In-law Stories in Tanakh


In Tanakh there are four stories of in-law relationships in which the husband has a long term relationship with his wife's family:1

The cases of Yaakov and Lavan and David and Shaul are son-in-law / father-in-law relationships, while Hadad and Paroh are brothers-in-law.2 Commentators differ over whether Yitro is Moshe's father-in-law or brother-in-law – see Who is Yitro. The analysis below will examine the relationships between these various pairs of characters.

Yaakov & Lavan Compared to Moshe & Yitro

The stories which most closely parallel each other are the two in Torah – Yaakov & Lavan (Bereshit 29-31) and Moshe & Yitro (Shemot 2-4, 18, Bemidbar 10). To view the Biblical verses, click on the accompanying Comparison Table 1. The stories share the following features:

  • Seeking refuge – Both Yaakov and Moshe flee from a relative planning / attempting to kill them.
  • Wives and wells – Each arrives at a well where their future wives are shepherding, has contact with the other shepherds,3 and then waters the sheep in place of their future wives.
  • Shelter and marriage – Yaakov and Moshe are invited first to stay in the homes of their future wives,4 and then to marry them.5
  • Employment – Yaakov and Moshe become shepherds for Lavan and Yitro.
  • Return – Each of Yaakov and Moshe requests permission to return to their homeland.
  • Encounter – While Yaakov and Moshe are en route, Lavan and Yitro meet up with them.
  • God's protection, meal and treaty – Lavan and Yitro acknowledge God's protection of Yaakov and Moshe, sacrifices are brought and a ceremonial meal is eaten. Yaakov and Lavan make a covenant, and it is possible that Moshe and Yitro do likewise – see Purpose of Yitro's Visit and Yitro's Sacrifices.
  • Departure – At the conclusion of the stories, Lavan and Yitro return to their own lands.

Yaakov & Lavan + David & Shaul Compared to Moshe & Yitro

A three way comparison of these stories highlights the healthy relationship Moshe enjoyed with Yitro (Shemot 2-4, 18, Bemidbar 10), in contrast to the thorny relationships that Yaakov (Bereshit 29-31) and David (Shemuel I 16-26) had with their fathers-in-law. The Biblical verses can be viewed at a glance by clicking on the accompanying Comparison Table 2.

  • Bridal price – In contrast to Lavan and Shaul who demand exhorbitant bridal prices, Yitro does not take advantage of Moshe, and we hear of Moshe's employment only after his marriage to Zipporah.6
  • Substitution of the daughters – Each of Lavan and Shaul have two daughters and they swap the originally designated daughter with her sister. In the case of Yitro, there are seven daughters, and we don't hear of any games being played.
  • Complications develop – Lavan and Shaul each become jealous of the success of their sons-in-law, and Yaakov and David decide to flee.7 Moshe, though, receives Yitro's blessing for his return to Egypt, and goes in peace.
  • Pursuit, attempt to harm, and robbing of wives – Lavan and Shaul chase after their sons-in-law, trying to kill them and strip them of their wives. In contrast, Yitro does the opposite, and on his own initiative, returns Zipporah and her sons to Moshe.
  • Cold peace – Lavan and Shaul are forced to come to terms with the Divine providence protecting their sons-in-law. As a result they sue for peace, and treaties are signed that neither side will harm the other. Yitro also hears how God saved Moshe, but he reacts with joy and by bringing festive sacrifices. It is possible that here too a treaty was signed, but its character was one of mutual support – see Purpose of Yitro's Visit and Yitro's Sacrifices.
  • Departure – While Lavan and Shaul part from their sons-in-law never to see them again, according to some commentators, Yitro/Chovav returned and accepted Moshe's offer to remain with the nation – see Who is Yitro and Yitro Aftermath.

Moshe & Yitro Compared to Hadad & Paroh

The story of Hadad and Paroh (Melakhim I 11) contains some striking resemblances to the story of Moshe and Yitro.8 To view the Biblical verses, click on the accompanying Comparison Table 3.

  • Seeking refuge – Both Moshe and Hadad flee from a king attempting to eliminate all the males of their nations.
  • Egypt, Midyan, Paran – Moshe runs away from Egypt to Midyan and later arrives at the wilderness of Paran, while Hadad escapes to Egypt via Midyan and Paran.
  • Shelter, food, a wife – Moshe and Hadad are each provided with all three by their respective hosts, and while in exile, a son is born to each.
  • Return – Upon hearing of the death of the king who had pursued them, each of Moshe and Hadad requests permission to return to their homeland.

It is possible that many of the details of the Hadad story were recorded to remind the reader of the parallels to the story of Moshe, and to emphasize that in both cases the Divine hand was guiding the course of events. Chanan Gafni suggests further that these similarities are part of a broader set of parallels between the stories of Shelomo's treatment of the nation and the enslavement in Egypt.9 On this backdrop, he posits that the message underlying the story in Melakhim is that Shelomo's downfall came as a punishment for his behaving in similar manner to the Egyptian rulers.