Exodus – A God who Mugs and Kills People

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Some people have a simple approach to the Bible. If you want to know what God is like, the Bible will tell you all you need to know. There’s a problem with this approach. On some occasions. what we’re told about God is unacceptably shocking. For example, he kills people. At a global level, in Genesis 7, he’s said to have brought about a world-wide Flood that drowns almost every human being, as well as other living creatures. At a national level, in Exodus 12, he kills the oldest male child in every Egyptian family. At an individual level, in 2 Samuel, when the sacred box called the ark of the covenant was being transported on a cart, “the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah steadied the ark with his hand. At once Yahweh became angry with Uzzah, and killed him because of his irreverence“. Good intentions, apparently, count for nothing. Even Yahweh’s favourite, the great King David, was mortified. He was, “furious because Yahweh had punished Uzzah in anger“.

Other chosen favourites ran into problems. In Genesis 32, Jacob, whose children were to become the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel, was attacked in the middle of the night by God, and had his hip dislocated in the ensuing struggle. And in Exodus 4, after choosing Moses to be the deliverer of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt, “at a camping place on the way to Egypt, Yahweh met Moses and tried to kill him.” What on earth is going on here?

Let’s remind ourselves that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were complied from at least four main sources. There was material from both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Into this mix was added the book of Deuteronomy, and the final editing was done by Priests. The latter were particularly interested in fabricating genealogies, because only men from one tribe could become priests and, of those, only proven descendants of one particular family could carry out the most sacred duties. Their contribution to the Hebrew Bible naturally focuses on such priestly concerns as sacred doctrines, artefacts and rituals, one such being circumcision – which takes us to this weird and wonderful story in Exodus 4.

When Yahweh suddenly appeared with the intention of killing Moses, his wife Zipporah was the means of his deliverance. As is often the case in the Hebrew Bible, it’s women who have vital intuition, understanding and wisdom, and who quickly see what needs to be done, and how to do it. At least half the human race will readily agree with that. Zipporah, incidentally, wasn’t even an Israelite, but a Midianite. It would appear that she’d heard that Yahweh had required circumcision as a sign of acceptance of his covenant with Abraham, and knew of his warning that “any male who has not been circumcised will no longer be called one of my people“. Here then was Moses, picked out as a prospective leader, but seemingly not yet circumcised, and so in danger of being rejected and killed. Something needed to be done, and quickly.

We’re told that “Zipporah took a sharp stone, cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched his feet with it“. There are two questions here. Whose “feet” were touched, and why? That it was Moses’ “feet” that were touched, makes most sense to me. As does the word “feet” being a euphemism for his genitals.There are many examples of euphemism in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in connection with death and sex, including therefore the sexual organs. Why then does Zipporah smear Moses’ genitals with the blood from their son’s foreskin? On the one hand, it could be seen as a pledge to Yahweh that Moses will indeed likewise be circumcised. On the other hand, it could be seen as tricking Yahweh into thinking that Moses just has been. The choice is yours.

One things that strikes me about all of this is, that as religions become institutionalised, they breed priests, and priests need to fabricate grounds of authority from on high, to firmly establish and safeguard the functions that they alone are permitted and required to perform. They become the sole custodians of the acceptable doctrines and dogmas, the sole wearers of the required vestments, and the sole overseers of the sacred rituals. It is these that denote and embody their status and power over the rest of ‘the flock’. 

When was Moses circumcised? The Hebrew Bible doesn’t tell us, but it seems as if the priestly editors retained, and inserted, this strange little tale to underline the vital necessity of one of their most important rituals. Yes, you’re right. I’m not a fan of ‘priests’. For a dozen years I was the ‘pastor’ of a congregation, but never its ‘priest’. 

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