Exodus 4:18-20 seems to narrate Moses’ return to Egypt twice. Let’s look closely at the features of this passage.
18And Moses went back to Jethro, his father-in-law, and said to him, “Let me go so I may go back to my brothers who are in Egypt and see if they’re still living.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19And Yahweh said to Moses in Midian, “Go! Go back to Egypt because all the people who sought your life have died.” 20And Moses took his wife and his sons and rode them on an ass, and he went back to the land of Egypt.
First, we should notice that the use of the name Jethro, rather than Reuel, for the name of Moses’ father-in-law was a feature of the Elohist source (#85). And in this verse Moses is presented almost as a suppliant asking Jethro’s permission to return to Egypt. It is granted, and Moses departs in peace.
Verse 19, however, seems to begin the “return motive” anew, only this time Yahweh is presented commanding Moses to return to Egypt, in sum because those who had sought Moses’ life (Ex 2:14-15) have now died. We might additionally note that the story of Exodus 2 is from the hand of the Yahwist. There are unique Yahwist themes throughout, the least of which is the name Reuel for Moses’ father-in-law.
Thus it would appear that both Exodus 4:18 and Exodus 4:19-20 were originally part of two separate renditions of the “return motive”—the Elohist’s and Yahwist’s. If so, it is quite natural that a redactor, in stitching together these two versions, would have placed them one after the other in the redacted text. They almost read as a continuous narrative. But in fact they are two versions of the “return story”—one where Moses asks Jethro’s leave, the other where Yahweh commands him to return. We can readily understand how two once separate oral traditions could have told this story in these two different ways.
In tomorrow’s contradictions (#100-101), we will examine other differences in these two “return motives” that will fortify and reaffirm our conclusion here. Compare Exodus 4:19-20 with Exodus 18:1-5. What is different?