Feast of the Holy Martyr Theodotus of Ancyra
RECENTLY, an old friend of mine wrote to me with a question about a difficult narrative in the Torah. Exodus 4:24-26 tells the story about God coming to kill Moses because of his failure to circumcise his son Gershom, resulting in Moses (or Gershom?) receiving the moniker “bridegroom of blood.” Alas, I’m afraid that the story ultimately defies any explanation that I might have to offer. But our exchange models something that I have come to cherish in the community of Eighth Day Institute, brothers and sisters from different Christian traditions coming together to consider the meaning and implications of God’s word.
Mark McCoy: I had a friend ask me about Exodus 4:24-26. He was confused with the discontinuity between Moses heading to obey God and God confronting him with the apparent intent to kill him. I was wondering if you could illuminate any of the spiritual or cultural nuances that might help us understand better what God would have us see in that passage.
Matthew Umbarger: This text is notoriously difficult. Here are my gut responses:
1. This is one of those passages where it is important to remember that God’s revelation of Himself to Israel was progressive. There are anthropomorphisms all over the place in the Torah that we know we just can’t read in a literalistic fashion. For instance, there are several places where we are told that God’s anger burned against someone. In Hebrew, it literally says, “God’s nose burned.” Obviously, God does not have a nose. He does not have emotions either (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles 89, 6). Some of the murkiness in a text like this has to do with its being at the beginning of that trajectory of revelation.
2. This text gives source critics ammunition. After the story, Zipporah and Moses’ sons disappear and they don’t show back up until chapter 18, when Jethro brings them with him to meet Moses at Mt. Sinai! I don’t think that we can recreate the original sources, but it does seem that there are multiple traditions that have been assimilated into Torah (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!), and this is part of that evidence.
3. This text has to be read in view of Genesis 17:10-14 where God says that anyone who is not circumcised shall be cut off from His people. Because Moses has failed to observe the most crucial element of covenant identity in his family, he is subject to judgment because he has not fulfilled the Law that he will later be so closely identified with.
4. For me, the biggest message of the entire book of Exodus is that God is not safe. This story illustrates this vividly. In Exodus 34:6, God will reveal His true Name as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” But we dare not approach Him casually. This is the entire rationale for the liturgical framework of the last half of Exodus. God first takes steps to make sure we recognize that He is not one of the petty deities of the nations. There is a proper form of worship, with a proper calendar, a proper ritual of sacrifice, a proper hierarchical structure, and a proper place. Only when He is approached on His terms does Israel experience God’s true Name. Neglect of these instructions connotes a perversion of theology and worship into something that is focused upon the worshipper, and not the God Who is worshipped, and this always results in judgment and estrangement from God.
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1) So you’re suggesting (regarding #1) that it might have been a picture rather than a literal playing out of events?
2) The idea that God doesn’t have emotions—I recently was taught that “emotion” and “motive” share the same root—what “moves” you. With God being the eternally existent “I Am,” having constant perfection, we do not believe that God has outside influences causing him to change, but we do believe our emotions are semblances of a part of what characterizes God, correct? As in, “I get angry, but God has within his nature perfect righteous judgment that sometimes manifests in our time/space continuum as ‘temporary’ anger”?
1) Is this narrative history or just a “picture”? Maybe not exactly either one, but probably closer to history. This has the tenor of something that Moses actually experienced and passed down. However, I think it’s important to recognize that Moses himself may not have known what to make of the whole thing. Maybe part of the reason this story is so hard for us to understand is that it was hard for the people who experienced it to understand. They had less light of revelation to interpret these things. The ancient Jewish community seems to have suspected this. For instance, there is one interpretative tradition that takes God out of the story altogether, making the destructive agent either the “angel of the LORD” (see the Septuagint), or even a demon or Satan himself (this is how Jubilees rewrites the story)! Obviously, those interpreters would understand that God is somehow responsible for this encounter in as much as He allows it, but they weren’t comfortable seeing God as so directly involved in the attempt on Moses’ life. But “modern” historical questions get in the way of understanding a text like this, in my opinion, because they weren’t the concerns of the author/s and editor/s of the material.
2) You touch on the logical problem with stating that God has emotions: His eternal nature. God cannot have “moods,” because moods are responses to temporal developments. This creates some difficulties for us, because we do have emotions. It makes God seem remote. But, though God does not have emotions as we do, He is Love. In that same section of Contra Gentiles that I alluded to, Aquinas says that we can say that joy, delight, and love can all be said to be in God because they are not the result of Him being acted upon externally (chapters 90-91). Our emotional experiences, including those of love, are necessarily temporal. They are not temporal for God. He loves us constantly in every single moment. There is nothing that I can do that can bind Him to the temporal, emotional plane (hallelujah!). But whereas God does not change, I do. I’m like a prism that refracts the white light of God’s love into colors. My sinfulness refracts that love into the colors of sorrow, wrath, the whole bit. When I repent, I experience God through the prism of the healed relationship, and encounter divine joy. But it’s all love. God doesn’t change, my prisms do. Those experiences are real. They are not illusory. But we have to recognize that they do not define who God is either. It’s not because God is more remote and less dynamic that it is improper to say that He has emotions; it’s because He is even more immanent than we can imagine and so dynamic that we cannot comprehend.
Dr. Matthew Umbarger is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS. He specializes in Old Testament Interpretation.
Mark McCoy is the Discipleship Minister at Antioch Christian Church in Marion, Iowa.