God had called Moses from the land of Midian to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. After some initial objections, Moses accepted the will of God, packed up his family, and started his journey west. Then something strange and troubling happened: “At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him” (Exodus 4:24).
This disturbing incident, in which God was going to kill Moses, is not fully explained in the text, but we can piece together an idea of what occurred. Here are the clues:
Based on the fact that God was going to kill Moses, we assume that Moses had committed some sin against God. The fact that the circumcision of Moses’ son caused the Lord to relent indicates that Moses’ sin was a failure to circumcise his son. The fact that Zipporah, not Moses, performed the surgery suggests that Moses was unable to do it himself; the same conclusion is supported by the fact that Zipporah touched Moses’ feet with the proof of circumcision—this would be more natural if Moses were bedridden. And, if Moses was confined to bed, the method that God was using to kill him was likely an illness of some kind.
So, as far as we can tell, God was threatening to kill Moses because Moses had not circumcised his son. The question then is, why was that particular sin being judged so harshly? Surely there were other sins that Moses was guilty of, yet God chose to pursue the death penalty over a lack of circumcision. The answer probably goes back to the time of Abraham.
When God called Abram and established a covenant with him, He changed his name to Abraham and gave him a sign of the covenant: circumcision. Moses later wrote this account: “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you’” (Genesis 17:9–11). God was clear that, among Abraham’s descendants, every male in every household was to be circumcised. No exceptions: “My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:13–14).
Moses, as a descendant of Abraham, had been circumcised. But, for some reason, he had not circumcised his own son. It could be that Moses, as a shepherd in Midian for forty years, had given up living like a Hebrew. Or perhaps he assumed he was already “cut off from his people,” so why bother with the sign of the covenant?
The problem was that Moses was going to Egypt to rescue the circumcised people of God from the uncircumcised Egyptians. There was a sharp distinction between the slaves and the oppressors, but Moses, the leader of God’s people, was blurring the distinction in his own family. Further, Moses was to be the lawgiver for Israel, and it would not do for the giver of the law to be a lawbreaker. Part of the law would require circumcision (Leviticus 12:3). For Moses to have an uncircumcised son would be blatantly hypocritical—and hypocrisy is never good in a national leader.
Moses’ personal life had to be in order before he could properly direct the spiritual lives of the Hebrew people. Whatever the cause of Moses’ neglect of such an important rite, his sin made him unfit to serve as a spiritual leader. The situation had to be rectified before he could carry out his mission. God was about to kill Moses, but Moses lived because God allowed for repentance and forgiveness. Praise the Lord that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).