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Zev Farber





Moses’ Father-in-Law: Kenite or Midianite?





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Zev Farber





Moses’ Father-in-Law: Kenite or Midianite?








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Moses’ Father-in-Law: Kenite or Midianite?

In the ancient world, genealogy was not about family relations but about political alliances.


Moses’ Father-in-Law: Kenite or Midianite?

Jethro and Moses, James Tissot, c. 1896-1900. Wikimedia

“In traditional New Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.”—Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 271-272

A Story without an Ending

The Israelites pause from their wilderness travel at Mount Sinai for a long stay. They arrive at the mountain in Exodus 19, and they do not pick up to start marching again until Numbers 10. At this point, the travel log is interrupted by a conversation between Moses and his father-in-law (חֹתֵן), Hovav son of Reuel.[1]

במדבר י:כט וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְ֠חֹבָב בֶּן רְעוּאֵ֣ל הַמִּדְיָנִי֘ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁה֒ נֹסְעִ֣ים׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣ר יְ־הֹוָ֔ה אֹת֖וֹ אֶתֵּ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם לְכָ֤ה אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ וְהֵטַ֣בְנוּ לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־יְ־הֹוָ֥ה דִּבֶּר ט֖וֹב עַל יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Num 10:29 Moses said to Hovav 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.”
י:ל וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו לֹ֣א אֵלֵ֑ךְ כִּ֧י אִם אֶל אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י אֵלֵֽךְ:
10:30 “I will not go,” he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.”
י:לא וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אַל נָ֖א תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֑נוּ כִּ֣י עַל כֵּ֣ן׀ יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֲנֹתֵ֙נוּ֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם: י:לב וְהָיָ֖ה כִּי תֵלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְהָיָ֣ה׀ הַטּ֣וֹב הַה֗וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵיטִ֧יב יְ־הֹוָ֛ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְהֵטַ֥בְנוּ לָֽךְ:
10:31 He 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 וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵהַ֣ר יְ־הֹוָ֔ה דֶּ֖רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים…
10:33 They marched from the mountain of Yhwh a distance of three days… (adjusted NJPS)

This conversation is unexpected. The last time we heard of Moses’ father-in-law was when Jethro visited in Exodus 18, but he returns home at the end of that chapter.[2] Moreover, his name there is Jethro; the Torah has never mentioned Hovav before.[3]

Just as the conversation appears out of the blue, it disappears again into the blue. In the next verse, the Torah continues with the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, and never records what Hovav decides.

Hovav and his Clan Live in Israel

Later, in the book of Judges, when Judah conquers its territory, we are told that along with them came the sons of Keni (the Kenites), explicitly called the clan of Moses’ father-in-law:

שופטים א:טז וּבְנֵ֣י קֵינִי֩ חֹתֵ֨ן מֹשֶׁ֜ה עָל֨וּ מֵעִ֤יר הַתְּמָרִים֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֔ה מִדְבַּ֣ר יְהוּדָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּנֶ֣גֶב עֲרָ֑ד וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אֶת־הָעָֽם:
Judg 1:16 The descendants of Keni, the father-in-law of Moses, went up with the Judahites from the City of Palms to the wilderness of Judah; and they went and settled among the people in the Negev of Arad.

Here we are told that the clan of Moses’ father-in-law lives in Israel. This would imply that Moses’ father-in-law decided to continue with the Israelites towards Canaan. Although this ostensibly answers one question, it brings up another.

In the book of Numbers, Moses’ father-in-law Hovav is identified as a Midianite. (This works with the description of Moses’ father-in-law Reuel in Exodus 2:16, 18, and the references to Jethro in Exodus 3:1 and 18:1.) Why in the book of Judges is Moses’ father-in-law a Kenite, not a Midianite?

That this Kenite father-in-law is the very same person described in Numbers as a Midianite is confirmed in the story of Deborah, which introduces us to a character named Hever, who is said to be a descendent of Moses’ father-in-law, Hovav:

שופטים ד:יא וְחֶ֤בֶר הַקֵּינִי֙ נִפְרָ֣ד מִקַּ֔יִן מִבְּנֵ֥י חֹבָ֖ב חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֵּ֣ט אָהֳל֔וֹ עַד אֵל֥וֹן (בצענים) בְּצַעֲנַנִּ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶת קֶֽדֶשׁ:
Judg 4:11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, descendants of Hovav, father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent at Elon-betzaanannim, which is near Kedesh.

The description of Hever’s ancestor Hovav, identified explicitly as Moses’ father-in-law, as a Kenite is consistent with the earlier description of him in Judges 1 (quoted above), but contradicts that of Numbers.

Moses’ Father-in-law: Names and Affiliations

In short, confusion reigns on two questions regarding Moses’ father-in-law: what is his name and from what tribe does he hail? Below is a table listing the possibilities as they appear in the Bible:

Name Tribe Verses
Reuel Midianite Exod 2:16-21
Jethro (*Jether) Midianite Exod 3:1, 4:18, ch. 18
Hovav ben Reuel Midianite Num 10:29
Hovav Kenite Judg 4:11
Unnamed/Keni Kenite Judg 1:16

The Sages in the midrash actually identify more possible names for him, adding Hever (from the Deborah story) and Putiel (Elazar the priest’s father-in-law in Exod 6:25) to the above five (Reuel, Jethro, Jether, Hovav, Keni) to make seven, and attempt to explain them all. In this essay, I will leave off the question of name and focus on the issue of tribal affiliation: Midianite or Kenite.

Kenites vs. Midianites

Despite the midrashic attempts to make the contradiction disappear,[4] Midianites are not Kenites; these are two distinct peoples. Midianites are descendants of Midian son of Abraham and Keturah (Gen 25:2). Kenites, mentioned twice in the Torah, are understood to be descendants of Kain (Num 24:22),[5] and, according to Genesis (15:19), they were already occupying the land of Canaan when Abraham arrived, and therefore cannot be identified with the Midianites, who did not yet exist.

The Torah presents the Kenites in a negative light. Not only are they one of the native peoples that will be displaced by Abraham’s descendants, but they are actually cursed by Balaam in the collection of “prophecies against the gentiles”:[6]

במדבר כד:כא וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת הַקֵּינִ֔י וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֵיתָן֙ מֽוֹשָׁבֶ֔ךָ וְשִׂ֥ים בַּסֶּ֖לַע קִנֶּֽךָ: כד:כב כִּ֥י אִם־יִהְיֶ֖ה לְבָ֣עֵֽר קָ֑יִן עַד־מָ֖ה אַשּׁ֥וּר תִּשְׁבֶּֽךָּ:
Num 24:21He saw the Kenites and, taking up his theme, he said: Though your abode be secure,
and your nest (ken) be set among cliffs, 24:22 yet shall Kain be consumed, when Assyria takes you captive.

Although there seems nothing positive in either biblical passage to lead a reader to think that there was or should be an alliance between Kenites and Israelites, a number of passages in Judges and Samuel say otherwise.

Kenite Allies

We already saw above that the Kenites go along with the Judahites as partners in conquering and settling the land (Judg 1:16). The text does not say why the Kenites are Judah’s allies.[7]

Another reference to the alliance between the Israelites and the Kenites comes from the story of Saul’s battle with the Amalekites. When Saul attacks the city of Amalek in the south, he warns the Kenites to leave the area:

שמואל א טו:ו וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שָׁא֣וּל אֶֽל הַקֵּינִ֡י לְכוּ֩ סֻּ֨רוּ רְד֜וּ מִתּ֣וֹךְ עֲמָלֵקִ֗י פֶּן אֹֽסִפְךָ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֞ה עָשִׂ֤יתָה חֶ֙סֶד֙ עִם כָּל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בַּעֲלוֹתָ֖ם מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם וַיָּ֥סַר קֵינִ֖י מִתּ֥וֹךְ עֲמָלֵֽק:
1 Sam 15:6 Saul said to the Kenites, “Come, withdraw at once from among the Amalekites, that I may not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt.” So the Kenites withdrew from among the Amalekites.

That the Kenites lived near the Amalekites is implied in the Balaam poem quoted above, since he “sees” the Kenites immediately after he finishes cursing the Amalekites (Num 24:20). Strikingly, this source in Samuel does not mention anything about a marriage with Moses, but points to some general kindness the Kenites performed for the Israelites upon their exodus from Egypt.

No such story is recorded in the Torah; this probably reflects a lost tradition.[8] Since both the Samuel account and the Judges account agree that Israelites and Kenites are allies, but do not give the same reason for this, we see that the fact of the alliance is more important than the reason.

In other words, the authors of these texts know that there is (or was) an alliance between the Israelites and the Kenites, but they have more than one explanation for why that is. Intriguingly, both explanations hearken back to the wilderness period, a period whose “hoary antiquity” may give authority to traditions associated with it.

A Tradition-Historical Approach

There is no way to reconcile the various traditions about Moses’ father-in-law. It seems probable that a tradition historical approach—one that attempts to trace the development of traditions over time—works best to explain the discrepancy between different accounts of Moses and his father-in-law.

Moses was an important person in Israel’s mnemohistory (=cultural memory)[9] and it is hardly surprising that multiple attempts may have been made in Israel’s history to cement an alliance between Israel and a neighboring people—Midianites, Kenites, perhaps even the Kushites (see Num 12:1)—by claiming that the great Moses married into their clan during his wanderings in the wilderness.

This would fit with the reality of how genealogies were used in the ancient Near East. In ANE literature and treaties, relationships—e.g. father-son, father-in-law son-in-law—were not meant literally, but were ways of expressing geographical proximity or political affinity.[10]

Allied kings would refer to each other as brothers, as would their subordinates when communicating with allies.[11] A revealing example of this phenomenon comes from a letter written by Ibubu, steward of the king of Ebla (named Irkab-Damu; c. 2340 B.C.E.) to an envoy from the ruler of Hamazi (named Zizi):

I am (your) brother and you are (my) brother. What is appropriate to brother(s): Whatever desire you express I shall grant, and you, whatever desire (I express) you shall grant.[12]

Familial language was not only the province of kings, but extended to peoples and clans as well. Neighboring countries or affiliated clans—the twelve tribes of Israel, Moab and Ammon—were “brothers.” Conflict between such groups were cases of “sibling rivalry.” For example, the rivalry between Edom and Israel is expressed in stories of their ancestors Jacob and Esau. Similarly, the rivalry between Aram and Israel is expressed in the stories of Laban and Jacob.

In fact, genealogy was more than just about treaties and enmities; it was the prism through which ancient peoples understood the world. Genesis 10, with its description of the “70 nations of the world” deriving from the 70 grandsons and great grandsons of Noah, is the parade example of this phenomenon.

The biblical text is often not engaging in real historical genealogy when it describes families, children, and marriage alliances. Rather, the genealogical description is an attempt to explain the nature of the relationship between Israel and its neighbors. In this case, the Israelites explain to themselves (and perhaps to their subordinate allies) that the reason their clans are in league with each other is because they are “brothers” since the great Israelite ancestor Moses married into the family of the great Kenite ancestor Hovav.

Genealogy as Treaty Language in the Ancient Levant: The Maccabean Treaty with Sparta

The strategy of finding common ancestors with one’s allies to solidify the bond was a common trope in the Ancient Near East and in Classical Mediterranean cultures.

One poignant example of this phenomenon appears in the Book of Maccabees, when Jonathan, as successor of his brother Judah Maccabee, wants to form an alliance with Sparta, he writes,

1 Macc 12:7 “Already in time past a letter was sent to the high priest Onias from Arius, who was king among you, stating that you are our brothers.” (NRSV)

Jonathan includes a copy of the letter to demonstrate the truth of his assertions:

1 Macc 12:20 King Arius of the Spartans, to the high priest Onias: 12:21 “Greetings. It has been found in writing concerning the Spartans and the Jews that they are brothers and are of the family of Abraham. 12:22 And now that we have learned this, please write us concerning your welfare; 12:23 we on our part write to you that your livestock and your property belong to us, and ours belong to you. We therefore command that our envoys report to you accordingly.”

The claim staked by Arius and Onias of “familial relationship” between the Spartans and the Jews has little to do with history but everything to do with facilitating a treaty between the two nations, and is quite similar to the ANE practice described above.

Tribal Genealogies from New Guinea to the Ancient Near East

Since alliances change over time, different texts from different periods offer contradictory genealogies. The question of whether Moses’ father-in-law was Kenite or Midianite is just one example of this. Israel’s relationship with the Kenites and the Midianites changed over time. Some texts reflect alliances; others hostility.[13]

In the Torah text, the story of Moses and his father-in-law is an attempt to explain the nature of the alliance between Israel and the Midianites. In Judges, it explains the alliance between Israel and the Kenites.

The quote from Jared Diamond’s, Guns, Germs, and Steel with which I opened this essay describes how strangers from different tribes in New Guinea alleviate their anxiety and conquer hostility upon meeting. (We often call this practice Jewish geography, but in tribal culture the stakes are much higher.)

The nervous tribesmen look for common kin, for some way that their families or friends have connected in the past. When they finally find it, this creates a bond and they can feel safe with each other and lower their defenses. Similar tactics were used to form alliances between neighboring peoples in ancient times. As it is human nature to feel comfortable and safe with family, the inverse is easily understood: we call people with whom we feel close or with whom we wish to be allies, family.


June 1, 2015


Last Updated

July 15, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).