When Moses was in exile from Egypt, he had taken refuge in the desert country of Midian. Having been encamped in the plain at the foot of Mt Sinai for just over eleven months, the Israelites were now about to travel through desert country again—the same wilderness, in which roamed the nomadic Midianites, where Moses had spent his forty years as a shepherd. However, the journey was presaged by an encounter with a member of his extended family, one that Moses must have found distressing. His response tells us much about him; it affords a rare humanizing insight into the character of the man who defied Pharaoh and endured, for forty years, the caprice of the recently emancipated descendants of Israel; and reminds us that sometimes it is vitally important that we take time to encourage each other.
As the Israelites were about to begin their journey from the desert plain before Sinai, “Moses said to Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, ‘We are setting out for the place about which the Lord said “I will give it to you.” Come with us and we will treat you well, for the Lord has promised good things to Israel.’” Moses was rebuffed, being told, “No, I will not go; I am going back to my own land and my own people.” But Moses would not easily accept “no” for an answer. He urged Hobab “Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the desert, and you can be our eyes. If you come with us, we will share with you whatever good things the Lord gives us.” (Num. 10:29-31.)
Who exactly was Hobab? Why did Moses want his company so much that he was prepared to offer him a share of the Israelites’ inheritance in Canaan?
Moses had married one of the seven daughters of “a priest of Midian” (Ex. 2:16). The name of this priest is one of the puzzles of the Pentateuch. In Exodus 2:18, he is named as Reuel (though depending on what translation of the Bible is used, it is sometimes spelled Raguel, but both actually are simply different transliterations of the same Hebrew name). At the end of the story of Moses’ wilderness exile, however, or rather at the start of the story of the burning bush, we find a description of him “tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian” (Ex 3:1, emphasis supplied). Then, throughout Exodus chapter 18, “the priest of Midian and father-in-law of Moses” is consistently named Jethro (18:1); He is explicitly described by name as “Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law” or “his father-in-law, Jethro”, or (when describing Jethro’s conversation with Moses), as “your father-in-law, Jethro” a further four times (18:2, 5, 6, 12 NIV). The term “father-in-law” is used eight other times in the 27 verses of chapter 18. In Numbers 10:29, however, we find Moses’ father-in-law called Reuel again—or possibly Hobab: “Moses said to Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, ‘We are setting out…’.” In translation, as in the Hebrew, the wording leaves it unclear whether Hobab is Moses’s father-in-law, or if he is the son of Reuel, Moses’ father-in-law, so that Hobab is thus Moses’ brother-in-law. Given that Reuel is the name of the father of Moses’ wife, Zipporah, in Exodus 2, the interpretation might seem clear. However, in Judges 4:11, we are told that Heber the Kenite (whose wife, Jael, was to kill the oppressive Amorite general, Sisera) was one of “the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ father-in-law”. The NIV translates this as “brother-in-law” but adds a footnote indicating that “father-in-law” is a possible translation—an example of how NIV sometimes “helps the text along”, clarifying for readers what is not necessarily clear in the original.
Thus, on the face of it, the Bible identifies two, or even three, different men as the father-in-law of Moses: Reuel, Jethro and Hobab. It is clear that Hobab, at any rate, is Reuel’s son, but that may make Hobab Moses’ brother-in-law or Reuel the grandfather of Moses’ wife. This kind of discrepancy is what leads some scholars to declare that the Pentateuch is a hodge-podge of writings, collected together and reflecting different (and sometimes competing) traditions about Israel’s history, rather than a cohesive narrative. To such scholars, Exodus 3 and 18 reflect different oral or scribal traditions of Israelite history than Exodus 2 or Numbers 10; and the constant reiteration in Exodus 18 that Jethro was Moses’ father-in-law is evidence of a scribe who recorded one tradition trying, by repetition, to stake a stronger claim for its candidacy for the father of Moses’ wife than the rival history or tradition.
However, there are other explanations. The Jewish rabbis who compiled the Talmud in the second century AD also noticed the discrepancies but saw alternative solutions. First, it is hardly unknown for Biblical figures to have more than one name. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary cites the example of Solomon, who was also called Jedidiah; but Gideon, who was also known as Jerubbaal, is another example. Second, one of the two (or three!) names could be a nickname, an epithet or a title.
“Reuel” means “friend of God.” Thus, it could very well be a description, rather than the proper name, of the “priest of Midian”, who, it becomes clear, worshipped the true God; even if, as seems the case, he did so in addition to other deities, rather than exclusively, it still marked him out from the other priests of the tribes of desert dwellers (cf. Ex. 18:10-12, Patriarchs and Prophets, p.247). While some of the Talmudists simply believed that Moses’ father-in-law had more than one name, many were of the view that Jethro was his name, while Reuel was his title as a Priest of Midian who preserved knowledge of the God of Abraham—the Midianites and Israelites’ common ancestor (Gen. 25:1-2). Alternatively, however, it may simply be a description applied by the author of Exodus and Numbers, intended to indicate Jethro’s uncommon knowledge of the one true God.
As for “Hobab” as a potential name, this is easier to resolve. Nicholas of Lyra, the fourteenth-century French Franciscan theologian, Tostatus Abulensis, the fifteenth-century Spanish bishop and exegete, and Paul Fagius, the early sixteenth-century German Protestant biblical scholar, were among those who believed, based on Numbers 10 and Judges 4, that Hobab was Moses’ father-in-law, rather than brother-in-law. In the Hebrew, however, as in the English translation, the syntax of Numbers 10:29 is unclear: the identity of Moses’s father-in-law could be Reuel or it could be Hobab; and since Reuel is elsewhere called the father of Zipporah, identifying Moses’s father-in-law as Hobab really rests on Judges 4:11. But this is no basis at all. For, as Calvin pointed out not long after Fagius and as modern commentaries and Bible dictionaries agree, there is no specific Hebrew word for “father-in-law”. Rather, it is overwhelmingly likely that the Hebrew noun חתן signified any relative by marriage. It is true that it seems most frequently to be used for “father-in-law”; but this is not its specific meaning, which therefore (as with so many Hebrew words!) has to be established by context. Some early Bible translators avoided any difficulties by translating it “kinsman’!
Thus, even if it is Hobab who is being indicated in Numbers 10:29 as Moses’ in-law, rather than Reuel (and as already noted, it is impossible to be sure from the syntax in the original), it is just as likely that it is calling him Moses’ brother-in-law. Given local customs, Hobab may not have been Zipporah’s brother, but rather the husband of one of her six sisters (Ex. 2:16). In sum, given that Hobab is never mentioned before Numbers 10, that two other names (or titles) are supplied for Moses’ father-in-law, and that the word translated father-in-law probably can indicate other relatives by marriage, clearly the most logical interpretation of Numbers and Judges, is that Hobab was Zipporah’s brother or brother-in-law, and hence was Moses’ brother-in-law (and this was also evidently Ellen White’s view, though she does not address this explicitly: cf. Patriarchs and Prophets, p.628).
There is a final point, which is that this latter identification also makes best sense of what we have been told in Exodus and now are told in Numbers. Exodus 18 tells us that Jethro had returned home (v.27) and the context suggests this happened after a visit of only a few days (v.13). Given that Moses was already an elderly man, even if Zipporah was much younger than her husband, her father must have been older still, perhaps infirm and certainly hardly able to endure the gruelling demands of the desert crossing the Israelites were about to face. By any logic, then, Hobab is most likely to have been the brother-in-law of Moses.
Does it matter? Yes, I think it does.
First, there is the issue of the reliability of the Bible—sometimes we are too easily shaken by apparent inconsistencies in the Scriptures, yet, frequently, close study shows that apparent discrepancies are readily reconcilable. The default position of many scholars, when dealing with such inconsistencies, is summed up in the assumption of one commentator of Numbers, that the “difficulties [over the identity of Moses’ father-in-law] arise from the redaction of variant traditions” (P. J. Budd, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 5, Numbers, p. 114). In fact, in this case there are easier, indeed more obvious solutions, which, because they indicate harmony between the different passages, also support a traditional, “high” view of Scripture, as inspired by God. For, even if the Pentateuch and the Book of Judges were compiled and edited from earlier narratives, an editor or compiler surely can be divinely inspired as much as an original author.
Second is the fact that understanding Moses’ family relationships provides an interesting insight into him. For we learn about Hobab from Moses’ invitation to him to accompany the Israelites towards the Promised Land.
In light of the cultural practices of the time, Moses might well have felt obliged to make such an offer to his father-in-law. But because it is overwhelmingly likely that Hobab was in fact Zipporah’s brother, or even her brother-in-law, there would have been no obligation, or it would not have been as strong.
Thus, in first extending to Hobab the possibility of joining in the “good things” that “the Lord has promised … to Israel”, and then in urging him to “share [the] good things the Lord gives us” ((Num. 10:29, 32) Moses is showing great generosity and concern for those who were not his blood relatives. Indeed, having first made the offer, Moses is concerned to ensure that his brother-in-law does not think he is merely being polite! What we find here is an example of Moses’ generosity; having invited Hobab (and by implication his extended family) to join the Israelites in their journey to the Promised Land, he then takes the time to persuade his reluctant kinsman.
The author of the lesson takes a different view. He focuses on Moses’ words in verse 31, suggesting Hobab as the potential leader of the Israelites in their journey, and sees this as a sign of doubt on Moses’ part. Other verses in chapter 18 make it very plain that the Lord was leading Israel. Why, then, should Moses suddenly ask his kinsman to “be our eyes” and tell the Israelites “where we should camp in the desert” unless Moses had forgotten that the Ark of the Covenant, and the cloud and pillar of fire, were all signs of God’s presence with His people? Even given that, as a Midianite, familiar with this part of the desert, Hobab by human reasoning would be the logical leader of the march, what was Moses doing, thinking about human logic, when God was leading the Israelites? The lesson study’s conclusion is that, in this story, “we see Moses’ humanity waffling before the challenge that faced him, and failing to remember that the God who had opened the Red Sea also could open a path through the deserts and provide both food and water.”
I suggest that we do see Moses’ humanity, but in a far more positive and faithful way.
As Calvin pointed out almost five centuries ago, in the Hebrew text of Numbers 10:31, “there is more than one causal particle”. He observed that, rather than translating Moses’ words as “for you know” (or “have known”) the best places to camp, “as if Moses desired to retain Hobab to be of use to himself,” Moses is actually saying, “‘Since, for this cause, you have known all our resting-places,’ etc.” He is actually telling Hobab that leaving now is against his own interest; it is as if he said (as Calvin paraphrased): “Wherefore hast thou hitherto endured so many inconveniences whilst directing our course, unless that thou mightest enjoy with us the blessings of our repose?” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, vol. 4).
Thus, Moses is not here speaking of the future: he is not saying “Be our eyes in our upcoming journeys”. Rather, distressed that his kinsman was about to abandon the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land—was in fact about to abandon hope—Moses reminded him that the reward for his past assistance to the Israelites in the desert would be lost if he gave up now. In short, Moses was encouraging him to continue in the path to which he had previously committed, so that he might obtain the “good things” the Lord had promised.
The Book of Judges tells us that Hobab’s descendants, the Kenites, were in Canaan—they lived among the Israelites, as a distinct but allied and accepted group (Jud. 1:16, 4:11). Thus, it is clear that, though we are not told so in Numbers, Moses was successful in his efforts to persuade Hobab to remain. Hobab’s extended family and their descendants were thus ultimately brought into the true worship of God, as well as being brought into the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Yet this was despite, not because of, their leader; he had doubted and been ready to give up. But Moses was not prepared to give up on him.
By a few well-chosen words, partly flattering (emphasizing Hobab’s knowledge of the desert and how to survive there), partly encouraging (emphasizing the Lord’s promises of “good things”), Moses ensured that a whole clan that otherwise would have probably, like the rest of Midian, been idolaters and oppressors of God’s people (cf. Jud. 6 and 7), instead were numbered among the worshippers of the one true God, deliverers of God’s people and blessed by the Lord (Jud. 4:17-22, 5:24). Far from “waffling before the challenge that faced him”, I believe that Moses—despite all the problems that must have threatened to overwhelm him and left him no time for his wife’s relatives—saw another’s doubts and fears, and took the time to inspire in him the hope that Moses himself had, in the God who was leading Israel in the wilderness. Praise God for friends and extended family who don’t give up on us, even during our wilderness years.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1921