In all three of these images, God is presented as one who with sudden, perplexing ferocity (though perhaps deeper purpose) disrupts Moses’s return journey into Egypt, much as Exodus 2:24–26 ‘disrupts’ the biblical narrative with an unexpected and shocking account of God’s wrath.
In the seventeenth-century sketch, the artist seems to have caught the precise moment of ‘ambush’ in which the Angel of the Lord intercepts Moses as he leaves his place of self-imposed exile in Midian. On the left side of the image, with one hand gripping Moses’s throat and the other holding an enormous sword, the Angel is ready to strike. Moses’s struggle to wrench himself free is palpable as he grasps the Angel’s arm with both of his hands and twists his body into a contortion. His staff—through which God has previously demonstrated power to intervene (Exodus 4:2–4)—tumbles to the ground behind him, suggesting that there will be no intervention on Moses’s behalf this time. In the centre of the image, the indistinct form of another figure can be seen crouched over the ground holding a small, round object. This is Zipporah, and in her arms she holds Moses’s son, preparing to perform the sacrificial act. Finally, through the use of rapid, nervous lines of ink and paint, the artist captures the startling, chaotic urgency of Moses’s struggle with God.
Even more startling is David C. Hancock’s twentieth-century interpretation of this biblical event, in which the artist meditates on the strangeness of God’s sudden and violent attack. Here, a stark, terrifying divine presence descends upon the central figure of Moses, who seems precariously suspended in mid-air. His eyes suggest that he has been startled awake, yet his waking appears to be more than a physical jolt from slumber: Moses is waking to a new, deeper understanding of the perilous business of being involved with God. Hancock’s abstract depiction of the deity offers a jarring reminder of the absolute ‘otherness’ of this God. Moses’s attacker is no anthropomorphized angel, but a mystifying, threatening conglomeration of geometric forms. The angular shapes that represent God perhaps most closely resemble broken shards of glass; on one level, these sharp splinters remind the viewer of the very real threat against Moses’s life. On another level, however, these fragments also suggest that our human grasp of God is always finally ‘fragmentary’. Thus, Moses’s expression captures, not only the terror, but also the wonder befitting a man faced with the terrible wrath of God: his eyes are startled open to behold God’s strange and terrifying revelation of God’s self.
Finally, the fifteenth-century narrative fresco depicts several stages of Moses’s journey. The action begins in the middle background, where Moses (dressed in yellow and green) departs from the house of his father-in-law, Jethro. He and his party travel along a winding path until—at the centre of the image—he meets the Angel: a menacing figure holding a sword in one hand and gripping Moses’s collar with the other. Finally, in the lower right corner, Zipporah (dressed in purple and blue) prepares to perform the circumcision. 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. Each fresco communicates its theological content through typological pairings and juxtapositions with the image on the opposite wall. Within this programme, Moses’s Journey into Egypt is situated across from the Baptism of Christ, evoking the idea that the sacrament of baptism is a ‘spiritual circumcision’—a concept that can be traced back to the early Church Fathers—and also a life-saving event. This typologically rich image therefore draws upon the strange encounter in Exodus 4:24–26 to suggest a relationship between the old covenantal rite of circumcision and the new covenantal rite of baptism, in which Christians die and rise again.