In response to a questioner reading Exodus 4:21-31, Clark Williamson writes:
In Exodus 4:21-31, before Moses goes back to Egypt to "perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I [God] have put in your power," and when Moses was on the way and stopped for the night, "the Lord met him and tried to kill him" (v. 24). The questioner says: "This is all hard to understand where God is coming from. God seems even a little crazy here, not so loving. What is going on in this scripture?"
This is a fine question and one that any reader should ask. It shows that we can say that the scriptures are inspired if we assume that God wants us to think. How should we understand this passage? And what should we think about God? In this response we will look first at how to understand the passage and second at the larger question of what we should think about God.
First, let us notice some details. One is that the passage also mentions Zipporah, Moses' wife, and her son. Zipporah cuts off her son's foreskin and touches Moses' feet with it, saying "you are a bridegroom of blood to me" (v. 25). Then God "let him alone."
Some features of the passage call for our attention. First, it is unclear to whom the word "him" refers. Is it Moses or his son or Pharaoh, all of whom have been mentioned in the story? It appears to me most likely to be Moses, but we cannot be certain. Also, it is equally unclear what "a bridegroom of blood" means.
Yet note: God does not kill Moses. Like the story of Abraham and Isaac, which Christians mistakenly refer to as the "sacrifice of Isaac," Isaac is not sacrificed.
God "tries" to kill Moses. The text assumes that God could just have done it, but did not. God left room for mediation, and it is Zipporah who mediates on Moses' behalf. And God "let him alone," period. And did so with no further comment. Moses' life is saved by God's decision, for which Zipporah's action provides the occasion.
Early chapters in Exodus frequently foreshadow later passages. The later application of passover blood to the doorposts of the Israelites saves them from God's judgment on Pharaoh's Egypt. So here, the touching of blood to Moses' feet protects him. Moses and his son experience a life-threatening event which the whole people Israel will have to experience as well.
In the whole story about Moses up to this point, it is women who by their insights and action save Moses' life. The Egyptian midwives, Moses' mother and sister, and the daughter of Pharaoh all saved Moses from Pharaoh when Moses was an infant. This time, Zipporah steps into the breach.
This appears to be a time of testing for Moses, just as Abraham had his time of testing and as Jesus was tested in the wilderness by Satan. The ancient rabbis interpreted such testing as a sign of God's love: "Ten trials were inflicted upon Abraham, our father...and he withstood all of them, to show you how great is the Lord's love for Abraham, our father" (Mishnah, Avot 5:3).
Now, as to the larger issue. In his rules for scriptural interpretation, Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples of Christ, said that the first and most important rule was that we who would interpret the scriptures "must come within the understanding distance." By that he meant that all scripture is to be understood in the light of God's gracious love for us and our need to respond to that love with a love of God and the neighbor. Such a passage as the one we are discussing here make us aware of the importance of this rule. If we forget it, we will too often think of God as violent and capricious and find ourselves, also too often, unable or unwilling to trust God.