Moses and his Midianite In-laws
What gave rise to the hypothesis in the first place was a historical-critical interpretation of those biblical texts which narrate how Moses, son of Levitical parents (Exod. 2.1-2), married a Midianite woman,1 and lived long enough in Midian to have two sons with her (Exod. 2.11-22). During this time he was in service with his father-in-law, a priest (perhaps the priest) of Midian, named both Reuel (Exod. 2.18) and Jethro (Exod. 3.1; 4.18). At a sacred spot, a ‘mountain of God’, situated beyond the normal pasturage of the Midianites but frequented by Midianites and no doubt other tribes,2 Moses received a revelation from a deity previously known to him only notionally if at all (Exod. 3.13),3 presumably a deity worshipped by Midianites, whose name was revealed to be Yahweh. At a later point in the narrative, Moses found himself once again at the ‘mountain of God’ where he was joined by the priest Jethro. At this meeting, which must have been prearranged, Moses did obeisance to Jethro (Exod. 18.7). They then proceeded to a tent. In view of what then transpired, it is probably a tent-shrine similar to the wilderness tent in which Joshua bin Nun officiated as oracle priest (Exod. 33.11). There Moses recounted the great deeds of Yahweh (Exod. 18.8), but it was Jethro the priest who pronounced the blessing on Yahweh and acclaimed this demonstration of the incomparability of his god. It was he too who then offered sacrifices to the deity in the presence of Moses, Aaron and Israelite elders (Exod. 18.9-12). The alternative reading of this passage is that, on hearing the account of the magnalia dei by Moses, Jethro acknowledged the superior power of the god of Moses to that of his own god, and thereupon became a convert to Yahwistic faith on the spot.4 From the use of the verb xql rather than a term explicitly denoting sacrifice (e.g. brq Hiphil, xbz) some commentators have also concluded that Jethro either simply prepared the sacrificial material or received a portion of the sacrificial food.5 This reading contradicts the most natural sense of the passage: Jethro is the principal actor; he initiates the action, and Aaron and the elders come and eat with him in the presence of Yahweh. The account makes it quite plain that, as von Rad put it, ‘Jethro was the host, and Moses and his people the guests’.6 Budde made the same point much earlier:
[The passage] has generally been interpreted to mean that Jethro, the heathen,
now recognizes the true God in Yahweh, the God of Israel, and does him
homage. The contrary, however, is the fact. He rather gives expression to his
proud joy that his God, Yahweh, the God of the Kenites, has proved himself
mightier than all other gods.7
Rather than Jethro’s conversion to Yahwism, therefore, we are witnessing ‘the first incorporation of the Israelite leaders into the worship of Yahweh’.8
Before going any further, something should be said about the fatherinlaw of Moses, identified with Reuel in Exod. 2.18, with Jethro in the rest of the Midianite narrative (Exod. 3.1; 4.18; 18.1-2, 5-6, 9-10, 12), and with Hobab in Num. 10.29 and Judg. 4.11.9 Several unsatisfactory attempts at harmonization have been made: that Hobab and Jethro are alternative names for the same person, namely, the son of Reuel, which requires that in Exod. 2.16 ‘father’ means ‘grandfather’ and in Exod. 2.18 ‘daughter’ means ‘granddaughter’;10 or that Ntx can have a broader connotation including ‘brother-in-law’, which would permit identifying Hobab/Jethro as Moses’ brother-in-law;11 or that ‘Reuel’ is a scribal insertion at Exod. 2.18 and Num. 10.29, a suggestion which smacks of desperation.12 Since clan names and place names have a much better chance of survival in the collective memory than personal names, the most probable—if partial—solution is that Reuel is the name of the clan or lineage to which Hobab belonged. In the Edomite lists Reuel is ‘son’ of Esau (Gen. 36.4,10) and is also the name attached to a group of confederate clans (36.13, 17 = 1 Chron. 1.35, 37). In the same lists Jithran (Nrty), a variation of Jethro (wrty), is the name of a Seirite-Horite clan (Gen. 36.26 = 1 Chron. 1.41), and another variation )rty or rty is attested as an Ishmaelite name (2 Sam. 17.25; 1 Chron. 2.17). Albright took this explanation a step further, perhaps a step too far, in concluding that the father-in-law and Midianite priest was indeed Jethro, and that Hobab was Moses’ son-in-law, a member of the Reuel clan, and a metal smith by profession.13
Yahweh’s Original Residence in Early Poems
That the worship of Yahweh originated among Kenites and related tribes which occupied and moved around in the vast, desolate and mountainous regions east and west of the Arabah and the Gulf of Aqaba is also insinuated in some fragments of old Hebrew Yahwistic poetry. The opening invocation to Yahweh in the Song of Deborah presents him as proceeding in triumph from Seir, the regions of Edom (Judg. 5.4). Seir comes to be synonymous with Edom,14 but it can have a more specific reference as designating a region west of the Arabah; for it is said to mark the southern limit of Joshua’s conquests west of the Jordan (Josh. 11.17; 12.7) and the southern boundary of Judah (Josh. 15.10). The original Edomite homeland was east of the Arabah, but after the formation of the kingdom, Edom expanded to take in territory to the west, in the process dispossessing
the aboriginal Horite (Hurrian-related?) inhabitants (Deut. 2.12, 22). These biblical data are confirmed by a probable reference to Seir (mātāti šēri) in the Amarna letters and in a topographical list of Rameses II in Amāra-West (‘the Shasu-land of Seir’).15 A much later composition (Isa. 63.1-6) also presents Yahweh as coming from Edom.
However, this opening invocation to Yahweh in the Song of Deborah, a variant of which appears in Ps. 68.8-9, also hails him as ‘The One of Sinai’, less literally ‘The Lord of Sinai’ (ynys hz), which suggests that Sinai is the original residence of Yahweh and is also closely associated with Seir.16 The connection is explicit in another poem with an ancient substratum, the Blessing of Moses:
Yahweh comes from Sinai
He dawns upon us from Seir. (Deut. 33.2)17
The rest of the verse is textually corrupt, perhaps deliberately scrambled, so that any reconstruction will be speculative. It reads as follows:
Nr)p rhm (ypwh
#dq tbbrm ht)w
wnl td#) wnymym
After ‘he shines forth from Mount Paran’ we would expect a matching place name, as in the previous stich, which provides some justification for finding, with a minor textual alteration, a reference to Meribath-Kadesh in the second line (cf. Deut. 32.51) parallel with Mt Paran.18 Since none of the many attempts to extract some meaning from the third line has won unqualified support, it may be permissible to suggest an emendation of td#) to tr#) with the old feminine ending, based on frequent confusion between daleth and resh.19 That Yahweh appears with his consort at his right hand is consistent with other indications in biblical and extra-biblical texts. Of particular relevance are those graffiti at Kuntillet Ajrud which refer to Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah,20 since, as we shall see, Teman is closely associated with Edom/Seir.
The proposed reading ‘Meribath-Kadesh’, parallel with Mt Paran, is consistent with the information, in the account of the spies sent to reconnoitre the land, that Kadesh, the staging area for the biblical conquest of Canaan, was situated in the wilderness of Paran (Num. 13.3, 26). In the Prayer of Habakkuk (Hab. 3.3), Mt Paran is parallel with Teman as the place from which Yahweh proceeds in triumph. Teman is a tribal name listed under the sub-group Eliphaz in the Edomite lists in Genesis 36 (vv. 11, 15, 42). It also stands for a region of Edom east of the Arabah and in the northern half of the kingdom (Gen. 36.34), but in prophetic comminations directed against Edom it serves as a synonym for Edom as a whole (Jer. 49.7, 20; Obad. 9).21 In the poetic texts we have surveyed we can therefore conclude that the point of departure for Yahweh’s triumphal going forth, and therefore his original residence among his devotees, is that part of Edom (Seir, Teman) which lay west of the Arabah. The precise location of both Mount Paran and the wilderness of Sinai is unknown, but Kadesh is probably Tell el-Qudeirat in the northern Sinai, adjacent to an oasis and to the most abundant spring in the Sinai,22 and we have seen that Num. 13.3 places Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran. It was somewhere in this region that the sanctuary of the deity Yahweh, frequented by the local semi-nomadic tribes, was
located.23 According to the biblical sources this was Kenite country. We are told that the Kenites accompanied the people of Judah (that is, the ancestors of the Judaeans) northward into the Judaean Negev and the Negev of Arad (Judg. 1.16). After separating out the Kenites from the Amalekites who shared territory with them, Saul defeated and pursued the latter from Havilah as far as Shur east of Egypt, which points to the same region (1 Sam. 15.6-7).
- Zipporah (Exod. 2.21). The ‘Cushite woman’ (ty#kh h#)h) whom Moses is said to have married (Num. 12.1), not to be identified with Zipporah, was probably not Ethiopian or Sudanese but from Cushan (tribe or locality), parallel with the land of Midian in Hab. 3.7. If so, both wives of Moses would have been Midianite. See M. Noth, Das vierte Buch Mose. Numeri (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966), p. 84, = Numbers: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), p. 94.
- ‘To Horeb’ (hbrx) has probably been added at Exod. 3.1, as also ‘at Horeb’ (brxb) at Exod. 17.6 and ‘Horeb’ (brx) at 1 Kgs 19.8, in order to identify ‘the mountain of God’ with the site of the covenant according to the Deuteronomists. See Martin Noth, Das zweite Buch Mose, Exodus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1959), p. 110, = Exodus: A Commentary (London: SCM Press, 1962), p. 140; idem, Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch, p. 150, = A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, p. 139 n. 398; Philip Hyatt, Exodus (NCB: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 181. On ‘the Mountain of God’ as an intertribal, extraterritorial holy site, see Z. Weisman, ‘The Mountain of God’, Tarbiz 47 (1978), pp. 107-19.
- The uncertainty arises from the name Jochebed assigned to the mother of Moses in Priestly texts (Exod. 6.20; Num. 26.59). If this information is historically correct, and if the name is theophoric with a short form of the name Yahweh, it would indicate some degree of previous acquaintance with the Midianite deity of that name, and would help to explain why Moses sought sanctuary in Midian. But the formation of the name with Yahweh is quite uncertain, as pointed out by M. Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1980 [first published 1928]), p. 111.
- E.g. R. de Vaux, ‘Sur l’Origine Kénite’, pp. 31-32; T.J. Meek, Hebrew Origins, pp. 94-95; Buber, Moses, pp. 95-96.
- Buber, Moses, p. 141; A. Cody, ‘Exodus 18,12: Jethro Accepts a Covenant with the Israelites’, Bib 49 (1968), pp. 159-61.
- Von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testament, I, p. 19, = Old Testament Theology, I, p. 9.
- Budde, The Religion of Israel to the Exile, pp. 22-23.
- Rowley, From Joseph to Joshua, p. 151.
- In addition, practically all commentators accept that the name Hobab has been omitted from Judg. 1.16 where it mentions ‘the descendants of…the Kenite, father-in-law of Moses’.
- Rashi; see J. Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary: Philadelphia and New York: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1990), pp. 78, 307 n. 39.
- Julius Morgenstern, ‘The Oldest Document of the Hexateuch’, HUCA 4 (1927), pp. 1-138 (40), maintained that Ntx means ‘brother-in-law’ and not ‘father-in-law’, but
evidence for this is lacking.
- B.W. Bacon, ‘JE in the Middle Books of the Pentateuch II’, JBL 10 (1891), pp. 111-12.
- W.F. Albright, ‘Jethro, Hobab and Reuel in Early Hebrew Tradition’, CBQ 25 (1963), pp. 1-11, and Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (London: Athlone Press, 1968), pp. 33-37.
- Gen. 32.4; Num. 24.18; Judg. 5.4. In the oracle against Edom in Ezek. 35, ‘Mt Seir’ is metonymic for Edom.
- F.-M. Abel, Géographie de la Palestine, I (Paris: Gabalda, 1933), pp. 281-85, 389-91; J.R. Bartlett, ‘The Land of Seir and the Brotherhood of Edom’, JTS NS 20
(1969), pp. 1-20; M. Görg, ‘Zur Identität der “Seir-Länder”’, BN 46 (1989), pp. 7-12; E.A. Knauf, ‘Seir (Place)’, in ABD, V, pp. 1072-73; Diana V. Edelman (ed.), You Shall Not Abhor an Edomite for He Is Your Brother (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), pp. 5-11. For the Amarna reference (EA 288:26), see W.L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), p. 331, and Weinfeld, ‘The Tribal League at Sinai’, p. 304, and for the Egyptian list, see S. Ahituv, Canaanite Toponyms in Ancient Egyptian Documents (Jerusalem: Magnes Press; Leiden: Brill, 1984), p. 169.
- Henrik Pfeiffer, Jahwes Kommen von Süden, Jdc 5; Hab 3; Dtn 33 und Ps 68 in ihrem literatur- und theologiegeschichtlichen Umfeld (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 2005), pp. 90-91, argues that ynys hz (Judg. 5.5) was inserted to refer the theophany to the theophany at the giving of the law in Exod. 19, and that the same designation in Ps. 68 (v. 9), which he dates to the Hellenistic period, depends on the insertion. He must therefore assign a late date to the reference to Yahweh’s coming from Sinai in Deut 33.2, in fact no earlier than the third century BCE (pp. 178-203, and especially pp. 202-203). Pfeiffer is a redactional maximalist and I find his arguments arbitrary and forced.
- Reading wnl with LXX for MT wml.
- A somewhat similar situation confronts us with the equally unintelligible Ps 68.18b, #dqb ynys Mb hwhy, where the original text may have been #dqb ynysm )b hwhy (adonay bā missinay beqādēš; ‘The Sovereign Lord comes from Sinai in Kadesh’).
- The suggestion was made some time ago by H.S. Nyberg, ‘Deuteronomion 33:2-3’, ZDMG 92 (1938), pp. 320-44.
- See Z. Meshel, ‘Teman, Horvat’, in NEAEHL, IV, pp. 1458-64.
- R. de Vaux, ‘Téman, ville ou région d’Édom’, RB 76 (1969), pp. 378-85; E.A. Knauf-Belleri, ‘Edom: The Social and Economic History’, in Edelman (ed.), You Shall Not Abhor an Edomite, pp. 93-117 (100-101 n. 19); B. Rothenberg, ‘Teman’, in NEAEHL, IV, pp. 1184-203.
- See R. Cohen, ‘Kadesh-Barnea’, in NEAEHL, III, pp. 843-47.
- It is from a sanctuary, temple, or holy place that a deity ‘comes forth’ or ‘shines forth’, as in Ps. 50.2-3 where the same verbs occur as in Deut. 33.2 ((ypwh, )wb) with reference to Yahweh coming forth and shining forth from Zion, that is, the Jerusalem temple.