One of the problematic texts that Georg Fohrer assigned to his N (Nomadic) stratum of the Torah was Exodus 4:24-26. I am going to do a pretty literal translation here.
Now on the journey, at a lodging place, YHWH met him and sought to kill him; But Zipporah took a flint knife and cut off her son’s foreskin, and caused it to touch his feet, and said, `Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me’ So he let him alone. (In those days she used the phrase `A bridegroom of blood,’ in reference to the circumcisions.)
I usually do not tell what I thought when I read a passage, because I am more interested in the objective meaning of the text. But here I will make an exception.
First, I thought of a cartoon I think I saw once in a Jewish magazine. Moses is looking up and speaking to God. He says, “Let me get this straight. The Arabs get all the oil, and we have to cut off what?”
Then I thought of some stories I heard as a child from some Native Americans in Montana. They were tales that seemed weird and superstitious and came from a culture I did not grasp at all–like this story.
So that this story originated in a nomadic culture is not hard for me to believe.
What do scholars think it means? Brevard Childs, in his commentary on Exodus, gives three classic critical interpretations.
First, this story explains the change from circumcision as a puberty rite or marriage rite to circumcision as something done to a child. Moses had not been circumcised, so God attacked him. But his wife intervened by substituting the circumcision of the child for adult circumcision. God accepted this, thus changing the age at which circumcisions happened.
Second, the story originated with a primitive belief that a local god could claim a bride on her wedding night. Childs does not go into detail but, as I understand it, the god might have appeared in a vision or as part of a pagan sexual rite in which the local priest went into a trance and claimed the bride for the god who had taken over his body. The story here would explain adult circumcision as blood sacrifice to protect bridegrooms and brides.
Third, is the Midianite theory. Childs mentions Georg Fohrer as a scholar whose thinking is compatible with this theory. Zipporah was Midianite. A Midianite god sought to claim the child’s life. But Zipporah knew the ritual and the magic formula to identify the child as a blood circumcised one and thus saved him.
Childs faults all these theories as not having enough evidence to support them. He thinks critical scholarship has reached an impass in trying to find the original meaning of the story.
Notice that some of the theories require us to understand that God wanted to kill Moses and some that God wanted to kill the child. Also, the theories point up how the Hebrew is unclear about whether Moses, the child or God is the “bridegroom of blood.” The Hebrew just says “he” without clarifying who it refers to. The players actually mentioned in the text are God, the child (as the object of the circumcision) and Zipporah. Many translations import Moses into the text. But he is not really there.
So what if we assume that the text just told of an encounter of Zipporah with God? Zipporah was not a Hebrew. Presumably she had not circumcised her child because she was not committed to this deity. So perhaps (though who knows what the original meaning of the story was?) the story in the Torah is about Zipporah’s conversion to Yahwism. God passes over her firstborn in anticipation of how he will pass over all the firstborn of his people when the angel of death comes upon the Egyptian firstborn.
She circumcised her child and presumably her next child, as well. In Hebrew in the little aside at the end of the story, circumcisions is plural.
Apparently, there was controversy later about Zipporah. Aaron and Miriam did not like Moses’ wife (Numbers 12:1 ff.). And the Priestly writings include a vicious attack on those who take Midianite wives (Numbers 25:6 ff. and Numbers 31). So our Exodus 4 story could fit with Numbers 12 as part of a defense of Zipporah against the insinuations of the Aaronic priests.