Commentary on Numbers 10:11-36

Notes (NET Translation)

11 On the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle of the testimony. 12 So the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud settled in the wilderness of Paran. 13 This was the first time they set out on their journey according to the commandment of the LORD, by the authority of Moses.

The Israelites set out 11 months after arriving at Mount Sinai (Ex 19:1) and 19 days after the census was taken (Num 1:1). The cloud being taken up indicates that the Israelites are to march and its settling indicates that the Israelites are to camp (9:15-23). Verse 12 is a summary description of the narrative through ch. 12.

According to the cycle progression and the travel itinerary (33:16-18), the Israelites camped at Taberah (11:3), Kibroth Hattaavah (11:34-35), and Hazeroth (12:16) on their way to the Paran Desert. As with defining precisely the Sinai Desert and the mountain of Horeb or Sinai, the perimeter of the Paran Desert is difficult to outline. No cartographic mapping remains from this period identifying these regions. From the data described in biblical usage, Paran was west of Midian, east of Egypt, extending southward (or southwestward) toward Mount Sinai, northward toward Kadesh (Barnea), and eastward to the Arabah. Kadesh is associated with both the Paran (13:26) and Zin (20:1) Deserts. Paran seems to encompass a broader geographical area, which would include in its northeast quadrant, the Zin Desert, which is more narrowly defined by the Nahal Zin and its water drainage basin. Hence, the text shifts from the general Paran Desert region (10:17; 13:26) to a context in which greater specificity is needed, as in the listing of the itinerary of the spies (13:21) and the rebellion of Moses (20:1-13; 27:14).1

The phrase “by the authority of Moses” (v 13) indicates he is the mediator between God and Israel.

14 The standard of the camp of the Judahites set out first according to their companies, and over his company was Nahshon son of Amminadab. 15 Over the company of the tribe of Issacharites was Nathanel son of Zuar, 16 and over the company of the tribe of the Zebulunites was Elion son of Helon.

The Israelites march according to the instructions give in chapters 2-3.

17 Then the tabernacle was dismantled, and the sons of Gershon and the sons of Merari set out, carrying the tabernacle.

18 The standard of the camp of Reuben set out according to their companies; over his company was Elizur son of Shedeur. 19 Over the company of the tribe of the Simeonites was Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, 20 and over the company of the tribe of the Gadites was Eliasaph son of Deuel.

21 And the Kohathites set out, carrying the articles for the sanctuary; the tabernacle was to be set up before they arrived.

The Gershonites and Merarites marched ahead of the Kohathites and assembled the tabernacle before the Kohathites arrived with the articles for the sanctuary (e.g., table, menorah, altars; 4:4-20). The Kohathites could then immediately place the objects inside the tabernacle. Verse 33 indicates that the ark traveled before the Israelites at this time.

22 And the standard of the camp of the Ephraimites set out according to their companies; over his company was Elishama son of Ammihud. 23 Over the company of the tribe of the Manassehites was Gamaliel son of Pedahzur, 24 and over the company of the tribe of Benjaminites was Abidan son of Gideoni.

25 The standard of the camp of the Danites set out, which was the rear guard of all the camps by their companies; over his company was Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai. 26 Over the company of the tribe of the Asherites was Pagiel son of Ocran, 27 and over the company of the tribe of the Naphtalites was Ahira son of Enan.

28 These were the traveling arrangements of the Israelites according to their companies when they traveled.

29 Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel, the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place about which the LORD said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will treat you well, for the LORD has promised good things for Israel.”

Timothy Ashley describes the ambiguity of this verse:

Verse 29 is ambiguous; was Hobab or Reuel the ḥōṯēn (usually translated “father-in-law”) of Moses? Hobab is clearly called his ḥōṯēn in Judg. 4:11, and, although Reuel never is called Moses’ ḥōṯēn (at least in the MT), Exod. 2:16–18 implies that he was. The problem is compounded by Exod. 3:1; 4:18; 18:1–2, 5–6, 12, which name Moses’ ḥōṯēn as Jether or Jethro. The situation is complicated even further by the fact that, in Judg. 4:11, Hobab is called a Kenite, while here (by implication) he is a Midianite. Many scholars simply echo Snaith’s statement that we have “three separate traditions and three distinct names” regarding the identity of Moses’ father-in-law. Thus many solve this difficulty by assigning the various names to the various putative documents of the Pentateuch, e.g., Hobab to J and Jethro to E. It is also common to assume that the name Reuel is a gloss in Exod. 2:18 on the basis of a mistaken reading of the current verse in Num. 10.

Many scholars, both those who have assumed the classical documents thought to underlie the present Pentateuch and those who have not, have posited that two of these three individuals are the same man. The question is, Which two? Some have said that Reuel/Jethro is the father-in-law of Moses and Hobab is Reuel/Jethro’s son. This view requires that one translate ḥōṯēn in Judg. 4:11 (and 1:16) in some other way than “father-in-law” (see below). Others have posited that Hobab and Reuel are the same man and that Jethro is his father. At first sight, this solution is attractive, since both Hobab and Jethro are called the ḥōṯēn of Moses (e.g., Judg. 4:11 and Exod. 3:1). One problem with this view is Exod. 2:16–22, which makes clear that the priest of Midian had seven daughters (v. 16), that the name of this man was Reuel (v. 18), and that this man gave Zipporah to Moses for a wife (v. 22). The only way around this difficulty is to see the word father used in v. 18 as indicating “grandfather” or “head of the house,” as it sometimes does.

Another problem with this view is W. F. Albright’s contention that Jethro and Hobab are portrayed as very different persons: Jethro being old enough to give Moses advice (Exod. 18) and Hobab young and energetic enough to lead the people in the wilderness (Num. 10). In fairness, it should be said that much of the difference between Hobab and Jethro must be read into the texts, since neither Exod. 18 nor Num. 10 says anything about the relative youth, age, or energy of either person. A more serious objection to this view is found in Exod. 18:27, which states that Moses’ father-in-law “went away into his own country.” Did he change his mind and stay for nearly one more year? Did he come back? Probably not. Thus it seems difficult to hold that Hobab and Jethro were one individual.

Other solutions assume that the three named characters may be three different personae; any of these solutions requires a wider meaning than “father-in-law” for ḥōṯēn, since both Hobab and Jethro are called the ḥōṯēn of Moses. The simplest solution seems to be that if Reuel is the father of Hobab and the father-in-law of Moses (Exod. 2:16–22), then Hobab must be the brother-in-law of Moses, and Reuel and Jethro must be the same man. A whole range of scholars have translated ḥōṯēn in this way. T. C. Mitchell has attempted to show that the root ḥtn (regardless of the vowels) meant something like “a relative by marriage”; hence “father-in-law,” “brother-in-law,” or “son-in-law” (see below) would be possible, as the context required.

Albright offered a more complex solution. He attempted to show that, first, Reuel is not a personal name but a clan name; second, Jethro and Hobab are different persons, and ḥōṯēn, “father-in-law,” should be vocalized ḥāṯān, “son-in-law,” in Hobab’s case; and third, in those texts that called Hobab a Kenite, the word translated “Kenite” should be rendered by the root’s original meaning of “smith, metalworker.” One problem that this view produces is the need to create a daughter for Moses of whom we otherwise know nothing.

From the foregoing survey, it is clear that no proposed view is entirely satisfactory or free from difficulties. One needs to be careful not to expect too much of solutions proposed for ancient documents that were not designed to give the information needed for a solution. No solution to any literary or historical problem is entirely free from objection. On the basis of the proposals here mentioned, the simplest would be to read ḥōṯēn as Keil, Wenham, and many others have done. The slightly more complex view of Albright is also attractive.2

R. Dennis Cole makes the following comments on the verse:

Hobab is identified by the typically full Hebraic threefold description, “son of Reuel” (ben Reuel), “the Midianite” (hammidyani), “father-in-law of Moses” (hoten Moseh). The construct relationship of these three elements, however, raises several questions when passages from Exodus and Judges are considered. What is the relationship between Jethro, Reuel, and Hobab? Milgrom has noted three potential solutions: (1) Hobab and Jethro are the same person and Reuel is their father, taking father and daughter in Exod 2:16, 18 to mean grandfather and granddaughter; (2) the term hoten means a relation of the bride, hence father-in-law as well as brother-in-law; and (3) Reuel is a clan name, making Hobab the young desert scout of the Midianite clan of Reuel, Moses’ son-in-law.

The title “son of Reuel” can mean that he was the direct “offspring” of Reuel or that he belonged to the “clan” of Reuel. The latter definition of clanship is preferred here. The relationship of Reuel to Moses as hoten, usually translated as “father-in-law” is echoed in Judg 1:16 and 4:11, in which these relatives of Moses by marriage are also identified with the Kenites. By comparison with Exod 2:18–3:1, where Reuel is also called Jethro, who is also called the hoten Moseh, here he is obviously the “father-in-law” of Moses. Mitchell has demonstrated that the term refers to a “relation by marriage.”

The dual identification of Reuel and Hobab as both Midianite and Kenite evidences that the Midianites were not a single clan. As Milgrom notes, they were a “confederation of peoples, one of which is the Kenites.” Some earlier scholars took the use of the two names Jethro and Reuel as an indication that Exod 2:18 and 3:11 were from different Pentateuchal sources. But the use of dual names in the Bible and ancient Near Eastern texts has been demonstrated by C. H. Gordon and others to be a common practice in poetic and prose contexts. Wenham’s summary provides the simplest solution: “that Moses invited his brother-in-law Hobab to accompany Israel on their journey through Canaan. His father-in-law Reuel or Jethro had earlier given Moses valuable advice about organizing the people.”3

Finally, Jacob Milgrom writes:

Probably “Hobab of the Midianite clan of Reuel.” The identification of Hobab is difficult. He is designated here as Moses’ father-in-law (also in Judg. 1:16; 4:11), a role assigned to Reuel in Exodus 2:18 and to Jethro in Exodus 18. Three solutions have been proposed: (1) Hobab and Jethro are the same person and Reuel is their father; (2) the term ḥoten means a relation of the bride, hence, brother-in-law as well as father-in-law, by which Reuel becomes the father of Hobab/Jethro and the father-in-law of Moses; (3) Reuel is a clan name, as seen by its association with Midian (Gen. 25:3 LXX) and Edom (Gen. 36:17; 1 Chron. 1:35, 37), and therefore ḥoten in this verse should be read ḥatan, “son-in-law,” thereby making Hobab, the young desert scout of the Midianite clan of Reuel, Moses’ son-in-law.

A second difficulty is that Hobab the Midianite is elsewhere called a Kenite (Judg. 1:16 LXX; 4:11). This problem, however, can be satisfactorily explained. Midian, it now appears, is not the name of a people but of a confederation of peoples, one of which is the Kenites. Similarly, Enoch is both a Kenite (i.e., the son of Cain, Gen. 4:17) and a Midianite (the son of Midian, Gen. 25:4). The name Kenites means smiths (cf. Gen. 4:22). Probably they worked the mines in the mountain regions of Sinai or Midian (Num. 24:21).

If Hobab is identical with Jethro, then the Hobabites/Kenites were not only smiths but a clan of priests (Exod. 18:1) who settled among the Judahites at Negeb-Arad (Judg. 1:16 LXX) (and were responsible perhaps for the recently excavated Israelite shrine at Arad) and also at Kedesh in Naphtali at the sacred terebinth of Elon-bazaanannim (Judg. 4:11), at which Sisera the Canaanite general sought refuge.

Biblical tradition asserts that Jethro was a worshiper of the Lord (Exod. 18:10–12), giving rise to the possibility that Moses learned of the Lord from his father-in-law during his sojourn in Midian (Exod. 3:1, 13–18). This theory has received recent support from a fourteenth-century Egyptian (Nubian) inscription that speaks of “the land of Shasu YHW.” The Shasu, a group of Bedouin tribes, are located in a contemporary (El-Amarna) inscription in “the land of Shasu Sʿrrʾ,” identified with Seir (24:18), bordering on the Gulf of Elath–also the home of the Midianites (v. 30). That the Lord originally was worshiped in this area is supported by the early statement: “The LORD came from Sinai; He shone upon them from Seir” (Deut. 33:2; see Judg. 5:4; Isa. 63:1; Hab. 3:3).

The tradition that the Midianites were kinsmen by marriage of Moses the Israelite must be reckoned with seriously (cf. chaps. 25, 31). The subsequent history of the Kenites/Hobabites, however, indicates that a faction of the Reuelite clan of the Midianites allied itself with Israel in the wilderness and settled among them in the promised land. This tradition is reflected in the excellent relations that prevailed between the Kenites and Israelites during the time of Saul and David (1 Sam. 15:6; 30:29).4

30 But Hobab said to him, “I will not go, but I will go instead to my own land and to my kindred.”

Midian, Hobab’s native land, was located near the Gulf of Elath and thus in the direction of Israel’s march.

31 Moses said, “Do not leave us, because you know places for us to camp in the wilderness, and you could be our guide. 32 And if you come with us, it is certain that whatever good things the LORD will favor us with, we will share with you as well.”

The Midianites were well acquainted with the area. Hobab’s response is presumably positive given the later presence of his descendants in the promised land (Judg 1:16; 4:11). He is a complementary guide to the fire-cloud.

33 So they traveled from the mountain of the LORD three days’ journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD was traveling before them during the three days’ journey, to find a resting place for them.

The first station on the journey is Taberah (11:3).

The phraseology “three days’ journey” (derek seloset yamim) is similar to the “eleven days journey” in Deut 1:2 that describes the distance from Mount Horeb (Sinai) to Kadesh Barnea. This kind of phraseology was commonly used in the ancient Near East to indicate distance traveled by armies or caravans, in which the average distance was about fifteen miles per day. Various groups may have traveled more or less than that distance in a given number of days, hence an “eleven days’ journey” (=about 165 miles) may take as little as nine or ten days or perhaps as much as eighteen to twenty days, depending on the progress of the group. Hence, the Israelites probably traveled forty to forty-five miles on this initial leg.5

The ark of the covenant symbolizes God on his throne (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; 2 Kgs 19:15; Ezek 10:4; Ps 80:1; 99:1).

34 And the cloud of the LORD was over them by day, when they traveled from the camp.

Verses 34–36 in the Hebrew text are enclosed in special signs called “inverted nuns,” which has been taken by many scholars as an indication that the contents were believed by the Massoretes to be out of their original context and possibly to be transposed. However, the dual acclamations fittingly conclude not only this section of the Numbers narrative but the entire Sinai narrative that began in Exodus 19. There they had witnessed God’s miraculous power and experienced the revelatory relationship in the establishment of the nation in the Mosaic covenant. The words proclaimed at the outset of each stage of the journey announced that Yahweh as Lord of the armies of Israel and the heavens would shatter and scatter the enemies of God.6

The cloud of the Lord is suspended over the Israelites for shade and protection (14:14).

35 And when the ark traveled, Moses would say, “Rise up, O LORD! May your enemies be scattered, and may those who hate you flee before you!”

This is a call for Yahweh to attack the enemy. Baruch Levine states that the scattering of the enemies is not a wished-for result but, rather, a declaration of what will happen when God attacks. Cf. Ps 68:2.

36 And when it came to rest he would say, “Return, O LORD, to the many thousands of Israel!”

The point seems to be that Yahweh will lead the forces into battle and bring them back safely.

The faith which Moses affirms so confidently stands in ironic contrast to what happens in the succeeding chapters: whereas Moses is sure God will do good to Israel, the people begin to complain of the evil (11:1) that he is doing them. Moses prays that all God’s enemies will be scattered: the spies declare Israel will be defeated (chapter 13). This chapter’s triumphant conclusion deepens the poignant tragedy of the succeeding scenes.7

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Cole 2000, Dennis Kindle Locations 5664-5672 
  2. Ashley 1993, 195–197 
  3. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 5766-5786 
  4. Milgrom 1990, 78–79 
  5. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 5828-5833 
  6. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 5837-5842 
  7. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1849-1852 
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