There are a number of passages in the Bible that perplex us and stretch our faith. We might think of them as problem passages that cast doubt upon the scriptures, but that isn’t really the case. In fact, if the Bible was merely a human document it is more likely that such passages would have been dropped from sight long ago.
But that still leaves the passages in all their strangeness. And among them is the one we’re looking at tonight. Just what are we to make of this? In v.19 Moses is told that those wanting to kill him are dead and then, in an ironic twist, it seems that the Lord is out to get him in these verses.
This almost seems like the stuff of nightmares; what’s going on?
1. The need to obey
It seems from what happens here that the Lord’s anger is directed at Moses because he has failed to circumcise his son. But is that such a big deal? Why not just gently remind him of the fact? Surely it’s got to be about more than that?
That might not seem like a big deal to us but we need to remember the significance of the rite in biblical terms: it was a sign and seal of the covenant that God had made with Abraham for the sake of the world. It was a sign that marked-out the Jews as the Lord’s people.
And, so, for Moses to fail to administer that sign was not about outward religion; it was something that went to the heart of what the Lord was doing. It was to be the sign that showed Moses and his family were dedicated to the Lord, that they belonged to him and were under his lordship.
As we read in Genesis 17, those who failed to submit to this rite were to be cut off from their people, not considered as part of the family of God. It wasn’t just about a badge that they wore but what that badge meant. To fail to circumcise was to be openly defiant of the Lord and to oppose what he was doing in the world.
In that light, it becomes a little easier to see why the Lord should act against Moses in this way here. He is to be the leader of the people that the Lord will work through to rescue the world from sin. If he is not interested in obeying the Lord, he cannot expect not to forfeit everything.
But what about us? Where does this hit home for us? The NT makes it clear that what really matters is having hearts that are circumcised, by which it means that we are made new and committed to the Lord. The only way that can happen, the only way for our past to be atoned for and for our hearts to be made new is through faith in Jesus.
In a very real sense, faith takes the place in the NT of circumcision in the OT, as that which marks out the people of God. And, as Paul wrote in Col 2, when we come to faith in Jesus our flesh is cut away, we are owned as belonging to God through being joined to Jesus in his death and resurrection.
And all who refuse to be joined to Jesus are warned in the clearest terms by God through his word that there is no other way, that although there is a way that seems right to a man it ends in death. There is only one way to life, only one saviour of all people and the only way to receive from him is through faith in him.
But the faith that receives God’s mercy is not mere intellectual assent; it is a trusting faith, a faith that demonstrates it is genuine through deeds of love. We are to be saved by faith, not works – yet the faith that saves is a faith that works.
Do you have that faith? Are you trusting in Jesus? Is that trust at work in deeds of love? If you are far from Jesus then this passage and many others warn you of your danger and you need to take that very seriously indeed.
2. Space to repent
But while it is sobering to see how serious the Lord is about our turning decisively to him in genuine faith and obeying his words, it is helpful to notice that, where the Lord deems it necessary to act in discipline, he gives room for the situation to be put right, he gives space for repentance.
We aren’t told how Zipporah knew things were amiss and that they were in danger but what is clear is that the Lord was allowing them space to act, to put the matter right; he was “about to kill him” (v.24). As someone has said, “The divine move is thus a threat, not an attempt to kill that God fails to pull off”.
It was a threat that provided an opportunity that Zipporah took with two hands (and one knife).
Her action speaks powerfully to us: if things are wrong, they need to be put right. And they can be put right; the Lord gives room for repentance and for setting things right. He is patient and is not willing that any should perish.
So whether you’re not yet a Christian or if you’ve been one for many long years, know that God is merciful and kind, even when he moves to act in severe discipline. He gives space for putting things right. When he sent Jesus into the world it wasn’t to condemn but to save and so Jesus’ ministry began with the call to repent.
What is vital is that we don’t show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience which lead us towards repentance. He wants us to sort things out; he wants us to come out of the shadows and into the light of his loving grace. The fact that Moses comes out of this alive should not be interpreted as the Lord not being serious about the need for obedient faith but rather that he is serious in giving every opportunity to repent.
Zipporah used that space wisely; will you do the same? Whatever the situation, whatever the shame, however long you may have turned from his mercy, even tonight you can come back to him, and come back for good.
3. Jesus: The Obedient Servant
The Lord is utterly sovereign, as we have seen, yet he has purposed to work through people and demands obedience from his servants. Moses is seen here to be a man whose obedience is flawed – in fact, it’s his Midianite wife, Zipporah, who displays more spiritual nouse (and, again, a woman keeps things moving forward).
Moses is going to be a great servant of God but he is a deeply-flawed man, lacking not only at times in faith but also in obedience to the commands of God. Here is a man who stands in need of large swathes of mercy.
God’s work does not depend on one person alone. He is quite prepared to remove Moses from the equation. What would have happened had Zipporah not acted so wisely and so quickly? We don’t know but we can say that the sovereign Lord would not have been hindered from achieving the rescue of his creation.
He is not dependent on one person and yet obedience is going to be essential to the progress of the Lord’s work of salvation. But as we see here, the best of men are men at best. Moses is a great hero of the faith but he is almost taken-out by God because of his lack of obedience. If obedience is going to be essential in the rescue of the human race, where will it come from?
The writer of Hebrews tells us that, just as the builder of a house has greater honour than the house itself so Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses. And the same writer stresses in many places the obedience of Jesus’ life and his sacrificial death in our place.
Zipporah interceded for Moses with blood and, in a very vivid way, points us forward to Jesus who stands in the gap for us, who was slain for us and by whose blood we can be saved.
That’s where all our hope lies: in Jesus, the Son of God, who was obedient to death, even the death of the cross. Is he your hope tonight?