#225. Who is to lead the way through the wilderness: Yahweh OR Reuel? (Num 9:18-23 vs Num 10:31)


There is a mix of curious and out-of-place material that immediately follows the detailed narrative of the Tent of Meeting, the place of the Aaronid priests and their Levite subordinates, the construction of the cultic institution, and all the cultic and purity issues raised throughout the book of Leviticus and Numbers 1:1-10:28. Starting at Numbers 10:29, we suddenly here stories about:

  • Reuel again (or is it Jethro? #85)
  • Yahweh’s Ark, whose role and function is presented differently than what had been introduced back in Exodus 37-40
  • the people’s desire for meat, which apparently disregards “the fact” that they just ate a feast no more than 20 days ago that consisted of 36 bulls, 72 rams, 60 goats, and 72 lambs (#221), and also contradicts “the fact” that they were rich in livestock (Ex 12:38, 17:3, 19:3, 34:5; see also #126)
  • the establishment of the judiciary without acknowledging that this had already been established prior to Sinai (Ex 18)
  • Moses and the elders approaching the Tent of Meeting which Numbers 1-7 had just stressed on penalty of death, from the deity’s mouth, that no non-Aaronid was to approach, let alone enter, the Tent of Meeting, which also, in this account, lies outside the encampment, contradictory to Numbers 2-3 (#220)
  • Aaron who is characterized in radically contrary ways to how he was portrayed throughout Leviticus and the beginning of Numbers

All these textual variations and outright contradictions has led scholars to conclude time and time again that the material of Numbers 10:29-12:15, and others as we shall see, is from the older JE traditions. In fact, when we look back to where the Priestly material starts, Exodus 25, and basically remove this whole block of Priestly material, that is Exodus 25 to Numbers 10:28, we realize that Numbers 10:29 and the story about Moses and his father-in-law Reuel (or Jethro as he was known in the Elohist source, #85) picks up right where we left off in the Yahwist narrative before all of this Priestly material was later added!

In other words, at an earlier point in the making of the Torah, the JE traditions were edited together as a whole narrative. Scholars surmise that this probably happened after the fall of Israel in 722 BCE when in all likelihood the northern Elohist tradition(s) traveled southward and was preserved by Judean scribes of the southern kingdom and eventually edited together to form what we label as the JE narrative.

Then at a later period in time, most likely the 6th c., the Priestly writer/redactor added his literary composition into the Sinai event by literally placing the narrative setting of his Aaronid priestly guild’s new cultic legislation back in the remote archaic past, i.e., back into the Sinai revelation!—thus splicing apart the original JE narrative, what is now Exodus 18 and Numbers 10:29 onward. But when we remove this Priestly material, the storyline of Exodus 18 seems to continue naturally at Numbers 10:29.

  • Ex 18:27: “And Moses let his father-in-law go, and he went to his land” (E)
  • Ex 19-24: the Sinai material (E)
  • Ex 25:1-Num 10:29: inserted P material (except Ex 32-34)
  • Num 10:29: “And Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel, the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses…” (J)

Exodus 19-24 is the Sinai revelation pericope or section. It is mostly composed of E material (see #129-132, #133, #134-135, #137-138, etc.). Moving further back, Exodus 18, also assigned to E, speaks of Moses’ reunion with Jethro and his wife and sons (but see #100-101), and Jethro’s suggestion to Moses to establish judges. Both of these themes–Jethro reuniting with Moses after the crossing of the sea of Reeds (#120-122) and the establishment of the judiciary—find their parallel Yahwist versions at Numbers 10:29-36!

So Exodus 18 contains the Elohist version of Moses’ reunion with Jethro and the establishment of the judiciary under Jethro’s suggestion. Numbers 10:29-36 seem to be the Yahwist version, where here Moses reunites with Reuel, or Hobab, and also establishes the judiciary except under Yahweh’s decree not Jethro’s (see #226).

The specific contradiction that we’re looking at today occurs when this later Priestly insert—Exodus 25–Numbers 10:28—is added into the older JE narrative, or between the Priestly theological claim that the wilderness itinerary was under divine command and the Yahwist claim that Reuel was to lead and guide them through the wilderness. So while the Priestly text of Numbers 9:15-23 explicitly states that the Isrelites move, disassemble and assemble camp according to Yahweh’s cloud/word—“by Yawhew’s word they would camp and by Yahweh’s word they would travel”—the Yahwist tradition now preserved in Numbers 10:29-32 places Reuel in this role, i.e., as guide through the wilderness: “because you know the way we should camp in the wilderness, and you’ll be eyes for us.” The text does not even acknowledge what was stated in Numbers 9:15-23, because frankly it wasn’t there; Num 9:15-23 is a later Priestly insert.

As we will see in other places where the Priestly redactor has left his mark, one of his agenda in supplementing the JE narrative was to show that the wilderness period was under divine providence.

5 thoughts on “#225. Who is to lead the way through the wilderness: Yahweh OR Reuel? (Num 9:18-23 vs Num 10:31)

  1. Starting at Numbers 10:29, we suddenly here stories about…the establishment of the judiciary without acknowledging that this had already been established prior to Sinai (Ex 18)

    You touch on this in #153, but there is another passage which I find interesting. The latter part of Exodus 24 records Moses and Joshua’s ascent on Mount Sinai. Moses tells the 70 elders, who previously had ascended and seen God, to “[w]ait here for us, until we come to you again,” and concludes by saying that, “Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them,” which seems like an odd thing to say since, as you point out, Exodus 18 states that judges had already been appointed: “able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain” (v:21).

  2. I was curious if a scholarly source would make the same observation about Exodus 24 that I did, and I found this on page 59 of The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible:

    The assignment to Aaron and Hur of judicial duties during Moses’ absence (vs. 14) adds to the evidence that the appointment of judges at Jethro’s suggestion (18:13-27…) originally came later in the narrative.

  3. Today in a court of law when a witness contradicts certain events, then such a witness is counted as being untrustworthy. Logically, the same goes for the Bible, which is filled with contradictions, and being the so called Holy Bible, one contradiction is one too many. Contradictions are directly linked to lies and this has been proven over and over. Then there is the problem where the Bible claims that God destroyed the earth and all thereupon with a flood, saving only Noah, his family and some animals. With the 40 days and 40 nights of rain, there are 40 valid questions that need honest answers. These questions were asked to many preachers, but the only answer I can get is total silence and blood red faces. Then there are a further 80 questions which puts tails between the legs as preachers run away. So how can any person with a sane mind believe in a book that is filled with lies?

  4. “So how can any person with a sane mind believe in a book that is filled with lies?”

    I didn’t realize the book was filled with lies when I was a Christian. But that’s just me. =P

  5. John,

    I like your observation; it adds to the textual evidence of multiple, and competing, stories about the origins of Israel’s judiciary. Take a look at Propp’s Exodus commentary in the Anchor Bible series. I’m not sure if he mentions this or not. But as I’m sure you’re well aware of, scholars typically refer to three Pentateuchal passages with respect to the establishment of the judiciary: Ex 18:13-26 (E), Num 11:11-17 (alternative E?), and Deut 1:9-13 (D). The speculation that Exodus 18 had been wrongly inserted before the Sinai event (or the latter wrongly inserted), is based on the passage’s mention of having the judges judge according to “the laws and the instructions” (18:20)—which have not been given yet! It is obvious that this was a later editorial addition, and your astute observation about Aaron and Hur would seem to add additional support here. For whoever penned Ex 24:14 certainly seems unfamiliar with the tradition now at Ex 18. Nice work!


    Careful! Do not read or understand these ancient text with the same erroneous assumptions that fundamentalist readers, or those unknowledgeable, do. I would not use words like “lies,” “false,” etc. They rest on the erroneous assumption that what we’re reading is historical record and/or that the Bible’s authors set out to write history. This is just inaccurate and ignorant of what ancient literature is in general. Indeed, the contradictory stories and even contradictory versions of “history” recorded in the biblical literature makes a claim for the very contrary, as this site attempts to lay out. As far as what people claim or think to believe vis-à-vis the Bible is a larger issue I’m exploring in another book-length project. In short, I’d be inclined to argue that the term “Bible” has come to mean something of its own accord separate from what these ancient texts say and don’t say, are and are not. It is the ideal inherent in the word “Bible” that most people unknowingly believe in, not these ancient texts, their beliefs, worldviews, etc.

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