Sacrificing your children on the altar of your calling — what a terrible conflict! It is counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, a violation of every maternal and paternal instinct. Some would say abusive. Not the kind of risk any parent would take lightly. Too many tragic stories of embittered missionary’s kids, of ministry widows subordinated and neglected for the sake of a heavenly cause. And yet a divine calling often does mean dramatic changes for a family. Scripture is full of such stories. Listen in on one such episode in the life of one of our Biblical heroes.
It was a calling, a divine calling. Nothing could have been clearer. This was no dream to question in the morning. Moses had heard the terrifying Voice of Yahweh, yes, even conversed with the Voice. With his own two eyes he had stared at the strange fire licking up through the thicket from whence the Voice emanated. The frightful encounter took him completely off guard. Nor could he have anticipated a calling that would so dramatically alter the course of his life. The mission had been thrust upon him. Imposed. Yet the thought of being chosen by Yahweh for an assignment — any assignment but especially one of this magnitude — was more than exciting. It was absolutely exhilarating. Terrifying but exhilarating.
Moses had never felt more alive in his life. He and his young family had packed up their belongings and were on the road heading straight toward the epicenter of civilization. Egypt, proud seat of god-like pharaohs, place of timeless pyramids, mecca of engineering advances and world-class cultural innovation — and home to more than a million Hebrew slaves! The challenge was daunting — to convince the most powerful leader in the world to part with his labor-force. It could never be accomplished through diplomacy, Moses knew that. Nor open revolt. Perhaps pharaoh would approve a long week-end camping retreat so the Hebrews could worship their God out in the country. It could be spun as a way to re-invigorate his workforce. Or perhaps the king would be more impressed with the supernatural — some evidence that the god of the Hebrews was powerful enough to be respected. This sort of high-level negotiation would be delicate, to be sure, requiring political skill and shrewdness. Such were the thoughts that consumed Moses’ hours as his small caravan inched its way along the dusty roads toward Egypt. His early learning in the royal courts, dormant for so many years, now flooded back. He understood something of a pharaoh’s mind and how men in that stratosphere must be approached. He remembered the awesome power they wielded, shuddered at the capriciousness of their un-checked egos. If Yahweh were not ordering this venture, it would surely be a suicide mission.
Such an adrenalin rush! Moses hardly noticed that nightfall was approaching. It was the baby’s crying that finally invaded his thought-world. It was time, past time, to make camp for the night. Zipporah, his lovely and capable wife, had the trip well organized — ample food and firewood, tents and bedding, servants assigned to their tasks, the baby cared for. The baby — that had been the most troublesome issue she had faced as they struggled over “the call.” Midian was such a wonderful place to raise a family, a prosperous and peaceful land. Their children would grow up with all the benefits that prominent families enjoy — a fine education, good religious training, sufficient wealth to ensure their futures. But “the call” had changed all that. In Zipporah’s mind, it was ripping the family away from their culture, threatening their inheritance, placing them at great risk in a hostile environment. All of her husband’s reassurances about Yahweh’s protection could not dispel her maternal fears. This was a god-calling her husband had received, she was convinced of that, but she was not at all convinced that it included the whole family. It was only after the strong encouragement of her father Jethro, whom she loved and respected greatly, that she had given in to her husband’s persistent urging to go with him on this dangerous mission.
Quiet settled over their campsite, stomachs were full and the fire was a glow of embers. Zipporah was reclining with the baby still nursing at her breast when a dark figure appeared at the doorway of their tent. The man, or who she assumed to be a man, motioned Moses outside. Though Zipporah could not overhear every word, she understood immediately the substance of their conversation. Her blood ran cold. The man, or angel or whoever he was, was threatening to kill the mission, cancel the call, end it all right then and there. He might as well be pronouncing her husband’s death sentence. And Moses would surely blame her for the rest of his life. At issue: the baby she held at her breast. “My god!” she breathed, “Would you take this away from me too?”
What was so all-fired important about this circumcision rite that would make Yahweh snatch away a man’s calling? She was not ignorant of the significance to the Hebrew people of this ritual. She and Moses had discussed it at length. He had explained again and again the importance of the rite, that it was the sign of a covenant relationship between Yahweh and Abraham’s descendants. Discussions had turned to contentious debate, however, when she became pregnant with their firstborn. If it was a boy, she said, she wasn’t at all sure she was ready to embrace the tradition. It was a boy. And two strong wills collided head on. What made matters worse was that by this time Moses was beginning to talk about moving the family to Egypt. The painful mutilation of an infant was bad enough, she argued, but permanently marking her son a Hebrew, a child of the slave people — this was going too far. Moses finally conceded. It was enough that she agreed to the move to Egypt, he reasoned.
Zipporah had assumed the matter was settled. But now, out in the middle of nowhere, this intimidating messenger appears and threatens to strip her husband of what would surely be the most significant mission of his entire life. It would destroy him! She listened intently through the canvas to the confrontation outside, hoping it might be resolved in some less costly way. The covenant is with Abraham and his descendants, the stranger was saying — with the emphasizing on his descendants. How could a son of Abraham, a leader of the Jewish people no less, break the covenant with his own progeny and still deem himself a devout worshipper of Yahweh? The promise is to you and your children. To exempt your firstborn son for expediency’s sake, to give him a back door escape if things go badly in Egypt, is breaking faith with Yahweh. Remember Abraham’s firstborn who he offered to Yahweh as a sacrifice? And Yahweh delivered? Does He require less of you? Does He not require your firstborn to be placed upon the altar of your calling?
Zipporah, now hot with anger, knew what she must do. Laying her sleeping infant down and unfolding his blanket so that his naked body was exposed, she slipped a sharp knife from its sheath and severed the foreskin of his penis. Ignoring the baby’s screams, she took the bloody piece of tissue in her hands, stamped out of the tent and threw it at her husband’s feet. “What a blood-smeared husband you’ve turned out to be!” she snapped, then whirled around and disappeared back into the tent.
It was over. The angel of the Lord departed. The mission was back on track. And the issue that confronts every couple called to follow God into a threatening environment was now settled. At least for the time being. It didn’t take long for things to heat up once they reached Egypt — in more ways than one. While Zipporah was home tending to their children — they soon had two — Moses was totally immersed in high-stakes freedom negotiations. The culture-shock was very stressful on her. She was the privileged daughter of the first family of Midian, stuck in a noisy, overcrowded ghetto, surrounded by neighbors whose speech and customs she neither understood nor appreciated. That was bad enough. But living with the endless uncertainty was pure torture. Every day brought some new drama — pestilence, disease, even death all around them, the start-again-stop-again orders for the massive march out into the dessert, and then the harrowing escape from pharaoh’s armies. It was all too much for Zipporah. She could take no more. Packing up the boys, she left for home, rural Midian, where life was predictable and the air was sweet.
A calling may come to one individual but its impact certainly touches the whole family. It was Moses’ calling, not hers, she tried to explain to her father. Her calling was to motherhood — to care for his grandchildren and see to their nurture and well-being. Jethro was not Jewish but as an educated prince and devout priest he understood something of the ways of the Divine. He had witnessed the call on his son-in-law’s life, had been keeping up with the news from Egypt, and knew that the God of the Hebrews was up to something very big. Where his grandsons needed to be, Jethro admonished his daughter, was right in the middle of where Yahweh was re-shaping history. There was no other place in the world where those boys would see first-hand the mighty works of their father’s God — their God, for they both were children of the covenant. He would escort them all back personally, he told Zipporah. He wanted to see for himself the amazing exploits of this Hebrew God who had freed the entire Egyptian slave-force and parted the sea waters to aid their escape. So off they headed for Sinai to reunite the family with their father.
PS: The boys (Gershom and Eliezer) grew up and did well in the wilderness environment, doubtless under their mother’s watchful eye. They had the privilege of experiencing what their father always dreamed of but never achieved — to make the crossing into the Promised Land. They and their children became strong spiritual leaders in the new land.