The scene at the burning bush ends. Moses has asked for the Lord to send someone else which kindled the anger of the Lord. It is time for Moses to go to Egypt and be the deliverer of God’s people by the power of God. But the narrative does not immediately bring us to Egypt. When we read Exodus 4:18-31 you are likely asking why this is recorded for us. We are going to see a further transformation of Moses so that he understands the character of God. God being the I AM means there are responsibilities on our part.
The Call (4:18-23)
Moses returns to his father-in-law, requesting to go back to Egypt with his family. Moses says he wants to see if his people (the Hebrews) are still alive. This is likely a Hebraic idiom to mean that he wants to see how they are doing. We see Joseph using this expression in Genesis 45:3 asking if his father is alive when in Genesis 44 he was told that his father was alive (cf. 44:34). So we should not see Moses as trying to deceive his father-in-law but asking to return to see the condition of his own people in Egypt.
The Lord comes to Moses with an important message. “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” This may seem like an insignificant statement but it marks the beginning of the exodus and the deliverance of God’s people. This is the time to go back to the land and rescue the people. Please notice that this statement is also made for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. (Matthew 2:19–21 ESV)
After this declaration is made, chapter 3 opens with John the Baptizer preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The death of Pharaoh in Exodus and the death of Herod in Matthew reveals that the time for deliverance has arrived. God is acting in redemption. So Moses goes with his wife and two sons with the staff of God in his hand.
The Lord tells Moses along the way how this mission is going to go. Do the miracles I have given you to do. But know this that, even with the miracles, God will harden Pharaoh’s heart and will not let the people of Israel go. Now the Lord tells Moses to say these words to Pharaoh that are fascinating. Look at verses 22-23.
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22–23 ESV)
Tell Pharaoh that Israel is the Lord’s firstborn son. If you do not let him go, then the Lord will kill your firstborn son. The story of Exodus is God’s love for his son. This is the story of a loving Father who rescues his son. God wants his people freed so that they can worship and serve him as the loving Father.
Israel, God’s Son
So why does God call Israel his son? The description speaks to the depth of love and the depth of relationship. This is a special, deep love that the parent has for the child. God speaks about Israel as his son to communicate the love he has for his people. But there is so much more. The prophet Hosea speaks about this love that God has for Israel at this time. Look at Hosea 11:1.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1 ESV)
But notice how this statement by Hosea is used by Matthew in Matthew 2:13-15.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13–15 ESV)
Notice that Matthew is referring to Jesus as God’s Son. Jesus is called God’s Son just as Israel is called God’s son. This is why we see the Christ described as God’s servant Israel in Isaiah 49:3-6. Why would God call Jesus “his Son?” Why would God call Jesus “his servant, Israel?” Because if you belonged to Israel then you were God’s chosen people with special blessings, privileges, and relationship. So God is showing us that when you belong to Jesus, because he is the true vine, Israel, then you are God’s chosen people with special blessings, privileges, and relationship. The description speaks of the depth of love and relationship for those who belong to Jesus, as a Father loves his children. This is what we have in Christ and this was being pictured in God’s book of redemption, Exodus. This knowledge helps us understand the next paragraph which we may find difficult to understand and wonder why it is in the narrative.
The Need For Circumcision (4:24-26)
Verse 24 is startling. Along the way the Lord met him and looked to put him to death. We are not told who the “him” is but it seems to be referring to Moses. Now this is already the grace of God because God does not need to “look” to put someone to death. He will just put you to death like Uzzah or Nadab and Abihu. Already God is giving Moses a chance to repent and obey.
Verses 25-26 tell us why God was seeking to put Moses to death. The firstborn son has not been circumcised yet. So Moses’ wife, Zipporah, responds and performs circumcision on their firstborn son. So why is this here in the narrative? Why do we need to know this? Remember that circumcision was important as a sign of the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Circumcision was the entrance into the covenant relationship with God and showed that you belonged to Israel, God’s covenant family. One could not be part of the covenant unless one was circumcised.
We noticed in the last paragraph that Jesus is the new Israel and that we have to belong to him to be in relationship with God, enjoying covenantal privileges and blessings. Without circumcision we are destined to death, just like Moses was about to be put to death by the Lord. We have repeatedly noted that these actions in the book of Exodus are pictures of realities that will happen when Christ comes. So what is the New Testament parallel for circumcision?
In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11–12 NRSV)
Baptism is the circumcision act by which we enter into God’s covenant family and can thus enjoy the covenantal privileges and blessings of God. You cannot be part of Israel unless you are circumcised. You cannot be part of the covenant unless you are circumcised. But notice that this act of baptism with tied with faith. You must have faith in the power of God when you are going through this spiritual circumcision (baptism) for it to have any effect. One does not belong to Israel (God’s people) and does not belong to Jesus unless one has let Christ circumcised your heart (cf. Romans 2:28-29) which is visibly seen in the act of submission in baptism. Death comes for not being under this covenant sign. Within the covenant there is grace and life. Outside the covenant there is judgment and death. Baptism is the sign that you have crossed the line, leaving the world and entering into God’s family of saved people.
But notice that this entrance into God’s family requires blood (4:25-26). The book of Exodus is going to show the need for blood to belong to the relationship. Even circumcision showed the need for blood. Jesus would enact his covenant through blood, his own blood as he died so that we could be set free.
Believe and Worship (4:27-31)
Aaron meets Moses and they go to the elders of the people of Israel. Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses (cf. 4:15) and did the signs in the sight of the people. Notice their response:
And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 4:31 ESV)
This is the goal of life: to believe and worship God. Notice this is God’s purpose in setting the people free from their slavery. We saw this back in verse 23. The goal of the freedom of Israel is that God would be praised, glorified, served, and worshiped. When the people heard that the Lord had seen their affliction and visited them, they bowed their heads and worshiped. This is the right response. We worship when we understand that God was concerned about our condition, saw our affliction as slaves to sin, and set us free through the death of his Son, Jesus. Circumcision is a cutting off the fleshly way of living so that we live to serve and worship God. The apostle Paul speaks about the meaning of baptism in Romans 6. What does our circumcision (baptism) mean?
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6 ESV)
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11 ESV)
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Romans 6:13 ESV)
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:22 ESV)
We are Israel, God’s people, belonging to Jesus, God’s Son. We have been saved to serve. We have been saved to worship. We have been set free so that we will glorify God with our lives. Is that what we are doing? Are we spending our freedom to serve the Lord or have we returned to slavery, separated from God and condemned by sins? Redemption is to change everything about us. Believe and worship the Lord. You have been set free by the blood of Jesus. Live under the banner of hope that you belong to God’s family and show the world you are a child of God.