Why did YHVH Attack Moses, Seeking to Kill him?

“The LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me’. So He let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision’.”i

This text is off-putting, disjointed, enigmatic and raises many questions.

For example, is Zipporah addressing her son or her husband when she pronounces these words: « You are for me a bridegroom of blood »? Both interpretations are possible, and both have been defended by learned commentators.

According to some, Zipporah has just circumcised her son and she calls him « blood husband » because he is bleeding.

According to others, Moses neglected to circumcise his child, which is why God « attacked him » and « sought to kill him”. When Moses was close to death, Zipporah called him « blood husband, » because she had saved him with her son’s blood.

The first interpretation is preferred by the majority of commentators. But it poses a problem. One could ask whether Zipporah is operating a kind of symbolic incest. The mother calls her son twice: « blood husband » and « blood husband because of circumcision ». There would undoubtedly be there, for psychoanalysis, a form of symmetry with the true husband, Moses, who made Zipporah bleed « because of » her defloration.

Moses tore Zipporah’s hymen, as a husband of flesh. Zipporah cut off Eliezer’s foreskin, as a « husband of blood ». A symbolic parallel, heavy with analytical consequences, but also a saving act. Just after Zipporah cut off the foreskin, YHVH released Moses, and it is then that Zipporah clarified: « A husband of blood because of circumcision. »

But why would Zipporah feel the need to « touch » the feet of her son Eliezer with her foreskin?

The second interpretation is perhaps deeper. Zipporah saves her husband’s life by circumcising her son Eliezer in a hurry, while YHVH (or his angel) is about to kill Moses. Then she touches « his feet » with her foreskin. Whose feet? In the second interpretation, they are the « feet » of Moses, and it is to him that she addresses herself. But why the “feet”? Why touch the feet of Moses with his son’s foreskin?

In biblical Hebrew, “feet” are a metaphor often used to signify sex, as in Isaiah 7:20: « He shall shave the head and the hair of the feet ». Zipporah touched the sex of Moses with his son’s foreskin and said to him: « You are a blood husband to me », because it was also his blood that flowed, with the blood of his son. Circumcision is the figure of a new marriage, not with the son (which would be incest), but with Moses, and this in a symbolic sense, the sense of the Covenant, which is physically concluded in the blood of both spouses, as they are united by the blood of Eliezer.

In other words, Zipporah saved the life of Moses (who was uncircumcised) by simulating his circumcision. She touches the sex of Moses with the foreskin of her son, who has just been circumcised, and thus appeases the divine wrath, which was twofold: because the father and the son had not yet been circumcised.

At that very moment, YHVH « let him [Moses] alone ». This translation does not render the richness of the original Hebrew word. The verb used, rafah, has as its first meaning « to heal »; in a second sense, it means « to decline, to weaken, to desist, to release ». Healing is a weakening of the disease. It is worth noting this double meaning. YHVH « releases » Moses, « desists » from him, and thus He « heals » him. He « heals » Moses of his capital fault, and he also « heals » the child who is bleeding, and who might have died as a result of the operation, carried out with a stone in the middle of the desert, without much hygiene, and in an emergency.

There is yet another angle to this story.

Rachi comments: « He deserved to die because of this negligence. A Baraïta teaches us: Rabbi Yosef said: God forbid, Moses was not guilty of negligence. But he thought, « Shall I circumcise the child and set off? Will the child be in danger for three days? Shall I circumcise the child and wait three days? Yet the Holy One Blessed be He, who commanded me: Go, return to Egypt. Why then should he deserve death? Because he had first taken care of his bed at the stage instead of circumcising him without delay. The Talmud in the Nedarim Treaty (32a) says that the angel took the form of a snake, and swallowed him starting from the head to the hips, then rejected him and swallowed him again starting from the feet to the place in question. That’s how Zipporah understood that it was because of the circumcision. »

Rashi presents Moses in the throes of procrastination. Which of God’s commandments should be obeyed first: that of returning to Egypt, or that of circumcising his son? He falls into the fault when he does not immediately take care of the circumcision. But the Nedarim Treaty goes further. It evokes Moses swallowed by a snake. The snake starts at the head and stops at the hips (at the sex), then spits him out and starts again by swallowing him, starting by the feet.

Let’s try our own interpretation.

One can speculate that this « snake » metaphorically represents disease. Moses, uncircumcised, may have been the victim of a genital infection, which resulted in high fevers, with pain extending to the sex. Then, after a remission, the infection would start again from the « feet » (the sex). The kind of fellatio performed by the « snake » is a rather crude metaphor, but « biblical » after all. In any case, the Talmudists thought about it allusively, and felt that this was how Zipporah understood what she had to do.

But if Moses had a genital infection, why did Zipporah operate on her son’s sex rather than on Moses’?

As an unrepentant rationalist, I shall attempt a medical explanation.

Zipporah touched her husband’s sex with her son’s bloody foreskin. The son’s blood contained antibodies, which cured Moses’ genital infection.

Quite a rational solution. Yet it was a (rather irrational) angel who suggested it to Zipporah…

iEx. 4, 24-26

Brief Comments on Ten God’s Names

Paulus Ricius, also known as Paulus Israelita, was a humanist and Kabbalist of Jewish origin, converted to Christianity in 1505. He is known for his contributions to « Christian Hebraism » and for his refutation of Jewish arguments against Christianity through Kabbalah. He was one of the architects of the ‘Christian Kabbalah’ . His work Sha’arei Orah – in Latin Portae lucis, the « Gates of Light », was a source of inspiration for comparable projects initiated by scholars such as Conrad Pellicanus or Guillaume Postel.

By consulting Ricius’ Artis Cabalisticae – Hoc est reconditae theologiae et philosophiae scriptorum (1587), as well as De Arcana Dei Providentia and Portae lucis, I found a list of ten names of God that is worth studying.

1. אדנּי Adonai – The Lord

2. אל חי El Hay – The One who Lives

3. Elohim Zabaoth – The God of the Armies

4. Adonai Zabaoth – The Lord of the Armies

5. יהוה YHVH – Yahweh

6. אלהים Elohim – God (literally: The Gods)

7. אל El – God

8. יהֹוִה The YHVH Tetragram, with Elohim’s vocalization:YeHoViH

9. יה Ioh – First and last letter from YHVH

10. אהיה Ehieh – « I am »

The order of these ten names of God is relatively (but not entirely) arbitrary. No hierarchy is possible or relevant in such a matter, one may assume. Let us note that Guillaume Postel, Thomas Aquinas and Paulus Ricius (and many other specialists) offered very different views on the Names to be retained and listed.

As a matter of principle, God’s Names should be considered to have equal value or status.

However, that does not mean that these Names convey the same meaning, the same weight or have the same value.

Almost two centuries after Ricius, Leibniz proposed thirteen names of God, based on God’s own statement to Moses in Ex. 34:6-7 (as already discussed in my blog The other Other) .

It is interesting, I think, to compare Ricius’ list and Leibniz’ one, with their differences, additions, and yawning gaps.

While comparing and weighing both approaches, one has to remember that the count made by Leibniz is indeed arbitrary, and the base for his reasoning quite fragile, though intellectually stimulating.

There is no certainty either that Paulus Ricius’ version of the ten Names may be more accurate.

We should not be too shy entering this field of questioning, either. What is here at stake is to look for some kind of heuristics, akin to serendipity, to help us, poor humans, in mapping our way around a very difficult subject.

For that matter, it may seem relevant to analyze the relationship between the ten names of God and the ten Sefirot, which are divine emanations.

Here is the list of Sefirot as declined in Latin by Paulus Ricius:

Corona. Prudentia. Sapientia. Pulchritudo. Fortitudo. Magnificentia. Fundamentum. Confessio. Victoria. Regnum.

The Hebrew names of Sefirot quoted in the Kabbalah are the following:

Keter (crown), Hokhma (wisdom), Bina (understanding), Hessed (mercy), Gevurah (discipline), Tiferet (beauty), Netzah (victory), Hod (splendour), Yesod (foundation), Malkuth (kingship).

The Sefirot names are organized in a figure, which evokes a kind of human body, very schematic, with corona for head, sapientia and prudentia as two eyes or two ears, fortitudo and magnificentia for both arms, pulchritudo for heart, confessio and victoria for both legs, fundamentum for ‘foundation’ (euphemism for anus) and regnum for sex.

It is certainly worth trying to meditate on possible equivalences or connections between the Sefirot and the ten Names of God, looking for analogies or anagogies :

CoronaKeter may be linked to ‘Adonai’. The Lord wears the only crownthat be. However, who anointed Him? And what this crown is made of? Gold or thorns?

PrudentiaBina may be linked to ‘YHVH’. God is prudent, and understanding. This is why He did not reveal the meaning of His Name, nor its vocalization.

SapientiaHokhma may be linked to ‘El Hay’. Wisdom is always alive in God.

PulchritudoTiferet may be linked to ‘Elohim’. The Scriptures mentions the beauty of the three Men ‘who were God’, meeting Abraham under the oak of Mamre.

FortitudoGevurah may be linked to ‘Adonai Zabaoth’. The ‘Lord of the Armies’ incarnates the essence of forceand discipline.

MagnificentiaHod may be linked to ‘Elohim Zabaoth’. How could the ‘God of the Hosts’ not embody magnificence in all its glory?

FundamentumYesod may be linked to ‘Ioh’. The Name Ioh incarnates the foundation of divinity, with its two fundamental letters.

ConfessioHessed may be linked to ‘Yehovih’. How can you get mercy without at least requesting it, by confessing your sins? The Tetragram YHVH intertwined with the vowels of Elohim is analogous to mercy penetrating the heart.

VictoriaNetzah may be linked to ‘El’. Only El, at the end of times, — or at the ‘extreme’ summit of His eternity –, will be victorious.

RegnumMalkuth may be linked to ‘Ehieh’. By saying « I am whom I will be », God establishes His reign once for all, for the present and the future.

Of course Kabbalah literature is rich in temptatives to link the sefirot to different Names of God.

For instance, just to give a glimpse of possible, acceptable, variations on the same theme, one may quote the following series of associations, that I found in the online literature on the subject.

I would like to note in passing that, after having forged the associations listed above, I discovered that two associations (out of ten) were similar in the list quoted below. I mention this only to show the power (and the limitations) of heuristic serendipity in this obscure arcane.

RegnumMalkuth linked to Adonaï ha Aretz, The Lord of the Earth.

FundamentumYesod linked to ‘Shaddaï El Haï (The Omnipotent Living God).

Magnificentia – Hod linked to Elohim Zabaoth (The God of Armies), — like we did (see above).

VictoriaNetzah linked to ‘YHVH Zabaoth (YHVH of the Hosts).

PulchritudoTiferet linked to ‘Aloah‘ (The Divinity).

FortitudoGevurah linked to ‘Elohim Gibor’ (The Strong God).

ConfessioHessed linked to ‘El‘ (God).

PrudentiaBina linked to ‘YHVH‘, — just like we did (see above).

SapientiaHokhma linked to ‘Iah‘ (another vocalization of the short Name ‘YH’)

CoronaKeter linked to ‘Eyeh‘ (‘I am’).

What can we learn from this sort of exercise?

We learn that all divine Names are ‘ living’ metaphors, which means that they ‘live’ and the may ‘die’.

But all these metaphors, in a way, are also (metaphorically) ‘gravid’, ‘pregnant’ with other, unheard of, new Names, yet to be born out of the most profound depths of language and of our souls.

The Three Screams of God

When do you need a ‘veil’ ?

There are strong reasons to wear a veil, under certain circumstances. For example, it reads:

« And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. »i

Or: « When Moses had finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. »ii

In both cases, the veil seems to be justified, for very different reasons.

But there are times when, clearly, you have to remove the veil. For example:

« When Moses entered before the Lord to speak with him, he took off the veil until he came out. »iii

How can we explain that Moses sometimes veils himself, and sometimes reveals himself, when he is in the presence of God?

Moses, it seems to me, makes an essential difference between watching and speaking.

To make a long story short, this difference is as follows: the gaze kills, the word gives life.

It is certain that there is mortal danger in « seeing » the face of God. « Man cannot see me and live. »iv

To overcome this risk, Moses only looks at God’s « back » or the « cloud » in which He hides.

On the contrary, the word is the very instrument of prophecy. It does not kill, it gives life.

With a capital letter, the Word is Wisdom, Verb, Logos. It is even placed at the right hand of God, like Adonaiv. It names the Name. It sets out the Law.

In the extreme, the Word is a « scream ». More precisely, three screams.

It reads: « The Lord passed before him and screamed: ‘YHVH, YHVH, God, merciful and gracious!’  » vi

Why does God shout His name to Moses three times?

Why does He shout His name ‘YHVH’ twice in a row, and His name ‘EL’ a third time?

These three screams are not addressed to Moses alone, maybe.

They must be heard, long after, by all those who were not there, – all of humanity yet to come.

In order for these ‘names’ to be heard long after Moses days, they had to be screamed, to be shouted, very loud, to reach the extremities of Mankind. But above all, they had to be written.

« Put these words in writing »vii.

Words, screams, writings. How do you put a scream in writing ? With capital letters? There are none in Hebrew.

If Moses had put on a veil, he would not have « seen », and above all he would have heard badly enough, one can speculate – except for the screams. But, for sure, with a veil he could not have written.

And he could not have spoken (audibly). Moses did not have an easy wordviii. With a veil over his face, he would have been even more embarrassed to speak distinctly.

The veil would have been a barrier to exchange. It was therefore not really necessary, it was even strongly discouraged.

Especially since the interview environment was very noisy. « Moses was speaking and God was answering him in thunder. »ix

Moses had previously put a veil over his face for fear of dying in front of the Face, or when he had wanted to hide his own « shining » face from the Israelites.

The veil was then necessary, it seems, as a defence (against death) or as a modesty (against the jealousy of the people).

But when it came to speaking, hearing, writing, then Moses removed the veil.

The lesson is still valid today.

i Ex. 3,6

ii Ex. 34,33

iii Ex. 34, 34

iv Ex. 33,20

v Ps. 110 (109) -1

vi Ex. 34,6

vii Ex. 34,27

viii Ex. 6,30

ix Ex.19,19

YHVH told Adonai: « Sit on my right »

Man does not speak. It is the word that « speaks ». Man is not the master, he is only the instrument.

« By whom is spoken the word that is said? The eye and the ear, what God splints them? For he is the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the word of the word and also the breath of the breath, the eye of the eye.  » – (Kena-Upanişad, 1, 1-2)

During the Vedic sacrifice, it is not the priest who speaks, despite the appearance, it is the God.

God is the spirit in the spirit, the breath in the breath.

God alone is truly « speaking word ». Brahman alone inhabits the words. Only he remains in all the cries, songs, psalmodies, throughout the sacrifice.

The idea of the God « Word » is not specific to the Vedas. It is found in other traditions.

The Bible, which appeared long after the Vedas, also presents a God who creates and makes people exist through his Word alone.

The Vedas and the Bible have a common vision. God is Word, and from this Word emanates a creative Word. From this creative Word is born (among others) Man, – speaking creature.

The Hebrew tradition proclaims the absolute oneness of God. But it also recognizes a second cause: a Word that is detached from God, that comes from his Mouth, and that acts in the world by its own power.

In support, the prophet Moses and the psalmist David.

Moses speaks explicitly of a Lord who splits himself, – or of two « Lords » who are both « YHVH », the first sending the second punishing men:  » Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;  » (Gen. 19:24)

The Hebrew text is as follows:

וַיהוָה, הִמְטִיר עַל-סְדֹם וְעַל-עֲמֹרָה–גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ:  מֵאֵת יְהוָה, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם

We note the repetition of the YHVH tetragram as an initial agent of the action ( וַיהוָה), and as an active partner (מֵאֵת יְהוָה). We also notice the use of the expression מֵאֵת יְהוָה, « from YHVH » which indicates a kind of detachment, of movement.

Literally: YHVH rains fire and brimstone, and YHVH himself comes « from » YHVH, who is in the « highest heaven ».

We find this divine duplication elsewhere. King David chanted:

« The Lord (YHVH) said to my Lord (Adonai): Seat on my right ».i

How can we understand that the Lord (Adonai) sits at the right hand of the Lord (YHVH)?

Isn’t YHVH also Adonai? What does the figure of the Lord (Adonai) « sitting at the right hand » of the Lord (YHVH) represent? Who is this Lord (Adonai), who also slaughters kings, does justice to the nations, and is « a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek »?

David says again:

« By the word of YHVH the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth, all their army. »ii

What does David mean by evoking the mouth of God, His breath and His word? Are God’s Mouth, Word and Breath « united » in divine oneness, or are they « distinct »? Or are they both united and distinct?

What specific action do Word and Breath have respectively on the world, what singular meanings do they have for man?

David offers a first answer. He presents the Word as an « envoy », healing those who need YHVH:

« He sent his Word, and he healed them. « iii

The divine Word, as presented in the Vedas, has an astonishing structural analogy, it seems, with the divine Word in the Bible.

Two great spiritual traditions, different in many other respects, very distant geographically and in time, come together to affirm that God speaks, that His Word is divine, and that It heals and saves men.

Yet, there is another unanswered question ;

The Word heals. But what does the Breath do?

iPs. 110 (109) -1

iiPs 33(32) -6

iiiPs 106(107)-20