Who, What, and Why?
The episode described in Shemot 4:24-26 is one of the most enigmatic stories in Torah. As Moshe travels from Midyan to Egypt to begin his mission, the family stops at a lodging place and trouble strikes:
(כד) וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ בַּמָּלוֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ י"י וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ. (כה) וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת עׇרְלַת בְּנָהּ וַתַּגַּע לְרַגְלָיו וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי חֲתַן דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי. (כו) וַיִּרֶף מִמֶּנּוּ אָז אָמְרָה חֲתַן דָּמִים לַמּוּלֹת.
(24) And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. (25) Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.' (26) So He let him alone. Then she said: 'A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.'
Filled with ambiguous pronouns, difficult phrases and an unknown backdrop, these verses hide more than they reveal, raising a host of questions:
- Who is in danger of being killed, Moshe or one of his sons (and, if a son, which one)?
- Is Gershom or Eliezer the son who is being circumcised? Why had he not been circumcised until now? Why is it Zipporah rather than Moshe who performs the circumcision,1 how does she know to do it, and why is circumcision the solution to the problem?
- What do the phrases כִּי חֲתַן דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי and חֲתַן דָּמִים לַמּוּלֹת mean? To whom is Zipporah referring, and what does she intend by her words?
- Finally, the most troubling question of all, why would Hashem want to kill anyone, let alone His trusted servant Moshe whom He has just entrusted with the most important mission in the history of mankind?2
A Prophetic Interruption
The immediate context of our story raises additional difficulties. Shemot 4:18-20 introduce Moshe's journey back to Egypt, and our episode would seem to be the logical continuation of these verses. Yet, the intervening verses of 4:21-23 appear to suddenly switch gears, recounting how Hashem told Moshe of Paroh's looming obstinacy and commanded him to relay a warning to Paroh about the Plague of the Firstborn. The placement of this prophecy is puzzling as Hashem has previously given Moshe much of this information, and the warning seems somewhat premature as Paroh has not yet been approached. These difficulties make one wonder whether the prophecy has some other meaning or purpose and to what extent it is connected to the mysterious events at the inn.