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The tale of Zipporah at the inn, is one of the more unusual, curious, and much-debated, passages of the Torah.
When Moses and Zipporah reach an inn:
the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 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. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision
- -Exodus 4:24b-26
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The text is particularly ambiguous, using pronouns multiple times, without ever identifying which of the three individuals of Moses, God (the LORD), and Moses and Zipporah's son Gershom, is being referred to by each instance. The prior verses only describe the words that Moses is commanded to say to the Pharaoh, and consequently are not of much assistance. There are two main solutions:
- Since the prior passage concerning the message to the Pharaoh refers to the Pharaoh's firstborn son, God could be concerned that Moses' firstborn son may not have been circumcised. Zipporah realised this, and consequently circumcised her son, saving the life of the one whom God sought to kill (whether Moses or his son).
- As Moses was brought up as an Egyptian, he may not have been circumcised, and God consequently took offence, now that Moses was appointed. Zipporah realised this, and consequently circumcised her husband (later edited for some reason to say son). This also explains Zipporah's remark - Moses had literally become a bloody husband, because of the circumcision.
While the passage is frequently interpreted as referring to Gershom, Moses' firstborn, being circumcised, the Midrash actually states that the passage was, at that time, considered instead to refer to Eliezer, Moses' other son.
Cause of God's desire to kill Moses
Most solutions to the meaning of the text do not explain why, after having calmly told Moses to return to Egypt now that it was safe to do so, and after having calmly told Moses what to say to the Pharaoh, God should abruptly seek to kill Moses. In classical times, those such as Rabbi El'azar ha-Moda'i said that Jethro had placed an additional condition on the marriage between his daughter and Moses - that the firstborn son of Jethro would be given over to idolatry (presumably Jethro would be more likely to use a phrase of the form my Midianite religion) - and thus explaining why Moses was viewed negatively by God. One Midrashic interpretation is that, while God allowed Moses to put off circumsizing his son until they reached Egypt, rather than weaken him before the journey, Moses did not hasten to perform the task as soon as possible after he had arrived.
Given the abrupt change in many of these interpretations, several critical scholars have suggested that this passage, usually considered under the documentary hypothesis to belong to the Jahwist, may have originally contained additional verses, toward the beginning of the tale, which have since become excised for an unknown reason. Such verses would be expected to explain the reason for God's anger.
The Septuagint version is subtly different
- the angel of the LORD met him, and sought to kill him....
"Angel" (gr.,"angelos") is the translation throughout the Septuagint of the Hebrew "mal'ak", the term for the manifestation of God to humanity. (It is the mal'ak that speaks to Moses from the burning bush). So it is implied in this passage that it is God (God) himself who attempts to kill Moses.
The version in the Book of Jubilees (usually considered non-canonical, but nevertheless dating from the second century BC and presented as a direct revelation "to" Moses from an Angel) is yet different still. It absolves God by attributing the attempted murder to Prince Mastema, a title that was another name for Satan:
... and what Prince Mastema desired to do with you when you returned to Egypt, on the way when you met him at the shelter. Did he not desire to kill you with all of his might and save the Egyptians from your hand because he saw that you were sent to execute judgment and vengeance upon the Egyptians? And I delivered you from his hand and you did the signs and wonders which you were sent to perform in Egypt. - Jubilees 48:2-4