The artist who painted this scene seems to have caught the precise moment of ‘ambush’ in which God surprises Moses on his return to Egypt. The serene landscape throws into sharp relief the surprise, both of the attack, and of this disruptive passage.
The most prominent figure in the entire image is the donkey, which has its back turned to Moses and to us, seemingly unaware of the violent struggle taking place just a short distance away. In the background, a cosy country cottage peeks out from behind a protective forest—a safe-haven lying just beyond the reach of the human figures. Perhaps Moses and Zipporah have recently departed, or perhaps they were just arriving at, their resting place on the way to Egypt; either way, the violent encounter seems to have taken them completely by surprise, for the world around them has not yet responded to the sudden and menacing presence of God in their midst.
That ‘presence’ is suggested by the long, pillar-like cloud that stretches diagonally from heaven to earth in the middle of the painting. Importantly, this shape cuts across the scene violently, much as the violent event in Exodus 2:24–26 ‘cuts’ through the story of Moses’s journey, disrupting the biblical narrative with an unexpected and shocking account of God’s wrath. Finally, the artist underscores a sense of urgency by a strong evocation of movement: the rapid, nervous lines of ink and paint reflect the unforeseen character of the threat against Moses, who has just been assured by God that it is now safe to return to Egypt (Exodus 4:19).
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.