4.4. Moses Flees to Midian (2:15-22)

(15) When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well.

(16) Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock;

(17) but shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.

(18) When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?”

(19) They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

(20) He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread.”

(21) Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as wife.

(22) She bore a son whom he named Gershom, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”

(15) When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh: Pharaoh heard not only that Moses had killed the overseer, but also that the Jews refused to recognize Moses as “chief and ruler over us.” This meant that Moses could be killed with impunity – no one would raise any objection.

There is nothing more for Moses to do in Egypt. He has rebelled against the Egyptian system, and is deeply disappointed in the Jews. The hopes and dreams of his youth have been shattered. Moses therefore flees Egypt.

He arrived in the land of Midian: Midian was located to the northeast of Elath (the modern city of Eilat). Moses had walked about four hundred kilometers along the trade route that traversed the Sinai Peninsula.

And sat down beside a well: The well is a traditional meeting place, and a place for choosing a wife[1]. Moses decides to find a wife in Midian, in the hope that a new chosen people would be created from him, and not from the Jews who were now degraded by Egyptian slavery.

The Midianites were descendants of Abraham from his second wife Keturah (Gen. 25:2), and also potential heirs to Abraham’s eminence. Unlike the descendants of Ishmael and Esau who clashed with Isaac and Jacob, the descendants of Keturah have no history of conflict with the Children of Israel. It is therefore quite natural for Moses to attempt to find mutual understanding with the Midianites. Perhaps the autonomous Midianites can serve as the foundation for creating a new chosen people? Perhaps it was in Midian that a certain divine seed was preserved from Abraham, which can now be sprouted?

(16) Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: The word kohen can denote an ecclesiastical priest as well as a patriarch (or prince).

(16-17) They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their fathers flock, but shepherds came and drove them off: There is an obvious discrepancy between the status of a father as a high-ranking patriarch-priest of the Midianites, and that his many daughters, besides having to water his sheep themselves, are also defenseless against the other shepherds. The Midrash therefore concludes that the priest of Midian refused to participate in idolatry and came into conflict with the other Midianites. That is why his daughters had not married, and why Moses’ arrival so pleased him.

(17) Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock: Although he is alone, a defenseless stranger in a foreign country, Moses immediately enters the fray when he sees someone being abused. We have already noted that the Torah, at the beginning of Moses’ story, tells of three types of conflict in which Moses intervenes: between a Jew and a non-Jew, between two Jews, and between non-Jews. Moses’ predisposition to defending the oppressed is one of his most prominent qualities.

(18) To their father Reuel: The Torah uses various names to refer to Moses’ father-in-law: Reuel, Jethro, Hobab. Some commentators believe that these are different people, and that Reuel is the girls’ grandfather, and not their father; that is, he is Jethro’s father. However, we often find in the Torah that one and the same person is called by several different names depending on the context.

He said, “How is it that you have come back so soon today?”: They would usually come home much later. His daughters were being constantly harassed by the other shepherds, and there was nothing the family could do about it.

(19) They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us…”: In his outward appearance and behavior Moses has the features of an Egyptian. And at this point he still actually is, to a certain extent, more Egyptian than Jewish.

An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock: That is, he has demonstrated truly extraordinary benevolence.

(20) He said to his daughters, “Where is he then? Why did you leave the man? Ask him in to break bread”: Jethro’s generosity to a stranger he has never even met accords with Abraham’s principle of hospitality[2]. Thus, Jethro and his family are not only Abraham’s genealogical descendants, but his spiritual heirs as well.

The Torah clearly contrasts Jethro’s response to Moses’s actions with the behavior of the Jews in Egypt. When Moses kills the Egyptian who was tormenting Jews, he receives only a hostile response. But Jethro, seeing that Moses has defended his daughters, invites him into his home, shows him respect and gratitude, and even gives Moses his daughter’s hand in marriage. Moses sees all this as a worthy moral foundation for progressing toward holiness. He therefore agrees to live with Jethro and to shepherd his flocks (in the literal but also figurative sense; that is, to be a spiritual leader to Jethro’s followers). And Jethro in turn becomes a mentor to Moses.

The Midrash describes the situation as follows.

“In the twilight between the end of the sixth day of Creation and the onset of the first Sabbath, the Almighty created a special staff and gave it to Adam in the Garden of Eden. The staff then passed from Adam to Shem, Noah’s son, who kept it with him in his father’s ark. The staff was then transferred to Abraham, from him to Isaac and Jacob, and after them to Joseph.

After Joseph’s death, Pharaoh appropriated the staff for his own personal use. Jethro, who had been one of Pharaoh’s advisers, asked Pharaoh for the staff and carried it with him from Egypt. Upon arriving in Midian, he stuck it in the ground among the trees of his garden.

When, as it turned out, no one could extricate the staff from the ground, Jethro decided that he would marry off his daughter to the first man who could accomplish it. Moses eventually arrived, took up the challenge, and easily pulled the staff out of the ground. Jethro, who now understood that Moses was destined to become a great leader, gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage, and accepted him as a disciple.”

The staff is a symbol of spiritual leadership. Transfer of the staff corresponds to transitions of leadership.

(21) Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as wife: When Moses was mistaken for an Egyptian, at first he did not object. But now the situation is changing. The Midianites, descendants of Abraham from his second wife Keturah, are culturally ivrim, “Hebrews”[3]. The Egyptians will not eat together with such people (“for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” Gen. 43:32). By agreeing to eat and live with Jethro, Moses in his behavior ceases to be an Egyptian, and reunites with the Hebrew line.

(22) She bore a son whom he named Gershom, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”: With the birth of a son, Moses is now settled for the long term in the country of his choice. After changing his citizenship and turning the page on his previous life, Moses is now determined to create a new chosen people from his own descendants. Life in Midian under Jethro’s leadership thus becomes the next stage in the development of Moses’ personality.

[1] This can be seen in the story of Eliezer’s choosing a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:11), and also Jacob’s marriage (Gen. 29:2).

[2] On hospitality as one of the cardinal principles of Abraham’s teachings, see Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §18.7.

[3] For the meaning of the term Ivrim, “Hebrews,” as descendants of Eber, and the role of the “proto-Patriarchs” Noah, Shem, and Eber, see Bible Dynamics on Genesis, §9.3 and §12.2.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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