Students are known to complain, “Why do I have to know this? I’m never going to use it in real life!” When it comes to studying history, they protest that all the names and dates are irrelevant bits of musty minutiae. This misses the point; although they might not be asked to recall the significance of the date 1492 while on the job as a banker or mechanic or nurse, knowledge of history helps us make sense of our current situation. We can’t hope to understand contemporary challenges without historical context.
Understanding the history of the Hebrews is necessary for understanding today’s difficult text. Moses, called and commissioned by God, found his life threatened by the very hand of God as he journeyed toward Egypt (Ex. 4:24). This seems capricious and even diabolical, if we don’t consider the history of circumcision.
We know that Moses’ son was uncircumcised (Ex. 4:25). Whatever was about to happen to Moses, his wife Zipporah interpreted it to mean that God was angry because their son was not circumcised. She acted quickly, averting God’s wrath and saving Moses’ life.
To understand God’s anger, we must look back at the covenant God gave to Abraham in Genesis 17. God promised that Abraham would see his family increase, and that he himself would be the father of many nations. Circumcision was given as a sign of that covenant. God was explicit in His directives about circumcision, designating whom should be circumcised and when.
Moses was going back to Egypt as a representative of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He could not be exempt from keeping the covenant. In fact, as a leader, he was responsible for strict obedience to all of God’s commands. Ensuring that his sons were circumcised was a necessary step of obedience. Before he could expect obedience from the people he would lead, he must be an example of integrity.