Moses and the Serpent


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: Can you explain the Rashi in Exodus 4:24, where God seeks to kill Moses for not circumcising his son: “And the angel was made into a kind of snake and swallowed Moses from his head to his thighs, and returned and swallowed him from his feet up to the same place. Tzippora understood that this was happening because of circumcision.”

I understand that the angel was hinting. Is there something to learn from the fact that the angel was made into a snake, specifically? My first association is lashon hara, or ungratefulness. I think God sent the snakes for this reason in Parshas Chukas (Numbers 21:6): “Let the snake to whom all tastes taste the same attack the ungrateful ones who didn’t appreciate the versatility of the Manna.”




Mesora: One question is more general in nature, but great in importance: Why does God teach man by way of subtle indication, in place of outright clarity? “Hinting” to Moses via this snake procedure is effective, but not as effective and direct as communicating in words such as, “Moses, you have sinned by doing such and such.” I will treat this point in a separate article (“How God Teaches Man”), and address this specific account here alone.


What transpired? Moses desired to follow God’s command to descend to Egypt, delivering God’s words to Pharaoh and the Jews. Although presently obligated in circumcision on his newborn, Moses thought this would place his son in danger, prohibiting him from travel. Therefore, Moses opted to put off this command, favoring God’s other command to travel to Egypt. Moses started his trip to Egypt. The Torah reads as follows:


“And it was (as he was) on the journey, at a lodging place, God met up with him and sought to kill him.” (Exod. 4:24)


What was Moses’ sin? He was acting in line with God’s command to descend to Egypt! Either way, whichever command he selected first, (circumcision of traveling to Egypt) Moses would in fact be postponing the other command. There was no way for Moses to fulfill both simultaneously. How then can Moses be at fault, regardless of which command he selected to perform first? Is God saying that circumcision was a priority? And if so, what was its priority?


We read further:


“And Tzippora took a knife and cut the foreskin of her son, and placed it as his feet. And she said, ‘for you are a groom of blood to me’. (Her son’s circumcision played a role in causing Moses’ near-death.) And the plague ceased to attack Moses, then she said, ‘you are a groom of blood regarding circumcision’.” (Exod. 4:25,26)


We learn by Tzippora’s intervention, that Moses was debilitated by this divine plague, unable to circumcise his son himself. What was God’s purpose in debilitating Moses, to the point that his wife Tzippora had to step in to save him? Why is Moses’ debilitating illness required? Usually, a rebuke or lesson from God enables the sinner to reflect, and revamp his own values, correcting his flaw…himself. Not here though. This is significant.


The Use of Snakes

Ibn Ezra writes that Moses’ counsel was not proper. What does Ibn Ezra point to? What was Moses’ error in judgment? Perhaps then, to address one of your questions, a snake was a proper response. In Genesis the original snake attained his exclusive identity as an “evil counselor” (to Eve). Therefore, as Moses possessed a flawed counsel, he received a snake as punishment, thereby indicating that he shared something in common with the primordial snake. However, we must understand what was his flawed counsel.



Moses was Dispensable

A Rabbi once taught that God wished to teach Moses that he was dispensable. It would appear that Moses might have felt that he was indispensable for God’s redemption of the Jewish people, and thus, selected his mission to Egypt, prior to circumcising his son. This was a flawed assumption. God never said Moses was essential. God therefore taught Moses, through the precise act of debilitating him, that Moses was in fact incorrect. He was dispensable. This is borne out of God’s very words, “…and He sought to kill him (Moses).” The precise act of debilitating Moses taught him this very idea of his dispensability. This explains why such an experience was necessary.


Therefore, we need not explain circumcision as ‘more important’ than Moses’ mission to Egypt. This is not necessarily so. As we explained, Moses’ misconception of his indispensability had to be corrected. God’s emissaries must reflect God’s will. And in this matter, Moses required to be taught a new lesson. In truth, if Moses had any other command at that time – other than circumcision – and he had passed over that command too in favor of traveling to Egypt, he would have equally been plagued. Moses’ error was not in selecting a lower command before a higher one, but in viewing himself essential to this mission, when in fact, he wasn’t.


This may seem trivial, however, the Torah says the opposite. To teach Moses “God has many messengers to accomplish His goals” God created a situation in which Moses was “debilitated”. This was essential to drive home this very point that Moses was not essential to the equation. True, God desired that Moses approach Pharaoh, but not at the cost of Moses assuming a role which was untrue. As a leader, perhaps, this is why God was so demanding of Moses. Moses’ view of his role must be accurate. He would not fulfill God’s mission, had he possessed a wrong notion about his mission: he was to teach mankind God’s ways. It was essential that Moses understand that God could achieve His objective of redeeming the Jews in many ways. This is not to say that Moses was haughty in any manner. We learn that Moses was the most humble person, “And the man Moses was extremely humble, from all men who are on the face of the land.” (Numbers, 12:3) Moses simply viewed his role as essential. This view was not accurate, and God corrected it.


We may now answer why it did not mitigate Moses’ own perfection, when his wife Tzippora performed the circumcision. As Moses’ fault was not his neglect of circumcision per se, his circumcising of his son would not address the flaw. Moses’ flaw was his view of his role. This was addressed by his ailment: it conveyed to him his dispensability. Moses now understood that although requested at God’s word, God’s appointment does not remove other possibilities for this mission’s success, should current strategies require alteration.


Man sees but a small, and therefore inaccurate picture of how and why events take place; what causes them; and what are their results. Based on this myopic view, man is far from possessing true foresight. God alone knows all factors at play in all situations, and thereby manipulates human events with exact precision, forcing His desired outcome. That which man views as ‘essential’ to a given result, must be inaccurate. This was God’s lesson to Moses.




But the more primary lesson to Moses, and to us, is a new insight into how God operates. We must not live life with a fatalistic view of things. I do not mean “fatalistic” in a negative sense, but in the sense of “absolutes”. Man usually views an event as either positive or negative. This need to “label” our experiences stems from insecurity: living with unknowns. However, Jacob was reluctant to make such determinations until the end of his life, when he ultimately saw how each event played itself out. Only at the end of our lives, will we be able to see whether an event that was disappointing – at that time – was truly a negative, or a positive. Many times, what we view as negative, years later turns out to be a blessing. Losing one’s job may pave the way for a far better opportunity. Joseph later realized his sale to the Ishmaelites – although depressing at the time – enabled him to provide for many countries, and his family. This is an important lesson, one, which can lift the weights of anguish which we place on ourselves without need.