Maximus: When God Tried to Murder Moses

Okay so if you’re not super familiar with Exodus you might not know this, but there’s this whole thing during the Ten Plagues where God tries to murder Moses. It’s right after the burning bush episode. God’s all ‘ooh I’m a bush, go back to Egypt and free your people,’ and then He’s like ‘I’m gonna make Pharaoh be bad, and then I’ll kill his son,’ and so Moses goes ‘okay’ and heads back to Egypt, because he’s down for that drama, and then halfway there God turns up in his inn in the middle of the night and tries to kill him for no apparent reason. And then his wife circumcises their kid and is like ‘wow chill’ and God’s like ‘k’ and fucks off, and it’s never mentioned again. And it’s just – it’s a weird couple verses. It’s really obviously an insert into the narrative. It doesn’t have any huge thematic link with what’s happening, and if you skip it, the text actually seems more cohesive. I mean, here are the verses in context:

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.”‘

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ So he let him alone. It was then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.’

The Lord said to Aaron, ‘Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.’ So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which He had sent him, and all the signs with which He had charge him.”

That’s Exodus 4:21-28. It’s – well, it’s that. Circumcision has been established as a normal practice by this point in the narrative – it’s part of the original covenant with Abraham back in Genesis 17, although nobody back then said that failing to circumcise your kid will make God try and kill you. The whole framing of this affair is just really odd. Why is this event happening only when Moses is returning to Egypt? Why is God trying to kill him, rather than giving him a friendly reminder? And what would God have done if He’d succeeded in killing Moses? Well, better find a new Israelite to liberate my chosen people. Guess the whole bush thing was a total waste of time. Also, just in a strict narrative sense, it’s really disorienting to have the explanation for the attempted murder come after the event. God sends Moses on a mission, and then immediately turns round and tries to murder him, and after that it’s implied that God was trying to kill Moses because his son was apparently uncircumcised, which we don’t learn until after the circumcision happens. It’s just a weird way to deliver information. Exodus is weird. The Old Testament is weird. People don’t appreciate that enough. Anyway, here’s Maximus telling us about how it’s a metaphor or something.

  • The text: Ad Thalassium 17
  • The author: Maximus the Confessor, 7th century monk and theologian
  • Notes: We touched on Ad Thalassium last week – it’s a series of answers delivered to a Libyan monk, Thalassius, who’d written to Maximus with a bunch of questions. Question 17 is basically ‘hey, what’s up with that bit in Exodus 4?’
  • Read it yourself: As noted last week, this text apparently doesn’t exist in English outside of this translation from St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, which is what I’m using.

So Maximus’s gig here is that the whole passage, aside from its literal meaning, also spiritually represents an ongoing pursuit or striving for goodness. “The mind … receives a hidden and mystical commission from God to lead out of the Egypt of the heart – that is, from the realm of flesh and sense – divine thoughts of created beings, in the manner of the Israelites.” The key thing about this pursuit is that it has to be ongoing: “the mind who remains faithful in this divine ministry … invariably travels in a holy way of life the road of the virtues, a road that in no way admits of any stalling on the part of those who walk in it.” According to this reading, the main problem with Moses is that he stopped overnight at the inn. You can’t stop in the pursuit of virtue. Got to keep going. Moses stopped, and so God tried to murder him. “On the moral racecourse, weakness in performing the virtues can result in just such a death.”

From there, all the different elements of the story are pulled into the metaphor. The uncircumcised son represents an impure thought or something, and the flint that Zipporah uses for the circumcision (a “small stone” in Maximus’s translation) is the word of faith. Zipporah actually circumcises Moses’ thinking – and Maximus encourages all of us to similarly circumcise our minds. There’s a sentence for you. Actually, this reading does resolve one question for us – if the journey to Egypt represents the journey towards virtue, then, metaphorically speaking, within the logic of the story, Moses didn’t have an uncircumcised son until he stopped at the inn. That is, his impure thought only appeared once he stopped actively pursuing virtue – which is why God didn’t say anything about it earlier. Fair enough.

You know, back at the start of the year I had a couple criticisms of a Maggie Mae Fish video. She’s a Youtuber who was complaining about a Kirk Cameron film, Saving Christmas. Apparently, in the film, Cameron says that the swaddling cloth that Jesus was wrapped in at his birth foreshadows the cloth that he would be wrapped in at his death. Maggie describes that interpretation as “ridiculous,” “petty,” and “absurd.” And, you know, I’m not defending Kirk Cameron at all, but like – I think our current discussion maybe gives the lie to that appraisal. The swaddling cloth is pretty objectively the least ridiculous metaphor in this article. And I still don’t know why these verses are in the middle of Exodus 4.

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