Circumcision of Moses's son

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The circumcision of Moses's son is a story from the Book of Exodus in which Moses's wife Zipporah performs an impromptu circumcision on their son in order to prevent Yahweh from murdering one of them. The strangeness of the passage has caused people to wonder about it for generations and religious scholars can't agree upon what the passage is supposed to mean, or what moral is supposed to be derived from it.

Source

The complete passage is found in Exodus 4:24-26.

Leningrad Codex (c. 1008 CE)

24. ויהי בדרך במלון ויפגשהו יהוה ויבקש המיתו׃
25. ותקח צפרה צר ותכרת את־ערלת בנה ותגע לרגליו ותאמר כי חתן־דמים אתה לי׃
26. וירף ממנו אז אמרה חתן דמים למולת׃ פ

King James Version (1611 CE)

24. And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. 25. 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. 26. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.

New International Version (1978 CE)

24. At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25. 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. 26. So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)

New Revised Standard Version (1989 CE)

24. On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. 25. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" 26. So he let him alone. It was then she said, "A bridegroom of blood by circumcision."

Dating

Since the segment only uses Yahweh, and Yahweh is an anthropomorphic being in the passage, this story is most likely from the J source as described in the Documentary Hypothesis, putting the origin of the written story anywhere from 900-700 BCE, although the oral story could be older.

Interpretations

Because this passage is so strange, a wide variety of interpretations have been made about it, none of which have any historical evidence.

Jewish

Traditionally, Jews claim that Moses failed to circumcise his son on the eighth day after his birth as per Abraham's covenant with Yahweh, so Yahweh was going to execute him as punishment for not observing his law. This isn't mentioned in Exodus, Jews fabricated the idea in order to make the story make sense to them. Over the years, rabbis have expanded on this idea greatly, even creating reasons for why Moses failed to circumcise his son, how Zipporah knew Yahweh would be sated with circumcision, and which of Moses's sons needed to be circumcised. None of their bizarre writings have any evidence at all.

Modern Scholarship

Without the fear of blasphemy charges against them, modern scholars are able to speak their minds freely about this passage, and many conclude that it is fragmentary, and, therefore, missing necessary information with which to interpret. While the may give their own opinion, they admit, no opinions carry much weight since the details of the story are now lost.

German orientalist Walter Beltz suggests an interesting version where Moses isn't in the scene at all, and all of the "his" pronouns refer to the son alone. Instead, Yahweh has come to take the first born son as a sacrifice, but his mother Zipporah uses his foreskin as a sacrifice and offers herself as a bride to Yahweh instead, thus saving her son.

Historical Evidence

There is no physical evidence that any of the events in the story took place, and there is no literary evidence beyond these three verses in Exodus with which to corroborate it.

Criticisms

Lack of continuity

One way to tell if a passage from an ancient manuscript is not genuine is based on its continuity with the surrounding passages. For example, Jesus and the Adulterous Woman in the Gospel of John lacks continuity, which makes sense because it is a later addition which doesn't exist in any of the earliest manuscripts. While no early manuscripts of Exodus have survived, we see discontinuity with this story. Prior to the passage, Yahweh is telling Moses what to say to Pharaoh, then Yahweh is trying to murder Moses, then Yahweh tells Aaron to meet with Moses where Moses tells Aaron what Yahweh told him. It certainly appears as though someone just shoved this story right in the middle of an existing narrative.

Subject confusion

The original Biblical Hebrew is quite vague. Even though most translations use Moses's name in this passage, twice in the NIV, the Hebrew doesn't mention his name at all and only uses pronouns, the English equivalent of "his." However, "his" also correctly applies to Moses's son and Yahweh. Because of this ambiguity, we don't know who Yahweh is trying to murder. Yahweh almost never punishes his chosen patriarchs in the Jewish bible regardless of how evil they are, but he frequently tortures or murders children for the mistakes of their fathers. Because of this fact, my bet is Yahweh is preparing to murder Moses's son. However, in every translation I've read, Moses is always the target. The NIV at least has the decency to include a footnote admitting the uncertainty. Also, when Zipporah slices off a part of her son's penis, she throws it as "his" feet. Here, the "his" could refer to Moses, Moses's son, or Yahweh's feet. Finally, the author doesn't specify who Zipporah is addressing when she calls him a "bridegroom of blood." It seems unlikely she's referring to her son, but this still leaves Yahweh or Moses as contenders.

There is an additional confusion about which of Moses's sons was circumcised. Moses has at least two sons at this point in the narrative, as noted in Exodus 4:20, but the passage doesn't say who gets cut.

Angels?

An inaccurate depiction.

Most art of this scene depicts an angel attacking Moses. In fact, if you were to read from the Greek Septuagint, or any Latin manuscripts based on it, the attacker is not Yahweh, but an angel (this happens in several other instances as well). However, the much older Hebrew sources clearly say Yahweh, not an angel, met him and intended to kill him. This alteration in the Septuagint was probably created as a way to fix a common biblical contradiction. In early passages of the Torah, Yahweh is frequently described as walking and talking with people directly, but in later passages, the Torah says nobody can ever see Yahweh. Thus, any time scripture says Yahweh interacted with people, Christians claim it was actually an angel, and the art is depicted with such a justification.

Adaptions

Comics

In 2011, the Blasphemer's Bible depicted the story from Exodus and added commentary in comic 497.

Links

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