Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Shemot II: Peshat vs. Derash, Revisited

אל רעואל - רעואל אבי אביהן. אם כן שם אביהם יתרו, וחובב בן רעואל האמור לפנינו הוא חובב הוא יתרו. ואם רעואל הוא יתרו, אם כן בן יתרו היה. ומה שכתוב בנביאים מבני חובב חותן משה מוכיח שחובב הוא יתרו, שבכל מקום שמזכיר חותן משה מזכיר יתרו:

A number of my earlier posts have pointed on the ways in which peshat—at least as conceived of by Rashbam—is not always actually the best way of getting at the meaning of a text. Let’s consider another example from this week’s parashah. Moshe’s father-in-law is a recurring biblical personality, and yet much remains uncertain about him, most notably his name. Here is a brief review of the evidence.

Our first encounter with this figure is in Shmot 2:16-21 we learn of how Re’uel, the priest of Midian, gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moshe as a wife. In chapter 3, we then hear about Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro, who appears in that role in numerous other places in the Torah. Shofetim 4:11 refers to Hovav as Moshe’s father-in-law, and Bemidbar 10:29 has Moshe addressing חבב בן רעואל המדיני חתן משה. Does this mean that Hovav was Moshe’s father-in-law and that Reu’el was the former’s father (which would accord with the plain sense of Shofetim but contradict that plain sense of Shemot 2)? Or does it mean that Hovav was Moshe’s brother-in-law, with Reu’el his father being Moshe’s father-in-law (which would accord with the plain sense of Shemot 2 but contradict Shofetim)? And how do either of these last two verses square with the traditions naming Yitro?

Rashbam, employing the assumptions of peshat and revealing his desire to read the Torah as a coherent, linear, literary work, decides the following: Shofetim established unequivocally that Hovav is Moshe’s father-in-law, and therefore he must be one and the same with Yitro. These two names refer to the same person. Reu’el, on the other hand, must have been Yitro’s father, and the term אביהן in Shemot 2:18—the subject of Rashbam’s comment here—must be taken loosely to mean “ancestor” or “grandfather.” Like most peshat approaches, we see here a kind of binary choice that must pick winners and losers, emphasizing the plain sense of one passage at the expense of another.

I wonder if, in this case, the midrashic approach taken in Mekhilta Yitro Amalek I—and cited in Rashi on Shemot 18:1—is not more insightful into the fuller meaning of these various traditions. The Mekhilta says that Moshe’s father-in-law had seven names, including the ones enumerated above. This sort of statement embraces the multiplicity of information relayed in Tanakh about this character and attempts to describe the rich tapestry that cannot be captured by trying to spin this material into a single thread. Derash eschews binary choices and, in doing so, sometimes gets at the deeper truth of Tanakh when read as a whole. Peshat indeed preserves a better linear narrative, but derash can sometimes help us see a richer plot.


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