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Shemot/Exodus 4:20 And Moshe took his wife and his sons and he mounted them on the donkey and he returned to the land of Egypt
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There are a number of irregularities and questions in this text. The first is the number of people involved and the second is the number of people involved. All the verbs in the text are singular, third person singular: 'he'. is the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to take, with a vav-conversive to denote past tense consecutive narrative: "and he took"; , likewise, is the Hif'il 3ms prefix form of the root , to ride, with the same vav-conversive and a 3mp suffix object pronoun, "and he mounted them", literally, "he caused them to ride"; , is the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to turn or to return, with yet another vav-conversive: "and he returned". The verbs present a sequence of three consecutive narrative events performed by one person, Moshe; the last part of the verse has yet another and surrounding verses either have Moshe doing things or in personal conversation withHaShem. It seems clear that he and he alone is the actor in this narrative block. So what happened to Moshe's wife and sons? How do they fit into the picture? We know that verses 24-26 portray Zipporah and at least one son with him, so why is the last verb in our text not plural, "and they returned"?
The second question about the numbers is in the same area. The text uses the word , "his sons", plural not singular as we might expect, only having heard about one son being born. Indeed, Nahum Sarna reports that some ancient versions have the singular at this point. Zipporah had Gershom, Moshe's firstborn son, some while ago - "She bore a son whom he named Gershom ... A long time after that, the king of Egypt died" (Shemot 2:22-23, JPS) - but it is not until after the Exodus that we learn about the second son, Eliezer, when Moshe's father-in-law brings the family out to him in the wilderness: "Yitro, Moshe' father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses' wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons -- of whom one was named Gershom ... and the other was named Eliezer ... Yitro, Moses' father-in-law, brought Moses' sons and wife to him in the wilderness" (18:2-5, JPS). When did the second son arrive and what part, if any, did he play in the proceedings? Was this the young son who needed to be circumcised in verses 22-24 - this might make better sense of that narrative fragment. TheRamban suggests that Zipporah was either heavily pregnant at this time, giving birth during the journey, or had only just given birth before the journey started.
The commentators try to solve this issue in two ways.Ibn Ezra, for example, tells us that "'he returned' is correct for Moshe went to Egypt alone; after the events of verses 24-26, Zipporah and the children went home to Midian." The Ramban concedes that Ibn Ezra may be right - "Ibn Ezra says that Moshe alone returned; this is possible - they all started off, but once Eliezer had been circumcised, he needed to be kept safe so Moshe sent them home" - but also offers an alternative: "Also possible is that they all returned to Egypt for some while, until she longed for her father, so Moshe sent her and the children back to Yitro." The Sforno is more definite: "'and he returned to the land of Egypt' - he alone, after he had sent them away. He seated them upon the donkey to bring them from the wilderness to his father-in-law's home in Midian." Umberto Cassuto suggests that "'and he returned to Egypt' precedes the narration of the events that befell Moshe and his family on the way, and has the sense of 'in order to return to the land of Egypt.'"1
That moves us on to donkey stories. Cassuto explains that "expressions like "Moshe took his wife and sons" usually occur in the Torah when the migration of a whole family from one place to another under the leadership of the head of the family is spoken of; they are idioms that have their root in Canaanite literary traditions and parallels have been found inUgaritic writings." Gunther Plaut agrees, adding that "this literary image is evoked repeatedly in ancient literature for departures of crucial impact; in the Torah, compare, for instance, Avraham's departure for Moriah to sacrifice Yitz'khak (B'resheet 22:3)." Rashi, noticing that has a definite article, so translated "the donkey" rather that "a donkey", speculates: "on that particular donkey - the use of the definite article shows that it was a particular donkey rather than just any donkey. It is the donkey that Avraham saddled for the binding of Yitz'khak, and it is the one that Messiah, the King, is destined to be revealed upon, as it says, 'a humble man, riding on a donkey' (Zechariah 9:9)."
Matthew's gospel records the head of another family starting a migration - "And [Yosef] rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt" (Matthew 2:14, ESV) - although there is no donkey mentioned in the text, there certainly is in tradition; Yosef would almost certainly have brought the pregnant Miryam to Bethlehem for the census on a donkey and would now be using the animal again for their journey on to Egypt. Notice the similarities here in the stories: a young baby boy, a journey taken after instructions in a dream or a conversation with HaShem, the destination - Egypt - and the temporary though possibly lengthy nature of the stay there. Both were to return only when directed by the L-rd. Unlike the Judeans who took Jeremiah down to Egypt after the destruction of Solomon's temple - "And they came into the land of Egypt, for they did not obey the voice of the L-RD" (Jeremiah 43:7, JPS) - both these journeys were blessed by HaShem. Moshe came out when he led the Children of Israel out of slavery following the ten plagues and the first Passover; Yosef because "an angel of the L-rd appeared [to him] in a dream in Egypt, saying, 'Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead'" (Matthew 2:19-20, ESV).
There is a further intersection between Yeshua's life and a donkey recorded in all four gospels: "And Yeshua found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 'Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!'" (John 12:14-15, ESV). Here, Yeshua deliberately selects a donkey and rides it down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem in order to fulfil the words of Zechariah's prophecy. At the same time, He is also starting a journey and making a migration: He is starting His own final journey to the cross that will bring His time of ministry on earth to a close; He is also starting the journey of the church, the group of people who would be His followers and would share the gospel with all the nations of the world. During the next week, aware that something is changing, "Simon Peter said to Him, 'Lord, where are you going?'" (13:36a, ESV) and received the reply, "Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward" (v. 36b, ESV). Yeshua alone is leading the way, but His disciples are called to enter upon the same journey. That seemed as clear as mud to the disciples, so only a few minutes later, "Thomas said to Him, 'Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way?'" (14:5, ESV), receiving the reply, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (v. 6). Yeshua is our directions for travel, the way in which we place our feet, the means of sustenance in the journey and the destination to which we go.
Have you ever received one of those automatic e-mail responses - "I will be away from my desk out of the country for the next three weeks with limited Internet access ..."? However annoying it is to have missed the person you wanted to contact, this tells you something about that person: they are prepared to pack up a suitcase and step outside their comfort zone, travelling into a different legal jurisdiction and probably natural first language, possibly taking a step into the unknown. Not everyone goes up the Amazon in a canoe, surveys the giant frogs in Lake Titicaca or follows the White Nile from Khartoum to Lake Victoria, but every journey is away from home and the physical security of bricks and mortar. Avraham heard G-d's call and went: "By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Yitz'khak and Ya'akov, heirs with him of the same promise" (Hebrews 11:9, ESV). So can you - what are you waiting for?
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
Further Study: Jeremiah 46:13-16; Luke 12:32-34; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18
Application: Are you on the journey yet? Have you heard "the upward call of G-d in Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 3:14, ESV) and recognised that you need to actually saddle your donkey and set out in response? The Divine Travel Agent is just waiting for your call - don't just buy a ticket: get out there on the trail!
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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