Understanding Exodus 4:24-26 (Moses’ Firstborn)

I have been reading in Exodus this morning and found my way into Exodus 4, where God is commissioning Moses to go into Egypt to lead His people out of captivity.  I came to vv.24-26, which I have read many times before, but never actually understanding what was going on.

It’s a strange scene: God has just stripped Moses’ of his final excuse as to why God has the wrong man; Aaron will go along as Moses’ mouthpiece.  Moses bids farewell to his wife’s family and leads his small family on the journey from Midian to Egypt.  It is on this journey that God prophesies to Moses how the Egypt encounter is going to go down:

When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.  Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn.  So I said to you, “Let My son go that he may serve Me”; but you have refused to let him go.  Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.‘”
-Exodus 4:21-23

God’s and Pharaoh’s Firstborns

The killing of the firstborns of Egypt–and especially the killing of Pharaoh’s firstborn–is God’s final plague on Egypt, representing judgment on the Egyptians and deliverance for Israel.  Pharaoh has taken advantage of and subjected God’s firstborn son, Israel.  The cries of the Israel have reached God’s ears, and now the Father has come to demand the return of His son.  He will have restitution.  But Pharaoh’s overestimates his position, thinking he, with the collective strength of the God’s of Egypt, has it in himself to resist the demands of the God of Israel.  Pharaoh refuses God’s demands and keeps God’s people–His firstborn son–in slavery.  His stubbornness will cost him dearly.  The first nine plagues, awful as they will be, will prove merely inconvenient in comparison with what will come in the tenth plague: Because Pharaoh has not released and returned God’s firstborn to Him, it will ultimately cost him his own firstborn son, at which point his will–and the will of his own people–is broken.

Moses’ Firstborn

That is all straightforward: a battle of wills with rights to firstborn sons on the line.  God prevails, and Pharaoh pays up.  What follows in the next three verses is so unexpected, however, that I really haven’t been able to follow it for years.  Until now.  God has called Moses forward as His representative deliverer.  Through Moses, God will deliver His people out of bondage, make them into a nation, and bring them into the land which He has promised and prepared for them.  And then one of the strangest events in all of the Bible happens: God ambushes Moses’ family on the road to Egypt.  He is bent on taking the life of Moses’ firstborn son.  And as I read it, I am left wondering: Whaaaaat? Why?

The answer is simple: Moses has failed to consecrate his own son to the Lord.  The covenant made with Moses’ forefather Abraham was clear: Every male descendant of Abraham shall be circumcised (Gen. 17:10); circumcision will be the sign of the covenant (v.11); even household servants shall be circumcised (v.12); and any male among God’s people who remains uncircumcised “shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (v.14).  Moses knows this ordinance; it’s the most basic ordinance of all of God’s people.  Even his Midianite wife Zipporah seems to know this ordinance, as she is the one quickly races to circumcise the boy, Gershom (whose very names means “a stranger there”).

While Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household and spent 40 years as a stranger among the Midianites, he knows his ancestry.  It bothered him to see Egyptian slavedrivers abusing the Hebrews, because they were his brothers!  It bothered him to the point that he killed one–the whole reason he had fled from Egypt in the first place.  He knows that Aaron, a Hebrew, is his brother.  And clearly Moses himself has been circumcised, because God is coming after his son and not him.

It is time for Moses, who grew up as a prince among the Egyptians and lived as an alien among the Midianites, to embrace his true identity: a son of Abraham and member of God’s covenant people.  It is also time for him to recognize what God is going to declare through the events of the Passover and the Exodus: He is all-powerful, and He is all-possessing.  Everything belongs to Him.  Every field and every river.  Every plant and every creature.  In Exodus 13, in His instructions for the Passover, God makes the declaration that every firstborn of every womb belongs to Him as well.  A redemptive offering for every firstborn son will be made, on the understanding that it all belongs to God.  To this point, Moses has not submitted his own firstborn to God.  I am all to familiar with being “partially all-in”, but that is not what God is calling for.

Doing God’s Work while Neglecting God’s Commands

Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and not do what I say?  Lord, did we not prophesy, cast out demons, and perform miracles all in Your name?  As Moses might have reasoned, Am I not going to Egypt on your orders to stare down the most powerful man in the world and deliver Your judgment to him?

I totally resonate with Moses here.  My job is “the Lord’s work”.  I minister to students and their families.  I spend hours at the church, hours at school events, hours among students.  I try to be a role model, positive influence, pastor, teacher, advocate, encourager, counselor, and friend.  I strive to be a good husband and father.  But how easy it is to try to do many and great things for God, while neglecting to obey the things He has called me to do!  How easy it can be to neglect time with God–in Bible reading, in prayer, in Scripture memory, in practicing the spiritual disciplines–while filling up my schedule with countless “good things.”

But essentials cannot be ignored or put aside merely to do things that are good.  As Jesus exhorted the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” May the strange little story of Moses, Zipporah, and Gershom remind us of that.

 

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