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Moses and Aaron - Artist Unknown

After speaking to God through the burning bush, Moses went to Jethro, his father-in-law, and said to him, “Let me return to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.”

Jethro said, “Go, and I wish you well.”

The Lord had said to Moses in Midian,

“Go back to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill your soul, your life, are dead.”

So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey, and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.

Moses and Aaron with Tablets of the Law - Marten de Vos Flemish (1532-1603)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 my people go. 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.’”

At a lodging place on the way, God met him and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a 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 God left him alone.

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The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.”

So Aaron met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him. Then Moses told Aaron everything God had sent him to say and also about the signs he had commanded him to perform.

Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites and Aaron told them everything God had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that God was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped.

What the story means to us today

The time to free God’s people has arrived

Out of respect, Moses asks his father-in-law for permission to leave and return to Egypt. Those that want him dead are gone and he is safe to return to Egypt to free the Israelites from bondage. Moses tells Aaron and the Israelites about the task God has assigned to them. The stage is set for a showdown between Moses and Pharaoh, a showdown that Moses must win in order to free the Israelites. This marks the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

Many Christians around the world find themselves in a similar situation, in veritable bondage or crushed under oppression simply for who they are. As we will see with the Israelites, God is on their side. Oppression is only a temporary condition for God’s people. Ultimately God will protect and free his people. But as with the Israelites, we must exercise patience and trust that God will fulfill his promises to us.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Did Moses return to Egypt a wanted man?

After the king of Egypt dies, Moses feels it is safe to return to Egypt. He was likely a wanted man after murdering the Egyptian slave owner. However, outside Egyptian sources tell us it was common practice for new pharaohs to pardon criminals for their crimes, creating a “clean slate” from which to begin their rule of law. The Bible does not mention this tradition but Moses’ ability to return to Egypt without being arrested indicates he was indeed pardoned for his crime.

Is the text in these verses out of order?

Moses and Aaron - Unknown Artist (1526)In these verses, the following sequence of events occur:

  1. Moses tells his father-in-law he must travel to Egypt.
  2. God gives Moses instructions to free the Israelites.
  3. Moses puts his family on donkeys and leaves.
  4. God tells Moses what will take place.
  5. Zipporah touches Moses’ feet with the foreskin of his son.
  6. God tells Aaron to meet Moses at the mountain of God.
  7. And finally, Moses and Aaron address the Israelites and demonstrate the miracles God has given them.

Some of these events were mentioned in earlier verses, setting the order of the actions in our mind. In these verses, the events previously mentioned are intermingled with new events. They may now appear to be out of order. However, in this case, some of what we are told here is simply a rehash of what has been communicated to Moses earlier, not a telling of new events. Repeating events is a common style in ancient literature.

Why would God work against Moses and harden Pharaoh’s heart?

God instructs Moses to perform the signs he gave him but notes, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go”. Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart, seemingly working against the task he has assigned Moses?

Possibly God strengthens Pharaoh’s resolve knowing that a greater victory, with an even greater reward, is in store for the Israelites. More likely, however, it is God’s plan to allow man to choose their destiny. God gives man freewill and thus, Pharaoh is free to choose whether to let Moses go or not. In the story of Moses, it is mentioned in ten places that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. However, in another ten passages, we are told that Pharaoh hardens his own heart. This tells us that both God and Pharaoh are responsible for Pharaoh’s refusal to heed Moses’ call.

God sees and knows all and despite the fact that he could intervene, he allows Pharaoh to make the choice.

Why was God about to kill Moses?

The verses have what appears to be an odd occurrence in the middle of the story. The translation of this section has baffled interpreters for centuries. According to modern interpretation, Exodus tells us that at a lodging place along the way, God met Moses and was about to kill him. To protect her husband, Zipporah cut off her son’s foreskin (likely Gershom, but possibly a newborn Eliezer) and touched Moses’ feet with it. This act causes God to reconsider.

Two aspects of this section puzzle readers (1) Why was God about to kill Moses and (2) why had Moses’ son not been circumcised as prescribed by Abrahamic law?

Moses’ son was not circumcised according to Abrahamic law

It was a condition of the Abrahamic covenant that all males be circumcised. It is possible that a son (either Gershom or Eliezer) were born along the way to Egypt and were not circumcised within the eight-day requirement. By not circumcising his son, Moses had not followed God’s covenant. This may have caused God to reconsider his approach to freeing the Israelites.

Moses was not circumcised according to Abrahamic law

Alternatively, the verses could be telling us that Moses himself was not circumcised. He was raised an Egyptian, not a Hebrew. Circumcision may not have been as important to Egyptians. God would be sending a man on a critical mission who had not followed the requirements of the Abrahamic covenant. This may have angered God who decided to kill Moses (and presumably find another to deliver the Israelites from Egypt).

God was about to kill Moses’ son, not Moses

A third explanation proposes God was about to kill Moses’ son, not Moses himself. The original Hebrew only says “him” and does not specifically name who God is about to kill. In fact, Moses’ name does not appear in the original Hebrew at all (although many translations substitute “Moses” for one of the two pronoun instances). God may have seen the need to kill Moses’ son in order to rectify the problem. The act of touching the foreskin to Moses feet could have been a symbolic gesture intended to represent the substitution of one foreskin for the other.

God was about to kill Pharaoh’s son

Aaron - Terentiy Fomin (17th Century)A final alternative suggests the object of God’s wrath may have been Pharaoh’s son, not Moses or his son. In this interpretation, Zipporah steps in, out of compassion, and conducts a ceremony that she hopes will save the life of Pharaoh’s son.

Give the abruptness of this section’s introduction and shortness of explanation, we have to consider all possibilities and accept that it will only be conjecture to choose a correct interpretation at this time.

The science and history behind the story

Which Pharaoh denied Moses’ request to free the Israelites?

The Bible gives us clues that can help deduce which Pharaohs participated in the story. The verses say God told Moses, “Go back to Egypt for all those who wanted to kill you are dead”. We know from prior verses that Pharaoh sought to kill Moses as an infant so we can presume God meant the Pharaoh from Moses’ birth had died.

Moses was in Midian, away from Egypt, for 40 years. In the 18th dynasty, Pharaoh Thutmose III reigned from 1504 to 1450 BC, a period of 54 years. Thus Thutmose III fits the period of Moses’ life. This would imply Moses returned to Egypt around 1450 BC. This was the beginning of the reign of Amenhotep II. Thus, it is believed by many that Amenhotep II was most likely the Pharaoh during the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt.

Notes on Biblical translation

“Bridegroom of blood”

Zipporah cuts off her son’s foreskin and touches it to Moses’ feet. She says, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me”. The meaning is not clear, but many believe it to be an angry, chiding response directed at Moses akin to “pain and death seem to follow you everywhere”. What prompted Zipporah’s anger? Zipporah may have disagreed with the practice of circumcision which would also explain a delay in circumcision of Moses’ son.

Bible Text

NIV

18 Then Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Let me return to my own people in Egypt to see if any of them are still alive.”

Jethro said, “Go, and I wish you well.”

19 Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all those who wanted to kill you are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.

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. 22 Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”

24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 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. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)

27 The LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 Then Moses told Aaron everything the LORD had sent him to say, and also about all the signs he had commanded him to perform.

29 Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, 30 and Aaron told them everything the LORD had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, 31 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 New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

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Moses and Aaron gather the Israelites - Unknown ArtistThe NET Bible

4:18  So Moses went back to his father-in-law Jethro and said to him, “Let me go, so that I may return to my relatives in Egypt and see if they are still alive.” Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 4:19 The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, because all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 4:20 Then Moses took his wife and sons and put them on a donkey and headed back to the land of Egypt, and Moses took the staff of God in his hand. 4:21 The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the wonders I have put under your control. But I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go. 4:22 You must say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is my son, my firstborn, 4:23 and I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me,’ but since you have refused to let him go, I will surely kill your son, your firstborn!” ’ ”

4:24 Now on the way, at a place where they stopped for the night, the LORD met Moses and sought to kill him. 4:25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” 4:26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” referring to the circumcision.)

4:27 The LORD said to Aaron, “Go to the wilderness to meet Moses. So he went and met him at the mountain of God and greeted him with a kiss. 4:28 Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him and all the signs that he had commanded him. 4:29 Then Moses and Aaron went and brought together all the Israelite elders. 4:30 Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people, 4:31 and the people believed. When they heard that the LORD had attended to the Israelites and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed down close to the ground.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

18 So Moses went and returned to Jethro his father-in-law, and said to him, “Please let me go and return to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive.”

And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”

19 Now the LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead.” 20 Then Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the rod of God in his hand.

21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: “Israel is My son, My firstborn. 23 So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me. But if you refuse to let him go, indeed I will kill your son, your firstborn.” ’ ”

24 And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” 26 So He let him go. Then she said, “You are a husband of blood!”—because of the circumcision.

27 And the LORD said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him on the mountain of God, and kissed him. 28 So Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which He had commanded him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel. 30 And Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses. Then he did the signs in the sight of the people. 31 So the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped.

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

18 Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said, “I need to return to my relatives who are in Egypt. I want to see if they’re still alive.”

Jethro said, “Go. And peace be with you.”

19 GOD said to Moses in Midian: “Go. Return to Egypt. All the men who wanted to kill you are dead.”

20 So Moses took his wife and sons and put them on a donkey for the return trip to Egypt. He had a firm grip on the staff of God.

21–23 GOD said to Moses, “When you get back to Egypt, be prepared: All the wonders that I will do through you, you’ll do before Pharaoh. But I will make him stubborn so that he will refuse to let the people go. Then you are to tell Pharaoh, ‘GOD’s Message: Israel is my son, my firstborn! I told you, “Free my son so that he can serve me.” But you refused to free him. So now I’m going to kill your son, your firstborn.’ ”

24–26 On the journey back, as they camped for the night, GOD met Moses and would have killed him but Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ member with it. She said, “Oh! You’re a bridegroom of blood to me!” Then GOD let him go. She used the phrase “bridegroom of blood” because of the circumcision.

27–28 GOD spoke to Aaron, “Go and meet Moses in the wilderness.” He went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. Moses told Aaron the message that GOD had sent him to speak and the wonders he had commanded him to do.

29–31 So Moses and Aaron proceeded to round up all the leaders of Israel. Aaron told them everything that GOD had told Moses and demonstrated the wonders before the people. And the people trusted and listened believingly that GOD was concerned with what was going on with the Israelites and knew all about their affliction. They bowed low and they worshiped.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace. 19 And the LORD said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life. 20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand. 21 And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. 22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: 23 And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.

24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. 26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. 27 And the LORD said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him. 28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him. 29 And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel: 30 And Aaron spake all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people. 31 And the people believed: and when they heard that the LORD had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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