Exodus 2b: Moses in Midian

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Realizing that Pharaoh plans to kill him for killing an Egyptian, Moses flees to Midian. His intention is to settle there, and upon arriving in Midian, he stops by a well. Soon, seven daughters of the priest of Midian come to the well to draw water to fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. After a short time, some shepherds come and drive them away. Moses, however, rises to their defense and waters their flocks.

Embedded in this scene is another connection to the patriarchs. Both Isaac and Jacob meet their wives at a well. One major difference, though, is that while both of their wives are Israelites, Moses meets a foreigner. Perhaps, this is the result of Moses’ rejection by the Israelites. He is destined to establish his new life with strangers.

It is also noteworthy that unlike the Israelites back in Egypt, the foreign daughters happily accept his help. Because he assists them, they accomplish their task in record time and return home to their father. In this setting, the father’s name is Reuel, which means “friend of God.” In other settings he will be called Jethro or Hobab. His nationality changes from a Medianite to a Kenite. Some scholars offer that Jethro may have been his official title as priest. They also point out that Kenite refers to a metal worker, but there is nothing in the story to suggest that Reuel’s occupation is anything other than managing flocks. Most scholars simply explain these differences by allowing for different strands of tradition.

Nonetheless, upon his daughters’ return, Reuel asks how is it that they have finished so soon. They relate the story from the well saying, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.” Some scholars point out that the word, “help,” is a weak translation. The Hebrew word has the force of “rescued or delivered,” perhaps foreshadowing Moses’ deliverance of the Israelites later on.

Their father, Reuel, asks, “Where is he? Why did you leave the man? Invite him to break bread.” The text doesn’t indicate if Moses has followed them home or if he remains at the well until they come back with their father’s invitation. In any event, Moses agrees to stay with them and is welcomed into their family. The irony again is unmistakable. The Israelites reject him, but the foreigners welcome him. So much so, that Reuel gives one of his daughters, Zipporah, to Moses in marriage. There is no indication whether Moses has any say in the matter. But this marriage cements his inclusion into their family. Clearly, in this scenario, Zipporah is a Midianite. In other texts, however, she is referred to as being a Cushite.

Together, they have a son, and Moses names him “Gershom.” The name is derived from a verb meaning “to drive out/off.” Moses explains the name by saying, because “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” This chapter begins with Moses’ birth and then the daughter of Pharaoh bestowing his name, which means “to draw out.” Near the end, we have the birth of Moses’ son, upon whom he bestows a name meaning “to drive out.” It provides an appropriate framework to this birth story. But there is just a bit more before the chapter closes.

While Moses is settling in to his new life in Midian, the author takes the reader back to life in Egypt. After the passage of an undisclosed amount of time, the Pharaoh of Egypt dies. One assumes that this is the Pharaoh who has wanted to kill Moses. Presumably, Moses’ life is no longer in danger, but he does not know this. More to the point, along with a new regime comes the expectation of new policies. Perhaps everyone thinks things will be different once the old Pharaoh has died.

But the people soon discover that nothing changes, and it’s unlikely anything will change in the future. For the first time, “The Israelites groan under their slavery and cry out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.” Outside of God’s involvement with the midwives, this is the first time the people call on God. It is true that God has been hovering in the background throughout the birth stories, but now He is openly sought.

And the very next line following their crying out, states, “God hears their groaning, and God remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looks upon the Israelites, and God takes notice of them.” In its simplest terms, one scholar notes that readers must consider the possibility that if they had never cried out, they’d still be there. On the other hand, if they had cried out a couple of hundred years earlier, their bondage might have lasted a lot less time.

Perhaps. Others, however, look for a deeper significance, noting the timing of these events. A new regime does allow for new possibilities and potential. It is likely that the Israelites realize their lives will never change without divine intervention. Twice in short verses they “cry out,” and twice they name their oppression for what it is – slavery. In that sense, things have changed. Their cries “rise up to God.” They are praying for a helper, and their prayers require a response.

In calling out, the nature of God is also at stake. He responds in four ways. The narrator repeats God’s name for each response, which again calls attention to something new on His part as well. God hears; God remembers; God looks; and God takes notice. Each aspect is worthy of a comment.

  • God “hears” doesn’t mean their prayers finally resonate with Him. To “hear” has the sense of heeding and responding.
  • God “remembers” doesn’t mean He has forgotten all about His promises until now. “Remembering” is to attend to those promises, to his prior commitment to the patriarchs. “Remembering” also has the connotation of action on their behalf.
  • God “looks upon them” doesn’t mean He physically sees them. “To look upon” is to have sympathy or kindness toward them.
  • God “takes notice” doesn’t mean He has new information. To “take notice or know” means to share an experience with them.

All these responses indicate that something new is happening on God’s part as well.

God’s responses indicate He is ready to intervene, and the Israelites are ready for an intervention. It’s a dynamic in perfect sync. The only question is how to bring it all about. Clearly, the next move belongs to God. This chapter ends with people calling out to God and God responding. The cry and the response to the cry is immediate.