Exodus 18: Jethro comes to visit

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Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (who has graduated to being a character worthy of a consistent name, for now), hears that Moses is in the area and stops by for a visit. He also brings Moses’ wife and sons, who were apparently sent out of Egypt ahead of the exodus at some point.

Jethro and Zipporah return by William Artaud

Jethro and Zipporah return by William Artaud

Now, Moses and the Hebrews are taking 40 years for a journey that should only take them a matter of days. If they’re lost, why doesn’t Jethro give them a hand? And if they aren’t lost, what kind of pace are they setting that would take so long?

A spot of worship

Moses catches Jethro up on the whole “escape from Egypt” thing, and all the miracles and plagues that entailed. Jethro is suitable impressed and declares that God “is greater than all gods” (Exod. 18:11) – an assessment that is problematic for monotheists, but a perfectly reasonable thing for a henotheist to say.

All present agree that God is awesome and decide to make a sacrifice.

Moses delegates

During his visit, Jethro sees that Moses is spending all his time acting as judge to arbiter every little dispute among the Hebrews (no wonder it’s taking them so long to cross the wilderness!). Jethro sees this and suggests that it’s inefficient to have Moses judge all cases. Rather, he suggests that Moses delegate.

Following Jethro’s advice, Moses appoints judges. “Ever great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves” (Exod. 18:22).

And then Jethro goes home. Hopefully, Moses didn’t forget to ask for directions.

Exodus 4: The Planning Session Continues

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Moses and God continue their discussion. Moses complains that the Israelites won’t believe that he really spoke to God. So God gets him to throw his staff on the ground and it turns into a snake. Moses leaps back in fright, but God tells him to grab the snake by the tail and it turns back into a staff.

The Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment, 1476

The Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment, 1476

For his next trick, God instructs Moses to put his hand “into his bosom” and pull it out again. When he does so, his hand is “leprous, as white as snow” (Exod. 4:6). Then God tells him to do it again and the rabbit is returned! Err… I mean, his hand is back to normal!

Now this is all pretty impressive and should be enough to convince the Hebrews that Moses really is speaking for God. But just in case, God teaches Moses one final trick: He is to take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground, and it will then turn to blood.

But Moses still isn’t sure. He’s not eloquent enough to speak for God, so can’t God just find someone else? As David Plotz says over at Slate: “If he lived in the 21st century, this is the point when Moses would be showing God two doctors’ notes diagnosing chronic fatigue syndrome.”

Somewhat justifiably, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses” (Exod. 4:14). But it’s too late to turn back now, so he allows Moses to take his brother, Aaron, along as spokesperson. “You shall be to him as God” (Exod. 4:16), which is totally not idol worship.

Heading home

Moses lies to his father-in-law, asking permission to go back to Egypt to see if his kinsmen are still alive (Exod. 4:18). If God says that lying is okay, the floodgates are opened, I suppose. Jethro/Reuel agrees, so Moses takes family and hits the road.

God tells Moses to perform his miracles before the new pharaoh, “but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Exod. 4:21). Therefore, Moses should tell him that since Israel is God’s ‘firstborn,’ God will kill Pharaoh’s first-born son.

It’s passages like these that really turn atheists off about the Bible: the pharaoh has no choice, God is controlling his actions. And yet, God is still going to punish Pharaoh for these actions. As if this weren’t disgusting enough, God’s punishment is infanticide, killing a child who’s had no part in Pharaoh’s supposed crime.


At a lodging place…

“At a lodging place on the way the Lord met [Moses] and sought to kill him” (Exod. 4:24).

We’re never told why God decided that he wanted to kill Moses right after sending him on an important quest. The only clue we have is the way in which this lurking God-monster is repelled: Zipporah circumcises her son and rubs the foreskin on Moses’ feet (which my study bible says is a euphemism for genitals).

So there you have it. Garlic repels vampires, silver takes care of werewolves, and rubbing a child’s circumcised foreskin on your genitals wards off God. I think I’ll stick with garlic.

These disembodied snippets of stories are clear evidence of the multiple authors theory – that the Old Testament began as several books kept by several different communities that someone pasted together. Sometimes they did a good job and the seams are hard to find, sometimes not so much.

Taking the story at face value, Bible Slam wonders if Moses got food poisoning on the way home and attributed it to God. My study bible, on the other hand, has this to say: “Originally circumcision was a puberty or marriage rite; bridegroom of blood (v.26) [what Zipporah calls Moses after rubbing her son’s foreskin on his junk] is perhaps an old expression for a young man who was circumcised before marriage.” Furthermore, it could indicate that Moses was not circumcised, but that Zipporah’s action allowed him to be snipped by proxy.

So if we want to make some wild assumptions, we can say that Moses, who was cut off from his people when he was married, never underwent the proper ceremony. He would therefore have to “do it proper” before he returns to his people.

If not food poisoning or a replacement circumcision for Moses, Victor Matthews offers up another explanation: That it’s an apotropaic rite to ward off evil. “The Phoenicians also thought of circumcision as a means of escaping danger, as can be seen in the myth in which the god El protects himself by sacrificing his only son and then circumcising himself” (Manners & Customs, p.41).

Later, Matthews points out that there’s a parallel between smearing the son’s blood on Moses to protect him and, later, smearing the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the doorpost before the Passover to protect the Hebrew people in Exodus 12:22 (Manners & Customs, p.77-78). As I’ve noted several times, the act of circumcision functions as a replacement for child sacrifice, and this parallel makes that all the more clear.

One final point before we move on: Bible Slam points out that only one son is mentioned here, but earlier we were told that Moses has “his wife and his sons” (Exod. 4:20) with him. Since only Gershom has been named, this may again be an issue caused by multiple authors.

Back to the Mountain of God

Earlier, God had said to Moses of Aaron: “Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you he will be glad in his heart” (Exod. 4:14).

Now, God says to Aaron that he must go into the wild to meet Moses. Aaron obeys and meets Moses “at the mountain of God” (Exod. 4:27).

The mountain of God is in Midian, meaning that both Aaron and Moses have made the journey across the Sinai Peninsula twice. In both cases, the journey is made in less than a sentence.

Another point here is that the timeline is very muddled. Moses left Midian with his wife and sons, then he met his brother back in Midian. This only makes sense if the narrative is playing fast and loose with the timeline – but there are no indications in the “future” portions that Aaron is with them.

Taking it to the elders

Presumably back in Egypt, Moses and Aaron gather all the elders and Aaron tells them about what God said and performs the magic show he learned from Moses.

Moses’ concerns aside, the people are quickly convinced and they bow their heads in worship.

Exodus 2: Saving Baby Moses

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Scenes from the life of Moses by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482

Scenes from the life of Moses by Sandro Botticelli, 1481-1482

At the end of the last chapter, Pharaoh has ordered his subjects to kill all male Hebrew newborns. So when a woman in the line of Levi gives birth to a boy, she’s justifiably concerned. She hides him for three months, but then can’t hide him any more. The timing is fairly realistic, at least in comparison to my own son. By 3-4 months, babies tend to need a lot more entertainment and you can’t just keep them tucked away in a closet any more.

So this Levite woman comes up with a rather ingenious plan (or has the best luck ever). She takes her baby and puts him in a basket, and then sends the basket floating down the river.

The basket is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who recognizes that the baby is Hebrew but takes pity on him and adopts him, naming him Moses. The name is, again, somewhat realistic. “Moses” is a common Egyptian name – or rather, part of one. It would usually be combined with the name of a god to mean “X is born.” The most well known figure with the name is probably Tutmosis III, who uses the name Moses in combination with the name of the god Thoth. Alternatively, the Bible indicates that an Egyptian woman named the baby with a Hebrew word meaning “to draw” – as in, she drew him out of the water (Exod. 2:10).

Murder of the Egyptian

When Moses grows up, he sees an Egyptian beating up one of his fellow Hebs. So he “looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian” (Exod. 2:12).

Putting aside the question of morality, this is premeditated murder. This is not something he does in the heat of the moment (like Charlton Heston’s depiction in 10 Commandments). Rather, Moses makes sure that no one is looking before he strikes. Is the Hebrew victim even still around? Or did Moses go so far as to stick around or even follow the Egyptian home?

In any case, Moses goes out the next day and sees two Hebrews fighting each other. So he asks one of them why he is hitting his fellow, and the Hebrew responds by asking Moses: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exod. 2:14). This is an excellent question because this situation mirrors the other. In both cases, one man is beating up another. The only difference is that one of the aggressors is of the same ethnic group as Moses while the other is not. It’s telling that Moses reacts by killing the “other,” but only asks a question of the Hebrew.

But the response tips off Moses that his crime is known. At this point, Moses either sticks around anyway for a while, or he and Pharaoh find out at the same time, because: “When Pharaoh heard of [the murder], he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh” (Exod: 2:15).

Moses meets his shiksa

To escape from the law, Moses flees to Midian. Midian, by the way, is just south of Canaan, on the other side of the Sinai peninsula from Egypt. That means that Moses does essentially the same journey here in one sentence that will later take him forty years.

Once in Midian, Moses loiters near a well.

I think you can guess what comes next…

Reuel, the priest of Midian, has seven daughters, and these girls are coming to the well to water their flock. For some unknown reason, the local shepherds are giving them a hard time, so of course Moses steps in and helps them. As a reward, he gets to move in with Reuel and marry Zipporah, one of the seven daughters.

So what advice does the Bible have for would-be suitors? This story and that of Rebekah and Rachel suggest that if you are having trouble finding yourself a little lady, you ought to hang out around wells.

Zipporah and Moses have a son named Gershom.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt…

The king of Egypt dies, but conditions don’t improve for the Hebs under the new ruler. God hears his people “groaning” and gets ready for fix things.

… to fix things that are his fault. Let’s not forget that God sent the Hebrews to Egypt (by starving them out of Canaan) so that they would become oppressed. But nice of him to decide to fix things afterwards, though.