Jethro’s Many Names

I have been studying Scripture, and it seems that Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, seems to have different names in different places. Did he have multiple names? What was his actual name?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It was observant of you to have noticed that. Jethro appears to have many names throughout the Torah. When Moses first escapes to Midian, he helps a number of young shepherdesses water their father’s sheep, and they come to Reuel their father to tell him (Exodus 2:18). Yet a few verses later, at the incident of the burning bush, the story begins by stating Moses was shepherding his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep (3:1). And at the end of the story, Moses returns to Yeter his father-in-law to ask his leave to return to Egypt (4:18)!

Later in the Torah, when the Children of Israel are in the desert, we find Moses asking his father in law, Hobab the son of Reuel, not to leave them but to accompany them to the Land of Israel (Numbers 10:29). (Moses’s father-in-law is also called Hobab in Judges 4:11.) And finally, Judges 1:16 contains a reference to the children of Keni the father-in-law of Moses! So will the real Jethro please stand up!

It is clear first of all, that Jethro was Moses’s father-in-law’s primary name. That name appears 9 times in the Torah, far more than all the others, and it is the only name used for him when he first visits Moses in the desert shortly after the Exodus (see Exodus 18). Yeter itself is too a variation of it, just missing the final letter (as minor variations of Hebrew names often appear in the Torah).

There are also those who suggest that Reuel was not Moses’s father-in-law but his grandfather-in-law, Jethro’s father – as implied by “Hobab son of Reuel” of Numbers 10:29. Although when Moses first arrived and helped water the family flocks the Torah states that the girls returned to “Reueul their father,” that might be because young children will often call their grandfather “abba” (Sifri Numbers 10:29).

Even with all the above, Jethro clearly had several names. In fact the Midrash states he had seven names (Mechilta 18:1, Shemot Rabbah 27:8) The idea behind this is that a person’s name defines his essence, his primary mission in life. In that case, Jethro was quite literally a multi-faceted personality. And this follows when we examine the type of person he was. According to the Sages (Mechilta 18:11), Jethro tried out literally every type of idolatry in the world in his quest to discover the truth. After a long, comprehensive search, he at last arrived at the belief in a single, all-powerful God and ultimately he and his family converted and joined the Jewish people.

Clearly, anyone who is so thorough and exhaustive in his quest for wisdom is a very committed and principled person. Everything such a person undertakes he would do thoroughly and conscientiously, fully identifying himself with his actions. Thus, Jethro became identified with his good deeds – to the extent that he could be named according to them, and they reflected on his essence.

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