As you were reading Exodus 2 and 3 you may have noticed something that appears to be a discrepancy in the naming of Moses' father-in-law. This post will give a brief overview of this apparent problem and will sort out who is who. For the purposes of this blog we will avoid going too deep into every side of the debate as that is the area of biblical scholars and unnecessary for the average person who is simply seeking answers. When we first meet this man in Exodus 2:18 (ESV) we read, "When they came home to their father Reuel, he said..." then we see in verse 21 that Moses marries one of "the man's" daughters named Zipporah. Where the apparent controversy lies is in Exodus 3:1 (ESV): "Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian..." A few other instances muddy the water further. In Numbers 10:29 (ESV) we read "And Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law..." but then Judges 4:11 (ESV) reads: "Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses..."
So we have three names: Reuel, Jethro, and Hobab which all seem to refer to Moses' father-in-law, but becomes confused by the issue of Hobab seeming to be both Moses' father-in-law and the decendent of Reuel who we also posit is Moses' father-in-law!
Who was Reuel?
Let's tackle who Reuel is first. There are three basic views on this. The first is that Reuel is simply another name for Jethro, much like Jacob also being named Israel (both of which were used interchangeably).
The second idea is that Reuel could be the father of the clan (or household) and the daughters of Jethro were, therefore, attributed to Reuel. This would be consistent with the practices of the day (such as Jacob claiming Joseph's children as his own in Genesis 48:5 (ESV) ). However, this would also force the character called Hobab into the role of Moses' father-in-law, which while seeming to work just fine raises difficulties later on when considering that Hobab is recorded as staying with the Israelites as a guide after their exodus from Egypt while Jethro is recorded as returning home.
The third idea is that "Reuel" was Jethro's real name whereas "Jethro" was his priestly title (Jethro means "excellence" ["Who was Moses' Father?", Tektonics, http://www.tektonics.org/lp/mosdad.html. & "Daily Bible Study--Jethro", Wayne Blank. Keyway.ca. http://www.keyway.ca/htm2002/jethro.htm.]). This is a possibility that can be conjoined with the first option (Reuel and Jethro being two names for the same individual).
After much study, I believe that Reuel and Jethro are the same person. Whether or not "Jethro" was actually a title is not important to the issue, though it could explain why the two names are introduced for one man without any explanation.
Now that we have decided that Reuel and Jethro are one-in-the-same: namely, Moses' father-in-law, we must determine how Hobab is related. As mentioned, in Numbers 10:29 (ESV) we read: "And Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law..." and then in Judges 4:11 (ESV) "Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses...". In the first passage Hobab is describes as the son of Reuel the Midianite--then note that the comma's placement shows we are describing Reuel as Moses' father-in-law. This would make Hobab Moses' brother-in-law. However, Judges 4:11 (ESV) says that Hobab is the father-in-law of Moses!
This has been quite the point of contention, but is quite simply solved. The Hebrew language originally consisted only of consonants (for example, the last sentence, minus consonants would read: TH HBRW LNGG ORGNLL CNSSTD NL F CNSNNTS). Later on, small markings were added above and below each word to guide in pronunciation and allow for easier reading. This is the Hebrew for "father-in-law": it sounds like this: ḥōṯēn. On the other hand, this is the Hebrew for "brother-in-law": it sounds like this: ḥāṯān. Notice how, in the original Hebrew manuscripts the small markings above and below would not have existed leaving both words identical. As the Expositor's commentary puts it, "Hobab is called Reuel's son in Numbers 10:29 (ESV); so 'brother-in-law' is a most likely rendering. 'Father-in-law' can be 'brother-in-law' with no change in consonants"(Expositor's Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel. Zondervan, 1992. Page 405).
The New Living Translation (NLT) and the New International Version (NIV), different translations of the original manuscripts, agree with rendering this as "brother-in-law". Therefore, I believe that Reuel and Jethro are one person: Moses' father-in-law and Hobab is Moses' brother-in-law.
Reliability of the Bible
When we start looking at this kind of answer it may cause us to wonder if the Bible is as accurate as we like to think. I believe that it is. There are many checks and balances that have gone into making copies of manuscripts and checking them against one another. The Biblical manuscripts are some of the most reliable ancient texts that are in existence. Much more reliable in fact, than most of the manuscripts that we unquestioningly base much of our ancient history on. For more information on how the Bible has been preserved I recommend reading the Institute for Religious Research's article called "Is Today's Bible the Real Bible?".
If you have any further questions or need help on another topic, leave your comments below!
--Pastor Stephen Valcourt