Part 2: Can Ambiguity Suggest Mutuality?


by Doug Ward

After his encounter with God at the burning bush, Moses set out for Egypt with his wife Zipporah and sons Gershom and Eliezer (Exod 4:20). At some point on the trip, however, Moses sent Zipporah and the boys back to Midian (Exod 18:2), perhaps on the advice of his brother Aaron.


The separation of Moses from his family was temporary. God had promised that Moses would return to Sinai (Exod 3:12), and that promise was fulfilled just a few weeks after Israel's miraculous rescue from Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea. When Zipporah's father Jethro heard what God had done for Moses and the Israelites, he brought his daughter and grandsons to Sinai (Exod 18:1-5), where a joyous reunion must have taken place. The biblical narrative does not give many details, focusing on the interaction between Jethro and Moses. As recounted in Exodus 18:7,


"And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him, and each of them asked of the other's well-being, and they went into the tent."1


One thing that is not entirely clear from this verse is which of the two bowed and kissed the other. Most translators and interpreters have Moses bowing down. However, one major Torah text, the Samaritan Pentateuch, says that Jethro bowed down.


Exodus 18:7 is one of a number of biblical passages in which a pronoun has two possible antecedents. In such cases, one can often learn much by considering all of the options.2 So let's look more closely at the question of the "bower" and the "bowee" in Exodus 18:7.


Moses or Jethro?

Moses and Jethro had first met forty years earlier. As we read in Exodus 2, Moses was the son of Israelite slaves in Egypt but grew up in the Egyptian royal court. When he reached adulthood, Moses sympathized with the plight of the Israelites. At one point he intervened to save a fellow Israelite who was being beaten by an Egyptian, and the Egyptian died in the struggle. Now wanted for murder, Moses fled to Midian (Exod 2:15).


Moses was a lover of justice who desired to help the oppressed. He demonstrated this quality again in Midian when he came to the assistance of seven shepherd girls, the daughters of Jethro. In return, Jethro welcomed Moses into his household, and Moses eventually married Zipporah, one of the shepherd girls (Exod 2:15-22).


At the time when Jethro took Moses into his tent, Moses was a man without a home, seemingly rejected by both his Israelite brethren and the Egyptian royal family. Jethro provided a home and a new family for the fugitive. And so when Jethro arrived at Sinai forty years later, it is easy to imagine that Moses would bow down and kiss Jethro. After all that Jethro had done for Moses, Moses would have been honored to have the opportunity to welcome his beloved father-in-law into his own tent.


Moreover, it is consistent with what we know of Moses' life that Moses would be the "bower". Although Moses had become the leader of a nation, he retained his characteristic "meekness" or humility (Numbers 12:3). Moses' bowing down before Jethro would be just one more example of his humble character.3


On the other hand, it makes sense that Jethro would bow before his son-in-law, who was now a head of state. In addition, Jethro's bowing contributes to the overall message of Exodus 17 and 18.


To understand why, remember that God was calling the Israelites to be a light to the nations, and the ultimate destinies of the nations would depend upon how they received Israel and its God (Gen 12:3; Isa 60:12). Seen from this perspective, the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters of Exodus contrast two ways in which another people might respond to Israel.


In chapter 17 Amalek attacked Israel, trying to take advantage of the weakest members of the group when they were weary on the journey to freedom (Deut 25:17-19). For their defiance toward God, the Amalekites would face destruction (Exod 17:14-16; Deut 25:19). Amalek became a symbol of how not to receive Israel and the God of Israel.


Compare Amalek's conduct with that of Jethro. When confronted with the evidence of Israel's deliverance from Egypt, Jethro rejoiced in the truth (Exod 18:8) and acknowledged the God of Israel as the supreme God:


"Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians when they dealt arrogantly with them" (v. 11).


Jethro can be seen as a forerunner of the world leaders who will honor God and the people of Israel in the messianic age (Isa 60). His bowing before Moses fits in well with this picture (see Isa 60:14).


Why Not Both?

As we have seen, it is both appropriate and very meaningful for Moses to have bowed before Jethro in Exod 18:7, and also for Jethro to have bowed before Moses. Perhaps the best way to answer our question is to say that both bowed (presumably without any violent collision of their skulls).


In fact, some scholars view the ambiguity in Exod 18:7 as an indication that both men bowed. One such scholar, Dr. Brachi Elitzur, contends that ambiguity is a literary technique sometimes used in the Hebrew Scriptures to imply mutuality.4


Dr. Elitzur gives examples of three passages from the book of Genesis, each involving two characters in a close relationship, in which there is pronoun ambiguity. In all three cases, either choice of antecedent seems quite appropriate, and the text may be suggesting that both are correct.


One example comes from Genesis 44, where Judah pleads with Joseph to allow Benjamin to go back home and have Judah remain in Egypt in Benjamin's place. In verse 22, Judah recalls that he and his other brothers had previously told Joseph, "The lad cannot leave his father. Should he leave his father, he would die."


Many English translations translate "he would die" as "Jacob would die," but "he" could refer to Benjamin as well. Robert Alter suggests that here Judah "leaves it to Joseph to decide whether the old man would die if he were separated from Benjamin, or whether Benjamin could not survive without his father, or whether both dire possibilities might be possible."5 This ambiguity only adds to the power of Judah's persuasive appeal by pointing to the strength of the mutual dependence between father and son.


A second example is the description of the tearful reunion between Joseph and Jacob given in Gen 46. According to Gen 46:29 (KJV), when the two met, "he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while." Again, it is not clear which of the two is said to have wept, and it quite likely that both did.


A third example is the statement of Abram's faithful response to God's promise in Gen 15:6: "And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness." Both Christians and Jews normally interpret this verse as saying that God counted Abram's faith as meritorious. With this interpretation, Gen 15:6 is central to the apostle Paul's theology of justification by faith (Romans 4, Galatians 3).


However, Gen 15:6 may also be saying that Abram saw God's promise of many descendants as an indication of God's great faithfulness and generosity. Abram and Sarai had experienced many ups and downs since responding to God's call, but God had been with them every step of the way and continued to reaffirm his promise to them. Genesis 15:6 could reflect God's status in Abram's eyes as well as Abram's status in God's eyes.



The Bible often communicates a great deal in a few carefully chosen words, and that is the case in these examples from the Pentateuch. In the hands of most writers pronoun ambiguity is a weakness, a lack of precision that can confuse readers and lead to humorous misunderstandings. But in these biblical examples, the ambiguity points to depth in relationships with mutual love and respect. Here the insights of Dr. Elitzur and Dr. Alter appear to be valid and valuable.


1Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations in this article come from The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter, Norton, New York, 2004.


2Three examples from the book of Genesis are discussed in the article "Watch Your Antecedents!" in Issue 10 of Grace & Knowledge.


3In fact, the Hebrew word for "meekness" in Numbers 12:3 probably comes from a root that means "to be bowed down." For more on the character of Moses, see the article "The Meanings of Moses' Meekness" in Issue 17 of Grace & Knowledge.


4See the article " `And He Prostrated Himself, and He Kissed Him': Ambiguity in the Encounter between Moshe and Yitro," at


5The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, p. 257.

Issue 28


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 10 May 2013, 09:06.