18 Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19 And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. 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 firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” 24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision. 27 The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to 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 people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.
One of the endearing aspects of the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the sense of journey and adventure the Hobbits and their party undertake. Along with it, J.R.R. Tolkien had the Hobbits sing a number of traveling songs as they went. For instance, The Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo Baggins leaves the ring to Frodo and sets out for Rivendell, he sings this song:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
It may sound odd to quote that here, but the story of the Exodus is also replete with a sense of journey and adventure, though, unlike Tolkien’s stories, it was a journey and an adventure that really happened! Even so, had Moses known Bilbo’s travel song, I can’t help but envision him singing it as he takes his staff in his hand, calls his family to his side, and sets his feet on the path back to Egypt. Actually, it may be more accurate to suggest that Moses might have uttered under his breath the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (had he known them) as he set out.
Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d & thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Yes, maybe that poem would capture the mood of what Moses felt better than Bilbo’s song. After all, walking back into Egypt was no pleasant prospect at all! Even so, that is what Moses did, as the latter half of Exodus 4 recounts.
I. Moses Embraces His Calling of Deliverance and Judgment (v.18-23)
Moses could not simply up and go. After all, he had been received kindly into the house of Jethro and he was keeping his flock in Midian. He owed his father-in-law at least some sense of explanation.
18 Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”
It has been widely pointed out that Moses’ explanation to his father-in-law was not entirely true. At the least, it was not the whole truth. It certainly did not explain all that was going on in this trek back to Egypt.
Why so? Many theories concerning Moses’ wording to Jethro have been proposed, but I am inclined to accept the most natural hypothesis: it is awkward telling your father-in-law that you are taking his daughter into the teeth of an oppressive regime on the basis of a divine revelation you received from a burning bush on a mountain. Furthermore, it is awkward telling your father-in-law that you have reason to believe that you will be the chosen instrument through which God will break the yoke of four-hundred years of enslavement for the Hebrews in Egypt.
I remember before I married Roni that my in-laws asked me what my plans were after we were married. I responded that we were going to get married and move to Texas where I would attend seminary. “How will you live?” they asked. “We will get jobs,” I responded. Etc. Etc.
It was a legitimate thing for my in-laws to do. They had the right to ask those questions. One day, I will do the same. But take a moment and think how that conversation with Moses would have gone had Jethro pressed him. Perhaps Moses can be forgiven for not sharing the whole story, though, in truth, he probably underestimated Jethro’s faith.
Next, the Lord speaks to Moses again about what He intends to do in and through him in Egypt.
19 And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
The Lord calls upon Moses to execute faithfully all that He was calling Him to do. It is then that the Lord makes a statement that has troubled many people for many years. He says, “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” Many are troubled at the notion of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, then judging him for his hard heart. However, Augustine rightly pointed out that just because God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart “it does not…follow that it was not Pharaoh himself that hardened his own heart.” What he meant was that this divine saying does not mean that Pharaoh’s actions and Pharaoh’s sins did not factor into this hardening. Augustine interpreted the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to mean that “both God and Pharaoh caused this hardening of the heart: God, by his just judgments, Pharaoh, by his free will.” I believe Augustine’s interpretation to be right.
Another helpful insight on this comes from the 5th/6th century Christian Caesarius of Arles.
Now let no one along with pagans or Manichaeans dare to censure or blame the justice of God. It is to be believed as most certain that not the violence of God but his own repeated wickedness and indomitable pride in opposition to God’s commands caused Pharaoh to become hardened. What does that mean which God said, “I will make him obstinate,” except that when my grace is withdrawn from him his own iniquity will harden him? In order that this may be known more clearly, we propose to your charity a comparison with visible things. As often as water is contracted by excessive cold, if the heat of the sun comes upon it, it becomes melted; when the same sun departs the water again becomes hard. Similarly the charity of many men freezes because of the excessive coldness of their sins, and they become as hard as ice; however, when the warmth of divine mercy comes upon them again, they are melted.
That is a helpful illustration: sin is the cold that freezes the water and God’s mercy is the heat that melts it. When God’s mercy is removed, sin has its effect. This is a mysterious occurrence and one our minds struggle to understand. I agree with Philip Ryken who sees in this “the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility” and who notes, rightly, that this “is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be adored.”
Following this perplexing statement about Pharaoh, the Lord makes a beautiful assertion concerning Israel:
22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”
This picture of Israel as God’s firstborn son is, again, beautiful and inspiring. God is saying that Israel is the special object of His affections. Furthermore, Israel will see that the will of their Father is done.
The love of God for His people permeates the story of the Exodus. It is out of love that God remembers. It is out of love that God acts. It is out of love that God saves. He sees in Israel the suffering of His firstborn. Let us note, however, that Israel is the Lord’s firstborn in terms of His creation but the Lord Jesus is His firstborn in a sense that nobody or no people ever could be. Israel was created by God. Jesus is eternal God who was begotten of the Father.
II. Moses’ Family Embraces the Covenant of God (v.24-26)
Moses has embraced his calling, but Moses has not fully obeyed God. We discover this in verses 24-26, verses that are startling and perplexing.
24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.
Terence Fretheim rather humorously says about verse 24, “The reader has not been prepared very well for this statement…The reader can be forgiven for wondering what is happening.” I hope we, the readers, can, for we do indeed wonder what is happening in these verses!
All of a sudden, out of the blue (from our perspective), the Lord tries to kill Moses. Now, I do want to acknowledge that this passage is very difficult to interpret, and it is not even crystal clear exactly who God is trying to kill, Moses or one of his sons. That being said, the most natural reading suggests he was trying to kill Moses. Apparently the reason for this is because Moses had not circumcised his son.
However, before God kills Moses, Zipporah, Moses’ wife, grabs a flint, leaps to her son, circumcises him, touches Moses’ feet with the circumcised foreskin of their son, and pronounces Moses “a bridegroom of blood.” Because of this, God relents and does not kill Moses.
Whew! Didn’t see that coming! What is going on here?
Let us remember that the Lord had instituted male circumcision as the physical mark of covenant belonging and faithfulness among the Jews with Abraham in Genesis 17.
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” 9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Circumcision, then, was the dramatic symbol of Israel’s belonging, Israel’s faithfulness, and God’s promise to bless Israel. It was a very important evidence of identity and obedience, and Moses had not had his son circumcised. Why? We do not know. Ephrem the Syrian actually blames Zipporah for the dilemma, claiming that Moses wanted to circumcise their son but that Zipporah had forbidden it. This seems absurd. First of all, the Bible simply never says or hints at that idea. Second, Zipporah is the one who acts swiftly to circumcise their son. Third, Moses, not Zipporah, is the object of God’s wrath in this scene. To be honest, it is difficult to read this passage and see Zipporah as anything but the hero of this little scene.
Whatever the reasons, Moses had not circumcised his son, and God took great issue with this. Why? Because Moses’ disobedience in this crucial area revealed a lack of complete surrender and obedience on his part and because a leader of Israel who had not brought his own family into covenant faithfulness to God would be a stumbling block to Israel instead of an aid. How could the people be expected to follow Moses when Moses himself had been disobedient? How could the people trust that Moses was God’s man when Moses was not following God? How could the people even really believe that Moses was hearing from God if he had apparently not even heeded God’s call in this basic matter of identity and obedience? Furthermore, it is an established fact that disobedience in the small things usually leads to disobedience in the big things. Moses was about to be tested in ways he could not imagine. How could he be expected to demonstrate radical obedience to God in the fiery trials he would soon face if he had not demonstrated such in the simple matter of circumcising his son.
More is happening here, though, than mere circumcision. If you step back and look at this strange little section, you’ll notice certain big ideas behind it that will become crucial to Israel’s understanding of the gospel when Jesus came preaching it. Namely, implicit in this story are the grand themes of the holiness of God, the wrath of God against sin, intercession, the shedding of blood, and forgiveness of sin on the basis of that shed blood. It has been pointed out that this little scene is a foreshadowing of the Passover. Just as the blood of Moses’ son caused God to pass over him without killing him, so the blood of the lamb on the doorpost would cause the angel of death to pass over the houses of Israel in Egypt. That is true. It does foreshadow the Passover. But the Passover is itself a foreshadowing of the cross of Jesus Christ. In this sense, all of these types, even if they point to each other in a secondary sense, point to Jesus in a primary sense.
Moses had sinned. God was coming to execute judgment against Moses. An intercessor, Zipporah, acted. Moses was “covered” in the blood of the son. God did not execute judgment on Moses because he was under the blood of the son. In startling types and images, that is a picture of the gospel right here in Moses’ journey to Egypt.
We have sinned against God. Because of our sins, we are under His judgment. As He comes to destroy us, however, we have an intercessor, Jesus, who acts. He lays down His life for His sheep. He is sacrificed. When we trust in Him we are covered by His blood. On that basis, and on that basis only, we are cleansed and forgiven. The judgment falls on Jesus who took our sins upon Himself. He gets the punishment and we get the righteousness. He is slain and we are forgiven. And, of course, we need never mention the gospel without mentioning its consummation in the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. The son does not remain slain. He rises in victory over sin, death, and hell.
III. The People Dare to Embrace Unlooked-For Hope (v.27-31)
The Lord forgives Moses and then He calls Aaron, Moses’ helper, to Moses’ side.
27 The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do.
Let us notice again the kindness and mercy of God. God had called Moses to this daunting task. Moses, in his weakness, calls out for a helper. The Lord graciously gives him Aaron, though, once again, Aaron’s presence does not mean that Moses is free from his calling. Aaron will be Moses’ mouth, but Moses remains God’s man. He has made them a team, but Moses remains the captain of the team.
29 Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to 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 people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.
Here is a beautiful and moving scene indeed! Moses and Aaron assemble the people in Egypt, and Aaron tells the startling story of God’s revelation to Moses of coming deliverance. How will they respond? Will they dare to believe that this can be true? They do! “And the people believed; and when they heard the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.”
We are privileged to witness here the dawning of hope! The people dare to believe and dare to hope. In the darkest chapter of their story, a ray of light breaks in. It comes in the most unlikely of ways: through the person of their fragile and flawed leader, Moses, and his assistant, Aaron.
At the heart of the gospel of Christ is hope. The good news about Jesus calls us to dare to believe that God can deliver us from the worst enslavements we face. Stanley Hauerwas once prayed this prayer before his students at Duke Divinity School:
Invade our bodies with your hope, dear Lord, that we might manifest the enthusiasm of your kingdom. Give us the energy of children, whose lives seem fired by the wonder of it all. Thank God, you have given us good work, hopeful work. Our lives are not just one pointless thing after another. We have purpose. But give us also your patience. School our hope with humility, recognizing that finally it is a matter of your will being done. Too often our hope turns to optimism, optimism to despair, despair to cynicism. Save our hope by Israel-like patience so that we can learn to wait hopefully in joy. Surely that is why you give us children – signs of hope requiring infinite patience. Give us hope so we can learn to wait. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Amen.
Do you remember when you first encountered the audacious claims of the gospel? Do you remember when you first dared to hope that you, a sinner, could be forgiven all your sins and set free? Do you remember that? I suspect your first reaction to receiving this good news was the same as Israel’s first reaction: “they bowed their heads and worshiped.”
I do so love that the passage ends in that way. What else could they do but bow their heads and worship? Into their nightmare experience in Egypt, God spoke light and hope and truth. Into the seemingly never-ending darkness of their enslavement, an unlooked-for note of deliverance rings out.
Is it possible? Could this be true?
And there stands Moses, mute in his own insecurities, and Aaron, speaking words that he himself was still trying to grasp. And they are standing before Israel announcing, “The night is coming to an end. The sun is beginning to rise. The long nightmare is concluding. God has remembered His people. God is coming to set us free.”
That, friends, was the hope of Israel. That, friends, is the hope of the world through the One to whom the whole story of Israel points: Jesus. And we, now, are heralds of the same amazing and startling good news: night is ending. The sun is rising. It is time to go home.
But before we are heralds we must be recipients. We must marvel in this good news ourselves before we can announce it to others. Have you received the good news? There, in your very own Egypt, have you dared to believe that God has sent One, Jesus, to bring you home?
I pray you have.
 Joseph T. Lienhard, ed., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Old Testament. Vol.III. Gen.Ed., Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.30-31.
 Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.129.
 Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.78.
 Lienhard, p.32
 Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p.87.