On the journey, when he had halted for that night, Yahweh encountered him and tried to kill him. Then Zipporah, taking up a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin and with it touched his feet and said, “You are my blood-bridegroom!” So he let him go.
This odd, fragmentary text has led to all kinds of speculation and a variety of explanations. Just Google the term “Yahweh tries to kill Moses” and you’ll find a host of articles approaching the problem from every angle.
One difficulty with the text is the ambiguous use of pronouns. As written, it’s not entirely clear whether Yahweh tried to kill Moses, or whether Yahweh tried to kill Moses’ infant son, or whether Moses tried to kill his own son. The connection with circumcision is also problematic.
Still, the most popular interpretation, as reflected in the translation of the New Jerusalem Bible quoted above, is that God – or his angel – did indeed try to kill Moses for some obscure reason, and that the attack was warded of by quick action on the part of Moses’ wife, who managed to appease the angry deity by circumcising their son and touching the foreskin to Moses’ genitals (“feet” is a euphemism).
It is interesting to note in this connection that often, when Yahweh manifests himself, he is referred to by the Hebrew word malak, meaning "messenger" or "angel." That is the term used in this scene. Carl Jung speculated that malak was intended to suggest a certain aspect of God - namely, his will, which encompassed both good and evil. The angel of the Lord, then, could be seen as a manifestation of Yahweh’s dark side, at least in this episode.
Now, I don’t think the Book of Exodus represents any sort of reliable historical record. My best guess is that the story was largely invented during the Babylonian captivity, with Egypt standing in for Babylon (just as Babylon itself would stand in for Rome in the much later Book of Revelation). The story of the captive Israelites being freed by their heroic leader was probably intended to keep up the morale of the Israelites as they slaved away for the Babylonians. It may have been based on some oral tradition about the liberation of a group of Hebrew slaves earlier in their history, but I doubt there was ever a mass migration of slaves out of Egypt; the Egyptians kept copious records, and there is no documentation of any such event or of the plagues that supposedly preceded it.
Whatever the origin of the biblical stories, they do at least serve as a record of the belief system of people of that era. The story of Moses under attack by a vengeful “angel of the Lord” may be mere fiction, but presumably it was inspired by actual events that people had witnessed or heard about – cases of people, even deeply spiritual people, who were beset by evil supernatural forces and brought to the brink of death.
I was reminded of this recently when reading an interesting book called The Red Scorpion, by Rami Kivisalo and Marko Joensuu. The book is a memoir by a former member of a Russian organized crime syndicate (Kivisalo) who found Jesus and turned his life around. I was reading it because I’m doing research on the Russian mafia for a novel I’m planning. I didn’t expect to find anything in the book that would relate to the subject matter of this blog. But I was surprised.
In fact, there’s a great deal of material in The Red Scorpion that I think would be of considerable interest to this blog’s readers. Kivisalo describes how he immersed himself in the study of “snake kung fu,” a deadly art that required him to tap into paranormal or supernatural abilities. He became convinced that he was obsessed or possessed by an entity (or multiple entities) that he called “the beast.” Sometimes, when the beast took over, Kivisalo would black out, committing insane acts of violence and having no memory of them the next day. He became increasingly out of control and, because of his Christian background, was deeply concerned about the fate of his soul. Eventually he underwent an exorcism that seemed to drive the beast out of him, and his recovery began.
The episode that brought to mind Moses’ enigmatic encounter with Yahweh runs as follows:
It was still early when I woke up to a feeling that someone or something was suffocating me. Who is it? Instinctively I moved my hands to my throat to struggle in the darkness against whoever was trying to kill me, but my hands could grab hold of no outstretched arms.Finally, Kivisalo uses the power of prayer to set himself free.
I opened my eyes in the dark room and saw no one. A vise of fear tightened around my mind, just as the clutching fingers of a horrifying creature of the darkness tightened all the more around my throat.
Yes, I seemed to be alone, but I was not fooled. Something was there, something like the tangible presence of an evil being – one that was all the more horrifying in that I could neither see nor touch it. How can I fight what I can’t see or feel? A thick, dark cloud seemed to fill the hotel room, sucking my life out of the very air.
Usually I prided myself on not feeling fear like other men, but now my heart pounded with sheer terror. I could not fight. I could scarcely even breathe. I was about to die. Relentlessly the invisible claws of death banded around my throat, seemingly determined not to let go until I came to the land of the dead …
On occasion I had felt the fleeting presence of evil about me, but never anything like this. I did not know what else to do, so I … just lay there, struggling for breath, waiting for my attacker to relent. I managed to suck in enough oxygen to stay alive and not lose consciousness. But the fight for it seemed endless, threatening to exhaust me.
Hours later Tony peeked in, apparently puzzled at why he had not seen me at breakfast. He saw me rolling on the bed and, perhaps surmising that this was not some kind of fit that could be cured by a visit from a doctor, shook his head and left the room …
Breathing was requiring more effort, and the amount of oxygen I was taking in was getting less. Alone once again – even the chambermaid knew not to come – I realized with despair that I would die in this hotel room.
After seven years of toying with the presence of evil, I had some understanding of what was going on. I had given the devil an inch. More than an inch. I had even, at his insistence, taken a tattoo of the red scorpion. And now he had come to get what rightfully belonged to him …
After interminable hours, the day came to an end, bringing back the darkness. My condition grew worse. Even though the claws still clutched my throat, even worse was the evil atmosphere trying to break down the resistance of my mind, to exhaust my determination, so that my lungs would let go and begin to cooperate with dying.
I was motivated to hang on, however, by fear itself. It was not so much death that I feared. I feared hell.
However we choose to interpret this event – as a genuinely supernatural manifestation or as some kind of psychological breakdown – it seems likely to me that our distant ancestors would occasionally experience the same thing. And they would probably attribute it to an attack by a dark angel. This strikes me as the likeliest explanation of Exodus 4:24.