The Bible is a strange book. You probably knew that, but in reading Genesis I’ve been particularly struck by what an odd holy book it makes: Jacob is basically a trickster, more Bugs Bunny than Charlton Heston, and Abraham is constantly trying to pass his wife off as his sister, which naturally leads to misunderstandings that have to be disentangled. These scenes have elements of farcical yet humorless, kind of like a German sitcom.
I actually want to talk, though, about a strange scene in Exodus. Moses has been on the lam (wanted for murder, actually), and God has accosted him in burning-bush form to tell him that he has to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to set his people free. M isn’t happy about this, but eventually agrees to go, as long as his brother Aaron has to do all the talking. So he packs up Zipporah and the kids and heads out:
On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (NRSV
It’s hard even to describe all the baffling things about this little episode: why did God want to kill Moses? How is it that God could try to kill someone and not succeed? Why did Zipporah do a sudden field bris? Why did she touch M’s feet with the foreskin? Why did this cause God to leave M alone? What is the point of the whole story?
Oddly, I would say that the last question is the one where we have the clearest answer. The last sentence, unless it is a totally botched translation, tells us that the audience was expected to know something about the expression “bridegroom of blood,” and possibly that it was associated with Moses, and this story is an explanation of how it came about (“That’s when…”). Since we have no clue what the expression meant, my guess is that we cannot get the point of this story, beyond knowing that it is somehow about circumcision.
But that hasn’t stopped interpreters. At http://apologeticspress.org/articles/2326, a certain Alden Bass has a fairly reasonable discussion except, perhaps, that he assumes Yahweh’s behavior is comprehensible, an assumption that I’m not sure the Yahweh of Genesis and Exodus justifies. His conclusion, though, is a testament to how much people want to find a moral: “Though the details of this mysterious story are absent, the underlying message is plain. Disobedience, whether by acts of omission or commission, result only in punishment and ultimately death.”
It might be a good idea to let understanding come before moralizing, but that aside…we’re talking about Yahweh, a Guy who recently unleashed His genocidal rage on the cities of the plain, and will shortly be conducting a mass execution of Egyptian babies. And the story that is supposed to convince us he’s a not-to-be-messed-with hardass is the one where he’s outfaced by a lady with a rock? O…K.
But I nitpick…much more entertaining are these guys:
They inform us that (a) Moses was not circumcised, (b) “feet” is really a Hebrew euphemism for penis, and thus Zipporah is conducting a fake circumcision of M to fool God. (b) would be interesting if they offered a shred of evidence for it (say, if people referred to circumcision as “God’s pedicure,” or something); as it is, I strongly suspect they pulled it out of their ass. As for (a) again they don’t give any evidence, but beyond that, recall that when Pharaoh’s daughter picked baby M up out of his basket, she immediately exclaimed “Look, it’s a little Jewish boy!” It seems rather unlikely that a kid with a foreskin would be immediately identified as Jewish.
They also make a bizarre attempt to explain the story in terms of the New Testament (why would any non-medieval person think that was a good idea?), but I don’t have the heart to go over it.
I did find the Wikipedia article on “Zipporah at the Inn” quite helpful:
One intriguing suggestion is that the usual interpretation, which rests on guesses about who is referred to by various pronouns, has the actors wrong: it’s not He (God) trying to kill him (Moses), but he (Moses) trying to kill him (his son). Z thinks quickly and offers a ritual substitute in the form of circumcision. This would make the whole thing a story about achieving closure with the concept of human sacrifice, more or less like the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Maybe…but ultimately I think we just don’t have enough context to interpret this story–it’s like an inside joke on the Facebook wall of your 13-year-old cousin, you can ponder it all day but you still won’t get it.
I wanted to insert here the Simpsons’ talking-vegatables Christian video where the cucumber Moses says “O mighty Yamses, we are weary of building your food pyramid. Let my pickles go!”