Biblical Controversy – The Gross Misinterpretation of Exodus 4

By Brook Ardoin – July 9, 2019

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One of the most controversial Bible stories is found in Exodus 4:21-26. Bible students and theologians have grappled over the interpretation of this story and the reasons behind it for decades. What is believed, taught, and passed down by an alarming number of Christians is that God desired to kill Moses due to the many years he lacked obedience to circumcise his son.

This is one of my most lengthy articles, but due to the great controversy, I could not afford to be lazy. Every detail God showed me has been put in, and if you just take a little time to read, I think you will find it goes quickly because it is so interesting. No stone is left unturned. Proving why magnitudes are wrong on this matter took attention to every detail.

I was awestruck at the popularity of this belief in an online search. However, taking a closer look into the scriptures, there is no real evidence that Moses was God’s target. All the confusion and debate stem from man’s insatiable need to overthink God’s Word, unable to accept its simplicity. In essence, MAN is who creates much ado about nothing.

Caution is relevant when reading this story from other versions besides the KJV. I am not here to bash other versions or tell you that you must only read the KJV. That said, a huge reason for God’s people believing God sought to kill Moses is due to non-King James translators. Most have changed the wording from that of the original, causing this gross misinterpretation. Because of this change, the meanings have also changed, resulting in an unavoidable incorrect interpretation.

It is always wise to have a KJV and a Strong’s Concordance at hand for any thorough Bible study, particularly debated scripture. This is the surest way to receive the message that God intended for us. Keep in mind, God did not write the Bible in English. You choose what version to read, but it takes some effort to study His Word to gain the proper understanding.

Let’s begin by reading the short story at the center of controversy from the KJV first. The key words are underlined for comparison and in helping you better understand when I explain the changes.

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. ~ Exodus 4: 21-26, KJV.

Being a good steward means taking your time to focus on what you read. If   questions arise, especially those that do not seem to have a straightforward answer, write a list and seek the answers. This is essential for controversial scriptures. Here are three of the most vital questions in the story, keeping in mind the belief that God sought to kill Moses:

~ WHY did God seek to kill Moses?

~HOW did a circumcision stop God from killing Moses?

~ Why did Zipporah perform the circumcision instead of Moses?

Who Did God Desire to Kill and Why?

The main reason so many believe that God sought to kill Moses is for no other reason than the Bible version they read, such as the NIV (this is the next most read after the KJV). Let’s look at the story again from the NIV, making sure to compare it to the above KJV, primarily the underlined words. 

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.)~ Exodus 4:24-26, NIV.  

The underlined words were all supplied by the NIV translators and greatly inaccurate. They intentionally changed the pronoun “him” in vs. 24 to “Moses”, giving the reader no reason to question if God sought to kill anyone but him. This not only changes God’s Word to fit their narrative, but it is also a disservice to the reader – chiefly new “baby” Christians lacking wisdom. Also, notice where they changed the pronoun “he” in vs. 26 to “the LORD.”

When using “the Lord” there, it aids in fitting the narrative they wish to present that God wanted Moses dead. They take it a step further by changing “let him GO” (vs 26, KJV) to “let him ALONE.” The original reads, “So he let him go.” This suggests that whomever “he” was had to first physically have hold of someone. The words “let him GO” are a literal expression.

In the NIV change to “the LORD let him (Moses) ALONE”, “alone” is used figuratively, not literally, and used to express that the Lord ceased in His desire to kill him. Satisfied after the circumcision, God moves on without further pursuing him. It would be incorrect for the NIV to keep “the Lord let him GO”, since nowhere in the story suggests the Lord physically taking hold of Moses at any time.

By using the words “the Lord let him alone” right after the circumcision, it gives the impression that without question, it was the circumcision that caused the Lord to cease in seeking Moses’ death. The same is true by replacing the word “Then” (vs. 25, KJV) with “But” in the NIV. Shortened for time, their translation reads, “At a lodging place, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. BUT Zipporah took a knife circumcising her son. So the Lord let Moses go.” The accurate word “then”, is placed there for one purpose – to signify what event came next.

In vs. 24, the NIV also changes the wording to “…the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him”, whereas the original reads “…the Lord met him and sought to kill him.” The word “about” suggests just that, that God was moments away from killing Moses. Yet, I will soon explain why this word gives improper meaning to the sentence and overall context of the story.

If no other reason triggers doubt in your mind on this interpretation, then scripture alone should. In verses 21-23, God gives Moses a commission whereby when he returns to Egypt he is to before Pharaoh and perform all the wonders God gave him the power to do, and give him a firm warning to let God’s son (Israel) go or God would kill his firstborn son. Therefore, God sets His wrath against Pharaoh’s firstborn son should he not comply. (Keep that in mind).

Immediately following, God meets up with someone at the inn that He desires to kill. Looking at scripture alone, there is absolutely no burden of proof that the male God had His sights upon was Moses. For God to commission him as His  representative and messenger, then abruptly and without any reason desire to KILL him is completely nonsensical. There is no solid scriptural basis to support this theory.

This brings us to the question at hand. If not Moses, WHO did God desire to kill? The answer is quite rudimentary, and found within the story – it was Pharaoh’s firstborn son! The pronoun “him” in verse 24, used twice, refers to Pharaoh’s son, not Moses. Before continuing, there is something vital to add that assists in providing more evidence of who God sought to kill.

It was man who later added chapter, verse, and sometimes sub-titles (headings) in the Bible. None of these were originally part of God’s Word. Man also decided on where to add breaks (spacing) between verses, or where to stop and start new episodes (sections) within chapters (episodes can best be compared to paragraphs without indentations).

For example, the story in Exodus shared has two episodes (sections). A break (space) is placed between the two episodes. New episodes sometimes mean a change of theme, or storyline. However, in many cases such as in this story, the break between episodes does not mean a change in theme, or storyline. The break is simply to help make chapters easier to read. This information better helps in understanding who God desired to kill, as I will soon explain. Let’s get back in answering who God wanted to kill.

First, it is grammatically correct for the pronoun “him” to mean Pharaoh’s firstborn son rather than Moses. The word “firstborn” at the end of vs. 23 is called an “antecedent.” It is followed by “him” (the pronoun of the antecedent) in vs. 24. An antecedent is a word, phrase, clause, or sentence to which another word (especially a following pronoun) refers. Sparing you from grammar rules, it is grammatically incorrect that the “him” in vs. 24 is Moses!

There are a number of translations that only add to misinterpreting the story. Most cut the episode short by ending it at vs. 23, starting a new one with vs. 24 (see NIV above). Even some KJV’s separate them. Some translations add a new heading above vs 24, causing more confusion. Subsequently, ending the section at vs. 23 makes it harder to distinguish who God desired to kill and why.

Though there may be a chronological break starting with vs. 24 (And it came to pass), the argument is not that separating them is wrong. The fact is that the theme remains the same and profoundly benefits the reader in understanding who “he” is in vs. 23 by keeping this pronoun with its antecedent (firstborn) in the same episode. It is also more beneficial for interpretation to place the break between verses 24 and 25 (see KJV).

Look at it again from the KJV. Focus on vs. 23 and 24, as is, without a break; then look back at the NIV, having the break after vs. 23. It makes a big difference when separating vs. 24 from 23.

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. ~ KJV

You need not be good at grammar to realize there will be times you may have to adjust the break between verses to help with interpretation. This can be tricky with versions that have breaks between every verse. At times, you may have to ignore headings between episodes when there is no change in the story’s theme. None of the things mentioned here changes God’s Word.

Remember, God had already established He would slay Pharaoh’s firstborn son as a consequence should he refuse God’s instruction (vs 23). We knew that refusal was inevitable as God assures that He would “harden Pharaoh’s heart that he should not let the people go”, even with the miracles Moses would perform. God had His reason for that, explained in the next paragraph.

It would take many signs and wonders before Pharaoh would give in and free the Israelites, and at the great cost of his son’s life. Regardless, his refusal to surrender God’s people early was ultimately God’s doing by hardening his heart for God’s purpose there to be fulfilled. You see, because of the vast wonders done by Moses in God’s name, and the many judgements placed on Egypt due to Pharaoh’s strong will to keep resisting Him (ten total), everyone would know that He was God.

Before God instructed Moses, he set his wife and sons (with servants to care for them) upon asses, “and he returned to the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 4:20, KJV). “Returned” here means “set out to return” or “set forward to go there.” It was either immediately after or right before setting out that he received God’s instructions.

What we cannot know is how much time passed from the time Moses received that commission and his arrival in Egypt. (It is 285 miles from Midian to Egypt). We do know that the commands for Pharaoh, as well as the circumcision took place while still somewhere in Arabia in route to Egypt. We know this because God had Aaron meet Moses in the Arabian wilderness prior to entering Egypt and he met Moses in the mount of God, or Mount Horeb (vs. 27).

Nevertheless, it was Pharaoh’s firstborn son that God met there and sought to kill. What is written in scripture agrees with that. Pharaoh’s son was the only person in the story that God speaks of killing. We do not know the geographical location of the inn, but does it truly matter? Let’s not forget that God was no man. He was not strolling around the earth and just happened across an inn for a rest. He is omnipotent, omniscience, and omnipresent – God can be everywhere at the same time.

It is completely sound that God could meet up with the firstborn son of Pharaoh anywhere He chose to do so, and the son did not have to be in Egypt at the time. Now, did He follow through in slaying the son at that inn? No! He sought to kill him, which in Hebrew “sought” also means “desired”. Wherefore, God’s desire to kill him was evident, but the actual act of killing had to wait until later, after which God’s intentions were passed on to Pharaoh.

God also had to fulfill His judgments He set out to pass upon the Egyptians, and before the sight of Pharaoh, that he and all of Egypt would know that He was GOD! Again, all these things had to come to pass, as God wished, before the slaying of Pharaoh’s son with the tenth plague. God will never cut short what He intends to do, and He was not about to start at that inn simply because He had his firstborn in His sights.

In summary, God promises to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son in vs. 23. Immediately after, God meets up with the son and His desire to kill him is expressed. This narrative makes perfect sense, especially when keeping vs. 24 in the same section with vs. 23. If we just take scripture as it is written without chopping it up and overthinking it, it is easy to see that God’s perfect Word gives us all we need for a full understanding of the story.

The Circumcision

The theory of why God sought to kill Moses is grossly flawed and erroneous. The true punishment surrounding circumcision is found back in Genesis 17:47. It is the male CHILD who suffers the consequences of breaking God’s covenant, not the child’s father. The punishment consists of banishment from the Abrahamic Covenant, and nowhere is death included.

Where did all the theologians, scholars, and everyone else who believe that God wanted to KILL Moses in relation to circumcision come up with a death sentence if they have familiarized themselves with God’s Law in Exodus? If death is not an option in the Law, this also proves that it was not Moses that God was after.

Furthermore, I may not be a theologian, but seems that God would have had a discussion with Moses on such a paramount topic prior to choosing him to complete the assignment. Would God have commanded him to meet Pharaoh, performing signs and wonders, and speak on His behalf if he was in such great sin to begin with? Would God have decided to kill him only after he set forth to Egypt – and suddenly and without any warning? If you have read about the favor God had with this man, as well as their intimate relationship, this goes against the very character of God concerning Moses.

Listen, I find they are grasping for answers that just do not fit in scripture. They are trying to squeeze orange juice from a turnip to fit their theory. This is a guessing game for them, and God is not in the business of playing games. With that, the second question on my list asking how would this circumcision stop God from killing Moses has been answered. To sum it up …IT NEVER DID!

 Why Did Zipporah Perform the Circumcision?

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We jump from the inn, to a new episode where Zipporah took a stone, circumcised her son, then threw the foreskin at Moses’ feet. If God’s desire was to kill Moses because of his sin, why would she, a non-Hebrew at that, performed the procedure?

Many of us have seen or know how a circumcision is done. It is not void of trauma, as the pain is excruciating. Unless an infant, those in need of it are put to sleep in this day. The infant only experiences the rush of pain once the skin has been cut off and the clamp that compressed his penis causing numbness is released. Rightfully so, the infant instantly goes into a crying fit for a time. Back then, even infants were traumatized without the luxuries we have today.

Imagine being back in Old Testament times. It was anything but an environment we would see fit for this event. To make matters worse, their son was no longer an infant or young child for that matter, but a grown boy by that time. There is not a person on this planet who could keep still for such a brutal procedure – yes, it was brutal, and done with a sharp STONE. A big rock plucked off the ground, unsterile and maybe rinsed off with some water.

Zipporah did not perform the circumcision to save Moses’ life, but because she would have never had the physical strength to hold her grown son still. Later I will discuss why I firmly believe it was Moses’ decision to get it done, and she did not choose this on her own accord. Moses’ strength was required to hold him down.  It would be impossible for Moses to hold him and do the procedure. This takes us to vs. 26 where it says, “So he let him go.” In other words, “So Moses let his son go.”

Again, in the context of the story this makes perfect sense. Recall how the NIV translators changed the words from the KJV to fit their narrative by writing, “So the LORD let him alone?” I said they needed to change the word “go” to “alone” since the original wording suggests that someone had to physically have a hold on someone in order to let them GO. Here is the answer to who was physically held down and who did the holding. Again, let’s turn to grammar. The antecedent to the pronoun “he” in vs. 26 is “bloody husband” following it.

As for why the direction of the narrative jumps from God seeking to kill the firstborn son of Pharaoh to the circumcision, the context of the story can help answer that too (context has played a big role throughout this article). Of course, I would never venture to say that there can be no other answer, but it is definitely a big probability when reading the entire story. If you have other suggestions, please feel free to share as I would love to hear your thoughts!

It is likely that Moses felt it urgent to circumcise his son solely because he had full knowledge of the judgments God would soon impose upon the Egyptians. God also promised judgement upon Pharaoh’s firstborn, and Moses also being a father, took that into consideration. For years he had yielded to his wife’s wishes to not circumcise since she was not as Israelite and her people did NOT take part in this practice.

You can bet that this played upon the thoughts and heart of Moses – especially because of the relationship between him and the Lord.

Before arriving to Egypt where he knew God’s judgement would be severe, he had to make sure that his son had entered into that covenant relationship spoken of in Genesis 17. He was securing the safety of his son and his position as part of God’s people. He could then ensure that none of the judgments to befall the Egyptians would affect his son whom he loved.

Whatever words were exchanged between husband and wife on this sensitive topic are not shown to us, but that does not mean there were none to be said. God shares only what He finds necessary in His Word. I imagine Moses finally putting his foot down and not taking no for an answer. Her reaction, clearly one of disgust and what I would argue as sarcasm, gives an idea of what that conversation must have been like.

Moses knew there was no other option, especially since punishment for non-circumcision fell upon the child. Moses had to step up as spiritual head, but also chief protector of his son since he was not under covenant and heading to a potentially dangerous situation. 

Why did Zipporah use the expression “bloody husband”?

In some versions, “bridegroom of blood” is used and means the same as “bloody husband”. Zipporah was a foreigner and was adamantly expressing her feelings about what she saw as a gruesome act.  To Moses and the rest traveling with him, it was a common covenant practice they were used to. They were also very familiar with blood sacrifice. She, on the other hand, likely had never witnessed such a traumatic, bloody religious practice as a non-Hebrew, or any religious practices involving blood. (Though circumcision was not a sacrifice but a covenant practice).

Think about what she witnessed for the first time, especially having to do it with her own hands. Put yourself in her position. She likely thought it to be inhumane after watching her own son have to endure such trauma. To her, it was nothing aside from cruel, heinous, and downright vile. As a foreigner, she did not partake of such customs. Her disposition on the matter conveyed an honest ignorance on her part and an outright lack of knowledge regarding God’s covenant of circumcision.

She first exclaimed, “Surely a bloody husband art thou to me” after throwing the foreskin at Moses’ feet. After Moses let him go, she again said, “A bloody husband art thou to me.” Both her words and actions suggest her immense displeasure with feelings of disgust, including a touch of sarcasm. Throwing the foreskin at his feet validate her attitude on the matter. Her overall reaction and statements further help verify my earlier thoughts that this was not something that she suddenly chose or wanted to do to save Moses, but instead was decided by Moses and we reviewed earlier why he needed her to do it.

Verse 26 tells us she used this expression because of the circumcision. She did not mean it literally of her husband, but rather metaphorically, or figuratively, relating to his spiritual beliefs and practices which includes a lot of blood. Too many have over-thought the meaning behind her statement instead of viewing it as the simple, straightforward meaning it is.

 Conclusion

There is much to be taken from all I have shared with you. Importantly, avoid allowing over-thinking and intellect to turn His Word into something so complex that the simplicity of the interpretation becomes lost. It gives the Lord pleasure for His people to understand what He has given us in His Word. That is for our benefit. Sure, there are great mysteries within it that our simple minds were not made to unlock while still on this earth. Granted, this is not one of those stories. As always, take everything to Him in prayer and test the Word. Chances are, if you spend time and effort in study, the answers are right before your eyes.

3 thoughts on “Biblical Controversy – The Gross Misinterpretation of Exodus 4

Add yours

  1. Wow! Fascinating is right! I didn’t even skim but read the whole thing. I never understood this passage and wasn’t satisfied with the answers about it. This makes total sense. Awesome job!

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  2. Thanks so much Angela G.!! I appreciate you taking the time to read it through, not missing a THING to help resolve the DECADES of misinterpreted scripture!! God is awesomely simplistic & we have to be willing to FOCUS on what we read & ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS to Him sometimes in order to understand what man has so greatly twisted UP through the years!! I love u and God bless!! ♥️

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