When Moses was sent by God back to Egypt, forty years after he had fled that country, he began his journey back with his Midianite wife, Zipporah, and his young son Gershom. On the way, they spent the night at an inn, and during the night, the Lord let Moses know that He was very angry that Moses had not circumcised Gershom. In fact, God was so angry that He was at the point of killing either Moses or the boy (the Bible is not specific about which one). Realizing that God was furious at the boys’ uncircumcision, Moses directed Zipporah to circumcise her son, and she did, but with great displeasure. When the operation was over, she took the boy’s circumcised flesh and angrily threw it at Moses’ feet, screaming at him with a cruel accusation.
This scene should never have taken place, and God knew it. He had done all that was necessary to make for peace and joy between Moses and his wife, but here they were, in bitterness and strife, at least on Zipporah’s part. But why? What led to this heartbreaking scene between Moses, his wife, and God, at an inn on the road to Egypt?
Circumcision: The Sign of the Old Covenant
God’s precious covenant with Abraham is often called the covenant of circumcision because circumcision of the male descendants of Abraham was the sign of that covenant. God told Abraham on the day that He made this covenant with him, "This is the covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house or bought with money of any stranger which is not of your seed. He that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money must needs be circumcised. And my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut of from his people; he has broken my covenant" (Gen. 17:10-14).
Immediately after this life-changing, holy visit from the Almighty, Abraham circumcised his son Ishmael, all his male slaves, and even himself, at the age of 99! A year later, when Isaac was born, Abraham had him circumcised on the eighth day, just as God had commanded. Later, when Sarah had died, Abraham married a woman named Keturah, who bore to him six more sons, whom Abraham also circumcised on the eighth day.
One of those six sons born in Abraham’s last years was named Midian, and when Midian and his five brothers came of age, Abraham sent them to the east, away from Isaac, with riches enough to begin building for themselves homes and new lives. It was from these descendants of Abraham that Zipporah the Midianite came, but she apparently knew nothing of circumcision. Obviously, Midian, or his immediate descendants, failed to pass on to their offspring the truth about circumcision. Somebody in the genealogical line between Abraham’s son Midian and Moses’ wife Zipporah did not consider circumcision to be important enough to command his children to continue in it. And in time, the sign of Abraham’s covenant with God became a strange thing to the family. So strange, in fact, that it enraged Zipporah that Moses would demand such a thing, even though Moses, knowing he had displeased God by not circumcising his son, was moved with great fear of God to do it.
If Moses did not understand the importance of circumcision before that night in the inn, he understood it well from that time on. If, before that day, he was slack concerning the commandments of God, he never was again. He learned during his forty years in the camp of Midian to lightly esteem God’s covenant, and the sign of it – circumcision – but at the inn on the way to Egypt, he learned to tremble at the thought of not passing that truth on to the next generation.
When God chose Abraham,. He said He did it because "I know Abraham, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken concerning him" (Gen. 18:19). In other words, Abraham was not like Midian and his sons after him; he upheld the standard God gave to him and was not slack in commanding his children to do the same.
Tongues: The Sign of the New Covenant
I have seen first-hand the results of parents in one generation failing to pass on to their offspring the truth God had given to them. I have brothers and sisters who were taught the same truth I was taught by our father, but whose children and grandchildren now are complete strangers to the light of God because their parents behaved like Midian instead of Abraham. For whatever reason (God is Judge, not I) they failed to command their children to walk according to the law of God revealed to them. If I were to speak the truth to those offspring, it would seem as foreign to them now as circumcision was to Zipporah, and it might make them equally as angry and sarcastic toward me. That has been my experience, and that is why I understand this story of Moses and Zipporah as well as I do. I have lived it.
Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul pointed us to speaking in tongues or "stammering lips" as the sign of the new covenant, just as circumcision was the sign of the old. The baptism of the holy Ghost is the new birth as certainly as Jesus is coming back for his faithful saints. But most of Abraham’s descendants have not passed that truth on to their children. Ishmael, and Midian and his five brothers, all failed to keep alive the flame of God’s light in the world by making a stand for it. Only Isaac, of all Abraham’s sons, had sufficient understanding of the supreme importance of standing for truth in this sinful world and of upholding the standard of God’s truth in his house. But God knew he would, and Jacob after him. That is why He chose Abraham in the first place. He had found a line of men who would cling to the truth as if it was their very life. And after Moses was chastened by God’s wrath on his way to Egypt, he felt the way those two patriarchs did. And when God gave him the Law fo Israel, he commanded Israel to love it with all their hearts for, he said, "It is your life!" (Dt. 32:47).
The truth you have from God does not have to survive your death among those who knew you; it can die, and it will die, with you if you never pass it on. My hope is that what God has given me, above everything else, is what I am remembered for when I am gone. And I know that if I do what is right in God’s sight, that will be the case.