Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1

Moses at the Burning Bush,
by Rembrandt

Moses’ quiet life as a shepherd for a band of Midianites ends when he sees a bush that keeps burning without being consumed.  When Moses comes closer, God speaks to him and gives him a mission:  to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go.

Moses tries five times to refuse the job.  (See next week’s post, Shemot & Va-eira: Uncircumcised, Part 2.)  But God will not let him get out of it.  Finally Moses gives up, takes the flock home, and gets permission from his father-in-law to go to Egypt.

As soon as he leaves, God speaks again, warning him that despite the miracles to come, Pharaoh will not let set the Israelites free to worship their own god.

“Then you shall say to Pharaoh: Thus said God: My firstborn son is Israel.  And I say to you: Let my son go, and he will serve Me—[or] hey, I will be slaying your firstborn son!”  (Exodus/Shemot 4:22-23)

God has plans for the Pharaoh and Egypt that include the tenth plague, “death of the firstborn”.  God creates this miracle in the Torah portion Bo, and Pharaoh’s firstborn son dies.  But why does God give this information to Moses in Shemot (“Names”, the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot)?

The sudden focus on firstborn sons comes after Moses leaves for Egypt with his wife and two sons, and immediately before a mysterious passage in this week’s Torah portion that commentators call the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode.

Moses, Tzipporah, and sons,
Rylands Haggadah

On the way, at a lodging-place, God met him and sought to put him to death.  And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his raglayim, and she said: “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!”  And it/he desisted from him.  That was when she said: “A bridegroom of bloodshed by the circumcision”.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)

raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet, pair of legs; a euphemism for genitals.

God is uncharacteristically silent in this brief, spooky tale.  And the language is so ambiguous, the only clear information is that one of Moses and Tzipporah’s two sons still has a foreskin, and she circumcises him.

Which son is uncircumcised? 

The birth of Moses and Tzipporah’s first son was reported earlier in this week’s Torah portion:

She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Geirshom, for he said: “A geir I have been in a foreign land.”  (Exodus 2:22)

Geirshom (גֵּרְשֹׁם) = a name used for three men in the Hebrew Bible.1  Moses says he chose the name because it combines two words:

geir (גֵּר) = stranger, resident alien.

sham (שָׁם) = there.

Moses and Tzipporah’s second son is not mentioned until after the Israelites have left Egypt and are near Mount Sinai.  Then Moses’ father-in-law arrives, bringing Tzipporah—

And her two sons, of whom the name of one was Geirshom, because he said “Geir I have been in a foreign land,” and the name of the other was Eliezer, because “Eli of my father was my ezer and rescued me from the sword of Pharaoh.”  (Exodus 18:3-4)

Eliezer (אֱלִיעֶזֶר) = a name used for at least eight men in the Hebrew Bible.2  The name combines two words:

eli (אֱלִי) = my God.

ezer (עֶזֶר) = help, aid.

This is the first time in the book that a second son is mentioned.3  When was Eliezer born and named?  Moses sends Tzipporah and their son(s) back to his wife’s father, Yitro (Jethro), after the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode, and before Moses and Aaron meet near Egypt proper.  He does not see his wife again until Yitro brings her to him in Sinai, along with both sons.  A consistent story requires that Moses named Eliezer before he left for Egypt.

When his second son was born, Moses must have been remembering his youth in Egypt, including his Hebrew parents, his adoption, the death sentence Pharaoh imposed on him when he was a young man, and his flight to Midian.4  Pharaoh’s gods would not have helped him, nor would the Midianite gods he had never worshiped.  So, I imagine, Moses credits his parents’ God with helping him escape.  Given Eliezer’s name, it is reasonable to assume that he then circumcises the infant in honor of the God of his parents.

But the name Geirshom has no reference to God.  Moses feels rootless and alienated when he names his first son, perhaps even alienated from his parents’ God. The name Geirshom and the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene inspired a pre-Talmudic story that Moses and his Midianite father-in-law agreed that Moses’ first son would not be circumcised.5

It makes sense that Moses’ firstborn son, Geirshom, is the uncircumcised one.

Whom did God seek to put to death?

Did God seek to kill Moses, or his uncircumcised son?  In the Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 32a, two rabbis gave two different opinions.  Rabbi Shimon b. Gamaliel said the “satan”, the spiritual adversary, came to kill the boy who was uncircumcised.  Rabbi Yehudah b. Bizna said God sent two angels of death to swallow up Moses because he had neglected to circumcise his son.  Moses could hardly represent God in Egypt when he had left his own firstborn son outside the covenant between God and the Israelites.

Commentators are still divided on the question of whom God sought to kill.  One theory is that the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene foreshadows God’s announcement in Exodus 12:7 and 12:12-13 that when the tenth and final miracle arrives, “the destroyer” will strike down the firstborn son of everyone in Egypt—except the Hebrews who have painted lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses.6  The act of painting blood on the doorways resembles the circumcision in the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene—as long as it is Moses’ uncircumcised son Geirshom whom God intends to kill on the way to Egypt.

However, I think God seeks to put Moses to death, because in the verses immediately preceding the “Bridegroom of Blood” scene, God is addressing Moses.  No other male is mentioned between verse 23 and verse 24.

And there is another reason for God to attack Moses.  In next week’s post, Shemot & Va-eira: Uncircumcised, Part 2, I will explore God’s anger at the man God has chosen as a prophet.

The God-character in the Torah is, after all, an anthropomorphic version of second Isaiah’s God:

            Forming light and creating darkness,

            Making peace and creating evil,

            I, God, do all these.  (Isaiah 45:7)

God gives with one “hand” and takes away with the other.  It is up to us human beings to find meaning in the twists of our life stories.

  1. The name Geirshom refers to the firstborn son of Moses and Tzipporah in Exodus 2:22 and 18:3, Judges 18:30, and 1 Chronicles 23:15-16 and 26:24. It is used for a son of Pinchas/Phineas in Ezra 8:2, and for a son of Levi in 1 Chronicles chapter 6.
  2. The first Eliezer in the bible is Abraham’s steward in Genesis 15:2. Moses’ son Eliezer is mentioned in Exodus 18:4 and 1 Chronicles chapter 23.  At least six other men named Eliezer appear in Ezra 8:16, 10:18, 10:31, and 10:23; 1 Chronicles 7:8, 15:24, 26:25, and 27:16; and 2 Chronicles 20:37.
  3. Modern biblical scholarship explains that a redactor combined two or more accounts of the exodus: one (sometimes called J) in which Moses and Tzipporah have only one son, and another (sometimes called E) in which they have two sons.
  4. Exodus 2:11-15.
  5. Jethro said to him: ‘The son that is born to you first will be given over to idolatry [and hence will not be circumcised]; those born thereafter can be given to the worship of [your] God.’ He accepted the condition … For that reason did the angel seek to kill Moses at the inn, whereupon “Zipporah took a flint and cut the foreskin of her son.”  (James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible, Free Press, New York, 2007, p. 219, translation from Mekhilta de R. Ishmael, Yitro.)

At this point, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro is still a Midianite priest, and might well want his grandson to worship the gods of Midian.  (It is an unrealistic detail, however, for Yitro to call his own religion “idolatry”!)

  1. For example, see Serge Frolov, “A Murderous Bridegroom”, in



3 thoughts on “Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1

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