Located on the South Wall of the Sistine Chapel, this fresco is the first in a series showing events from the life of Moses; on the opposite wall is a parallel series depicting scenes from the life of Christ. By pairing the circumcision of Moses’s son with the baptism of Christ, the artist highlights a typological link between the Jewish covenantal rite and the Christian sacrament. Just as the Jewish body is sealed with a new covenantal identity in the bloodletting rite of circumcision, so the Christian believer ‘dies’ and is ‘reborn’ a child of God in the Spirit through the waters of baptism.
The artist underscores this correlation through the respective inscriptions above the two frescoes: over the image of the circumcision we find the words: ‘The observation of ancient regeneration by Moses through circumcision’; and above the opposite image: ‘The institution of new regeneration by Christ in baptism’. The idea that Christ ‘institutes’ a ‘new regeneration’ is significant: for by reading the frescoes as a pair, we find that the typological connection suggests that the old covenant has been surpassed and perfected by the new covenant.
This helps us understand the structure of Moses's Return to Egypt. Here, the central event of the scene is the hostile confrontation between Moses and the divine figure. The circumcision of Moses’s son is relegated to the periphery of the image. The dramatic focus is the threat to Moses’s life, rather than the salvific rite. By contrast, in the corresponding fresco opposite, all of the action revolves around the event of Christ’s baptism. Moreover, in the circumcision fresco, it is significant that the artist depicts the divine figure, not as God the Father, but as an Angel of the Lord. Certainly, this is partly owing to the fact that the Septuagint translation identifies Moses’s attacker as ‘the Angel of the Lord’. However, the absence of God the Father is significant, for across the room, the fresco of Christ’s baptism shows the Father hovering over Christ in a posture that suggests approval and blessing. Through these subtle differences, the artist asserts the significance of the Christian rite.
19And the Lord said to Moses in Midʹian, “Go back to Egypt; for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” 20So Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt; and in his hand Moses took the rod of God.
21 And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son, 23and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me”; if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your first-born son.’ ”
24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him. 25Then Zippoʹrah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.
27 The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went, and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him, and all the signs which he had charged him to do. 29Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel.