Whoa! What a mess! Better defuse this one. It’s right there in our assigned Bible reading this week:
“Now on the road at the lodging place, Jehovah met [Moses] and was seeking to put him to death. Finally Zipporah took a flint and circumcised her son and caused his foreskin to touch his feet and said: ‘It is because you are a bridegroom of blood to me.’ So He let him go. At that time she said, “a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4:24-26)
What in the world is that all about? I hate to say it—maybe it betrays a weakness on my part—but I cannot rely on the brothers to clear this up. Too often, it seems to me, they go after such verses determined to ‘clean them up’—‘put a smiley face on it’—and....um...it’s really not that easy to do, is it? That’s how they—and nearly all other Bible-believers—go on and on about how Dinah was raped because she hung out with the wrong crowd, and appear not to notice the rather huge elephant in the room—her brothers slaughtered the whole tribe in retribution! Oh, I guess the fact that Jacob rebuked them counts for something, but even so....
It’s like when the she-bears come out of the woods and devour the 42 children making fun of Elijah—“Go up, you baldhead!” they shout with glee but they stop shouting it as the bears were making child-sandwiches out of them (2 Kings 2:23-24). You can—as our people have done, lecture on how those parent should have better trained their “juvenile delinquent” offspring, and then (this they have not done—but it is the kind of thing that appears sometimes) maybe will even go off on a tangent about how the Bible is accurate because it doesn’t say ‘about 40’—it says 42–and thus it reflects getting the details straight, the mark an historian, and not a fairy tale which would content itself with ‘about 40’—but—well, that doesn’t quite smooth it over for everyone, does it? As far as I concerned, about the best you can do with those verses is to assign them to a bald brother who will tap his shiny dome as though he is a protected species and suggest that you’d better not give him any grief. I did try—I really did—to put a smiley face on this one, or at least a plausible one, building off a vaguely parallel contemporary report, and I am rather pleased with the result, but let me tell you: it ain’t easy reconciling cultures thousands of years apart.
Don’t think it need be thousands of years, and don’t think it need be the Bible. “Here, I thought you might like this,” researcher B.W. Shultz tweets to me, as though he were flicking a spec of dandruff off his shoulder. It is an ebook from 1884: Rochester—A Story Historical, and it upends everything I thought I knew about my home, upstate New York! It turns out that the first settler in what became Rochester, Ebenezer Allan, was a scoundrel. He was a barbarous ne’er do well. He was a drunken lout. He’d pair up with Mary Jemison’s (the white woman on the Genesee) no-good son—the one who shoved around his mom whenever he’d consumed too much firewater, which was a frequent occurrence—and raise all manner of hell.
Now—it’s a little hard, when you are holding up your city as a shining example to the world, to come to grips with how its first settler was a dirtbag. But a certain town historian tries—she tries mightily. She seizes on the fact that he was not a lowlife in every way—he actually could work hard when he wanted to and he did run some diplomatic missions that did benefit, even if accidentally, persons other than himself. She gushes on of how he “found happiness” after taking on yet another wife, and does not mention how with a former one, he had guys paddle her on a canoe to the falls and bail out so that she would go over and not they—for is that not but a trifle in the overall tale of a man’s finding happiness? The poor woman—she swum to shore and then went to beg the jerk’s forgiveness! Our historian is determined to plaster lipstick on a rather hideous pig, and she works up to the hope that “If history colors him a little testy at times, perhaps it needs to reflect opon the primitive conditions of that era and be a little more understanding of, and charitable to, Mr. Allan.” Elsewhere, she genuflects to him as “one of the frontier's greatest romantic rogues.”
So with that established—that outrageous histories abound and the temptation to clean them up is not unique to Bible students, let’s try to clean up this mess at Exodus, knowing that the critical thinker may not be satisfied with our effort—perhaps even cynically ad-libbing “At least they gave attention to their dress and grooming”—with whatever spin the Watchtower puts on those verses. It’s hard to know where to start, but we could acknowledge that Abraham decreed circumcision for his offspring as a sign of a special relationship with God, that Moses “knew or should have known” that, and that Moses accordingly should have seen to it that his son was circumcised. Maybe it didn’t occur to him, because Issac and Jacob deliberately set out to find and marry one of their own, whereas he, Moses, had to hotfoot it out of Egypt and take whoever he could get—believer or not. “Here, you can have my daughter,” Midian says—and that’s the way marriages were commonly done—women were used to build alliances. It’s not exactly the world of today, is it? That’s how royalty might end up with hundreds of wives, and have to put them in a harem—a lonely existence for women: men gave their daughters to form alliances and otherwise get in good with the king.
“He probably didn’t circumcise him because he was a man just like you, and he was oblivious to what everyone else knew he should be doing,” says my wife, as she glances at the back lawn, the grass now as high as an elephant’s eye. She may be on to something. At any rate, you don’t mess with Jehovah. It was Zipporah who guessed what the problem might be, as Moses was thinking “Why is this angel messing with me?—I’m the good guy!” and it was she who did something about it, taking responsibility for it, though it hardly seems her fault. I won’t go so far as to say that she said, similar to Abigail, “Please, my Lord. You know how it is with Moses. He has his head in the clouds always. He’s so spiritually minded, he’s no earthly good.” No. I won’t say it. You don’t think I know what happened to Koran, Dathan, and Abiram?
Thus, all that remains is to explain away her words: “It is because you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” I’m not touching it—I’ve done enough—other than to observe that blood was something thought sacred back then—today it just sounds gory and calls to mind a Freddy Krueger movie—and in some way she is acknowledging the sacredness of bonds that we are oblivious to today. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I myself have given it on the altar for you to make atonement for yourselves, because it is the blood that makes atonement by means of the life in it,” the Torah says, as we scratch our heads at something that we know we probably should know more about but don’t.
So we can clean that one up, more or less, at least enough to carry on. But what is it doing there in the first place—the outrageous passage? Is it just there to trip us up? The question is better asked by going to a less-weird, but still not what we would expect, passage—that of Moses trying to wheedle out of an assignment:
“Moses now said to Jehovah: “Pardon me, Jehovah, but I have never been a fluent speaker, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Jehovah said to him: “Who made a mouth for man, or who makes them speechless, deaf, clear-sighted, or blind? Is it not I, Jehovah? So go now, and I will be with you as you speak, and I will teach you what you should say.” (Exodus 4:10-12) Really? He makes them “speechless, deaf, or blind?”
Let’s see what the brothers toss our way in the Research Guide. On those verses, there is a link to the 3/15/04 Watchtower, that says: “Although Jehovah has on occasion caused blindness and muteness, he is not responsible for every case of such disabilities. (Genesis 19:11; Luke 1:20-22, 62-64) These are the result of inherited sin. (Job 14:4; Romans 5:12) Since God has allowed this situation to exist, however, he could speak of himself as ‘appointing’ the speechless, the deaf, and the blind.”
Okay. I can roll with that. If you look at the greater picture, and those other verses, it certainly seems that it is that way. However—why not word it more precisely there in Exodus to begin with, and save everyone the trouble? Is God trying to mess with us? My guess is that he is. Recall the illustration of the secretary composing a letter for the boss. It is said to be the boss’s letter, but he didn’t actually write it—the secretary did. And it turns out that the secretary, in Exodus case, is like all humans—the treasure is carried in ‘earthen vessels.’ And God rolls with it: “Oh, wow—that ought to mess them up!” he whistles, as he surveys the work of the secretary. “Let’s see what they do with that one!”
Call it “testing” people if you like. God does it. It has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Nowhere is it more apparent than with Jesus telling how persons must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to be saved. (John 6:52) “This is outrageous!” all the huffy ones say. “Who can make sense out of this? My time is too important for this nonsense!” and they stomp off before they can hear God say, “Who gave you any time at all, you pompous buffoon, so that you can carry on about how important it is?” Jesus’ disciples, of course, couldn’t figure it out either, but awareness of their own spiritual need was sufficient for them to stick around and find out.
So it is with the “bridegroom of blood” passage. Leave it where it is. Let the learned ones say, “This just shows that there are many sources of ancient history competing for the final word, and that they all want to stick in their two cents, and the reason it doesn’t make any sense is that they were all fighting their own turf wars and advancing their own opinions, and it all got jumbled up together, and I know it was that way in that world back then, because it is that way in the educated world in which I hang out, and I have never seen it any other way, so it must be there is none.” Meanwhile, the regular people will say of the passage, “Huh!” make a mental note to research it someday that will probably never come, and go on to consider with benefit the meat of the chapter.