At the crucial juncture between Moshe accepting the divine mission and his returning to the people and becoming their leader, a curious and perplexing event occurs. Moshe begins to head back to Egypt, and then, abruptly we read: “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him” (4:24). The “him” here is ambiguous – it might refer to Moshe, the immediate antecedent, but it just as plausibly could refer to Moshe’s son, the focus of the next verse. But what is going on here? God wanted to kill Moshe or Moshe’s son? Why? What sense does this make?
What is even more puzzling is Ziporah’s actions, which came and saved the day:
Then Ziporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bridegroom of blood are you to me. So He let him go: then she said, A bridegroom of blood you are, of circumcision.
It seems that Moshe and Ziporah’s son had not been circumcised. But in what way did the act of circumcision save Moshe from his death? And what does Ziporah mean when she talks about “a bridegroom of blood”?
To understand what is going on here, we need to go back a few verses. Here is what the verses say immediately before this story of the inn:
And you shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus says the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn.
And I say unto you, Let my son go, that he may serve Me: and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, even your firstborn.
If we understand that it was Moshe’s son who was at risk, the parallel is striking. God warns that God will slay Pharaoh’s firstborn, and then God attempts to kill Moshe’s son, perhaps even his firstborn (see Targum Yonatan 4:24).
Once we note the parallel between the event in the inn, and the foretelling of the slaying of the firstborn of the Egyptians, other parallels also become clear. Ziporah circumcises her son and thereby saves him from death. On the night of the Exodus, men who were not circumcised could not eat from the Pesach sacrifice, and thus could not be part of those who would eat the sacrifice in their houses. And to be left outside of the Israelite houses, would mean death. “And you do not leave any man from the doorway of his house until morning… and God will not allow the destroyer to enter into your houses to smite you.” (12:22-23). To be an uncircumcised man is, at this moment, to risk being slayed by God or by the forces that God has unleashed.
This then brings us to the issue of blood. Ziporah mentions blood twice: “Surely a bloody husband are you to me… A bloody husband of circumcision.” What often goes without notice is that this is actually the first time in the Torah, the only time in the Torah, that blood is associated with circumcision. When Avraham was commanded to circumcise himself and his children, the Torah only mentions the removal of the foreskin. Similar to when the Torah commands the mitzvah in the book of VaYikra. In those verses, the focus is on cutting and on removing the foreskin. Here, the focus is on the blood.
And blood saves from death. For indeed, it was not just the being in the house that saved the Israelites, it was the blood of the Pesach – a sacrificed linked to circumcision – that was placed on the doorposts and on the lintel. And it was the blood of circumcision that saved Moshe’s son in the inn (this point is already noted by Ibn Ezra).
This link, of circumcision blood to the blood of the Pesach, and its salvific power is alluded to every year during the Pesach seder. When we expound on the verses that tell the story of the Exodus, and the state of the Israelites in Egypt, we read the verse from Yechezkel: “And I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, In your bloods you shall live. In your bloods you shall live.” What blood is this referring to? According to the classical Rabbinic interpretation, which picks up on the plural of the verse, it is two bloods: the blood of the Pesach and the blood of the circumcision. It is these bloods which protected our lives in Egypt, these bloods which gave us life. Indeed, Targum Yonatan on Shemot 12:13, states that the blood of circumcision – presumably done to enable the eating of the Pesach – was mixed with the blood of the Pesach sacrifice and they were both put on the doorposts in Egypt to save them during the plague of the firstborn.
What will be the story of the people at the climax of the Exodus, is being enacted here, in the inn, with Moshe and Ziporah. In Egypt, God comes down to slay the Egyptian first born, this sets free the destructive powers of “the destroyer”, and it is the blood of the Pesach that protects them. In the inn, God has just declared the slaying of the first born, this sets destructive powers in action (see Targum Yonatan 4:25), and even Moshe’s child, or perhaps Moshe himself, is at risk. But Ziporah leaps into action, knows what to do, and the blood of circumcision protects them.
So what is it about the blood of circumcision? The parallel with the blood of the Pesach points to simple conclusion: the blood of circumcision is like the blood of a sacrifice. Or more to the point, the circumcision is a type of a sacrifice.
It is this blood, this life-force, and yet not a human life, that has this salvific power, that saves Moshe’s son and it is the parallel blood of the animal sacrifice that saves the Israelites in Egypt.
This idea is initially shocking. We don’t do human sacrifices. And yet, the story of the Akeida speaks to a powerful urge that people had, at least at that time, to give what is most dear to them to God, to give even their child to God. God prohibits it. This is the ultimate message of the Akeida: God does not want human sacrifice. God will never ask us to sacrifice our children. And yet, the human urge does not disappear. This can be heard in Rashi’s comment on the verse where the angel says: “Do not do anything to the lad.” Rashi states that Avraham said to the angel: if I can’t kill him, let me at least wound him. To which the angel had to say: don’t do anything to him.
So what happens to this urge? What happens to the phenomenon of child sacrifice? It gets transformed into the act of circumcision. Consider Rashi (Breishit 22:1), quoting the Midrash: “Said Yitzchak to Yishmael – you are bragging that by being circumcised at 13 you made a great sacrifice. That is one limb. If God were to ask me to slaughter myself, I would not refuse.”
Akeida is an extreme circumcision. Circumcision is a symbolic, or reenacted, Akeida. The letting of blood, the cutting of one’s child – and I am bracketing the critically important question of why it is sons and not daughters – is the act of bringing one’s son into the covenant with God. It is how we symbolically sacrifice our children, how we give what is most precious to us to God. It is thus how we give ourselves to God and it is how we give our children to God. We do not destroy life in the service of God. Our sacrifice, the cutting and the spilling of blood of the circumcision, is the dedicating of a life to the service of God.
Indeed, many of the rituals around circumcision echo this idea: first, the quoting of the above verse from Yechezkel during the ceremony. But more powerfully, there is a tradition that the lap on which the infant is placed is like an altar. If the lap is an altar, then the infant is being cut on the altar, is being sacrificed. And the Haredi concerns around forgoing metzitza bi’peh, is linked, I believe, to the power of blood- related rituals, and the focus on the blood of circumcision. [For another, even more graphic example of this symbolism, and the link of milah to the Akedia, see Mishneh Brurah, 584:12.]
I share these ideas not because they sit easy with me. Thinking of circumcision as a type of symbolic Akeida is a disturbing idea. And yet, there is power to this reality, to the reality of blood. And power to the idea of sacrifice. We live lives that are sterile, are refined, and hence often out of touch with the raw power of blood, and with the life force that can drive us to passionately serve God, that can drive us to want to sacrifice everything in the service of God. Let’s not forget that it was this blood that saved Moshe’s son, perhaps saved Moshe, and that saved the Israelites, giving them life, and enabling the redemption.