Friday, January 23, 2015

About the troubling time when God was going to kill Moses

golden wood

Do you remember ever hearing a lesson on the end of Exodus 4? I've wracked my brain. You would think that Moses was somehow miraculously transported from Mount Horeb to the banks of the Nile because there's this tricky un-churchy Exodus 4:18-31 passage in between.

     Moses asks Jethro for permission to go back to check on his family in Egypt. He packs up his wife and sons on a donkey (more on that in a moment), and then this: v.24 At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. 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. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)

    And now back to your regularly scheduled programing.

    What-the-what? Where was this musical number in The Prince of Egypt? I find the stories people leave out at church really interesting. I started working on digesting this one months ago when I was lesson planning for junior church. We are studying theophanies and meetings with God looking at his character, and this episode is enigmatical and chilling, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was important.

     Why was God going to kill Moses? Why was the solution the circumcision of his son? Why only one son, when it mentions that two sons got on the donkey? Why, I reiterate, was God going to kill Moses? What was that like?

    This is one of the stories that give people theological whiplash. How can a God of love just up and decide to kill his servant, who was on his way to do his bidding? When I shared this story with a group of kids they all erupted in "That's not fair!!!" No one quibbles when Zeus does this sort of thing, but then again no one is asking you to believe in Zeus today. Why the sphinx-like enigma? How can we reconcile this story to Jesus?

    Here is what we can see in the story: God's action was not capricious or secret, because obedience changed his course. At least Zipporah knew what was up, because her decisive action saved her husband's life.

     Over 400 years earlier God established the covenant of circumcision with Abraham in Genesis 17. As a sign of the covenant where God promised to be with Abraham's descendants and give them the land of Canaan, Abraham's family would circumcise every male in their households. Blood set them apart and joined them together. Every male who was uncircumcised in the flesh would be "cut off" from his people and God's promise. In that paradoxical way the Bible has, it was a wound that symbolically joined and healed a family into the body of God's people, while remaining in the natural physical state "cut" one from the promise and the people. The thing is that every generation decided for their children and gave them the heritage of faith. Moses had the heritage, but he had not prepared to pass it on to his sons.

    As a side note, there are a few possible explanations, but I believe only one of his sons was born at this point. Only one is named in Exodus 2:22, Gershom, or "an alien there," and only one is circumcised in the course of the story. Perhaps the other child was in utero. Poor Zipporah!

    The name Gershom highlights a major feature of Moses' life: His alienation. He did not live like one of his people, and at the same time he was not fully of the palace. He was not just an alien when he fled to Midian as a murderer, but practically from the moment he was born by virtue of his dual life as a slave child and royalty. Moses' guilty flight to Midian was but one escalation in an identity crisis that here reaches as much denouement as can be expected in non-fiction. Was he Hebrew, Egyptian, or Midianite? Who would his children be? Moses' indecision for his children exposed the state of his own heart– the part his own parents couldn't choose for him. He was reluctantly pursuing his commission to Egypt, but his non-decision for his children was a decision in itself. Moses was not "all in."

    If there is one thing God hasn't got patience for, it's making a lifestyle out of keeping your options open. Let me rephrase that and call it "lukewarm," and you will know exactly what I am about to quote next. Revelation 3:14-15,19-20 "...These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm––Neither hot nor cold––I am about to spit you out of my mouth... Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me."
As pet owners can relate to, God is not willing to let us stand on the threshold forever. At some point he is going to shut the door.

    God's character in Exodus and his character in Revelation correlating is not so surprising. Both have a dark reputation. What about Jesus, though? The popular vision of Jesus is namby-pamby or mystical. That's where I would turn to Mark 11. The day after Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem as a king, he was on his way back into Jerusalem to clear the temple, and he saw a fig tree in leaf. I am no expert in fig trees, but I am told that if there are leaves, there should be figs. So the tree was advertising fruit, but not bearing any, and Jesus cursed it. Whoa, there Jesus! Somebody needs their breakfast right? Talk about hangry! By the next morning the tree was dead, and it seems somewhat shocking! It's actually a picture Jesus used quite a bit in his teaching, it wasn't a new symbol for him, or for John the Baptist for that matter. It wasn't about breakfast. They both said that when someone makes a faith claim, check the fruit. In an arid climate there is no room, no time, no water for a tree that doesn't bear fruit, and good fruit at that. They both warned that a branch or tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire. Keep in mind that this story book-ends clearing the temple, where Jesus used a whip to chase vendors and money changers out of the temple courts. Their fruit wasn't living up to their claims! You can fool yourself into thinking that you are doing God's will, but God always knows when your fingers are crossed.

    Going back to Zipporah's story in Exodus, it was Moses who sinned, Moses who was going to die, and his wife Zipporah who dramatically saved him. I don't know how stepping out in faith for others works. It seems to generally be a difficult and/or messy business (Exodus 4:24-26, Matthew 17:14-23, Mark 2:1-12). We don't even know how Zipporah felt about this episode, because the statement "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," could really depend on the flash in the eye and tone of voice. Check me on this, but she doesn't sound enthused to me. But she did it. She fought for her husband, she viscerally overcame in faith and in action to save her family. What is so encouraging to me about this is not only that she succeeded, but that she is tired. There is unrealistic pressure on women in the church to be preternaturally cheerful about hard things sometimes. Christian radio makes things sound so chirpy. Who am I to say you can't do tough things with a smile on your face? It's just nice to have permission in the form of a Biblical example to be honest, to be grim even, if that's where you are at. For all of our sakes let's not stay there in that feeling, but acknowledge the weariness when it comes. Unless I can acknowledge that I am not enough to rescue my family with one hand tied behind my back, I cannot admit that I need Jesus for this.

    God was not going to kill Moses because of the state of his son's body, but because Moses was not circumcised in heart. Moses spoke to the people of Israel later about a new kind of circumcision in Deuteronomy 30:6 "The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live."

    In the words of a perceptive seven-year-old "Moses wasn't sure what team he was on" and that will always cost you your life whether God takes it or you fritter it away. Like Moses, though, we find ourselves unable to obey, unable to be "all in" of our own strength. We all need a Zipporah whose righteousness can stand in the gap, but you know and I know that we are not enough. We need someone bigger. Stronger. More righteous. We need Jesus, bridegroom to the church, whose blood truly is enough.  


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