A Bridegroom of Blood
A Violent Struggle
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 4:24–26 ‘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).
Unpacking the Narrative
Commentary by Devon Abts
This image can be difficult to ‘read’ because it presents, not a static event, but a visual narrative: the narrative of Moses’s return journey to Egypt from his exile in Midian, as told in Exodus 4. The sequence begins in the middle background of the fresco, 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—they meet the Angel of the Lord. This menacing figure holds a sword in one hand and grips Moses’s collar with the other, thus preventing Moses from continuing on his way. The narrative then proceeds to the right corner, where Zipporah (dressed in purple and blue) prepares to perform the circumcision that will spare her husband’s life and enable them to complete the journey into Egypt.
To truly appreciate the content of this fresco, the viewer must have a basic grasp of its situation within a wider theological programme. Located on the South Wall of the Sistine Chapel, Moses’s Journey into Egypt is the first in a series of frescoes showing events from the life of Moses; on the opposite wall is another fresco series depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The ‘message’ of the parallel cycles is that the new covenant of Christ continues and perfects the old covenant of the Mosaic law. Thus, each of the six frescoes showing scenes from the life of Moses is typologically paired with a corresponding event from Christ’s earthly ministry; the frescoes therefore communicate their theological content through the juxtapositions of each image with its parallel 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 theological concept that can be traced back to the early Church Fathers.
Transformed by Violence
Commentary by Devon Abts
In this striking image, David C. Hancock captures the life-altering shock and terror Moses and Zipporah experience in the violent encounter with God on the return journey to Egypt.
In the biblical passage, the very God who has chosen Moses to fulfil his divine plan—and who has assured Moses that it is safe to return to Egypt—suddenly turns on his chosen leader and seeks to kill him. This stark and 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, but is paralyzed with fear; at the same time, there is something regressive and child-like about the way Hancock portrays Moses. Surrounded in a womb-like darkness and curled in a fetal position, his waking appears to be more than a physical jolt from slumber: he is waking to a new, deeper understanding of the perilous business of being involved with God.
However, Moses is not the only one whose life shall be transformed—in the lower left corner of the image, we see an amorphous white figure surrounded by what seems like fire. This is Zipporah, who is so horrified by the confrontation that she transforms into what Hancock describes as ‘a shrieking spirit’. Between her and Moses is a splotch of paint symbolizing the bloody foreskin of Moses’s son—a fascinating detail that suggests the circumcision comes between Moses and Zipporah as much as it comes between Moses and God. The relationship between husband and wife can never be the same: Moses is now ‘a bridegroom of blood’ (vv.25–26) whose negligence has alienated him from his family.
School of Rembrandt 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
Moses’s Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of His Son Eliezar, c.1482 , Fresco
David C. Hancock :
God Meets Moses on the Way to Egypt, 2003 , Watercolour on paper
Commentary by Devon Abts
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 4:24–26 ‘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.