Exodus 4:18-31 is transitional, complex and filled with cryptic expressions, ambiguities and uncertainties. In it is the issue of life and death. MOMENTOUS MATTERS are at stake here, for God, Moses and Israel.
FAITH IS THE WAY INTO THE FUTURE. Usually, God’s way into the future is not the easiest road to walk. The road is made a narrow by the confines of His will. At times, He seems to ask the impossible. Yet, it must be walked by obedience. In Moses, we see a picture of the Christian’s struggle—feeble faith refusing, little faith hesitating, and growing faith obeying.
We are like Moses, not Superman, who is able to leap over tall buildings with a single bound, stop a speeding bullet, or the power of a locomotive. Yet, God called Moses to a task that must have seemed to him that needed the services of Superman, instead of a lowly shepherd with his staff. But Superman is not needed; for God promised to be with Moses and with us.
The long conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush has ended. The last words Yahweh spoke to Moses were in anger. We, like God, are left wondering what Moses’ response will be to God’s commands to GO. Exodus 4:18 reports—
Then Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Let me go back to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.” Jethro said, “Go, and I wish you well.”
Moses’ request is startling. He does not tell Jethro about his amazing encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush that was not consumed. Instead, he asks leave from Jethro to see whether his people in Egypt are still alive. God’s entire conversation has assumed that there are Israelites to bring out of Egypt. If they are all now dead, there is no call to heed.
Moses reason for going back to Egypt suggests that he does not trust God. Is he unconvinced of God’s ability to accomplish the impossible? Some commentators think that it is humility, which keeps Moses from telling the truth to Jethro. No! Moses still is not ready to walk by faith—He is HESITANT— lacking the will or desire to do God’s task.
Jethro according to patriarchal custom in ANE was head of the family group or clan which Moses entered by marriage. Like Jacob, Moses may have entered into a dowry contract to work for Jethro to obtain Zipporah as his bride. Whatever the case, he asked for Jethro’s permission and God seconds Moses decision to return to Egypt. Exodus 4:19-20—
Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.” So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey [or donkeys] and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.
Moses did not use the excuse of personal safety at the burning bush, but it must have been in the back of His mind. Yahweh informs him there is nothing to worry about. The death warrant on Moses’ life according to Egyptian law died with Pharaoh. This change in the Egyptian situation presents God with some new opportunities.
Taking the STAFF OF GOD indicates, at least openness to the divine commission, for it represents God’s power and authority in Moses’ hand. Based on this small act of faith, God expands the divine commission in Exodus 4:21—
The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.
Moses commission will go beyond speaking to performing all the wonders God gives him the power to do. The phrasing SEE THAT YOU PERFORM suggests that it is not yet clear what Moses will do. Here God announces a new level of His involvement in the situation. Moses is to work the wonders, and God will harden the heart of Pharaoh so that he will not let the people go.
Most assuredly, Moses must be baffled and confused. His task is to bring God’s people out of Egypt already seems impossible and now God says He is going to work against His own purpose. He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go. Can you trust God when you do not understand all the details?
Here we have a picture of the complementary character of the God’s activity and human activity. God’s activity of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not independent of Moses’ activity. God will not act alone in this activity for He has given Moses considerable power.
Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Sower, Seed and Soils, that the heart is either ground that is hard, rocky, weedy, or good. Here we see that our actions do have an effect on the heart of people. What we do and say along with God’s activity will have some impact on their response to the Word of God.
The heat of the sun’s rays will harden clay and melt wax. That’s what God is going to do with Moses’ words and the wonders he performs. The proclamations and plagues will harden Pharaoh’s heart while softening the hearts of the Israelites.
This hardening of the heart by God, in no removes human responsibility. Yes, ten times in Exodus God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Yet, ten times Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. In fact, the Scriptures say that Pharaoh hardens his own heart after each of the first five plagues. Not until the sixth plague does it say that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Only after Pharaoh has of his own accord rejected God’s Word, verified by miracles, does Yahweh harden his heart. Thus, Pharaoh was responsible as God for the hardening of his heart.
Pharaoh’s heart was already filled with blind pride and self-will when Moses appeared to him on the first occasion. Hear his arrogance in Exodus 5:2—
And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.
Pharaoh first set his own stubborn will against God. He would not bend his self-will to the will of God, even after he had discerned the finger of the all-powerful God in the plagues suspended over him and his nation. He would not withdraw his haughty refusal, even though he was forced to acknowledge Yahweh.
His heart was hard already and for this, he was responsible. God might have softened his heart and prepared his mind to allow the Israelites to depart, but He chose to act otherwise. Romans 9:16-18 says—
For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
Pharaoh has stepped over the line of God’s grace and mercy. His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is judicial cursing. It is retribution and punishment for the way he has treated God’s people. The LORD promised Abraham in Genesis 12:3—
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.
It’s pay back time! This is no chance happening; it is the outworking of God’s wrath. God raised this Pharaoh up for this very purpose. He stands in a line of kings who have oppressed the Israelites in Egypt.
First God allows Pharaoh to harden his own heart, and then He hardens the king’s heart. This is what Paul describes as God giving over to the sinful heart in Romans 1:24-28—
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.
God does not bestow perversity to Pharaoh’s heart by a direct internal act, as He bestows grace, nor that does He do something to Pharaoh against Pharaoh’s will, but that what Pharaoh wants to be, an opposer of God, God ordains that he shall be. Conversely, Pharaoh wants to be this, not because God ordains it, but because he so desires. In other words, God allows Pharaoh to be himself.
Another factor in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is that it was a reversal of an Egyptian belief. Egyptians believed that when a person died his heart was weighed in the hall of judgment. If one’s heart was HEAVY with sin, that person was judged. A stone beetle scarab was placed on the heart of a deceased person to suppress his natural tendency to confess sin, which would subject him to judgment. This HARDENING OF THE HEART by the scarab would result in salvation for the deceased.
However, God reversed this process in Pharaoh’s case. Instead, of his heart being suppressed so that he was silent about sin and thus delivered, his heart became hardened, he confessed his sin, and his sinfully heavy heart resulted in judgment. For the Egyptians the HARDENING OF THE HEART resulted in silence (absence of confession of sin) and therefore salvation. But God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart resulted in acknowledgment of sin and in judgment.
Exodus 4:22-23 are the Key Verses of the Book and they assure Moses of the success of this venture—
Then say to Pharaoh, `This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'”
The expression FIRSTBORN SON would be perfectly intelligible to Pharaoh, whose official designation was SON OF RA. In numberless inscriptions, the Pharaohs are styled OWN SONS or BELOVED SONS of deity. It was thought that Pharaoh existed because of sexual union between the god Ra and the Egyptian queen.
Yet, it must have sounded strange to Pharaoh to hear that a whole people were called MY SON. From this point in history, Yahweh is to be seen as a FATHER by what He does for His Son. He will bring Israel into being as a nation. He will nourish the nation, lead and discipline it. That is what fatherhood is all about.
Israel was God’s FIRSTBORN SON by virtue of the Abrahamic Covenant. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Malachi also refer to God as the Father of Israel and Israel being His son.
God never sees Himself as the Father of all people. The relation of God, as Creator, to man, His creature is never referred to as that of Father to son. His Fatherhood always relates to His election of a Covenant People, whether one son (Israel under the Abrahamic Covenant by the blood of circumcision) or many sons (Christians of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood).
FIRST indicates RANK with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of a FIRSTBORN. Israel was not to be a ONLY son, but the FIRSTBORN son, who was peculiarly dear to his Father with certain privileges above the rest. Yahweh was about to exalt Israel above all the nations of the earth.
“LET MY SON GO, SO THAT HE MAY WORSHIP ME,” Yahweh demands. Here again, the overall movement of the Book of Exodus occurs—FROM BONDAGE TO WORSHIP. God wants His people to worship Him. That is the reason God saves people! How many take salvation too lightly!
What a startling statement the LORD makes to Pharaoh: BUT YOU REFUSED TO LET HIM GO; SO I WILL KILL YOUR FIRSTBORN SON. THIS IS GOD’S DECLARATION OF WAR. War is declared—Whose son will die? Pharaoh’s or God’s?
Just as an earlier Pharaoh had issued a death warrant on Moses’ life for killing an Egyptian taskmaster, so now God issues a death warrant on Pharaoh’s firstborn son because he continues to kill God’s son with oppression.
But just when we think Moses is finally safe from Pharaoh’s death warrant, another one is issued on his life. Exodus 4:24-26—
At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. But
Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.
“Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the LORD let him alone. (At
that time she said “bridegroom of blood”, referring to circumcision.)
This time the death warrant on Moses life comes from God. Literally, the Hebrew text reads YAHWEH MET HIM AND SOUGHT TO KILL HIM. This implies an illness unto death. Whatever the nature of the attack, it had not be averted by a timely act. Translators supply MOSES for the pronoun HIM. believe that is right. Otherwise, Moses would be the one taking the required action instead of Zipporah.
Zipporah believed that the illness of Moses was due to his having neglected the duty of an Israelite, the circumcising of his son. Circumcision captures the whole concept of Covenant, combining God’s Word with human response.
Genesis 17 shows circumcision to be a spiritual sign, and only secondly a national sign. Primarily it was a seal of the covenant relationship between God and man. God said in Genesis 17:14—
Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
CUT OFF is capital punishment—death! To exclude his son from circumcision makes Moses responsible for the death of his son and deserving of capital punishment according to Genesis 9:5-6—
And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.
Furthermore, God is about to bless His people and the instrument of bringing about that blessing has been disobedient in the most critical area of the Abrahamic Covenant—the circumcision of one of his sons!
Circumcision was an important part of Covenant Faith, yet Moses had neglected to bring his own son into the covenant. How could he lead Israel if he was failing to lead his own household in things spiritual? Omissions are sin, whether prescribed circumcision, sacrifices and celebrations for OT saints or water baptism and celebration of the Lord’s Supper for NT believers.
Moses was not only religious, but A MAN OF DESTINY, one upon whom vast interests depended. Now, such men have often reckoned themselves exempt from ordinary laws of conduct. Napoleon used to say, “I am not an ordinary man and the law of morals and of custom were never made for me.”
The failures of the good and great are written in the Bible for our admonition, teaching us how inconsistent are even the best of mortals, and how weak the most resolute.
In the light of the Abrahamic Covenant, YAHWEH MET HIM AND SOUGHT TO KILL HIM—to execute capital punishment upon Moses’ disobedience in not circumcising his son. The text does not say which son. I think it was the firstborn son for two reasons. First, Exodus 18:2-4 emphasizes the son’s names—
After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her and her two sons. One son was named Gershom, for Moses said, “I have become an alien in a foreign land”; and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
Obviously, Moses was feeling dejected, lonely and deserted by God when he named his firstborn. At the time of the birth of his second son, Moses realizes that God was his helper. It seems he would have been more likely to circumcise Eliezer than Gershom.
The second reason I think it is the firstborn son that needs to be circumcised is because of the context. Israel is identified as God’s FIRSTBORN SON and God intends to kill Pharaoh’s FIRSTBORN SON.
God can hardly kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son and let Moses’ uncircumcised firstborn live.
Zipporah evaluates the situation and takes action. She uses a flint knife, in accordance with the usage of the patriarchs. We know the Egyptians never used metal in the preparation of mummies because stone was regarded as a purer and more scared material than metal. The patriarchs probably had similar beliefs.
The KJV says that Zipporah CAST THE FORESKIN AT HIS FEET. That is an unfortunate translation, which has led to the wrong impression that Zipporah despised the rite of circumcision and conceals the foreshadowing of this event. If Zipporah had resisted the earlier circumcision of her son, her proud soul now yields to covenant faith as the way into the future. In addition, faith is the walk of obedience to the revealed Word of God.
The opening Chapters of Exodus foreshadow later events in the Book. The Hebrew word NAGA’ means to TO TOUCH, REACH, STRIKE—not CAST. The next time NAGA’ is used is in 12:22—
Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and [NAGA’] some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the door-frame. Not one of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning.
TO TOUCH, that is the application, of the Passover’s Lamb’s blood to the entrance way to their houses the Israelites were spared death. The firstborn son of God—Israel—must be redeemed by blood.
The effectiveness of blood in preserving life is demonstrated here. There is life in the blood. This event also foreshadows the sprinkling of blood upon the people to seal the Covenant, which comes in Chapter 24.
By performing the rite and touching the blood to Moses’ feet, Zipporah had recovered her husband; his life was purchased for her by the blood of her son.
AT THAT TIME SHE SAID “BRIDEGROOM OF BLOOD”, REFERRING TO CIRCUMCISION. She calls him BRIDEGROOM OF BLOOD because she was compelled, as it were, to acquire and purchase him anew as husband by the shedding of the blood of her son. Moses good as dead is purchased with blood.
The theological significance of Zipporah’s act of faith cannot be understated. God sought [was required] to kill Moses, but the blood of the firstborn son saved him. It satisfied and appeased the wrath of God. Zipporah pictures God and His Son. This event foreshadows what Romans 5:9 declares—
Since we have now been justified by [Christ’s] blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
The one responsible for the application of blood is Zipporah. In the Hebrew text, she is the only one named in this event. She is the main character. She is the only one active in this passage, in both word and deed. She knows what needs to be done to save her loved one. From the divine side she portrays God. From the human side, it is her faith that saves Moses. She stands in the train of the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, and the daughter of Pharaoh. Moses owes his very life to a series of actions by women, two of them non-Israelites.
The difference between Zipporah and the other women is that, while they saved Moses from Pharaoh, she saves him from God. She plays the role of mediator between God and Moses, anticipating the very role that Moses will later play on Israel’s behalf. As Zipporah saves Moses from the wrath of God, so Moses will save Israel. Moses is thus revealed as one who does not himself stand without need of mediation with God.
Right before Moses embarks on his mission, he is shown to be vulnerable and in need of a mediator in his relationship with God. Moreover, it is a non-Israelite woman who provides that mediation, saving Moses from sure death.
But why does God take such strong measures here? This is a divine demonstration of the seriousness of the matter upon which God and Moses are about to embark—a life-and-death struggle in which Israel’s very life will be imperiled. That Israel will emerge unscathed is not a foregone conclusion. Moses’ obedience is integral to the divine mission. Moses continued resistance to the divine call, occasioning God’s wrath, and his failure concerning circumcision are signs that do not bode well for the future. This event is a SIGN to Moses of what is at stake in all of that follows.
The LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the desert to meet Moses.” So he met Moses at the
mountain of God and kissed him. Then Moses told Aaron everything the LORD had sent
him to say, and also about all the miraculous signs he had commanded him to perform.
Aaron is now eighty-three years of age and was enroute to meet Moses. God speaks for the first time to Aaron, telling him to meet Moses in the desert. At Mt. Horeb, the brothers embrace and exchange confidences.
This meeting could be recorded in a GOD HUNT or I SPY Journal. It should have boosted the faith of both brothers. At the burning bush, Yahweh had predicted this meeting after forty years of separation—
What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you (Exodus 4:14).
Private and personal encouragements of God are in store, no doubt, for any one who starts forward to obey Him.
Aaron’s motivation to meet Moses comes from issues of family and friendship; he wanted to see brother. God’s explicit involvement means that there is a new purpose for this meeting. But God’s decision is not unrelated to Aaron’s motivations. As is often the case, God notices quite ordinary human affairs and makes use of them for more specific divine purposes.
Moses refused, hesitated, and obeys. For the first time it is clear that Moses takes up the commission to which he has been called. Aaron will carry out the role God assigned in His anger at the burning bush.
Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, and Aaron told them
everything the LORD had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that the LORD was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.
The elders and people believed the words and signs as God foretold at the burning bush. Their response was to bow down and worship. What an indictment on the Jews who rejected Jesus Christ some 1,500 years later.
The faith of the people, and the worship by which their faith was expressed, proved that God’s promise to their fathers still lived in their hearts. Their worship is said to follow specifically upon their hearing of one particular word. It is a Gospel word—God having seen their affliction and becoming active on their behalf—which occasions worship. It is not the miraculous signs that prompt this activity but the specific promise inherent in God’s involvement. They welcomed the glad tidings of redemption, embrace it in faith, and adore the Redeemer!
The next time the people worship, it will be upon the deliverance from death on Passover night. The next time they believe, it will be on the far banks of the sea. This passage thus pushes ahead to the full realization of this Word of God and ties Passover and sea crossing together.
Faith in the Good News of God becomes the way into the future.