Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Reuel Dilemma

I. Traditional Solutions

An article by Yacov Balsam in the latest issue of Hakirah (link) addresses the Reuel Dilemma. Yisro is given three names in the Torah -- Reuel (Ex. 2:18), Yisro/Yeser (Ex. 3:1), Chovav (Num. 10:29). Having three names in itself is not necessarily a huge dilemma, but it gets more complicated. In Ex. 2:18, Moshe's wife and her sisters refer to Reuel as their father. However, in Num. 10:29, Chovav is called Moshe's father-in-law, and his father is Reuel. So is Reuel the father or grandfather of Moshe's wife Tziporah?

Click here for moreRashi (Num. 10:29), based on the Sifrei, resolves this by suggesting that Reuel was the grandfather, but sometimes people refer to their grandfather as father. This is actually seen a few other times in the Bible (e.g. Gen. 28:13, 32:10). Rashbam and Ibn Ezra on Ex. 2:18 agree with Rashi's explanation.

However, Ibn Ezra on Num. 1:29 has a different approach. He suggests that Reuel was the father and the names Yisro and Chovav refer to Moshe's brother-in-law (Tziporah's brother).

These are the two main solutions offered in the Medieval commentaries and they have retained their viability over the centuries. Even today, some contemporary scholars accept either of these two explanations. For example, Shadal (Ex. 2:18 - OK, not so contemporary) and Nahum Sarna (Exploring Exodus, pp. 36-37) accept Rashi's approach. Timothy Ashley (New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Num. pp. 195-196 - link) quotes both approaches. R. JH Hertz (Ex. 2:18) follows Rashi. JD Hays ("Moses" in Bible Review, August 2000) follows Ibn Ezra. Benno Jacob (The Second Book of the Bible, p. 507 - link) also follows Ibn Ezra.

II. A Third Way

Balsam does an excellent job of discussing the textual proofs and counterproofs for the views of Rashi and Ibn Ezra. He then offers an intriguing third approach. He suggests that Reuel is not a name but a title ("friend of god") used by the high priest of Midian. Therefore, both Tziporah's father and grandfather were called Reuel because the title and position were hereditary. Before I suggest a possible problem with this explanation, let's review some of the newer approaches that have been suggested in the academic literature.

III. Two Other Approaches

The great biblical archeologist William Albright wrote extensively about this dilemma and suggested two solutions (quoted in The New American Commentary, Ex. p. 99 n. 146 - link):

  1. Reuel was the name of the clan, and therefore applied equally to Tziporah's father and grandfather.

  2. Chovav was not Moshe's father-in-law but brother-in-law. The phrase "Chosen Moshe" should either be read as "Chasan Moshe" or translated that way (i.e. it refers to any in-law relationship, including brother-in-law).
The Documentary Hypothesis does not, on its own, solve this problem because the presumptive source that uses the name Reuel seems to contradict itself regarding who he is. Therefore, this approach requires further assumptions -- such as confused traditions that underlie the presumptive sources -- in order to resolve the dilemma, and even then it isn't very compelling.

IV. Different Names

What also needs to be explained is what the different names mean or represent. If Chovav and Yisro are the same person, why does he have two names? And if the Yisro and Reuel are the same person, the same question applies. Perhaps there is no need to answer, since biblical characters sometimes have more than one name. However, some commentators see more than that here.

Benno Jacob (ibid., pp. 507-509) suggests that Yisro was his external name while Reuel was the name he used with his family and the Jewish people. R. Hertz suggests that Yisro, which means "his excellency" or "his abundance", was a royal title while his real name was Reuel. Sarna (p. 36) also seems to accept that suggestion.

V. Reuel as a Title

Let's return to Balsam's suggestion that Reuel was really a title of the high priest. First of all, this requires rejecting the suggestion that Yisro was a title. It would be odd for the same person to have two titles, each used interchangeably in the Bible. More importantly, we see Reuel as an actual name in Gen. (36:4,13,17). It's a real name! Once you have evidence of it being a name and not a title, it become less plausible to suggest that in another instance it is a title rather than a name. That is why I prefer the other approaches and not Balsam's, although I admit that I have not conclusively refuted it.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More