Beha-alotkha: Hobab Who?

April 13, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | 2 Comments

(This blog was first posted on May 23, 2010.)

And Moshe (Moses) said to Chovav (Hobab), son of Reuel the Midyanite, the father-in-law of Moshe:  “We are setting off to the place of which God said:  I will give it to you.  Come with us, and we will be good to you, because God has promised goodness concerning Israel.”

But he said to him:  “I will not go; rather I will go to my land to my kindred.”

Then he (Moses) said:  “Please don’t abandon us, because after all you know about pitching camps in the wilderness, and you can serve as eyes for us.  And it will be that if you go with us, then it will be by that goodness with which God is good to us, we will be good to you.”

And they set out from the mountain of God on a journey of three days … (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:29-33)

Chovav = loving, loved, dear

Re-uel = longing for god? friend of god?

Yitro = his surplus

I’ve already written two Torah monologues on this week’s Torah portion:  “Eldad and Medad in Camp” and “Miriam’s Healing”.  But this portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you are mounting” (the lamps)) is so rich, there’s a third scene that intrigues me:  the brief conversation between Moses and Hobab.

Who is Hobab?  The syntax of the sentence introducing his name is ambiguous in both Hebrew and English; he might be the father-in-law or the brother-in-law of Moses.  Older commentary assumes that Hobab is another name for Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law.  This claim is supported by a phrase in Judges 4:22, where the Kenite people are called the descendants of “Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses.”

But then how can Reuel be the father of Yitro-renamed-Hobab?  In Exodus chapter 2, after Moses rescued the seven daughters of “the priest of Midyan”, “they came back to Reuel, their father”, who told them to invite Moses home.  “Moses was intent on staying with the man, and he gave Tzipporah, his daughter, to Moses.”  Five verses later, Moses is “tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, priest of Midyan” when he encounters the burning bush.  His father-in-law is called Yitro (or Yeter) eight more times after that, while he is called Reuel again only in this week’s Torah portion.

I disagree with Ibn Ezra and other medieval commentary that claims Reuel is Tzipporah’s grandfather.  In Exodus, Reuel and Yitro are clearly the same person.  So Hobab must be the son of Reuel-Yitro.  Probably the glancing reference in Judges accidentally leaves out the phrase “son of Reuel”.

This idea is supported by the statement in Exodus 18:27 that shortly after Yitro met Moses at Mount Sinai, praised God, handed over Tziporah and Moses’ two sons, and gave Moses advice, “Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went to his own land.”  Moses encouraged his father-in-law to go.  But in Numbers 10 this week, he begs Hobab not to leave.

First Moses asks his brother-in-law to come with the Israelites to the promised land for Hobab’s own benefit, saying “we will be good to you”.  When Hobab replies that he’d rather return to his own land and people, Moses tries a different argument, saying that the Israelites need Hobab as a wilderness guide.

Yet Moses himself used to pasture his father-in-law’s flock in the wilderness of Sinai; he must already know how to manage traveling and camping there.  As for choosing the route, the Israelites have God’s pillar of cloud and fire to lead them.

So why does Moses beg Hobab not to abandon them?  Here’s my theory:  when Moses first came to Midyan territory, Reuel-Yitro had seven daughters, but no sons are mentioned.  If Hobab was even born, he was too young to help his sisters herd the flocks.  Many years passed, during which Moses and Tzipporah had two sons—sons that Moses did not even bother to greet when they were reunited at Mount Sinai.

Moses may not have bonded with his own sons, but he did bond with Yitro’s young son Hobab.  Hobab must have remembered his old brother-in-law favorably, because at some point during the year when Moses and the Israelites camped at Mount Sinai, Hobab came over from his father’s house to join them.  Now, when it’s time to set off for the promised land, Moses begs his beloved brother-in-law to come along.

Beloved?  Yes, Hobab or “Chovav” meanes “loved”, and comes from the word “chov”, meaning “bosom”.  Hobab may not be Moses’ bosom buddy, but he does seem to be one of the few people Moses loves.  Moses was uprooted from his own family and spent his whole life in one kind of exile or another.  His attitude toward his wife  Tzipporah is problematic.  Nevertheless, he manages to form caring attachments to his father-in-law Reuel-Yitro, to his brother Aaron, to his apprentice Joshua, and to Hobab.

The Torah does not say whether Hobab changes his mind and goes with Moses to Canaan.  But since the Kenites in Canaan are called descendants of Hobab, we can imagine that Hobab relents, and accompanies Moses after all.

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2 Comments »

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  1. I found this posting because I am researching this particular portion and the significance of the conversation between Moses and Hobab, I found your insights and explanations extremely helpful. Thank you.


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