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Israel Knohl





Hovav the Midianite: Why Was the End of the Story Cut?



APA e-journal

Israel Knohl





Hovav the Midianite: Why Was the End of the Story Cut?






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Hovav the Midianite: Why Was the End of the Story Cut?

The Midianite Origin of YHWH and Aniconism


Hovav the Midianite: Why Was the End of the Story Cut?

Tetragrammaton. Spanish Hebrew Bible, Solsona, Catalonia, Spain, 1384. British Library

Hovav the Guide: A Story Interrupted

The story of Moses and Hovav the Midianite is extremely puzzling.[1] Moses urges Hovav to guide the Israelites on their journey to the land of Canaan. Despite the latter’s refusal, Moses exhorts him to accede to his request, promising him a portion in the future good that God has in store for His people.

At this point, however, the narrative is interrupted. We do not get to hear whether, in the wake of this promise, Hovav accepted Moses’ request or maintained his refusal. The story cuts off in a starkly abrupt fashion and moves on to the travelling of the Israelites with the ark, without telling us whether Hovav came with them or not (passages in bold highlight who/what was or was not travelling with the Israelites):

במדבר י:כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לְחֹבָב בֶּן רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְ-הוָה אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם;לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ, כִּי יְ-הוָה דִּבֶּר טוֹב עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל. י:ל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו לֹא אֵלֵךְ: כִּי אִם-אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי אֵלֵךְ. י:לא וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל נָא תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָנוּ כִּי עַל כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ לְעֵינָיִם. י:לב וְהָיָה כִּי-תֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ: וְהָיָה הַטּוֹב הַהוּא אֲשֶׁר יֵיטִיב יְ-הוָה עִמָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ.
Num 10:29 Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which YHWH has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for YHWH has promised to be generous to Israel.” 10:30 “I will not go,”he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.” 10:31He said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. 10:32 So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that YHWH grants us.”
י:לג וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר יְ-הוָה דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ-הוָה נֹסֵעַ לִפְנֵיהֶם דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לָתוּר לָהֶם מְנוּחָה.י:לד וַעֲנַן יְ-הוָה עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּנָסְעָם מִן-הַמַּחֲנֶה.
10:33 They marched from the mountain of YHWH a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of YHWH traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them; 10:34 and YHWH’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.

Instead of continuing the Hovav story and informing the reader whether he decides to accompany the Israelites or not, the text moves into an alternative narrative in which Israel marches towards the land behind the Ark of the Covenant and underneath the divine cloud.

An Unnecessary Guide

By placing the Ark and cloud passage immediately after the fragmented Hovav account, the text implies that Israel does not require the guidance of Hovav, for this function is fulfilled by the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord.

The song of the Ark functions as an addendum to this story, similarly implying that the Ark of the Lord directed the Israelites on their journey – obviating the necessity for a human guide.[2]

במדבר י:לה וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה: קוּמָה יְהוָ-ה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ. י:לה וּבְנֻחֹה יֹאמַר: שׁוּבָה יְ-הוָה רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 10:35 When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, YHWH! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You! 10:36 And when it halted, he would say: Return, O YHWH, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!

By cutting off the ending and juxtaposing the Ark and cloud text, the Torah implies not only that Hovav was not needed, but that he did not come. This contradicts the accounts in Judges 1:16 and 4:9 which state that the descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, Hovav, dwell among the Israelites and Judahites in Canaan.[3]

Erasing Jethro’s Contribution

A similar erasure is evident with regard to the aid offered by Jethro the Midianite, who is related to Hovav,[4] in establishing the judicial system. While in Exodus 18 it is Jethro the Midianite, father-in-law of Moses, who advises Moses as to how to construct the Israelite judicial system, the story in Deuteronomy 1:9-17 attributes this act to Moses himself.[5]

Ambivalence about Midianites Born of Kinship

It appears that the Torah contains two contradictory approaches: one highlighting positively the Midianites’ actions and their close association with Israel, and the second adopting a negative approach towards this people[6] and erasing any reference to Midianite influence over Israelite society, let alone a close genealogical relation between these two ethnic groups.

It may be that the common origin of Israel and Midian is the impetus for the ambivalence the Israelite authors feel about Midian, which expresses itself in these two divergent approaches.[7] This kinship is reflected not only in the account of the birth of Midian as the son of Abraham and Keturah (Gen 25:2), but also hinted at in accounts of the Israelites’ past, which emphasize their origins in the southern wilderness.

YHWH from the South

A number of biblical traditions describe YHWH’s emergence from the south, either the southern Transjordan, the Sinai wilderness, or both.

1. The Song of Deborah – The song in Judges 5 begins by describing the appearance of God:

שופטים ה:ד י-הוה
בצאתך משעיר
בצעדך משדה אדום
ארץ רעשה
גם שמים נטפו
גם עבים נטפו מים
ה:ה הרים נזלו
מפני י-הוה זה סיני
מפני י-הוה אלהי ישראל.
Judg 5:4 O YHWH,
when You came forth from Seir,
Advanced from the country of Edom,
The earth trembled;
The heavens dripped,
Yea, the clouds dripped water,
5:5 The mountains quaked—
Before YHWH, Him of Sinai,
Before YHWH, God of Israel.

The description of YHWH’s coming forth from the southern region of Seir/Edom, and identifying YHWH’s place with Sinai, is reminiscent of two other sections of biblical poetry portraying the appearance of God in similar fashion.

2. Moses’ Final Blessing – In Deuteronomy 33:2 we read:

דברים לג:ב י-הוה מסיני בא
וזרח משעיר למו
הופיע מהר פארן…
Deut 33:2 YHWH came from Sinai;
He shone upon them from Seir;
He appeared from Mount Paran,

3. The Prayer of Habakkuk – Likewise, the ancient poetic section that now functions as the conclusion of the book of Habakkuk (3: 3) reads:

חבקוק ג:ג אלוה מתימן יבוא
וקדוש מהר פארן סלה.
Hab 3:3 God is coming from Teman,[8]
The Holy One from Mount Paran. Sela.

The Land of Shasu, YHW

Biblical scholars have hypothesized that YHWH was originally worshipped in this area, in the south.[9] This is supported by geographical records from various Egyptian temples that list areas located in southern Transjordan. These lists, dating from the 14th-12th centuries BCE, include a region referred to as “the land of Shasu, YHW.”[10]

The Spelling of YHW

Since the Egyptian writing system contains consonants and no vowels, the letter W in the word YHW cannot be a vowel, but reflects a consonant, which in speech would have been followed by a vowel. (In other words, the Egyptian appellation should be pronounced something like Yahweh and not Yahu.) The word “YHW” therefore corresponds to the name of the biblical God, YHWH.

It appears that YHW was the chief deity worshipped by the nomadic tribes in this southern region, which was therefore called by the Egyptians “the land of the Shasu, YHW.”

But how did the deity YWH become transformed into the God of Israel?

Making YHW(H) Israelite: The Midianite Hypothesis

The biblical narrative of Moses’ marriage to Tzipporah and the children born to them in Midian (Exod 2:21-22, 18:2-5) reflects the marriage bonds created between the Hebrews who left Egypt and the Midianites whom they encountered on their way to Canaan. Alternatively, it is possible that some Israelites lived in the same area of the Midianites. I think that such assumption can be supported by both: biblical and Egyptian sources.[11]

Archaeological finds indicate that the 13th and 12th centuries BCE witnessed a flourishing of material culture in the northern Arabian Peninsula and in the Arava region. The special pottery associated with this culture is termed “Midianite pottery” or “Qurayyah ware” after the site in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula where these utensils were apparently manufactured.[12] This Midianite pottery is evident also in the area of Seir – Edom.

It thus appears that the Hebrews adopted the Midianite deity YHW or YHWH, whom they came to know in their stay in the area of Seir – Edom which is in “the land of Shasu YHW.”[13]

Midianite Origin for the Israelite Prohibition against Idolatry

Archaeological finds in Timna, north of Eilat, serve as an indication that it was apparently common among the Midianites to prohibit the representation of a deity in statue form. The area features ancient copper mines under Egyptian control, and a temple to the Egyptian goddess of mining, Hathor.

In the second half of the 12th century BCE, with the weakening of Egyptian power, the Midianites took control of the Timna area, this is evident by the great amount of Midianite ceramics in the place. A cultic tent was found there and the excavator, Benno Rothenberg, wrote that “there are convincing reasons to relate this tent sanctuary to the Midianites.”[14] He found, beyond the pottery sherds, that the Midianites had cleared out all traces of idolatry and “refurnished the Egyptian Hathor temple as a Semitic desert shrine.” This explains, he wrote, “why most of the temple gifts were found in a big pile, broken and mixed up, behind the court walls.”[15]

The Midianite mutilation of the face of Hathor and the rest of the smashed objects found amid the pink cliffs of Timna, strengthen the case for a shared and jealous God, who declared from Sinai that “thou shalt have no other gods beside me.”[16]  This makes it likely that alongside the belief in the deity YHW, the Hebrews adopted from the Midianites the prohibition of “Thou shalt not make thee any graven image” (לא תעשה לך פסל; Exodus 20:4).[17]


June 21, 2016


Last Updated

September 17, 2021


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Prof. Israel Knohl is the Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Hebrew University. Knohl’s numerous publications include: The Sanctuary of Silence, which won the Z. Shkopp Prize for Biblical Studies and The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.