The LORD met Moses and was about to kill him.
Much of the Bible provides easy access to great truth that can sustain us in our daily walk with God. We can join the praises of Psalm 100, take great encouragement from the magnificent opening section of Ephesians 1, or find empathy with the struggles of the midwives in Exodus 1.
But often these passages take on a whole new significance when we put them into their context. Take, for example, the prophet Jeremiah who lived in a time when everything was going wrong for God’s people. Born in the reign of Manessah, the king who stuck Isaiah in a hollow tree and sawed him in half. Knowing that generation after generation had turned from God, and gradually thrown away His promises. Watching the glorious victories and quiet acts of faith of some of the Bible’s greatest heroes all going up in smoke.
Into this desperation, isolation, and sense of abandonment, God speaks one of the most quoted promises of the Bible, Jeremiah 29: For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’. These words are greatly encouraging in their own right. But when we realise the context into which they were spoken, they speak even more powerfully of the faithfulness of God to bless us in the darkest of times.
But the Bible doesn’t always give up its treasures quite so easily. It’s about real life, and real life is messy. Sometimes we find ourselves up against passages which on first reading seem to make no sense at all. Exodus chapter 4, starting at verse 18, is one such passage.
So, first the context: God has chosen Moses to be His main man in leading the Israelites out of captivity, and Moses is heading back to Egypt to do the business. Then, with no warning, we find ourselves hit between the eyes with not just one, but four separate puzzles:
- Mystery #1. God announces his intention to harden Pharaoh’s heart (whatever happened to free will?)
- Mystery #2. God threatens to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son (why would a God of love do this?)
- Mystery #3. God nearly kills Moses (why kill Moses having gone to all the hassle of the burning bush, miraculous signs, and lengthy discussion?)
- Mystery #4. God doesn’t kill Moses (does God change his mind?)
So what do we do with a passage that seems quite as bonkers as this one?
If in doubt, ask for help: pray that God will give you understanding, and try to find a wise friend. Then, start to read around the passage – what else has happened before, what’s coming next? Look for patterns or ideas that seem familiar from other parts of the Bible –there’s a good chance such patterns will be deliberate. And put yourself in the shoes of the people involved – imagine what the experiences and the decisions would have been like, and how you might cope in the same circumstances.
Making sense of it
What does this look like applied to Exodus 4? I won’t try to solve all the mysteries here (mainly because I can’t!), but will try to shed some light on mystery #3 – why did God nearly kill Moses? I do also have a brief, hopefully helpful, thought on mystery #1, which I’ve shared in separate blog.
There are two important words that jump out as keys to unlocking this passage:
- Firstborn. In Old Testament times, a special significance was given to all firstborn – of people and of animals. They were thought of as being the most valuable offspring, and a sign of many more blessings to follow. We see this in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 when God looks with favour on Abel’s offering – the firstborn of his flock. But that’s not all: the firstborn is also seen as a representative of the family. In Exodus 13 God explains to Moses how every firstborn should be dedicated to Him, as a reminder of the things God has done for the people. And of course, in Exodus 4 (verse 22), God describes the whole of Israel as being His firstborn. They were His chosen representative of all humanity, chosen to receive blessing and to be a forerunner of even greater blessings to come.
- Circumcision. In Genesis 17 God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a nation, inheritors of a land of their own, and set apart as the favoured people of God. He also says that an outward sign of being part of God’s people, and inheritors of these promises, should be for every male child to be circumcised. This was to be the sign of obedience and loyalty to God.
If we put these two things together, we start to get a bit of an idea why God reacted in such an extreme way to Moses. It turns out he hadn’t circumcised his firstborn son: in other words, Moses had not entrusted his family to God. Having grown up in privilege in the house of Pharaoh, apart from the rest of his people, now God was calling Moses to take on the role of leading those people out of slavery. Outwardly it seems that he was being obedient. But by not committing his family to God, he was still separating himself out from God’s people and doing things his own way. Perhaps in Moses’ heart there was still a sense of clinging on to that old life, and not fully submitting himself to God’s purposes.
It’s a challenge to us – in many ways we can be outward Christians, doing the right things. But are there tell-tale signs that perhaps we’re still clinging on to our own ways? This could be to do with our families and the decisions we take for them, or little clues in the way we organise and prioritise our lives. Perhaps the giveaway is how we talk behind closed doors, how we think and act when no one’s watching, or in the attitudes of our hearts. As we can see from Exodus 4, God takes these little details of our lives seriously.
From the Old to the New
But the treasures in this passage run deeper still. The ideas in the Old Testament surrounding the words firstborn and circumcision take on a whole new meaning in the New Testament in light of Jesus. And the book of Romans is an excellent place to discover more…
Romans 8 in particular is incredible. In verses 28-31 we read that Jesus is the new firstborn of God, fulfilling the purposes that began with the nation Israel. He is the new representative of a new family of God, but not only that, he is also the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. We can become adopted into this family, with Jesus as the best big brother ever, sharing in the blessings and the inheritance from our Daddy God in heaven (see verses 14-17).
So what do we have to do to become members of this amazing heavenly family, and – crucially – does it involve a surgical knife? Fortunately, Romans can answer this too, and it’s a resounding no! In chapter 2:28-29 and chapter 3:28-30 we find out that what matters now is an inward change, described as being like a ‘circumcision of the heart’. The sign that we’re called to take on is faith: in Jesus as Lord of our lives; our firstborn older brother who has set a pattern of love, humility and obedience in the spirit of God for us to follow.
And it this that enables Paul, the writer of Romans, to go on to say these famous words: I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So where does that leave us with the mysteries of Exodus 4? Our vicar at Warfield, Mark Griffiths, recently described how we don’t do theology in a bubble. Reading the Bible cannot just be an intellectual exercise: it must go hand in hand with an ongoing process of getting to know God, and of testing against our experiences of the world. This is never more true when we face difficult passages like this one. Sometimes we have to wrestle with the words on the page, solving their mysteries only gradually over time. It can be like reading someone else’s diary – the better you know the person, the more it will make sense. And sometimes reading the Bible must itself be an act of faith: that God is bigger than us, and so there will always be things we find hard to understand.
The Bible is full of untold treasures and gems of hope and truth. In parts uncovering these treasures is like strolling across a sunny spring meadow, rushing excitedly from one revelation to another. But many of the richest treasures are only uncovered by digging below the surface, and struggling between some fairly large boulders that stand our way. This can be hard work, but is well worth it.
This blog post first appeared as a sermon at the Bullbrook congregation of Warfield Church. For more information visit www.warfield.org.uk