Exodus 4: Moses Goes Back to Egypt

By Mary Jane Chaignot

With God’s concession to send Aaron along, Moses has either run out of objections or has accepted God’s commission. Either way, he goes back to his father-in-law, Jethro, and says, “Please let me go back to my kindred in Egypt and see whether they are still living.” That’s quite an unusual statement in light of the fact that he already knows that his mission is to rescue his kinsmen and bring them out of Egypt. It’s hard to know Moses’ motivation here, but perhaps he’s still hoping for a way to get out of everything. On the off chance that all of them are dead, he will be able to return with a clear conscience. On the other hand, he probably doesn’t want to tell Jethro that he’s been talking with God in a burning bush and that he intends to go up against the powers of Egypt. Jethro doesn’t ask for any additional details, but tells Moses to “Go in peace.”

Before Moses has a chance to act, the Lord reappears telling him to “Go back to Egypt, for all those who were seeking your life are dead.” Some scholars suggest that this verse is simply out of place, that it belongs before Moses goes to see Jethro. In its context, however, it suggests that any personal danger for Moses has passed. The new Pharaoh probably doesn’t even know about him. In that sense the deliverance is ready to begin.

This time, Moses does as he is told. He takes his wife and sons, puts them on a donkey, and heads back to the land of Egypt, carrying the staff of God in his hand. Although “sons” is plural, only one has been mentioned up to this point. It should also be noted that there is no mention of his family upon his arrival in Egypt. His family won’t be mentioned again until chapter 18. He does, however, take his staff signifying God’s presence and power.

The Lord reiterates to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power.” Even though the wonders God showed to Moses were ostensibly to convince the Israelites that he is acting on God’s behalf, the real opponent has always been Pharaoh.

He also tells Moses that “I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” This is one of the more troubling statements in the book. Scholars are all over the board in trying to explain what it means. All in all, there will be many references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Sometimes, Pharaoh will do it himself; sometimes God seems to be the instigator; other times it is simply passively stated. It raises issues of predeterminism versus free will, basic fairness, and accurate translating. Is it fair that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and then punishes him for being uncooperative? The consensus of early scholars has been that Pharaoh is evil, and he deserves it. God is just making an example of him for future generations. Additionally, the Israelites see God’s might and wonders demonstrated and will, therefore, fear and obey Him. Modern scholars continue to struggle in order to find a satisfactory answer. Suffice it to say, this will be an ongoing discussion. In this context, it is information given to Moses, essentially warning him about Pharaoh’s resistance.

God continues talking to Moses and foretells how everything will end. “You will say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.’ I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.” “Thus says the Lord” is an introductory prophetic formula indicating Moses is speaking the words of the Lord. Whether Pharaoh will understand and accept this remains to be seen. In this case, the Lord announces “Israel is my firstborn son” – the only such instance in the Old Testament. The Lord wants Moses to remind Pharaoh of the request to worship in the wilderness and his refusal. Now he will lose his firstborn son. Moses has no reaction to this information. His goal is to go to Egypt.

“On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him.” This introduces another mysterious passage. Scholars wryly comment that while the Egyptians are no longer interested in his demise, apparently the Lord is! So how do they make sense of this story? Again, there is no easy explanation.

Not all scholars agree on the antecedent for the pronouns. Does the Lord try to kill Moses or his son? Tradition has always presumed it is meant for Moses, but it makes little sense in light of the fact that the Lord has just commissioned him to bring His people out of Egypt. That leads some scholars to think it refers to his firstborn son. Scholars also make much of the point that the Lord “tries” to kill him. Surely, if the Lord had been serious about it, He could easily have carried out the attack. As it is, the Lord gives no motivation, no warning, and no details, but does the story does allow time for a response.

In this case, it is another woman, Moses’ wife, who saves Moses. “Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’” Her quick thinking doesn’t thwart the Lord’s plan; instead it provides a solution, and it is effective. “So he let him alone.” In this case the “He” is the Lord. She, then, says, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.”

The story ends well, but unpacking its meaning is still problematic. Some scholars see a foreshadowing of the last plague where blood protects the Israelites’ firstborn; here, blood protects Moses’ firstborn. Others argue that God has just identified the Israelites as His firstborn; He has a covenant with them through circumcision. That covenant needs to extend to Moses’ firstborn, also through circumcision. Whatever its connotation, the story says that the blood of Moses’ son satisfied the Lord. One last point: few scholars address the role of Zipporah, even though she is the only one named in the scenario. A careful reader might wonder, “How does she know what to do?” Scholarship has yet to address that topic.

After this, the Lord says to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” Aaron does as he is told, finds Moses at the mountain of God, and kisses him. Again, many scholars think this verse is out of place, since Moses has already left the mountain. But its purpose is to show continuity. God charged Moses at the mountain; Moses is now relaying everything to Aaron at the same place. Moses tells Aaron everything that the Lord has told him, including the signs and the charge that He has given him.

Arriving in Egypt, they assemble all the elders of the Israelites and Aaron speaks the words that the Lord has given to Moses and performs the signs in front of the people. This fulfills God’s concession to Moses that Aaron will speak for him. This also sets the stage for having a combination of words and deeds in order to convince the people. The good news, however, is that the people believe the signs and accept Moses, thereby allaying his fears that they might reject him. And upon hearing that the Lord has heeded their cries and misery, the people bow down and worship, an appropriate response to God’s promises.

It is interesting, however, that there is no mention of Moses sharing the name of God with them. Some scholars say they already know their God; Moses is the one that needed an understanding of God. Perhaps, but the name also revealed an aspect of God that is new – His presence in a new way. Nonetheless, the stage is set for the next step – meeting with Pharaoh.