Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Behaalotekha 5763/ June 14, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Behaalotekha 5763/ June 14, 2003

Moses and Hobab: The Art of Convincing

Prof. Amos Frisch
Department of Bible

A brief and enigmatic story appears in Parashat Be-ha'alotekha: Moses offers Hobab to "come with us" (Num. 10:29-32). Aside from the knotty question of identifying Hobab, with which we shall not deal at present,[1] several other questions arise:

  1. Why was Moses interested in Hobab joining him? Did the Israelites, led by the Lord, need an additional person of flesh and blood to guide them?
  2. Hobab declined the offer (verse 30) and Moses repeated his request that he join them (vv. 31-32); is there any difference between his second request and his first (v. 29)?
  3. Hobab's response to the second request is not given. What did he answer? Did he comply with Moses' request in the end, or did he stand firm in his refusal?
  4. How does this story fit into the context of the narrative, placed as it is after the description of the order of marching (10:11-28) and before the report on journeying from the mountain of the Lord (10:33-34)?

The purpose of asking Hobab to come along is ostensibly explained in Moses' request: "inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness" (v. 31). As Jacob Licht states in his commentary, "According to the plain sense of the text, Moses sought human leadership alongside divine leadership, and this was difficult for the Jews of antiquity. Therefore, the ancient targums did not render this verse according to its plain sense."[2] But what they concealed, a great exegete like Nahmanides allowed himself to say outright: "Since you know the wilderness, you will be like eyes for us in conquering the lands, and you could show us the route we ought to take" (see too the interpretation given by the Netziv). Yet the question remains why Moses wished to add human leadership to the Lord's leadership. Further, if in the end Hobab did not comply with the request (as mentioned in question 3), what alternative action was taken?

The key to understanding the story can be found in a close reading of the text, paying careful attention to repeated turns of phrase on the one hand, and to the significance of the variations in the form of the repetitions on the other.

Two roots are prominent in the number of their appearances in this story, and they can be seen as key words, or what Martin Buber termed "leading-words": t-o-v / y-t-v (in the forms ve-hetavnu lakh, hatov, yetiv, ve-hetavnu lakh, which mean: "we will be generous with you," "we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us") and h-l-kh (to go; lekha ittanu, lo elekh, elek, ki telekh, "come with us," "I will not go," "I will return," "if you come"). These words express the gist of the story: the beneficence that is promised to Hobab, if he accompanies the Israelites.

The root h-l-kh, which is used by both speakers, Moses and Hobab, underscores their differences: To Moses' request, "Come with us and we will be generous with you," Hobab responds, "I will not go, but will return to my native land." This is a declaration of loyalty to his natural setting,[3] but Moses defines this going as abandoning: "Please do not leave us (10:31)"[4] and reiterates his promise to Hobab: "So if you come with us ..."

In contrast to the verb h-l-kh, which pertains only to Hobab's action, the verb t-o-v / y-t-v is associated with the deeds of the Lord (as the subject), of Israel (as object and subject), and Hobab (only as the object, he who will receive the good); yet in all five instances it is actually used only by Moses. It is worth paying close attention to the fine points of difference in the way it occurs: in his first appeal to Hobab, Moses says: "Come with us and we will be generous with you (ve-hetavnu lakh); for the Lord has promised to be generous (dibber tov) to Israel" (10:29). In his second appeal he says, "So if you come with us, we will extend the same bounty that the Lord grants us (ha-tov asher yeitiv Hashem' ... ve-hetavnu lakh)" (10:32).

The promise to be generous (ve-hetavnu lakh) appears in both requests, but in a different context. In the first request, it is presented at the outset, with no further details being give, and then it is followed by the explanation, "for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel" - the Lord has been good to us, and we shall bestow a certain bounty on you; but the second request, where the phrase appears at the end, speaks of equality: the same bounty that the Lord gives us, we shall give you. Thus it turns out that in the wake of Hobab's initial refusal, Moses tried to persuade him both by more sweeping promises and by defining Jethro's refusal as abandonment.

Having found these differences in Moses' two requests, we could say that the presentation of a reason for Hobab accompanying them - "you can be our eyes" - which appears only in the second request, is also part of Moses' attempt at persuading Hobab. The differences in the argument are well-explained by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

In the previous verses the request was argued as being for Hobab's benefit [you will be rewarded]... Therefore Moses reiterated his request, explaining it in greater detail: Please do not leave us; your being with us is for our good, ... I appealed to you, ... since you are expert about the terrain in the places were we should camp, etc.

In the light of this explanation we can say that from the outset Moses did not intend to use Hobab's services as a guide, but turned to him to join them out of personal and family feelings. Only when his first request was turned down did Moses bring up a new argument, focusing on the benefit the people would derive from Hobab remaining with them. Thus the entire issue of guiding can be interpreted not as a real need, but as a rhetorical device designed to persuade Hobab, Moses having failed with the offer of personal good and benefit that would derive to Hobab.[5] The very focus on guiding the people, an argument which would be for the general welfare, is indicative of Moses' estimation of Hobab.

As we said, Hobab's answer is not presented in Scripture, nor are we told that he joined the people. Quite the contrary, we are immediately told about the people setting out on their journey, with the Ark of the Covenant at their head, leading and guiding them, so that one might conclude that Hobab did not join the journeying tribes. At the same time, neither are we told explicitly that he returned to his land. In view of our perception of the proposal to guide as a rhetorical device, the Ark as the guide should not be viewed as an alternative to Hobab; rather, that was the plan from the outset.

Commentators differ in their hypotheses as to Hobab's response. Nahmanides, for instance, believes that in the end he complied, whereas Abarbanel and Sforno hold that he did not agree to travel with the Israelites but that his sons joined Israel, and thus we hear elsewhere, but not in Numbers, of descendants of Moses' father-in-law being among the Israelite people (Jud. 1:16; 4:11).[6] Perhaps Hobab himself joined the Israelites at a later stage.
We can learn something about Hobab's role as a guide from the surrounding context and two other leading-words. In the description of the people's journeys through the wilderness in the book of Bemidbar, the emphasis is on the Lord guiding His people.[7] The roots n-s-' (set out) and h-n-h (encamped) are repeated numerous times in the passages that precede the story at hand. For example, "At a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Lord they made camp" (9:18), "they remained encamped at a command of the Lord, and broke camp at a command of the Lord" (9:20,23), "however long the cloud lingered... the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out..." (9: 22), "the divisions encamped on the east shall move forward" (10:5).

Close to the conversation between Moses and Hobab we are told about the Israelites breaking camp: "They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days' journey to seek out a resting place for them" (v. 33); thus both verbs hnh and ns' appear side by side once again. The description concludes with the ceremonious song that accompanies the ark's traveling, describing its two states: "When the ark was to set out (binso'a), Moses would say: Advance, O Lord!... And when it halted (uvnuho), he would say: Return, O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!" (10:35-36).

Thus the (somewhat obscure) attempt at including Hobab in the group that was journeying is set within this broader context of breaking camp and encamping. Lest one might momentarily have the impression that his leadership was necessary, the text emphasizes that the Lord's providence is what guided the people throughout their entire wandering in the wilderness. Even the choice of word menuhah in verse 33—"The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled... to seek out a resting-place (menuhah) for them", points to the superiority of the divine guidance to human scouts insofar as it provided the people not only a place to encamp but even a place of repose.[8]

[1] For a discussion of this question, cf. J. Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary), Philadelphia 1990, p. 78; T. R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers (NICOT), Grand Rapids 1993, pp. 195-197.
[2] J. Licht, Perush al Sefer Be-Midbar 1:[1-10], Jerusalem 1985, p. 162.
[3] We find the inverse in the command given Abraham to cut all ties with his family and place: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house" (Gen. 12:1); compare this with Boaz's description of what Ruth did: "... how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before" (Ruth 2:11).
[4] Y. Shaviv ("Iyyun be-Te'arav shel Yitro - Signon Miqra," Beit Miqra 35 [1990], p. 89) perceptively pointed out that the name used to refer to this personage can be seen as expressing the vacillations in his affiliation: "Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law" - on the one had he was the son of Reuel and a Midianite, but on the other he was related by marriage to Moses' family.
[5] Such an interpretation was given by Ralbag: "Moses word's seemed to indicate that Israel needed Jethro, ... but Moses said this out of modesty, since Jethro was not truly needed for this (Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Levi ben Gershom [Ralbag], Y. Levi ed., Vol. 4: Numbers, Jerusalem 1998, p. 37). Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher wondered, "What need had they of Jethro?" but explained the matter somewhat differently: Moses invited him "in order to encourage those of little faith among them" - i.e., as a psychological need of some of the people (whereas we are suggesting a rhetorical direction).
[6] Some people see Saul's words to the Kenites in his war on Amalek, "for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they left Egypt" (I Sam. 15:6) as also alluding to Hobab guiding the people in the wilderness.
[7] Y. Z. Moskowitz suggested an interesting delineation (Numbers [Da'at Mikra], Jerusalem 1988, p. 103), seeing the context as a single comprehensive unit which he calls "the journeys of Israel" (9:15-36). Also see Licht (note 2), who distinguishes three distinct literary units: the description of the cloud (9:15-23), the law of the trumpets (10:1-10), and the journey from Sinai (10:11-36). Elsewhere (loc. sit., p. 1) he, too, mentions the importance of these texts to the inclusive subject of the Israelite's journeys and the preparations for them.
[8] The importance of the choice of word menuhah can be seen by comparing the similar statement as put in Moses' words, where he spoke of hanayah, encamping, not menuhah, resting: "who goes before you on your journeys - to scout the place where you are to encamp" (Deut. 1:33).