circumcision is required to not die physically. It is seen as a fulfilment of the Old Covenant understanding of things.

The first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch, traditionally have associated Moses as the author; Genesis would then be the First Book of Moses.


Thank you, Micosil.


You are welcome. :thumbsup:

It goes without saying, by the way, that since Sacred Scripture quite often has multiple layers of nuanced and subtle meanings, there may be more appropriate interpretations of this fragment. This is just what I remembered most recently from memory; so if anyone has any other interpretation I’d also be interested in knowing about it. :slight_smile:


Here is a paper I wrote on the topic once, FWIW. It’s an incredibly complicated text in Scripture. Footnotes available on request. :wink:

When Moses departs Midian for Egypt, he is met at night by “the Lord,” who tries to kill “him.” Moses’ wife circumcises her son and touches Moses’s (or somebody’s) “feet” with it. She makes a declaration and the Lord no longer seeks to kill Moses. This passage is so incredibly ambiguous and dense it is not possible to offer any definitive interpretation, but it is clear that it plays an important role in the Book of Exodus nonetheless by providing an example of how important covenants are to God.

Literary and Theological Context of Exodus

The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Bible which recount the pre-history of humanity, the proto-history of the Hebrew people, God’s covenants with His chosen people, their exodus out of Egypt, their journey into the desert and finally into the Promised Land. It also contains legal and ceremonial prescripts, not to mention many moral laws as well. It is one of the most important and richest series of texts in world history.

The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch. Traditionally it has been ascribed to Moses as the author (along with the other four). There is good reason to suspect that Moses, while probably not the direct author, was the grand architect or main commissioner of the text which could have been written under his direction. The Pontifical Biblical Commission says, “[It is] a legitimate hypothesis that he conceived the work himself under the guidance of divine inspiration and then entrusted the writing of it to one or more persons, with the understanding that they reproduced his thoughts with fidelity and neither wrote nor omitted anything contrary to his will, and that finally the work composed after this fashion was approved by Moses, its principal and inspired author, and was published under his name.”3 This seems to be a likely case due to the constant testimony of the Jewish people and early Christians that Moses was indeed the author while also accounting for the textual oddities (like speaking of him after his death). Some critics say that the Pentateuch was composed (or at least pieced together) in the post-Exilic period (as late as the third century B.C.), but, “Judeo-Christian tradition records that Moses penned the Torah at God’s dictation in the fifteenth century B.C.E.”4 The debate between the traditional and documentary hypotheses is too complex to investigate here, but the modern trend is toward the documentary hypothesis. There are, however, major issues with its central claims and arguments. It is not at all a settled matter in the academy, on the whole.

The most cursory reading of the text will make clear that there are several purposes of its existence, including the memorialization of the events of a people, the annunciation of moral and civil laws, and teaching about God in Himself and as an actor in world history, in particular in the history of the Hebrew people. From a brief glance at the New Testament, it is clear that the Pentateuch provided the basis for Jewish law, worship, and historico-cultural identity. In other words, it was everything to the Jews. It was read in the synagogues, ruled the Temple rites, and gave the Hebrews their moral and legal codes which they used every day of their lives. It was absolutely indispensable.

Exodus recounts the journey of the Hebrews out of their slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, which had been sworn by God to the progeny of Abraham. “Although it is part of a continuous narrative that runs through the Pentateuch, the Book of Exodus shows signs of having been intended as a distinct unit.”5 This somewhat “distinct unit” consists of an introduction and three sections. The introduction is “a brief summary of the history of Jacob [and] connects Genesis with Exodus,” the first section “treats of the events preceding and preparing the exit of Israel from Egypt,” the second recounts “the journey of Israel to Mt. Sinai and the miracles preparing the people for the Sinaitic Law,” and the third is the “conclusion of the Sinaitic covenant and its renewal.”6 It is the first section in which 3:24-26 occurs. This section can be subdivided further into four parts. Maas does so thus:

“Exodus 1:8 – 2:25; the Israelites are oppressed by the new Pharaoh ‘that knew not Joseph,’ but God prepares them a liberator in Moses. Exodus 3:1-4 – 4:31; Moses is called to free his people; his brother Aaron is given him as companion; their reception by the Israelites. Exodus 5:1 – 10:29; Pharaoh refuses to listen to Moses and Aaron; God renews his promises; genealogies of Moses and Aaron; the heart of Pharaoh is not moved by the first nine plagues. Exodus 11:1 – 13:15; the tenth plague consists in the death of the first-born; Pharaoh dismisses the people; law of the annual celebration of the pasch in memory of the liberation from Egypt.”7

It is in the second sub-section in which the verses under consideration appear. Moses has been spending the second forty years of his life in Midian with his wife Zipporah. God appears to him announcing out of a burning bush that he, Moses, will be the one to liberate the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors and bring them into the land that had been promised to Abraham. Just after Moses has received this special mission from God, he begins to return to Egypt with his wife and two children (Gershom and Eliezer) to speak to the Hebrew people about God’s plan for the sojourn to the Promised Land. There is a strong theme of hope and vocation connected with the events just prior to what appears to be a complete contradiction of God’s freshly announced purpose for Moses and His design for the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery.


Formal and Detailed Analysis

The three verses in question, 4:24-26, are incredibly peculiar for many reasons. One of these is the form of pronouns used. “Exodus 4:24 does not identify the direct object of the verbs

‘met’ and ‘kill.’”8 Willis also explains that 4:25 does not say whose feet it was to whom she touched the foreskin. Is there some point to this ambiguous language, or is the reader somehow expected to know to whom the pronouns refer? Verse 26 repeats, seemingly unnecessarily, what was said in verse 25 about the bridegroom of blood.

The formal analysis sets up many questions for a detailed analysis and exegesis to answer. How could it be that the Lord would try to kill Moses or his son? If it is really the Lord, how could he fail? What is the nature and meaning of Zipporah’s actions and words? The questions are endless, and so too are the opinions of how to answer them.

At least it seems clear that the attack was related somehow to circumcision. But what exactly is the connection? What is the meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament?

“Great indeed is [the commandment of] circumcision, for there was not the slightest delay concerning it granted [even] to the righteous Moses.”9 This rite was an all-important event. This cannot be understated. What baptism is to Christians, so circumcision was to the Jews. It began very early in their history and grew into a detailed ritual with manifold meanings. “Circumcision must have been widely practiced in the pre-exilic period. . . It was apparently in the period following the Babylonian exile that circumcision assumed great importance for the Jews, being one of their most distinctive religious rites, along with Sabbath observance.”10 (Dictionary 629) Eventually, it took on at least 3 distinct spiritual meanings, referenced elsewhere in scripture – circumcision of the heart, of the lips, and of the ears, the circumcision of which would indicate some spiritual good.11

However, in his 214-page summary of the various positions on this passage, J. T. Willis points out that J. Coppens argues that while the most popular position regarding the text is that God wanted to slay Moses because of the failure to circumcise his son, it does not work.

“Coppens contends that this interpretation does not make sense, because (1) Moses had two sons; why would he have circumcised only one of them? (2) This son would be approximately forty years of age at this time, but the text presents him as an infant. (3) Why would Yahweh want to kill Moses, whom he chose and sent to deliver his people?

Others understand this passage to mean that according to Midianite custom, Moses should have been circumcised just before his marriage; Yahweh wishes to kill him because he neglected this custom; Zipporah saves Moses by substituting the circumcision of their son for the father.”12

As will be shown, the ambiguity and strangeness of the passage allows it to elude any definitively authoritative interpretation. That someone could argue cogently that what would seem to be the most obvious characteristic about motivation in this pericope is reasoned poorly suggests that what exists in 4:24-26 is special. As Alter says, “This elliptic story is the most enigmatic episode in all of Exodus. It seems unlikely that we will ever resolve the enigmas it poses. . .”13 Again: “Exodus 4:24-26 is among the most enigmatic verses in the entire book of Exodus. The episode is not framed in time or space, nor does it seem to be related to its context. Moses is “on the way,” but to where we do not know. The narra-tive concerns a meeting that seems to happen at night. This is no ordinary meeting but sounds not unlike the meetings of Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28:10-22) and Penuel (Gen 32:22-32).”14

v. 24 At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to kill him.

The earliest Jewish commentators decided that it could not be God Himself trying to do the killing. “For, not only did that seem quite unlikely in the larger context, but it would have hardly been appropriate for God to ‘seek to kill’ anyone-if He sought to kill someone, then that someone would be killed!”15 The Septuagint uses the expression “angel of the Lord,” and this is affirmed by several other ancient translations, including the Targum Onqelos, the Targum Neophyti, and the Fragment Targum §, which refer to the assailant as “an angel of the Lord,” “the Destroyer,” and “the Angel of Death,” respectively. The Book of Jubilees also refers to him as a wicked angel.16


One ancient Jewish commentator says, “At the time that Moses had said to Jethro, ‘Give me Zipporah your daughter as a wife;’ Jethro said to him, ‘Accept this one condition that I will tell you and I will give her to you as a wife:’ He said: ‘What is it?’ Jethro said to him: ‘The son that is born to you first will be given over to idolatry [and, hence, not circumcised], those [born] thereafter can be given to the worship of [your] God:’ He accepted this condition … For that reason did the angel seek to kill Moses at the inn. . .”17 This would seem to make some sense in light of the verse that just preceding which speaks of the firstborn being put to death as punishment for disobeying the Lord (4:23). “This dire threat [in verse 23], to be fulfilled in the tenth plague, also inducts us to the narrative episode that follows in the next three verses, in which the Lord seeks to kill Moses, and the blood of the firstborn intercedes.”18

The inn is specifically mentioned, and perhaps this is significant. “[In the inn or] ‘resting place,’ it probably does not mean a building, but the place where they rested for the night, whether under a tent, or in the open air.”19 “And so, when, along the way, he [Moses] sought to take care of their lodgings and as a consequence neglected the matter of circumcising his son Eliezer, ‘… the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him’ [Exod. 4:24] .”20 Kugel explains in a footnote on that passage, “Why would the Bible mention that this incident took place ‘at the inn’ unless it was to hint that the inn had something to do with the reason for the attack? Hence, this interpreter reasons, Moses, in taking care of finding an inn, neglected something more important. Note further that the Hebrew word for ‘inn’ (malon) sounds like the verb for ‘circumcise’ (mill), perhaps suggesting a relationship between the two in the story.”21

Ancient Christian authorities also have diverse opinions on the correct interpretation of this passage, which is no surprise. “We must also inquire who that being was of whom it is said in Exodus that he wished to kill Moses because he was setting out for Egypt. And afterwards, who is it that is called the ‘destroying angel,’ and who also is he who in Leviticus is described as Apopompeus, that is, the Averter. . .”22 Augustine asks, “. . . [Whom] did the angel wish to

kill?”23 Augustine’s answer to this question is Moses’ son. He does not say which one, Gershom or Eliezer. He solves the problem of the missing antecedent by a reference to another text that does the same thing. “For the [87th] psalm begins at that point and had not said anything about the Lord or about that city whose foundations were meant to be understood when the psalm said, ‘Its foundations are on the holy mountains.’ But because of what follows, ‘the Lord loves the gates of Zion,’ the foundations, either those of the Lord or of Zion – ‘of Zion’ yields the better sense – are understood as the foundation of a city.”24 However, Augustine admits that anyone who states that it is Moses who is the object of the threat “should not be strongly opposed.”25 He appears to have had a strange translation in front him though, for he says of the following verses, “She does not say that ‘he drew back from him’ because she circumcised the infant but that ‘the blood of circumcision stopped.’ Not that it flowed but that it stopped – in a great mystery, if I am not wrong.”26

Ephrem the Syrian has something to say about the circumcision, or lack thereof, that precedes the episode. “From the day [the Lord] spoke with him on Horeb, he had not been united to his wife, who was distressed; and she was under judgment because she had not put full faith in his word. [Moses] blamed her for keeping his son from being circumcised.”27 These two reasons are why the angel appeared, he argues. If Moses had returned to the Hebrews, who had continued circumcision even in such perilous conditions for their children, he would be ridiculed for not having circumcised his son who was safe. Ephrem also states that it was the angel’s feet to which Zipporah held the freshly cut foreskin. Ephrem further comments, “He married Zipporah who bore him two sons: one he circumcised, but the other she did not let him circumcise. For she took pride in her father and brothers [who were uncircumcised], and although she had agreed to be Moses’ wife, she did not wish to adopt his religion … She thus allowed one to continue on the circumcision of Abraham, while forbidding the other [to be circumcised], through whom her father’s tradition of the foreskin would be preserved.”28


v. 25a Then Zippo′rah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it…

Jerome and Augustine both see typological significance in the second verse of the passage. “As regards Moses, it is clear that he would have been in peril at the inn, if Zipporah, which is by interpretation ‘a bird,’ had not circumcised her son and cut off the foreskin of marriage with the knife which prefigured the gospel.”29 It is to him then, a sign of celibacy. Augustine sees circumcision not just as a sacrament of the Old Law, but a prefiguration of baptism.30 Even more specifically, he sees the flint as Christ. “Christ was the rock whence was formed the stony blade for the circumcision, and the flesh of the foreskin was the body of sin.”31

There are still many questions in this verse to be answered, or at least to be asked. “Whose feet are touched with the bloody foreskin? Perhaps Moses’s, but it could be the boy’s, or even the Lord’s. The scholarly claim, moreover, that ‘feet’ is a euphemism for the genitals cannot be dismissed.”32

vv. 25b – 26 …and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

Regarding specifically the exclamation “bridegroom of blood,” Cohen offers some thoughts. “Her thrusting of the foreskin at the feet [vatagga’ leraglav] of her husband is indicative of the fearful haste she felt impelled to employ and her profound anger at Moses for having endangered their son’s life. She verbalizes this anger in the problematic cry, ‘ki hatan damim attah li [literally: For a bridegroom of blood you are/were for me].’”33 Cohen says that this condemnation was probably the expression of Zipporah’s anger that by threatening the life of their child (either Gershom or Eliezer) he acted irresponsibly. This could have been the last

straw in what she had already seen as a strained marriage due to their differing religions. Her exasperated exclamation would be somewhat more understandable if this is so.

A very important question that has not yet been asked is: what is the meaning of physically touching the “feet” with the foreskin? Was it not enough to remove it? Perhaps there is some connection between this action and Abraham’s request in Genesis 24:2, which is followed by an oath about marriage. This is especially possible if “feet” really is a euphemism. Could Zipporah be indicating something of an oath by her action? Could she be atoning for some failure to uphold her marriage oath (which would presumably at least implicitly indicate the adequate provision for the protection of potential children), either on her part or on Moses’, as has been discussed? The 26th verse certainly requires that marriage be considered in the interpretation of the pericope.

As for the oddly repetitive language between vv. 25-26, the Anchor Bible offers a relatively simple solution. “The redundancy of vv. 25-26 should not disturb us. De Groot (1943: 14) compares 1 Sam. 4:21-22… So Exod. 4:26 should probably be translated ‘then she said’ or ‘that was when she said.’ The repetition in vv. 25-26 may simply put an emphatic end to the narrative, like 1 Sam 4:22.”34


Circumcision was one of the most sacred rites and responsibilities of the Jewish people during the time of the Exodus narrative. Eventually it became a distinctive mark of a Jewish man that he was circumcised on the eighth day. If Moses, the one who would become the prophet to whom there has arisen no equal after his lofty vocation was given to him at the burning bush, would neglect somehow in fulfilling this obligation to his own son then certainly there must be some kind of punishment, or at least an attempt or threat of punishment. Exactly how that punishment was enacted and exactly what Zipporah’s reaction was will be left open for interpretation until the end times. However it came to pass though, it is clear that such an enormously perplexing event is important, precisely because it is so perplexing. There would not be nearly as much interest in an ambiguously worded pericope were it a relatively boring one.

Instead, there is immense attention paid to it by Biblical scholars since before the time of Christ because it seems that God would have His chosen servant – or his son – be put to death. The rest of salvation history, let alone the Exodus narrative, depends on Zipporah’s swift action. God takes His covenant with Abraham so seriously that He is willing to put the convenience of His previously designed plan for salvation at risk.

Perhaps, not unlike the Abrahamic sacrifice of Isaac prefiguring the Cross, this episode may do the same. Just as God allowed for Isaac to be spared and had some other sacrifice made instead, here God allows for Moses’ son (or for Moses himself) to be saved but accepts the foreskin of his son in his place. Eventually, Jesus will accept his Father’s sacrificing of him, and he will let the Angel of Death attack him, with nobody able to make any other fitting sacrifice to take his place.


Pastoral reflections

Promises are important. When we marry someone, we make a solemn promise with that person to love them as a husband or wife ought to. When God makes a promise, it is always of the most serious kind. It is even more serious than human life, as our reading from Exodus today shows: God would take the life of his servant Moses, or perhaps Moses’ son, to show just how much he meant what he swore to Abraham about circumcision when He said that one who was not circumcised on the eighth day would be cut off from His people. God would even risk the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery for this consistency and fidelity to His word. This should inspire us not only to take our own promises more seriously, but it should tell us to take God’s promises more seriously. How lucky was the world that Zipporah cut the foreskin in time? How much more prudent would it have been though, for Moses to have made sure his son was properly circumcised according to the Abrahamic covenant. We must take the New Covenant seriously and abide not only by the Church’s moral teachings which articulate the New Law in the Spirit but also by the precepts of the Church: attending Mass every Sunday and on all holy days of obligation, providing for the financial needs of the Church as we are able, receiving Communion at least once a year during Easter, and going to confession once a year as well. If we neglect these things, are we counting on luck to save us just before we die? Perhaps we will have time to repent at the end of our life, but perhaps not. Do not count on the swift action of a Zipporah, count on fidelity to the New Covenant starting right now.


Thank you for taking the time to post your paper on this subject.

I have another question with Exodus. Why did God allow the Hebrew people to be enslaved by the Egyptians? I know it says that the Pharaoh did not know Joseph but were the Hebrews not worshiping God as they should? Did they turn away from Him? It didn’t seem to say that at the beginning of Exodus.


e_c, that is a very detailed analysis. :thumbsup:

I will look through it when I have time.


The short story is God TOLD him to "strike the rock {for water in the desert} ONCE, in anger at the Jewish NATION and their near constant grumbling; Moses struck the rock TWICE.

That in God’s view showed a LACK of True Faith; and thus Moses was deprived from ENTERING into, BUT not fro at least seeing the Promised land.

The MORAL here is for us to at least TRY to comprehend just how seriousGod views our sins:eek:

God Bless you,



This is why Moses was kept out of the Promised Land, not why he was attacked during the journey from Midian.


I think what PJM was saying is that both were instances in which God commanded something and Moses did not obey. I think though we have to look deeper and realize too that the writers were writing in that anthropomorphic style that attributes to God their own understand and feelings. Today we would see this not as God seeking to kill Moses, but rather that Moses had suffered from a mortal sin. Their relationship had been severed. In effect, their relationship was dying because of his infidelity to God’s commands. This meant that Moses was in danger of dying(both spiritually and physically), no longer receiving God’s graces and protection.

A good message there for us that when we fail to do those things that have been revealed to us in the Holy Spirit, he sends mother Church to remind us, to offer the one and only perfect sacrifice for us. I believe Moses wife was a type of that. It wasn’t Moses of his own ability that redeemed that relationship, but his wife who took it upon herself to make sacrifice, to offer to God that which would restore them to proper relationship. Just some more to chew on.


Remember, God actually slays people in the Old Testament (and the New Testament, lest we think they’re different Gods).

I don’t know if you took the time to read my posts, but the facts of the case are blurry, one of the contributing factors being that Moses’ wife is NOT A HEBREW but is a pagan.

To say this is simply the OT version of mortal sin and calling it a day I don’t find all that useful… What about when Moses kills the Egyptian? That was not an accident. Nor is it an accident that the Lord chose a precise moment to appear and attack Moses, immediately after, lest we forget, He appears to him in the Burning Bush. Anyway, the Scriptures are pretty clear about the incident with the rock being struck the second time being the sin that kept him from crossing the Jordan.

Perhaps it could be mapped onto the larger spiritual progress of Moses. He has some screw ups in his life, most of them because of a precipitous anger, but gradually he becomes “the meekest man there ever was.” This seems to be more a matter of “heeding the Lord” and “remembering His ordinances and statutes,” etc. If he is to become the figurehead of the Covenant of the Law, he had better be faithful in small matters… I wonder if Gregory of Nyssa has anything to say on the matter. I don’t happen to have a copy of “The Life of Moses,” but my guess is that text would be helpful here.


I am aware of what your post said and read it as carefully as I am able to. My point is not to call it a day in any sense of the term. My point is that we should never stop with just the literal sense of scripture but delve deeper and find out what it says to us today. Yes, God apparently called for the ‘ban’ on many people in the old testament. Yet, that’s not the point of the story to us as Christians. We have a spiritual message to learn that lies in the depths of the literal. That’s how we as Catholics read the bible according to the Catechism, not sticking to just a literalist interpretation but going behind and asking ourselves, what did the specific authors who compiled this writing mean to convey to their audience? Who were they? Who was their audience? Then how do we receive that message today in light of that.

I am sorry you don’t find it useful, but I did not intend it as a dismissal of your thoughts.


Fair enough… though I addressed all of these points, including taking a shot at the pastoral application in the Church today.

Apologies if I came across a little stand-offish.


The imperfections of the three patriarchs, perhaps… I seem to recall in particular someone speaking on Abraham causing this, maybe his sin at Gerar (20:1-18). My memory fails me here, unfortunately. I will look into this for you and hopefully return with an answer.


Originally Posted by irishcolleen45 View Post
I have another question with Exodus. Why did God allow the Hebrew people to be enslaved by the Egyptians? I know it says that the Pharaoh did not know Joseph but were the Hebrews not worshiping God as they should? Did they turn away from Him? It didn’t seem to say that at the beginning of Exodus.

Thank you for your help.
This reinforces to me why one cannot read the Bible like a novel. There’s more there than meets the eye.


OK, please help me out here. What are the chapter and verse numbers that prompt your question? I THINK I know, but wish not to waste your time.

I’ll read them and reply:)

God Bless you,


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