the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
How Moses embarked on his mission
Dr. David Elgavish
Department of Bible
The passage describing the encounter between Moses and the
angel at a night encampment on Moses’ way back to
Moses went back to
his father-in-law Jether and said to him, “Let me go back to my kinsmen in
The Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.” So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of G-d with him.
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see
that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your
power. I, however, will stiffen his
heart so that he will not let the people go.
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus
says the Lord:
The limits of the passage are clear.
It takes place in Midian, whereas the
preceding passage, that of the burning bush (Gen. 3:1-4, 17), takes place at
The passage under discussion is delimited in terms of its
ideas, as well. The six verses
comprising this unit fall into a symmetric division of three verses and three
verses. The first part deals with
Moses’ actions and his personal preparations for embarking on his mission
(verses 18-20), and the second part presents the Lord’s words, instructing Moses
in the details of his national mission (verse 21-23).
At the beginning, Moses requests
permission of his father-in-law to leave Midian and return to
The two sub-units comprising the whole parallel each other both in their similarities and in their differences. The second part is comprised entirely of the Lord’s words, whereas the first part is comprised of two verses dealing with Moses’ actions and one verse in which the Lord encourages Moses to act. In both these parts Moses requests permission to leave and be set free, but presents his request with guile. Moses hides the true reason for leaving Jethro, saying that he wishes to go in order to see how his brethren are faring. The way Moses addresses Jethro reflects his indecision as to how he should present his request to his father-in-law. On the one hand he says, “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt” (verse 18), i.e., that he wishes to return to Egypt and settle down there, and on the other hand he says, “and see how they are faring” (loc. sit.), implying that he has in mind only a short visit. It may be said to Jethro’s credit that he did not in the least hinder Moses but simply let him go, even though Moses was taking Jethro’s daughter and grandsons with him.
In contrast, before Pharaoh, Moses appears in the name of the Lord and demands permission to leave for the Lord’s son, whom Pharaoh has no right to hold onto, and Moses even performs marvels and signs before Pharaoh. Here, too, Moses acts with guile and does not request liberation of the slaves; rather, he says, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me” (verse 23), and even though the request is but to leave for a limited time, Pharaoh rejects the request. It is clear why Moses deceived Pharaoh, but why did he have to be deceptive to his father-in-law? One answer to this question is given by Midrash ha-Gadol:
He did not tell Jethro the truth for fear that he would place obstacles in his way. Rather, he thought: first I will tell him something easy, and if he gives me permission, so much the better; if not, I will tell him I am going on a mission for the Omnipresent. Jethro did not make it necessary for him to say anything further, but immediately told him to go in peace. 
At the burning bush the Lord repeatedly tried to convince Moses to accept the Lord’s mission, but Moses rejected the divine appointment time and again. At the end of the passage the Lord once more addressed Moses in an attempt to convince him to comply (verse 14-17), and the reader might wonder: will Moses comply this time, and if so, willingly or under coercion? The passage we are analyzing is supposed to answer these questions, which are left unresolved in the previous passage.
In the Hebrew, the opening verse (18) begins “Moses went,” so that the reader might think that he set off to perform his mission, and only as one reads further does one learn that he went “back to his father-in-law Jether” (loc. sit.). Even if Moses silently accepted the mission, by going to Midian he was causing a delay in carrying it out.  When he came to his father-in-law, he said to him, “Let me go [elkhah] back [ve-ashuva] to my kinsmen in Egypt” (loc. sit.), on which Amos Hakham noted astutely that Moses’ request is phrased in a way that repeats the verbs at the beginning of the verse – “Moses went [va-yelekh] back [va-yashov] to his father-in-law Jether” – from which we learn that Moses did not return to his father-in-law in order to stay with him, rather to prepare the way for his departure to Egypt to carry out his mission.  Did Moses have to request permission to go on a mission that the Lord commanded him, and was carrying out a mission that the Lord charged him conditional upon Jethro’s permission? We learn from Moses’ behavior here that even when a person is faced with national tasks, he must not forget his duties to his friends and family and must show them his appreciation; indeed, this is how Moses behaved towards his father-in-law Jethro. To Jethro’s credit it must be said that not only did he give him permission, he even wished him success – “Go in peace” – recognizing the danger that Moses faced in returning to Egypt.
This paved the way for
Moses’ departure for Egypt, and surprisingly the Lord appeared to him again,
giving him further encouragement:
“The Lord said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go back to Egypt, for all the men
who sought to kill you are dead’” (verse 19).
From this we learn that despite Jethro’s
farewell wishes, Moses did not set out immediately; he needed another
revelation of G-d, in which Moses was given information that would make his
return to Egypt easier. Perhaps
mention of the place, “in Midian,” was meant as criticism of Moses for not yet
having left on his mission. How much time had passed between the scene at the
burning bush and this message from G-d?
Ibn Ezra, in his short commentary on Exodus, wrote:
“Many days or even months after the
angel appeared to him at the burning bush.”
In other words, Moses was apprehensive
about returning to
Regarding Moses’ family joining him
wondered whether Moses took his family along with him to
Other commentators viewed this act of Moses as ill-advised. Rashbam wrote in his commentary on verse 24: “the Lord encountered him – because he had been tarrying in going and had taken his wife and sons with him.” Ibn Ezra, in his short commentary on Exodus, also took a critical position:
Do not be surprised, for even prophets do not know that which is hidden... Moses even took his wife and children with him, to bring them to Egypt, and this was ill-advised. For the Israelites would say, how could it be that he has come to take us out, when he has come with his family to settle down.
In other words, precisely because he brought his family, people thought that redemption was not close at hand. A similar approach was taken by Rabbi Joseph Kimhi:
For he said, if redemption not come soon, better that my family be with me. When the Lord saw that he was tarrying in carrying out his mission, taking his wife and sons with him, so that the Israelites would say: This man has not come to take us out, rather to live in the land... 
The next passage tells
how the Lord wanted to kill Moses’ son or perhaps even Moses himself.
In Hizkuni’s opinion, this was because
Moses could have circumcised his son and left him with his mother and departed
hastily himself; but instead, he took his time because of his wife and sons who
had joined him on the journey.
Shadal noted that the Lord feared lest
his wife dissuade him from going on his mission to Pharaoh, and He viewed with
disfavor Moses having taken his wife and sons along with him.
Hence several commentators believed that
Moses parted from his family en-route and continued on to
The relationship between this passage and the encounter en-route
Just as the passage
under discussion is related to the one preceding it – the scene at the burning
bush – so, too, it is connected with the passage that follows it – the
encounter en-route (Ex. 4:24-26).
The passage under discussion ends with the words, “Now I will slay your
first-born son” (verse 23), and the next passage begins with the declaration,
“the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him” (verse 24).
Not only does the theme of death connect
the two passages, but also, in the view of many commentators, the accusative
personal pronoun him in the second verse relates to Moses’ son.
This makes a perfect parallel between
those threatened with death—
According to Rabbi Joseph Kimhi’s interpretation, which we present below, the two passages are even more closely connected. Regarding the words, “I have said to you, ‘Let My son go,’... yet you refuse to let him go” (verse 23), Rabbi Joseph Kimhi asked: “When had the Lord said to Pharaoh, ‘Let My son go,’ and when had Pharaoh refused? None of this had yet occurred.” This led him to conclude that Scriptures was referring not to Pharoah’s first-born but to Moses’ first-born. Kimhi explains in his commentary on verse 24:
Yet you refuse to
let him go – you refuse to go on the mission I have assigned you, to free
The same view was presented with greater moderation by Shadal, who claimed that while the warning, “now I will slay your first-born son” refers to Pharaoh’s son, nevertheless at the same time Moses should have understood from this that if he be lax in his mission and delay the exodus from Egypt, the Lord would kill his first-born son. Rabbi Isaac Arama, author of Akedat Yitzhak, connected the verses in a different fashion. According to him, the Lord sought to kill Moses at the night encampment since he had taken his family along with him and thereby caused a delay en-route. 
In conclusion, we return to the central question which we posed and which the passage we have studied answers: Did Moses, after having given a variety of excuses for refusing the mission the Lord wished to delegate to him at the burning bush, finally comply and set out willingly on his national mission? From what we have presented above it follows that he did indeed comply with the Lord’s command and go to Egypt, but he did so under duress, so that when the first difficulties in carrying out the mission surfaced, Moses returned to his sender (the Lord), full of complaints (Ex. 5:22-23).
ha-Gadol, Exodus, Margolies edition,
 Moses resembled Elisha in this respect. Elisha responded to Elijah’ offer to join the circles of prophets with the following words, “Let me kiss my father and mother good-by, and I will follow you” (I Kings ).
 Amos Hakham, Sefer Shemot, Da’at Mikra series, Jerusalem 2001, p. 68.
 The quotes of commentators for which no footnote is given have been taken from Torat Hayyim, Hamisha Humshei Torah, Sefer Shemot.
 Rabbi Joseph Kimhi, Sefer ha-Galui, Berlin 1887, under “az.”
Joseph Ibn Caspi, Mishneh Kesef, ed. Isaac Ha-Levi Last, II,
 Rabbi Joseph Kimhi (see note 5, above), loc. sit.
 A similar view was presented by Rabbi Isaac Arama, Akedat Yitzhak, Jersuaelm 1961, 20b. He relied there on a view given in the gemara (Nedarim32a).
 Perush Shadal al Hamisha Humshei Torah, Tel Aviv 1966, p. 229.
 In Ibn
Caspi’s opinion, however, Moses took his entire family to
 Rabbi Isaac Arama, Akedat Yitzhak (see note 8), loc. sit.
 Rabbi Joseph Kimhi (see note 5, above), loc. sit.
 Rabbi Isaac Arama, Akedat Yitzhak (see note 8), loc. sit.