After God commands Moshe to go to Egypt, confront Pharaoh and bring the Jews out of Egypt (Ex. 3:1-4:4:17, we face a very confusing record of Moshe's leaving Egypt. Ex. 4:18-23:
18 Moses went back to his father-in-law Jethro and said to him, "Please let me go back to my kindred in Egypt and see whether they are still living." And Jethro said to Moses, "Go in peace." 19 The Lord said to Moses in Midian, "Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead." 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, "Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. 23 I said to you, "Let my son go that he may worship me." But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.' "In verse 18, Moshe tells his father-in-law that he will be returning to Egypt to see whether his brothers are in Egypt. But what about the mission with which God had just charged him? Why did he omit that? Then in verse 19, God orders Moshe to go to Egypt. Shouldn't that have preceded Moshe's telling his father-in-law that he was going? Additionally, the reason in verse 19 -- that those trying to harm Moshe had died -- seems strange. If Moshe had a Divine mission, that would not have been a consideration. Then verse 20 tells us that Moshe took his family and left, and then went back to take the staff of God. Shouldn't he have taken the staff before he first left? Then in verses 21-23, God advises Moshe about how to go about his mission. Shouldn't this have taken place before Moshe left?
It seems like the verses in this passage are all out of order. Biblical critics try to solve this by positing that the various verses come from different sources (J1 & J2; J & E; J, E & N) but this alone does not explain why the verses were placed in such a confusing order.
R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky, in his Night of Watching (pp. 86-92), resolves this difficulty by noting that in the prior passage, in which God attempts to recruit Moshe to redeem the Jews from Egypt and Moshe argues that he is insufficiently qualified for the task, Moshe never finally accepts the responsibility (p. 88):
[O]ne can well imagine that the experience of his prophecy had its effect and continued to trouble Moses to the point that he came to his father-in-law and announced that he was going to make a journey to Egypt to visit his brothers and to inquire about their welfare. As a matter of fact, when he takes leave of Jethro, this is all he intends to do and this is all the text indicates. It is at this point that G-d appears to Moses and tells him that it is proper for him not merely to visit Egypt, but to return to Egypt and to live with his brothers again...
At first, when his intention was merely to visit Egypt, his plan was to make the journey alone. Now that he is going to live there, his entire plan changes: he takes his wife and children. But -- and this is the point -- almost as an afterthought, he also takes the 'rod of G-d' with him -- the rod which will serve as a symbol of leadership, as a sign of the Divine mission and as an instrument of miracles. This is really the first indication that Moses is still considering the possibility of accepting the mission of G-d, and of becoming the redeemer of Israel.
Verse follows verse so beautifully. It is at this very juncture that Moses decides to take the "rod" with him, though his acceptance of the mission is so far from definite, that G-d again appears to him and again outlines the major features of the mission. Noting that Moses is still vacillating, still undecided, but nevertheless taking the "rod of G-d" with him, G-d spells out the mission in its dramatic form -- and urges Moses to accept it and to pursue it to its triumphant conclusion.