#99. Does Moses return to Egypt by asking Jethro’s leave OR is he commanded by Yahweh to return to Egypt? (Ex 4:18 vs Ex 4:19)


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?

4 thoughts on “#99. Does Moses return to Egypt by asking Jethro’s leave OR is he commanded by Yahweh to return to Egypt? (Ex 4:18 vs Ex 4:19)

  1. Steven,

    Not sure how you didn’t get my point about Exodus 18:2 which clearly states that Moses previously sent his wife and sons back to Jethro. Also, even in your quote Exodus 4 has the plural ‘sons’.

    I reject your notion of this compilation of many traditions. I instead recognize, as Jesus did (eg. John 5:46, Mark 10:5, Matt 8:4), the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. I find this redaction theory to be unnecessary (almost all of these alleged contradictions are very weak) and unsubstantiated (there is no historical manuscript evidence to suggest that the Pentateuch consisted of multiple separate traditions compiled together).

    Thank you for providing me with some more serious alleged contradictions. I will try to make my way through them over the next while :)

    1. Then, my friend, you also reject the biblical texts, the individual authors who wrote these competing texts, their audiences, the historical circumstances that prompted them to write what they did and why they believed what they did, and the literary and geopolitical worlds that they wrote and lived in. Instead you favor a centuries-later interpretive tradition which prescribes how you ought to read and understand this now “Book,” placing the reader’s concerns, beliefs, and 21st century world-view above those of the authors, audiences, and historical and literary worlds of these texts. Understandably, I’ve seen this often. The “Bible” and what that word invokes becomes more authoritative than the texts and their authors. Shame. I stand for the texts and their authors.

      Oh, and I did not miss your point, but you’ve missed the texts’ (plural) point! And here’s one we will soon be looking at: how is the flow of water stopped in the Sea of Reeds story? Did I say story? I’m sorry, I meant stories. And you can’t skittle your way out of this one. You must listen to the text/texts. You have about a week till I get to it.

  2. I’ve been very confused at your alleged contradictions. This one is especially strange as I do not see how Moses could not have BOTH asked Jethro AND recirved a command from God. No need to come up with a thought experiment (full of unsubstantiated assumptions) that has absolutely no manuscript support whatsoever. It almost seems like you are trying to create controversy for controvery’s sake.

    Secondly, I think if you read Exodus 18:1-5 it will be quite plain that Moses sent his wife away (verse 2) which explains why she is no longer with him.

    1. Indeed, you have proven my very point, or rather have substantiated the texts’ (plural) points. The story of Exodus 18:1-5 does indicate that Moses’ wife and sons stayed with Jethro when Moses returned to Egypt, and here they are reunited. But the version told in Exodus 4 states, contradictorily, that Moses returned to Egypt with his wife and son (singular). I am in the midst of writing this contradiction up for tomorrow.

      Confessedly it is difficult to jump on board in the middle of our readings. But I welcome you and your input. We, my readers and I, have already traversed many texts, and have often seen that the Bible contains various different, and at times contradictory, texts or versions of the same stories, which are now preserved side-by-side in what later generations of readers codified and labeled as “the Book.” Each of the contradictions, by no means alleged—they are our textual data—vary in strength. This one on its own is not that strong, but taken together with the ground we’ve covered, does strongly re-affirm the Bible’s composite nature, and that there are two versions of the ‘return motive’ here.

      In this particular case, there would seem to be a whole textual tradition which consistently speaks of Jethro as Moses’ father-in-law, has Yahweh command Moses to perform the snake trick in front of the elders of Israel, has Moses present himself here, and elsewhere, as a suppliant to Jethro, here asking permission to return to Egypt, and states that Moses had sons and a wife which he left with Jethro when he returned to Egypt—all form one version of this story. Scholars identify this as the Elohist. Due to an editorial process that attempted to preserve all of Israel’s oral and written traditions, another version of the same story was also preserved. This one has Moses flee from Egypt because he murdered an Egyptian, which is again referenced in Ex 4:19, names Reuel as Moses’ father-in-law, has Yahweh command Moses to return to Egypt, and has Moses take his son and wife with him on his return. This tradition has been identified as the Yahwist. But again there are many many more differences and reoccurring features as well.

      I might recommend taking a peek at some of my favorites, where it is more visible that there are two versions stitched together or a later author rewrote an earlier version (#1, #6, #8-10, #11*, #14-18, #28, #31, #46-47, #48-49, #55-56, #63, #72-73, and finally #81). In a broader context, this is ancient literature and what scribes did when they, not authored, but reiterated the traditions they themselves inherited. Check out Stories of the North and South and What is the Bible? which tries to cut through our cultural presuppositions about what we think the Bible is, such as our assumption that the biblical authors were writing history.

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