Moses flees Egypt in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot, because he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew man.1 He returns to Egypt as God’s prophet, but the new pharaoh responds to his request by increasing the work of the Israelite slaves.2
In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“And I appeared”), Moses tries to convince the Israelite slaves that God really has sent him to liberate them. But they are unable to listen, because they are short of breath (or spirit) from their hard labor.3 When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh again, he balks, saying:
“Hey! The Israelites would not listen to me, so how would Pharaoh listen? And my lips are aral!” (Exodus 6:12)
aral (עָרַל) = uncircumcised, possessing a foreskin.
Power of Speech
Moses expresses the problem more literally in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot. When he sees the burning bush, he notices something numinous that others might overlook—a fire that burns but does not consume—and he steps closer to it. So God speaks to the potential prophet and orders him to return to Egypt and demand that the pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go free to worship their own god.
But Moses is unwilling to accept the job. He tries to turn down his mission five times, and each time God answers his objection.4 For his fourth attempt to excuse himself, Moses says he is the wrong man for the job because he is not a good speaker.
And Moses said to God: “Excuse me, my lord, I have not been a man of words, yesterday, nor the day before, nor earlier than when you spoke to your servant; for I am kaveid of peh and kaveid of lashon.” (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)
kaveid (כָּבֵד) = (When used as an adjective for a body part): heavy, dull, hard, insensitive, clumsy. (When used as an adjective for a person): honored, impressive, oppressive.
peh (פֶּה) = mouth; statement, spoken command.
lashon (לָשׁוֹן) = tongue; language.
A kaveid mouth and tongue are like aral lips. Some thickness, covering, or blockage prevents Moses from speaking effectively.
Moses could merely be making another desperate excuse to avoid the mission in Egypt. But since he claims his lips are aral in the portion Va-eira, after he is already in Egypt, he must be truly blocked, either physically or psychologically.
Commentators have proposed that Moses has a speech impediment or stutter5, that he has forgotten the Egyptian language6, and that he lacks the enthusiastic dedication to be eloquent enough to persuade anyone.7
In the Torah, circumcision of the foreskin is not just the removal of a covering, but a sign of consecration to God’s covenant with the people of Israel.8 The symbol of a man’s power in the Torah is a staff. Circumcision dedicates a male’s power to God.
I think Moses feels powerless in both Shemot and Va-eira because he has had no authority to speak. When he is accused of murder in Egypt, he flees instead of defending himself. Then he serves for decades as a shepherd under the Midianite priest Jethro/Yitro, and defers to his authority. Moses has been silent so long that his mouth, tongue, and lips feel too heavy to move.
Furthermore, he has never spoken as a Hebrew or Israelite before. Once he was weaned, he lived in the Egyptian court as the adopted son of a pharaoh’s daughter. He arrived in Midianite territory as an Egyptian, and married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Only at the burning bush does Moses discover the God of his ancestors.
When Moses pleads that his mouth and tongue are too kaveid to speak well, God replies:
“Who puts the peh in humankind, or who appoints the dumb or the deaf, the clear-sighted or the blind? Is it not I, God? Now go, and I myself will be with your peh and I will instruct you what you shall speak!”
But he said: “Excuse me, my lord, please send by the hand of whom you will send!” And God burned in anger against Moses. (Exodus 4:11-14)
After God overrides Moses’ fourth protest, he has no more excuses. He merely begs God to send someone else. God gets angry, but tells Moses he can use his brother Aaron as a go-between. Finally Moses gives up. He returns to his father-in-law and asks his permission to go to Egypt.
Power of Blood
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 for the circumcisions”. (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)
raglayim (רַגְלַיִם) = pair of feet, pair of legs; a euphemism for genitals.
The only clear information in this brief ambiguous story is that the is that one of Tzipporah’s sons still has a foreskin, and she circumcises him. Which son is uncircumcised? Whom does God seek to put to death? If it is Moses, why would God attack him? Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son? Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin? Why does this save him from death?
In last week’s post (Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1) I argued that the uncircumcised son is probably their firstborn, Geirshom, and that God seeks to put Moses to death. The remaining enigmas in the “Bridegroom of Blood” passage can all be related to Moses’ feeling that he is incapable of serving as God’s prophet because his lips are aral.
Why would God attack Moses?
According to one Talmudic opinion, God wants to kill Moses because he had not circumcised his son, and therefore left the boy outside the covenant between God and the Israelites. (See Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 1.)
But there is a more psychologically compelling reason for God to attack Moses: God is still angry about Moses’ five attempts to reject his assignment. (Three later prophets in the bible are initially reluctant, but accept their vocation after one demurral.9 Only Moses continues to argue with God. Rashbam6 wrote that God’s anger over Moses’ rejection leads to the attack on the way to Egypt.)
In the 21st century, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote: “It is striking that when he complained about his speech problem at the Burning Bush, God made no move to heal him; he did not even promise him that his situation would change, for this problem is expressive of a radical resistance on Moses’ part, which arouses God’s anger and almost brings about his death …”10
It is Moses’ responsibility to rise to God’s challenge and remove his own impediment. So far he has failed.
Why does Tzipporah circumcise her son?
The Hebrew Bible requires an Israelite father to circumcise each of his sons eight days after birth, in order to enroll the infant boy into the covenant between the Israelites and God.11 Although Moses knows his birth parents were Israelites12, he grew up in the Egyptian court, then joined the family of a Midianite priest. Only at the burning bush does he discover the God of Israel.
After Moses finally accepts the job God gives him, it may not even occur to him to mark his firstborn son as a member of the Israelites’ covenant with God.
While Moses lies helpless under God’s attack, his Midianite wife, Tzipporah, takes action. Her first thought might be to appease God through an animal sacrifice. The Midianites as well as the Israelites shared the Canaanite custom of sacrificing animals to their gods.13 But the only animal they have with them is the donkey that Tzipporah and the boys need to travel through the desert.
Then Tzipporah has an inspiration. She can sacrifice a small bit of blood and flesh from their own son to the God who has commandeered Moses. She knows that this God approves of circumcision, since Moses is circumcised.14
Whose raglayim does she touch with the bloody foreskin?
The Torah says only that Tzipporah touches the foreskin to “his” raglayim—to someone’s feet, or legs, or genitals. I believe she uses Geirshom’s foreskin to dab blood on Moses’ genitals as a symbolic second circumcision, a rededication to the God of Israel. Her explanation “Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me!” is an incantation that completes the sympathetic magic.
If circumcising Moses’ firstborn son is not enough to appease God, this additional ritual, she hopes, will do the trick. And it works.
Why does this save Moses from death?
If God is angry at Moses, why would Tzipporah’s actions solve the problem?
The book of Exodus presents God in two different ways. Usually God speaks like an intelligent but easily offended human being. This anthropomorphic God is the character who talks with Moses at the burning bush, and gives him further instructions just before he sets off for Egypt.
This God-character also gets angry, and “his” anger sometimes releases a divine force which slaughters people indiscriminately. Before the tenth plague strikes Egypt, Moses warns the Israelite slaves about the coming “death of the firstborn”, and tells them to daub lamb’s blood on their lintels and doorposts.
And God will pass through to strike Egypt, and “he” will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, and God will skip over the entrance, and “he” will not allow the Destroyer to come into your houses to strike. (Exodus 12:23)
Here “the Destroyer” refers to God’s raging alter ego, which does not distinguish between the guilty and the innocent and cannot stop itself without a dramatic visible sign.15 The blood on Moses’ genitals proves as effective as the blood on the Israelite doorways in halting this primitive aspect of God, which does not distinguish between individuals.
Power of Dedication
Moses is not merely reluctant to become God’s prophet; he is afraid of speaking for God and getting it all wrong. The anthropomorphic God-character becomes angry with Moses for trying to excuse himself from the job instead of trusting God’s assurances. A silent, more primitive aspect of God seeks to kill Moses on the way to Egypt.
Tzipporah responds by physically circumcising their son. Then she symbolically re-circumcises her husband, rededicating him to the covenant with God. This act also serves to metaphorically circumcise Moses’ lips, removing the weight of his determined silence, making his mouth sensitive for God’s use.
At first Moses does not realize the full extent of what his wife has done. He sends Tzipporah back to her father, along with their sons—perhaps for their own safety, now that he knows how deadly God can be. (See my post Yitro: Rejected Wife.) When he first arrives in Egypt, he uses Aaron to speak to the pharaoh for him, believing his lips are still aral. Only when the ten miraculous plagues begin does Moses find his own voice.
What does it mean to be dedicated to God? A Jewish ritual dedicating eight-day-old boys only shows how their parents identify them. Adults might follow all the extant rules of a religion out of habit and to fit in with their community, but lack the personal and vitally serious dedication that Moses accepts after the “Bridegroom of Blood” episode.
Can that kind of dedication to God come only out of necessity, as a life-and-death choice? What about those of us who are not threatened? Can we at least choose to dedicate ourselves to seeking out God?
- Exodus 3:11-15.
- Exodus 5:1-9.
- Exodus 6:9. The Hebrew word ruach (רוּחַ) can mean wind, breath, or spirit.
- The first three times are in Exodus 3:11-12, Exodus 3:14-15, and Exodus 4:2-9.
- Exodus Rabbah 1:26 tells a story in which Moses burns his lips as a child. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh ben Yitzchaki) wrote that Moses stammered and mumbled.
- Rashbam (12th-century rabbi Samuel ben Meir).
- g. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on Exodus 4:10; and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 176.
- Genesis 17:9-15.
- Isaiah feels unworthy until an angel purifies his lips (Isaiah 6:1-8); Jeremiah protests a single time that he is too young to know how to speak (Jeremiah 1:4-9); and Jonah flees because he does not want to obey God and give his enemies a chance to repent (Jonah 1:1-3).
- Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, Bewilderments, Schocken Books, New York, 2015, p. 161.
- Genesis 17:10-14, Leviticus 12:1-3. By the fourth century C.E., there were also professional circumcisers called mohalim.
- Exodus 2:11.
- Tzipporah’s father, Yitro, demonstrates animal sacrifice when he comes to visit Moses and the liberated Israelites camping near Mount Sinai (Exodus 18:10-12).
- Moses would have undergone circumcision either as an infant with Hebrew parents, or at puberty as an upper-class Egyptian. Talmud tractate Nedarim 32a and Exodus Rabbah 5:8 imagine Tzipporah watching the angel of death swallow Moses from his head down to his genitals, where Moses’ circumcision stops the process.
- Besides Exodus 4:24-25 and 12:29, other examples of God as a mute, irrational force of destruction, unable to distinguish the innocent from the guilty without an obvious sign, appear in Numbers 11:1-3 (fire), Numbers 25:1-9 (plague after Baal Pe-or worship), and 1 Samuel 6:19 (the ark).