Sermon preparation for the record and for the day ahead:
—•— Sonship as a Matter of Life and Death —•—
Eighty years after Jochebed his mother entrusted him to the waters of the Nile in his tarred basket of bulrushes, Moses returned to Egypt with a message for Pharaoh and some miracles to back it up. We are always liable to be diverted away from messages by miracles but in this case the message is embedded in the meaning of the miracles. Moreover the meaning of the miracles is reflected in the contextual details of the departure of Moses from Midian as well.
18 • Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him,
“Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt
to see whether they are still alive.”
• And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”
19 • And the LORD said to Moses in Midian,
“Go back to Egypt,
for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.”
20 • So Moses took his wife and his sons
and had them ride on a donkey,
and went back to the land of Egypt.
• And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.
21 And the LORD said to Moses,
“When you go back to Egypt,
see that you do before Pharaoh
all the miracles that I have put in your power.
• But I will harden his heart,
so that he will not let the people go.
22 • Then you shall say to Pharaoh,
‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son,
23 • and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.”
• If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”
If we take time to outline vv. 18-23 we will see that we have three contrasting pairs, In 18f. we have a matter of life and death: Moses asks to go see: ‘whether my brothers in Egypt are still alive .’ and God tells him: ‘all the men who were seeking your life are dead.’ In 20f. we have a contrast of tenderness and hardening: Moses has ‘his wife and his sons ride on a donkey,’ but Pharaoh’s soon-to-be proverbial hardening is revealed before the journey even starts. Vv. 23f. is a tale of two firstborn sons to be announced in the face of Pharaoh’s hardness: ‘Israel is my firstborn son, let him go that he may serve me.’ opposed to ‘If you refuse I will kill your firstborn son.’
This is Moses’s second attempt to check on his people but, whereas the first attempt ended in disaster, this one will succeed. In his first attempt, Moses tried to ‘help’ his beleaguered fellow Israelites while still operating from the palace and his interfering left a dead Egyptian buried in the sand, which manslaughter having been discovered, Moses had had to flee for refuge. It is fairly certain that ‘the son of Pharaoh’s daughter’ did not ask for permission to go and visit his relatives but the husband of Jethro’s daughter does ask permission and it is granted when Jethro graciously and peaceably dismisses him.
It might seem strange to us that Moses doesn’t just tell Jethro that God has told him that his relatives in Egypt are still alive and that he has a mission to accomplish. By putting the matter to Jethro in the way that he does Moses is neither being deceitful nor indicating any doubt about what God has told him concerning the Israelites. By putting his request in terms of the Israelites still being alive, Moses is indicating to Jethro that this is a matter both of blood and of honour.
Apparently it is after Moses has spoken to Jethro that God gives Moses the welcome news that there is nothing now to fear from the body-in-the-sand incident of forty years ago. We know from Exodus 2:15 that ‘When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses,’ so there must have been a change of Pharaoh but surely, if the former Pharaoh was to be properly honored, even in death, Moses should now be the enemy of the son as he was of the father? Apparently not, the father Pharaoh being dead, Moses is no longer persona non grata in the Egypt of his son.
Of Moses’s two sons we read in Exodus 18:3-4 that ‘ … The name of the one was Gershom (for [Moses] said, "I have been a sojourner in a foreign land"), (4) and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, "The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh").’ In Exodus 18 they are being brought back to the camp of Israel by their Grandfather because Moses had send them home at some stage but in Exodus 4 they are on their way to Egypt with Zipporah their mother. In Exodus 4 the details are so sparse that we couldn’t know from there even that there were two of them and we are left to deduce that they were quite small from the fact that they share a donkey with their mother. Moses’s tenderness in providing the donkey contrasts quite shockingly with the disposition of God as they continue towards Egypt:
24 • At a lodging place on the way
the LORD met him and sought to put him to death.
25 • Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin
and touched Moses’ feet with it
and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
26 • So he let him alone.
It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,”
because of the circumcision.
27 • The LORD said to Aaron,
“Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.”
• So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him.
28 • And Moses told Aaron
all the words of the LORD
with which he had sent him to speak,
and all the signs that he had commanded him to do.
29 • Then Moses and Aaron went
and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel.
30 • Aaron spoke all the words
that the LORD had spoken to Moses
and did the signs in the sight of the people.
31 • And the people believed;
and when they heard
that the LORD had visited the people of Israel
and that he had seen their affliction,
they bowed their heads and worshiped.
These eight verses have the records of three significant meetings and all three are about representation. It is hard enough to understand vv. 24-26 without removing them out of their context so let’s just outline the three meetings in order to get as much help as possible with vv 24-26. Vv. 24-26 tells us of a ‘meeting’ between the wife of Moses and God over the life of one of Moses’s sons, presumably Gershom, the firstborn. Vv. 27f. tell of a meeting between Moses and Aaron at the ‘mountain of God.’ Vv. 29-31 tell of the meeting with ‘all the elders of the people of Israel’ at which ‘the people believed.’
As representatives the elders believe and worship on behalf of the entire nation and, because of Moses’s weakness, Aaron will speak for Moses at least at the beginning of his ministry. Aaron is introduced to the miracles that have been given for performance as signs but at the same time Zipporah is learning about the significance of circumcision in a most traumatic way!
Just as we need to see this incident in the context of representation, we also need to bring to it the things that have been done and said beforehand. Was Moses visiting his kinsmen a matter of life and death? So is this a matter of life and death! Will Pharaoh’s attitude be one of hardness of heart? What does that say about God’s disposition towards Gershom here? Why, since Moses sent two sons off to Egypt with their mother, is only one son involved in this incident if not because there is a direct link between the threat to Pharaoh’s firstborn in v. 23 and the threat to Moses’s firstborn in v. 24?
Because the threat is to Moses’s son rather than to Moses. It doesn’t help that all the English versions seem to want to ‘help’ us by importing Moses into v. 25 where, in Hebrew, the feet don’t have to be his and he doesn't have to there. Moreover, and just to seal this, the ‘bridegroom of blood,’ that Zipporah declares, is better read as ‘kinsman’ than as ‘bridegroom.’ We wouldn’t hold Moses to having claimed more actual brothers than Aaron because of his request of Jethro to ‘let me go back to my brothers in Egypt,’ so we shouldn’t insist that Moses must be there because Zipporah talks about ‘a kinsman of blood.’
We could describe God’s disposition towards Gershom as that of the angel of death seeing no sign why he should ‘pass over’ the little encampment there and allow Moses’s heir join in the Exodus experience. Just as with the real Passover, the sign is the shedding of blood and the seal of circumcision is enacted at the very start of the Exodus just as it brings the Exodus to an end at Gilgal [Joshua 5:1-7]. After Gershom’s circumcision we can’t think that what God says about Israel being his firstborn son is only a manner of speaking.
We shouldn’t lose sight of Zipporah in this and her declaration here is fit to be put beside Rahab’s declaring for the God of Israel to the two spies (again at the end of the Exodus) and with Ruth’s resolution in Ruth 1:16-17 ‘But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. (17) Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”’
And having come this far and added Zipporah to the ranks of ‘Mothers in Israel,’ we should take a break by pointing to yet another mother ‘pierced’ by the stern disposition of God against her son:
33 • And his father and his mother
marveled at what was said about him.
34 • And Simeon blessed them
• and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is appointed
for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
• and for a sign that is opposed
35 • (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
• so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
36 • And there was a prophetess,
Anna, the daughter of Phanuel,
of the tribe of Asher.
• She was advanced in years,
having lived with her husband seven years
from when she was a virgin,
37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
• She did not depart from the temple,
worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.
38 And coming up at that very hour
she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him
to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Don’t let Anna’s representation of all the other mothers in Israel distract you. Nor should you get in a turmoil about Joseph being called ‘his father,’ because ‘Pepe’ (if you’ve got the Latin) is taking a representative role in this passage as well. The sword piercing through Mary’s own soul is foreshadowed by Zipporah’s experience with her firstborn and the blood of Gershom’s circumcision, which points to the slaying of the lamb and the Passover, also points inexorably and wonderfully to the death on the cross of ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’