The Angel of the Lord attacks Moses and Zipporah circumcises their Son to allay God’s Wrath

School of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn

The Angel of the Lord Attacks Moses and Zipporah Circumcises their Son to Allay God’s Wrath, 17th century, Pen and ink, watercolour on paper, 22.2 x 15.8 cm, Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Gallery of Art, The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK / Bridgeman Images

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A Violent Struggle

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Devon Abts

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).