Circumcision and the Wrath of the Lord


Could you please discuss Exodus 4:24-26 where God seeks to kill Moses for not circumcising his son? Obviously Moses felt it was important to include this message for future generations, yet the message now seems to be obscure.


Moses' original audience for the book of Exodus was probably the second generation of Israelites that Moses led from Egypt in the Exodus. His main purpose in the book was to demonstrate his divine authorization as covenant mediator, and thereby to encourage Israel to fulfill the covenant as Moses outlined it in Exodus.

Exodus 4:24-26 in particular gives an example from Moses own life of the importance of adhering to the covenant stipulations (i.e. the Law). Specifically, they demonstrate that God was willing to destroy his own people if they rebelled against his covenant. Even the covenant mediator Moses, who found favor with God far beyond that enjoyed by the nation at large, was bound to obey God's covenant upon pain of death. This taught the original audience how serious God was about his covenant, and was a strong warning to them to obey him.

For Christians, this passage is also important because of its emphasis on covenant and obedience. God's character and covenants do not change; the same God that planned to kill Moses for his disobedience is the God we worship. However, because Christ perfectly fulfilled the covenant, Christians may rest assured that they will not fall under God's judgment in this way. The harsh standards of the Law still apply, but in Christ we are accounted as fulfilling these standards perfectly. At the same time, knowing how important these standards are to God should encourage us to keep them -- not to gain salvation, but in loving response to our Father. Further, we should be aware that even though God will not judge and condemn us for breaking his Law, he may well discipline us, and discipline is never enjoyable.

There are also some other important aspects of this passage to note. First, God was willing to kill Moses, and intended to do so. Yet, he did not. This does not mean that God's eternal counsel changed, or that he is not sovereign. Nor does it mean that he did not know that Zipporah was going to come to Moses' rescue. God had foreordained Moses to disobey and Zipporah to save him. The passage does, however, indicate that in his providential dealings with his people, God alters his intentions and actions toward us according to our responses to him. Prayer is not useless, and neither is obedience. God really does use our actions as means to accomplish his will, and he really does respond to and interact with us. We are not just puppets, and God is not just pretending to change his mind. The foreordination of his eternal counsel does not prevent him from interacting with his creation, or from experiencing different attitudes and emotions as his eternal counsel unfolds in creation.

Second, we should note the reason that God was so angry: Moses failed to place the covenant sign of circumcision on his son. Now, the covenant sign is no longer circumcision but baptism. Still, the point is that God is very serious about the fact that the children of his people are in covenant with him, and he is very protective of these children. His anger with Moses was not just anger for Moses' failure to obey him, but was anger with Moses in defense of Moses' son -- any Israelite son who was not circumcised was to be cut off from his people (Gen. 17:14). God was so concerned with this covenant child that he intended to kill Moses in part for jeopardizing the child's participation in the covenant community. In fact, even in the New Testament we find God killing people for mistreating other covenant members (1 Cor. 11:30), so this is something we should take very seriously. This is not to say that our Baptist brothers and sisters are tempting God's wrath. After all, they do not withhold the covenant sign from their children consciously as Moses did. Also, they tend to see their children as special (e.g. baby dedications, etc.), and they certainly involve them in the church community. Rather, it is to encourage us all to recognize first that our children are in covenant with God, and second that this makes them very special to God.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.