I love the image that the Japanese gives of Moses’ reaction to his staff turning into a snake. The NRSV says he “drew back;” the NCT says he “jumped away.” (v 3) Did he give a little panicked squeal too?

Moses is the patron of all reluctant prophets, as he keep coming up with excuses as to why he can’t go: he doesn’t know God’s name, he can’t prove God spoke to him, he’s not a good speaker… finally, he just begs God to pick someone else, which makes God mad. But God doesn’t smite Moses, he just offers to have Moses’ older brother Aaron share the job. Apparently Aaron is the more competent of the two.

But beyond the more amusing moments in this scene is the more disturbing one where Moses returns to Egypt with his wife Zipporah and their son Gershom. God, having just promised to be with Moses and provide him with miracles and oratory and support, tries to kill Moses.

Okay, actually, he tries to kill “him,” and in doing some research into this passage, that’s one of the things that makes it difficult for interpretation. Is God attacking Moses, or Gershom, his uncircumcised son? And when Zipporah touches “his feet” with Gershom’s foreskin, who is “he”? Moses’ feet? Gershom’s feet? God’s? And what does she mean by “bridegroom of blood”? Zipporah disappears from the text for a while and later returns with Jethro, implying she went home. Did she leave here? Going back to movie adaptations, The Ten Commandments has her leave later to protect Gershom from being killed in the tenth plague, but again, that’s made up. It’s possible that Zipporah falls into the anti-circumcision camp, and was appalled that her husband’s God demanded it.

But on the other hand, how did she know that circumcision would appease God? If Midianites are descendents of Ishamel, would the difference be that, like Muslims, they practice circumcision for older boys rather than infants? Did she intuit that God might be upset that they hadn’t done it yet?

How old was Gershom by this point? A traditional layout of Moses’ 120 year lifespan is that he was 40 when he left Egypt and 80 when he went back, a life evenly divided into 40 years Egyptian, 40 years Midianite, 40 years Israelite. That could potentially make Gershom an adult…. if you accept ages in the Bible, which I’ve said repeatedly I don’t. Still, there’s a huge range of ages there. Is Gershom a toddler or a teenager?

Incidentally, the Septuagint translation, that early Christians relied on, had a slightly different version of this account, saying an angel of the LORD tried to kill “him,” not the LORD himself. I guess this gives the wiggle room that the angel was acting out of bounds. And the Book of Jubilees, a pseudopigraphal work from the 2nd century BCE, goes so far as to say the angel was actually Satan.

Three little verses and so much discussion. The Bible is full of these odd little asides, and it what makes it so fascinating but also so frustrating. You want the whole story. As I read the Jewish traditions surrounding these asides, I think we Christians need to adopt the tradition of midrash officially. Using narrative to work through theology is far more interesting than dry dogmatics.

The Japanese: tobinoku “to jump away” (v 3), futokoro “breast pocket or purse” (v 6), ben ga tatsu “to be eloquent” (v 10), yuuben “eloquence, oratory” (v 14), nerau “to target” (v 19).