Mystery at the Malon

Mystery at the Malon

Shemot 4

An Interactive Learning Module by Rivka Kahan

The Circumcision of the Son of Moses / Weenix

1. Introduction

  • One of the most enigmatic stories of the Torah is the narrative of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" (bridegroom of blood), found in Shemot 4:24-26.
  • During Moshe's family's journey back to Egypt, when stopped by a lodging place, one of the family members finds themselves in danger of death under mysterious circumstances. Zipporah performs a circumcision on her son and removes the threat.
  • This module will explore the textual, literary, and theological questions that arise from this narrative. Perhaps the most central of these is: why would Hashem seek to kill Moshe or his son while they are on their way to Egypt to fulfill His mission?
  • An in-depth analysis of this issue can be found at Mystery at the Malon. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. The Verses

  • Let's begin by examining the verses of the narrative and their context by reading Shemot 4:18-31. The core of the story is found in verses 24-26.
  • What questions do you have about the story on the textual level?
  • What philosophical or theological questions arise?
  • How do you think this story fits into the surrounding narrative of the leadership of Moshe and the redemption of Israel?

3. Questions

  • Some of the questions that arise from the narrative are:
  • Whom is Hashem trying to kill and why?
  • How does Zipporah know that she is meant to perform a circumcision?
  • How is this story connected to the surrounding narrative of the Exodus?
  • In context of the preceding chapters, why would Hashem seek to thwart Moshe immediately after Moshe finally agreed to return to Egypt to free the Jewish people?
  • This is a particularly pressing question in light of the Rabbinic concept that "שלוחי מצוה אינן ניזוקין" (people on a mission to do a mitzvah are not harmed).

4. Analyzing the Language of the Narrative

  • Let's begin by analyzing the language of the narrative to gain insight into its meaning and themes.
  • Go to the Tanakh Lab to analyze the components of Shemot 4:18-31 and find the words that appear with the greatest frequency.
  • Which words appear four or more times in this section and how do you think those words reflect the themes of the narrative?
  • Which word(s) appear with great frequency relative to the rest of Tanakh? Which of these are ambiguous in meaning and worth exploring further?

5. Analysis Continued

  • The roots "הלך", "שלח", and "שוב" appear multiple times within the unit, underscoring that the theme of this story is Moshe's journey to fulfill Hashem's mission. How does this theme deepen our question about Hashem's intent in disrupting Moshe's journey?
  • The root "פגש" appears twice in this section and nowhere else in Sefer Shemot, and is 220 times more common in this section than in the rest of Tanakh.
  • To understand the significance of this root, in the table on the left side of the Tanakh Lab, click on the תנ"ך column next to the entry "פגש" (where it says 220x). This will display all of the verses in Tanakh in which this root appears.
  • Based on the 14 verses that appear, what connotations does the root "פגש" have in Tanakh?
  • Where else in Tanakh is Hashem the subject of this verb? What is the meaning of the verb in that context?
  • How many times does the precise form "וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ" appear? How does this serve to connect our narrative to its context?

6. Findings

  • Our search indicates that the root "פגש" sometimes has the meaning of “meeting" (as in Shemot 4:27 and Mishlei 22:2), but more often connotes a contentious encounter or violent attack (as in Bereshit 32:18 and 33:8, Shemuel II 2:13, and Yirmeyahu 41:6). Notably, this is the connotation in the only other verse in which Hashem is the subject of the verb (Hoshea 13:8).
  • How does this knowledge affect your understanding of what occurred in Shemot 4:24?
  • The only two verses in Tanakh in which the specific form "וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ" appears are both in our chapter, in the core story (4:24) and in the subsequent narrative (4:27). This is an example of a מונח מקשר (a term that connects two sections of Biblical text).
  • What other מונח מקשר can you find, which links 4:19 and 4:24, and connects our story to the immediately preceding narrative?
  • What do these מונחים מקשרים imply about the connection of the story of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" to the larger narrative of the Exodus from Egypt?

7. Commentators: Rashi

  • Let's explore how our commentators have understood the meaning of the narrative. Return to the Mikraot Gedolot and read Rashi on 4:24 and 4:26.
  • According to Rashi, whom does Hashem intend to kill in 4:24?
  • What sin led to this divine response? Why do you think this sin would warrant such a severe punishment?
  • In Rashi's view, how does Zipporah know to perform a circumcision?
  • What questions do you have about Rashi's interpretation? What questions about the narrative remain unanswered?

8. R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon

  • We saw that Rashi believes that Moshe was punished for not performing a circumcision on his son with sufficient alacrity. Let's now turn to a variation of this interpretation. Read R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon's comments as cited by Ibn Ezra (Second Commentary) on 4:24 ד"ה ויבקש המיתו (beginning with "ורב שמואל בן חפני אמר").
  • How does R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon's interpretation of the verses differ from Rashi's? What is his motivation?
  • What questions do you have about R. Shemuel b. Chofni's approach?
  • What moral and philosophical questions about this narrative remain not fully answered by both Rashi and R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon?

9. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah

  • We have seen that R. Shemuel b. Chofni Gaon attempts to resolve the question of why Hashem would attack His own messenger by suggesting that Eliezer, not Moshe, was in danger.
  • HaKetav VeHaKabbalah is similarly troubled by the notion that Hashem would choose to kill Moshe at this point in Sefer Shemot, especially for a seemingly minor sin. Read HaKetav VeHaKabbalah Shemot 4:24 (ד"ה ויבקש המיתו) to see his novel interpretation.
  • What additional textual question does HaKetav VeHaKabbalah raise as an objection to Rashi's interpretation?
  • How does HaKetav VeHaKabbalah address these driving philosophical questions about Hashem's actions?
  • How does he strengthen his approach by comparing this text to other narratives in Tanakh? In your opinion, are the cases comparable?
  • What textual or philosophical difficulties exist for the interpretation of HaKetav VeHaKabbalah?

10. Abarbanel

  • We have seen that HaKetav VeHaKabbalah is so troubled by Hashem's actions in this narrative that he reinterprets the verses to mean that Moshe contemplated suicide out of a feeling of overwhelming remorse.
  • For another innovative approach to understanding Hashem's apparently harsh response, see Abarbanel, beginning about halfway through his comments, from: "ואמנם מה ענין אמרו ויהי בדרך במלון".
  • How does Abarbanel interpret the word "וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ"? Based on our analysis of this word, do you think there is textual support for Abarbanel's approach?
  • How does Abarbanel reinterpret the meaning of "וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ" and how does this resolve the question about Hashem's punishment of Moshe in these verses?
  • In Abarbanel's opinion, what other action does Moshe take in this chapter that might be considered problematic, and for which Zipporah thinks perhaps the family is being punished?
  • According to Abarbanel, why does Zipporah perform a circumcision? What other action does she take to rectify Moshe's actions?
  • What questions do you have about Abarbanel's interpretation? What textual or philosophical challenges exist for his opinion?

11. Shadal

  • As we have seen, Abarbanel resolves the difficulty of understanding the harsh divine punishment by suggesting that Hashem did not seek to punish Moshe at all. Rather, Moshe experienced the natural consequences of not being sufficiently prepared for prophecy.
  • For a third innovative interpretation of the narrative, see Shadal on 4:24.
  • How does Shadal relate the story of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" to the preceding verses?
  • In Shadal's opinion, what is Moshe's fundamental error and what two actions does he take in this chapter that reflect the flaw in his approach?
  • How does Zipporah know to perform the circumcision and how does this action rectify the problem?
  • In what ways does Shadal differ from Abarbanel in his interpretation of Zipporah's righteousness? In what ways do they have similar ideas about the actions she takes to ameliorate the situation?

12. Shadal: Analysis

  • Shadal interprets Moshe's actions as demonstrating insufficient commitment to Hashem's mission, both by waiting until age 13 to circumcise his sons and by taking his family with him to Egypt without articulating to them the mission upon which he is embarking.
  • Additionally, Shadal reinterprets the verses to mean that Gershom is the one in danger, due to his special status as Moshe's firstborn.
  • At the outset of our study, we saw that the text indicates the connection between the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" story and the surrounding narrative of the Exodus through the use of connecting phrases. How does Shadal's approach rely upon this connection?
  • What are the strengths of Shadal's approach in resolving the textual and philosophical questions that arise from this narrative?
  • What questions do you have about Shadal's interpretation? What textual or philosophical challenges exist for his position?

13. Narrative in Context

  • We have seen that, according to several commentators, the narrative of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים" centers on the need for Moshe's son to be circumcised before Moshe embarks on his mission to free the Nation of Israel. What is the connection between the mitzvah of "ברית מילה" and the Exodus?
  • The commandment of circumcision is given to Avraham in Bereshit 17. In context, it represents the reciprocal commitment of Hashem and the Jewish people: Hashem promises to give the land of Israel to Avraham's descendants and Avraham commits that he and his children will serve Hashem.
  • How does our story, which integrates the notion of Hashem's covenant with the Jewish people into a personal story about Moshe Rabbenu, represent an important step in the development of Moshe's leadership and the process of redemption?

14. Summary

  • We have seen a wide range of interpretations of the narrative of the "חֲתַן דָּמִים". On the textual level, commentators suggest that Moshe, Gershom, or Eliezer was in danger. They offer different suggestions as to how Zipporah knew to perform a circumcision and why this effectively resolved the crisis.
  • On the philosophical level, several commentators suggest that Hashem's punishment of Moshe was due to Moshe's decision to delay his son's circumcision or, more generally, to Moshe's incomplete commitment to his prophetic mission.
  • Some commentators are uncomfortable with the idea that Hashem sought to punish Moshe so severely, and instead suggest that either Moshe sought his own death or that his illness was not a divine punishment but a natural consequence of his lack of preparation for prophecy.
  • While the narrative is interpreted in a rich variety of ways, many of the commentaries point to the importance of Moshe's personal commitment to the covenaמt (ברית) between Hashem and the Jewish people as he enters the stage of Jewish history.
  • Through Moshe's demonstration of personal identification with the covenant and Jewish destiny, he develops into the redeemer of the Jewish people. The narrative thus reminds us of the importance of personal commitment to the totality of the covenant as a necessary element of national redemption.

15. Additional Reading