When trying to comprehend the incident at the inn, commentators find themselves in a quandary. On one hand, the verse appears to say that Hashem sought to kill Moshe or his son, implying that there was some serious transgression. But on the other hand, the text contains little hint of any such wrongdoing, and attributing a terrible deed to Moshe would make him unworthy of being God's messenger. The exegete is thus left in a Catch-22, as the more defensible one tries to make Moshe's actions, the less justified Hashem's appear to be, and vice versa.
The most prevalent approach suggests that Moshe is in fact being punished for some sin. Tannaitic sources, working backwards from the circumcision at the story's conclusion, suggest that Moshe must have been lax in circumcising his son. Some attempt to minimize Moshe's guilt by explaining that there was merely a slight delay due to the journey, and R. Saadia even casts off all responsibility from Moshe by positing that he was not present for the entire episode. In contrast, R. Elazar HaModai tries to find a crime more befitting Hashem's harsh response, and he proposes that Moshe has sealed a pact with Yitro that one of his sons would never be circumcised.
Others look instead to the larger backdrop of our story, suggesting that such a severe Divine reaction must have resulted from issues with Moshe's national mission which had much more global ramifications. These exegetes need to explain why the seemingly unrelated circumcision served to quiet Hashem's anger. Rashbam explains that Moshe tarried in carrying out his mission, and that the circumcision was an atoning sacrifice. Ibn Ezra views Moshe's bringing his family along, not as a sin, but rather a tactical error which could potentially demoralize the nation. Hashem's reaction was thus intended only to rectify this error and ensure that the family stayed behind. Finally, Ibn Kaspi suggests that there was no sin or even an error on Moshe's part; it was just that Moshe's great anxiety from the daunting mission caused him to become gravely ill.
In assessing Moshe's actions and Hashem's reaction in this episode, commentators offer a spectrum of approaches. These can be divided into three main categories:
Sin and Punishment
Either Moshe or Zipporah sinned and was deserving of punishment. The commentators propose different possibilities as to the nature of the misconduct:
Moshe or Zipporah sinned by not circumcising one of their sons. The obvious motivation for this approach is that circumcision is what averts the crisis.1 The variations of this position differ as to why the circumcision had not yet been performed:
Moshe Delayed Because of the Journey
This is perhaps the most straightforward reading of the text as it requires making the least additional assumptions. However, it encounters difficulty in justifying the severity of the punishment.
Zipporah Delayed Because of the Journey
Moshe was not present at the inn, and Zipporah bore full responsibility for the entire episode. This position also does not explain the need for such a dramatic punishment.
Pact with Yitro to Not Circumcise
- Midrash Vayosha says that Moshe actually had no intention of keeping his side of the bargain. Thus, as soon as Eliezer was born, he left for Egypt, planning to circumcise the boy there.29
- It is possible that Moshe, having found refuge from Paroh in Yitro's home, had no choice but to accept the conditions set by Yitro or find himself once again on the run.30
- One must also consider the possibility that at this stage of our story, having grown up in Paroh's palace, Moshe's Jewish identity was not fully developed, and he had no qualms about accepting Yitro's request. For more, see Moshe's Character.31
- R. Elazar HaModai notes that the Biblical derivation of Gershom's name ("גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה") alludes to being "foreign to God."
- R. Elazar HaModai understands "וַיּוֹאֶל מֹשֶׁה לָשֶׁבֶת אֶת הָאִישׁ" in Shemot 2:21 as a language of oath-taking.
- Chazal's identification of the idolatrous priest of Shofetim 18:20 as Moshe's grandson.33
- Gershom – R. Elazar HaModai in the Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael, Targum Yerushalmi (Yonatan).35 R. Elazar HaModai's choice of Gershom rather than Eliezer appears to be motivated by the Torah's derivations of the two names.36 Additionally, Eliezer has not yet been mentioned explicitly,37 and the context of "בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ" may tip the scales toward Gershom.
- Eliezer – Midrash Aggadah and Midrash Vayosha.38 Their choice of Eliezer explains why Moshe was punished only at the inn, and not already at the time of Gershom's birth.39
Moshe tarried in executing his mission to redeem the Israelites.45 This approach must explain how the circumcision of Moshe's son fixed the situation.
- Lodging at the inn46 – Midrash Yelamedeinu and Midrash Aggadah (Buber) say that Moshe procrastinated by staying at the inn.47 This approach likely understands "בַּמָּלוֹן" as an actual guest lodge and not just any place where Moshe pitched a tent for the night.48
- Bringing his family with him to Egypt – Rashbam49 and the Tzeror HaMor suggest that Moshe taking his family caused unnecessary delay.50
- According to Rashbam, the circumcision functioned as some form of sacrifice52 to appease the angel who was trying to kill Moshe.53
- R. Avraham Ibn Daud says that the drawing of blood can have an astrological influence and save people who are in life threatening danger.54
- The Tzeror HaMor, on the other hand, maintains that Moshe rectified his mistake by hurrying off to Egypt and leaving Zipporah with their sons at the inn.55 The account of the circumcision, according to him, is wholly unconnected to either the sin or punishment.56
- Alternatively, Moshe's procrastination was a sign of his lack of identity with his Jewish brothers; performing the circumcision actively showed his connection to his people.57
Error of Judgment and Corrective Action
Moshe erred in planning to bring his family to Egypt, and the circumcision of Moshe's son prevented the implementation of this plan.
- Ibn Ezra70 and R. Yosef Kimchi71 suggest that it could have demoralized the Israelites in Egypt72 by causing them to believe that Moshe was merely coming to live with his family in Egypt and that the redemption was not imminent.73
- Shadal posits that Hashem was concerned that Zipporah and Gershom would dissuade Moshe from his dangerous mission out of their fears that Paroh would kill him.74
There was neither a sin nor a punishment.82 The near death experience was simply the natural result of the circumstances in which Moshe found himself.
Moshe's anxiety at having to confront Paroh and warn him of his son's impending death made Moshe himself gravely ill.