Moses the Midianite
After the Israelites cry out in suffering, God decides to send a savior to bring them out of Egypt. God commissions of Moses for this mission when Moses is shepherding the flock of Jethro, the priest of Midian, near Horeb, God’s Mountain:
שמות ג:א וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה.
Exod 3:1 Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
But how did Moses get to Midian? The Torah explains this at length in the previous chapter:
Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile, leading Moses’ mother, a Levite woman married to a Levite man, to hide him in a basket in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses in the basket and adopts him.
When Moses grows up, he kills an Egyptian taskmaster, who was beating an Israelite slave. Moses soon learns from some Israelites that people know of the killing. When Pharoah tries to kill him, Moses is forced to escape to Midian, where he saves the seven daughters of Reuel, a local priest, from some shepherds who were harassing them at the well. Reuel invites Moses to his home, and gives him his daughter, Zipporah, as a wife, and they have a son named Gershom.
The Call Narrative Versus the Backstory
While this backstory explains how the Moses, an Israelite from the family of Levi, ends up in Midian married to a foreign woman when God first speaks with him, it is actually discordant with the call narrative in the next chapter on several points.
His Father-in-Law’s Name
In chapter 2 (v. 18), the name of Moses’ father-in-law is Reuel, while in the opening of the call narrative, his name is Jethro (3:1). No explanation for the name change is given.
God’s People the Israelites Are Oppressed
God tells Moses that he wants to save his people Israel from the Egyptians:
שמות ג:ט וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי וְגַם רָאִיתִי אֶת הַלַּחַץ אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם. ג:י וְעַתָּה לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל פַּרְעֹה [תה"ש: מלך מצרים] וְהוֹצֵא אֶת עַמִּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Exod 3:9 Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 3:10 Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh [LXX: King of Egypt], and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.
God is introducing Moses to the oppression of the Israelites as if Moses doesn’t know about it. God also refers to the Israelites as “his people,” not “your people,” perhaps implying Moses has no previous connection to them.
Moses Doesn’t Know Israel’s God
After God promises to support Moses when he speaks with the King of Egypt, Moses seems unsure of this deity’s identity:
שמות ג:יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם וְאָמְרוּ לִי מַה שְּׁמוֹ מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.
Exod 3:13 Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers’ [house] has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is [God’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?”
This verse suggests that the Israelites will know the deity’s name, but Moses does not, seemingly, because he is not himself an Israelite. This fits with the way Moses calls the deity, אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם “the God of your fathers,” which is what he envisions saying to the Israelites when delivering God’s message. All this implies that this is not a God with which Moses is familiar.
Isn’t He a Wanted Man?
Moses first responds by claiming that he is not an important or powerful enough person to take on this task:
שמות ג:יא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה [תה"ש: מלך מצרים] וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Exod 3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh [King of Egypt] and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
Moses does not mention here what should have been his strongest objection: He is wanted for murder in Egypt (see Exod 2:15) and will be killed if he returns there.
The Torah addresses this problem later on when Moses is already on his way back to Egypt.
שמות ד:יח וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וַיָּשָׁב אֶל יֶתֶר חֹתְנוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֵלְכָה נָּא וְאָשׁוּבָה אֶל אַחַי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶרְאֶה הַעוֹדָם חַיִּים וַיֹּאמֶר יִתְרוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם. ד:יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְיָן לֵךְ שֻׁב מִצְרָיִם כִּי מֵתוּ כָּל הָאֲנָשִׁים הַמְבַקְשִׁים אֶת נַפְשֶׁךָ. ד:כ וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת בָּנָיו וַיַּרְכִּבֵם עַל הַחֲמֹר וַיָּשָׁב אַרְצָה מִצְרָיִם...
Exod 4:18 Moses went back to his father-in-law Jether and said to him, “Let me go back to my kinsfolk in Egypt and see how they are faring.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 4:19 YHWH said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all those who sought to kill you are dead.” 4:20 So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt…
The verse interrupts Moses taking leave of Jethro and his placing his family on the donkey and heading off, and is therefore a later insertion, added by a later redactor sensitive to the narrative problems raised by Exod 2:15.
How Old Is Moses?
Moreover, the claim that everyone who knew that Moses killed the Egyptian is dead conflicts with the timeline of the backstory. Right after Moses is weaned, the Torah continues:
שמות ב:יא וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו.
Exod 2:11 Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.
In reaction, Moses kills the Egyptian (v. 12), and then escapes to Midian, marries Zipporah and has a son (vv. 15–22). The story moves quickly and seems to be envisioning just a few years passing. How, then, is it possible that everyone in the palace who would remember Moses had died?
Moses Was a Midianite
It seems clear, therefore, that Moses’ backstory (Exod 1:22–2:22) was added by a later editor (J). In the core (E) story, Moses is first introduced as a shepherd, married to the daughter of Jethro, priest of Midian, where he lives. He happens to be grazing his flocks near the Mountain of God, at the very time the Israelites are calling out in their suffering.
God is looking for someone to send to Egypt to bring the Israelites out, and when Moses turns towards the burning bush, God commissions him. In E, God continues to reside on this holy mountain and does not leave this dwelling to enter Egypt. For this reason, God needs to appoint Moses as his agent, whose central role is to bring God’s people to his mountain:
שמות ג:יב וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ וְזֶה לְּךָ הָאוֹת כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת הָעָם מִמִּצְרַיִם תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה.
Exod 3:12 And [God] said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”
The geographical arc—from Midian to Egypt to Midian—is bookended by the scenes of Moses with his father-in-law. Moses takes his leave of Jethro after accepting God’s commission (Exod 4:18), and is reunited with Jethro (and his family) when he returns to the mountain with the people of Israel.
שמות יח:ה וַיָּבֹא יִתְרוֹ חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֶל הַמִּדְבָּר אֲשֶׁר הוּא חֹנֶה שָׁם הַר הָאֱלֹהִים.
Exod 18:5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God.
For E, Jethro and Tzipporah are Moses’ family. The only other person we hear of in Moses’ life is Aaron, with whom Moses partners when speaking to the Israelite elders. But E never says that Aaron is his brother. Even if he is a kinsman of sorts, Aaron too lives in the vicinity of Midian, since he meets Moses at the Mountain of God. Bothered by this detail, J composed a backstory for this as well, explaining that God called Aaron there, presumably from Egypt:
שמות ד:כז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵךְ לִקְרַאת מֹשֶׁה הַמִּדְבָּרָה וַיֵּלֶךְ אַהֲרֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ בְּהַר הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּשַּׁק לוֹ.
Exod 4:27 YHWH said to Aaron, “Go to meet Moses in the wilderness.” Aaron (he) went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him.
Moses and Aaron thus serve as conduits for re-introducing the Israelites to their ancestral God on this far away mountain, where they will receive his commandments. Soon after, Moses will lead them from God’s Mountain north into the Transjordan, where he will conquer much of what becomes Northern Israel for them.
The clear implication of the E story is that Israel and Midian share a deity, who refers to himself as the God of their (collective) ancestors. This fits with the genealogical claim in Genesis 25 that Midian is a son of Abraham through his wife Keturah. While this is not an E text, it reflects an ostensibly widespread Israelite conception of Israel and Midian as kindred tribes. When the Israelites find themselves oppressed in Egypt and unable to leave, their God, hearing their cries, sends a cousin to save them and help them settle in new territory.
Characters Without Backstories
This reconstruction assumes that Moses is introduced in this document here, and lacks a birth narrative. This is not problematic: Like E’s Moses, many biblical characters do not have birth stories.
Abraham is chosen by YHWH to go to Canaan and inherit the land, but the text never says why (Gen 12:1–3). In this latter case, the lack of backstory was so disturbing to later interpreters that elaborate stories of Abraham’s childhood were composed to give him one.
Aaron, Moses’ brother, appears out of the blue, when Moses needs someone to help him speak to Pharaoh (Exod 4:14). He is later chosen as the progenitor of the priests; no explanation is given for why.
Joshua, who succeeds Moses, is picked by Moses to be the leader of the army when the Amalekites attack (Exod 17:9). We know nothing about him before that. We are also told that he is Moses’ attendant, who never leaves the Tent of Meeting (Exod 33:11), but no explanation is given about how this came about. 
Why, then, did J add the backstory here?
J’s Pious Revision
For J, it was unacceptable that the person chosen by God to free the Israelites and to communicate God’s laws to the people and lead them to the Promised Land would be a Midianite. He had to be an Israelite; better yet, a Levite. Why then, was he in Midian when God appeared to him? J answered this question in his typical style, with an elaborate story of Moses’ heroic defense of an Israelite from an Egyptian taskmaster, and his consequent need to escape. Thus, it was J’s need to turn an outside hero into an Israelite hero that led to the creation of Moses’ dramatic backstory so familiar to us now.
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Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.
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