What is this all about? The textual context is a great help and also a corresponding passage in The book of Jasher – which is Jewish secular history, not claimed to be the inspired word of God but the text can nevertheless provide some light.
Exodus 4:19 And the Lord said unto Moses in Midian, Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.—22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn:23 And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn.
There seems to be a link between God’s speech about Israel being the firstborn son (in a figurative sense) and the verses which immediately follow (see below) – about Moses’ first born son. We have to remember that an important covenant had been established between God and Israel, through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and a covenant is supposed to be respected by both parties. God had promised the patriarchs and their offspring protection and the land of Canaan under the condition that they stayed faithful to him. The law of Moses was still in the future at this point in history, but in order to reach to that stage faithfulness from Moses and the Israelites was required. A circumcision was an outward sign of being a follower of the one true God and a crystal clear divine commandment which was not optional. Moses was of course well aware of this commandment from God, yet he still neglected to obey him apparently due to fear of man – his father-in-law. That is like saying “I respect you God and you have done so much for me and my people, showing us miracles, etc, but there are limits for how much I can obey you. I prefer to obey my father-in-law in this matter so that I can be on a good standing with him. That is more important than having a good relationship with you or being able to save the people of Israel”. Here is the rest of the story:
24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision. 27 And the Lord said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him.28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him.29 And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel:30 And Aaron spake all the words which the Lord had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.31 And the people believed: and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.
If Moses and the Israel would be faithful to God and stay away from sin (like murdering, stealing, lying, adultery, witchcraft, etc), it would mean that Israel would indeed be a “peculiar” people who would be able to show other people that they (the Israelites) were a morally upright people who lived for the Lord. God is just but he also requires obedience from his people. If the Israelites were just like anyone else, God’s reputation would consequently also be attacked and other people would see no reason to seek the God of Israel nor improve their pagan life styles. Therefore it is not a light matter to choose to disobey God despite having seen divine miracles and despite knowing that breaking the covenant would risk the safety of his own family and many other Israelite families.
Ex. 19:5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
Below we can read the same story from the book of Jasher’s point of view. God really wanted to save his people from their Egyptian yoke. He was “jealous of his people and his inheritance”.
Jasher 78:8 And Zipporah walked in the ways of the daughters of Jacob, she was nothing short of the righteousness of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.9 And Zipporah conceived and bare a son and he called his name Gershom, for he said, I was a stranger in a foreign land; but he circumcised not his foreskin, at the command of Reuel his father-in-law.10 And she conceived again and bare a son, but circumcised his foreskin, and called his name Eliezer, for Moses said, Because the God of my fathers was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.11 And Pharaoh king of Egypt greatly increased the labor of the children of Israel in those days, and continued to make his yoke heavier upon the children of Israel.–16 And the Lord was jealous of his people and his inheritance, and heard their voice, and he resolved to take them out of the affliction of Egypt, to give them the land of Canaan for a possession.
Jasher 79:5 And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, return to Egypt, for all those men who sought thy life are dead, and thou shalt speak unto Pharaoh to send forth the children of Israel from his land.6 And the Lord showed him to do signs and wonders in Egypt before the eyes of Pharaoh and the eyes of his subjects, in order that they might believe that the Lord had sent him.7 And Moses hearkened to all that the Lord had commanded him, and he returned to his father-in-law and told him the thing, and Reuel said to him, Go in peace.8 And Moses rose up to go to Egypt, and he took his wife and sons with him, and he was at an inn in the road, and an angel of God came down, and sought an occasion against him.9 And he wished to kill him on account of his first born son, because he had not circumcised him, and had transgressed the covenant which the Lord had made with Abraham.10 For Moses had hearkened to the words of his father-in-law which he had spoken to him, not to circumcise his first born son, therefore he circumcised him not.11 And Zipporah saw the angel of the Lord seeking an occasion against Moses, and she knew that this thing was owing to his not having circumcised her son Gershom.12 And Zipporah hastened and took of the sharp rock stones that were there, and she circumcised her son, and delivered her husband and her son from the hand of the angel of the Lord.
“The Angel of the Lord” is not a created angel, but as you can see in this article it seems to be none other than a form of God and likely therefore a form av Jesus (who was with his Father from the beginning). Zipporah knew that the angel of God visited them due to Moses’ neglect to obey God when it comes to their first-born son’s circumcision, and maybe this was also according to the plans of the angel. If it was a tangible reaction that the angel was after, he certainly got one when their son Gershom eventually was circumcised – and Moses was thereafter delivered from the hand of the angel of the Lord. If a person neglects to obey God when it comes to simple matters due to fear of man, he might not be ready for greater matters like saving his people from Egypt. The presence of the angel of the Lord sorted it out, and he continued to hold his protective hand over Moses, his family and Israel.