Exodus 4:24-26

Robert Vining rvining at log.on.ca
Mon Jun 28 16:11:46 EDT 1999

Avi Erlich observes that Harold Bloom misunderstands  the story in
Exodus 4:24-26. So, join the club of those not comprehending what the
ancient author was up to. While Erlich and Bloom do not agree on the
meaning  of  this most enigmatic drama, they do agree that amongst
Jewish scholars there is little agreement as they  contrive  to make the
unpalatable  more palatable. Out of all the rabbinic scholars, sages,
midrash composers,  talmudic storytellers, there is not much consensus
as  they  struggle to make this tale fit into "normative" conventional
wisdom. If  I understand Bloom correctly, all this speculating and
theorizing  would have pleased the ancient author. For, it was her
intention to be deliberately  obscure  at times  so as to provoke
auditor response. This story, is one of those times, in which she
purposely employs this technique.  The ensuing  much  conjecturizing is
evidence that the "great lady", Gevurah, J, has succeeded in compelling
the reader to examine preconceived notions, and, to do some ruminating.
Succeeded, except for Josephus and Philo, who cop out by  ignoring this
notably contentious  account.

Erlich and Bloom agree that biblical scholars miss the boat if they
focus on the question, "What was the sin of Moses that led the
Night-Stalker God to pursue him with homicidal intent?" This is a
difficult  passage for the revered Rashi, generally thought of as
preferring a plain sense interpretation when appropriate. For the plain
sense of the text is the scandal of Yahweh's unwarranted assault on His
just chosen, called and commissioned Liberator and Lawgiver. Bloom
thinks Rashi's  observation that Yahweh was out to kill Moses because he
was not proceeding  post haste to fulfill his ordained task in Egypt, to
be absurd.  What Bloom calls "normative tradition", impatient even with
the esteemed Rashi,  came up with "the mad explanation that Moses was to
be slain precisely because he had failed to circumcise his son".  Martin
Buber,  who Bloom notes is  generally,  "largely free of the normative
tradition", fumbles  here, as he insists that Yahweh must have had a
motive. For  Buber,  Moses had held something back; has not been
completely obedient, and since Yahweh "claims the entirety of the one He
has chosen", Yahweh was out to get him.  But, Bloom notes  that  perhaps
the greatest tribute to the awesome irony of J, was rendered by the
midrashic legend, which converted the murderous Yahweh into Satan
disguised as a serpent that nearly swallows up Moses before Zipporah
performs circumcision on his son".  Similarly, the LXX translators get
Yahweh off the hook by converting Him into an "angel of  the Lord".
Although the Redactor is  a villain for censoring the perceived larger
Book of J., Bloom acknowledges his willingness to include this
troublesome vignette,  albeit not until he (R)  had tampered with it to
make it appear to be an etiological circumcision tale- "so J's own
passage becomes instead a weird founding event for the praxis of

For Bloom, these defensive maneuverings   are unnecessary and
inappropriate, indicative that the author's intent has been missed.
There was, and is, scholarly resistance to J's  depiction of an
"eccentrically irascible, easily angered" god, such as  she portrays so
laconically in this stark narrative. Moses, no hero of J's,  doesn't
fare well, either. "The Moses of  P, who stammers because he has
uncircumcised  lips,  is a wholly different Moses from J's, who stammers
out of dread and bewilderment, and has to be rescued from Yahweh by his
wife through their baby son, hardly a dignified salvation for the
prophet."  Nobility is characterized  in the drama by Zipporah,
non-Israelite daughter of a pagan priest,  who  intuiting Yahweh's
intent,  performs the  blood ritual that will appease Him, thus saving
her husband's life.

Avi Erlich, unhappy with J's impish, rascally God,  sees the passage
very differently. He  criticizes Bloom as "a critic who takes nothing
literally, thinks it outrageous that God would want to kill His Own
elect, especially when Moses is even now undertaking His frightful
mission.  But most certainly we are not meant to take  as narrative fact
the fantastic statement  that God met Moses at the inn and sought to
kill him" . For Erlich,  there is no need to be defensive about this
text. Scholarly contortions to assimilate and normatize arise out of  a
basic exegetical blindness. For him, this passage is  a  delving into
the psyche of Moses. It is a description of his bad dream, his nightmare
told in hallucinatory language.  "Thus when we read that "the Lord met
him, and sought to kill him" we might wonder if God meets Moses not
because God seeks but because the human Moses dreams. Perhaps these are
nightmarish images fabricated by a terrified servant in the middle of
the wilderness, in the middle of the night. In deed, the flitting
appearance of Zipporah as she throws the foreskin at the feet of Moses,
seems more dream-like than covenant-related, and her repeated accusation
against the bloody husband, sounds less like the customary ritual of
circumcision, and more like a madly repeated dream element. Magically,
as in a dream, Zipporah's incantations dissolve the rage of God, just
as  Jacob's dream- work dissolves the grasp of the angel with whom he
wrestles in his sleep at Penuel." Re: Zipporah, Erlich observes, "Is not
Zipporah herself a terrifying dream figure, both a protectress and a
knife-wielding mother who menaces both Moses and his son? Such a lurid
magician can not be meant as an actual appeaser of the God of Abraham.
What Hebrew reader would accept at face value the claim that this harpy
dissuades a berserk God from squeezing Moses throat?  That "God let him
go" probably represents  Moses's own dream wish that Pharaoh will indeed
let the Hebrews go, and that Moses himself will be let go without being
doomed as a false prophet, or a failed servant"

What is the author up to? Providing a serious, insightful psychological
study of the fears and apprehensions of Moses's troubled mind-his dream
work?  Or, a description of a just God's plan and activity, which
because of its crypticness leaves us to figure out what His noble
motive* might have been to warrant  His trying  to kill His servant?
Or, do we have a tricky, nuanced, sophisticatedly subtle, non-religious,
comic, supreme ironist, the  most elliptical of all biblical authors,
here daring to intimate an extra-ordinarily wayward, and uncanny
literary character?

*The most widely accepted motive in the normative tradition is that
Moses failed to keep the commandment to circumcise his son, Gen.17:12-14

Robert Vining, Owen Sound, Ontario         rvining at log.on.ca

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