Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5768/ December 29, 2007

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



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 Egypt (Ex. 4:24-26) despite its brevity is considered one of the more difficult passages, if not the most difficult, in all of Scripture.  The complexity of this passage has overshadowed the verses which precede it (Ex. 4:18-23). Because of this, the earlier passage that describes how  Moses embarked on his mission has not received its due.  Below, we shall attempt to correct this wrong.   The text reads:

Moses went back to his father-in-law Jether and said to him, “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.”  And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”

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:  Israel is My first-born son.  I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go.   Now I will slay your first-born son.’” 

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 Mount Horeb, and the following incident, the encounter between Moses and the angel (Ex. 4:24-26), occurs at a night encampment (ba-malon) on the way, as we are told at the beginning of that passage. 


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 Egypt, and Jethro grants permission; whereas at the end of the passage, Moses, speaking in the name of the Lord, requests permission from Pharaoh for the Israelites to leave Egypt, and Pharaoh denies his petition. The staff of G-d, which Moses is to use to perform the marvels, figures in the conclusion of the scene at the burning bush (verse 17), it concludes the first sub-unit (verse 10), and also begins the second sub-unit (verse 21) of the passage under discussion.

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. [1]

The relationship of the passage to the scene at the burning bush

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. [2]   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. [3]   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.” [4]   In other words, Moses was apprehensive about returning to Egypt, or perhaps even lax about performing his mission, as Rabbi Joseph Kimhi said. [5]   Abarbanel maintained that it was Jethro who made Moses reluctant to return, therefore the Lord encouraged him.   The motive of Abarbanel’s interpretation is clear:  removing the blame for tarrying and hesitating from Moses’ shoulders and placing it on Jethro.   Scriptures, however, give no hint of this.  Quite the contrary, Jethro wishes him well.  Apparently the Lord’s words, “all the men who sought to kill you are dead,” indicate apprehensions that Moses had been suppressing, so that G-d was now revealing to him the hidden fears that had been delaying his departure.

Regarding Moses’ family joining him

Commentators have wondered whether Moses took his family along with him to Egypt and whether doing so was in the spirit of his mission, or whether taking his family along with him reflected another way of putting off execution of his mission.  Nahmanides concluded from Moses’ language in his request of Jethro – “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt” – that Moses requested to go to Egypt by himself, except that the Lord informed him that all those who had sought to kill him were dead and therefore he no longer feared going to Egypt, and so he took his family with him, knowing that he was destined to remain there until the exodus.   Nahmanides added further that Moses coming to Egypt with his family gave the people greater faith and trust that redemption was at hand, for otherwise Moses would not have brought them to the land of bondage.  A similar view was presented by Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi. [6]

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... [7]

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. [8]   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. [9]   Hence several commentators believed that Moses parted from his family en-route and continued on to Egypt, leaving them to return to Midian (Saadiah Gaon, Ralbag, Hizkuni, and Shadal).   Sforno, however, maintained that Moses from the outset did not intend to bring his family with him to Egypt.   This is how he interpreted the passage:  “[He] mounted them on an ass – to bring them from the wilderness back to Midian, to his father-in-law’s house; and went back to the land of Egypt – he himself, after having sent them off.” [10]

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—Egypt’s firstborn and Moses’ son. [11]  

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 them from Egypt, and you go reluctantly; so I shall kill Gershom who is your first-born.   It is to this that the words refer:   at a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. [12]

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. [13]

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).


[1] Midrash ha-Gadol, Exodus, Margolies edition, Jerusalem 1956, p. 74.

[2] 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 19:20).

[3] Amos Hakham, Sefer Shemot, Da’at Mikra series, Jerusalem 2001, p. 68.

[4] The quotes of commentators for which no footnote is given have been taken from Torat Hayyim, Hamisha Humshei Torah, Sefer Shemot.

[5] Rabbi Joseph Kimhi, Sefer ha-Galui, Berlin 1887, under “az.”

[6] Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi, Mishneh Kesef, ed. Isaac Ha-Levi Last, II, Cracow 1906 (Sifriyat Mekorot, Jerusalem 1970), p. 136.

[7] Rabbi Joseph Kimhi (see note 5, above), loc. sit.

[8] 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).

[9] Perush Shadal al Hamisha Humshei Torah, Tel Aviv 1966, p. 229.

[10] In Ibn Caspi’s opinion, however, Moses took his entire family to Egypt, but nevertheless Scripture used the singular (vayashov artzah mitzrayim) because Moses was head of the family and all the actions of the family were ascribed to him.  Furthermore, one could not say that the family “returned” to Egypt when they had never been there before.

[11] Rabbi Isaac Arama, Akedat Yitzhak (see note 8), loc. sit.

[12] Rabbi Joseph Kimhi (see note 5, above), loc. sit.

[13] Rabbi Isaac Arama, Akedat Yitzhak (see note 8), loc. sit.