Verse 18:5 reads:
And Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, came with
sons and wife to Moshe, into the wilderness where was encamped, at God's mountain.
Whose sons and wife arrive with Yitro? Since the surrounding verses (18:2-4 and 18:6) speak of Zipporah and her sons (see table below), the reader's natural tendency is to assume that this verse also speaks of those same people and that Yitro came with Moshe's sons and wife. According to this reading, "his" refers not to Yitro, the subject of the sentence, but rather to Moshe.1
However, when one compares the various verses, one notices a number of distinctions:
- In verses 2-4 and verse 6, the wife precedes the sons, while in verse 5 the sons are mentioned before the wife.2
- While verses 2-4 and verse 6 specify "two" sons, verse 5 does not give a number.
- Verses 2-4 and verse 6 refer explicitly to Moshe's wife and "her" sons, but verse 5 speaks of "his" wife and "his" sons.3
These differences lend credibility to the possibility that verse 5 speaks not of Moshe's wife and sons, but rather of Yitro's wife and sons. This option is suggested by the Zohar4 and Minchah Belulah.5
The possibility that it was Yitro's wife and sons has additional interesting ramifications:
- What was the purpose of Yitro's visit? If it was simply to reunite Moshe with Zipporah and their children, there would be no reason for Yitro to bring anyone else along. However, the Zohar and Minchah Belulah suggest that Yitro was coming to experience the revelation at Sinai, and therefore brought along his family. See here for further discussion.
- Apparent redundancy of verses 2-6 – The Zohar/Minchah Belulah's reading alleviates some of the difficulty posed by what might have appeared to be a threefold repetition of the arrival of Zipporah and her two sons. See Purpose of Yitro's Visit regarding R. Yosef Bekhor Shor's alternative solution.
- Even though Yitro departs at the end of Shemot 18, Chovav is with the Israelites in Bemidbar 10. Assuming Chovav is Yitro's son (see Who was Yitro?), this possibility could maintain that Chovav arrived with his father, and remained with the Children of Israel, even after his father's departure.
- If the "his" in the first half of verse 5 refers to Yitro, it is possible that "he was encamped" in the continuation of verse 5 also refers back to Yitro. This is how Ramban interprets the second half of the verse, and this is critical for the chronology of when Yitro came – see Chronology of Shemot 18.
There are numerous other verses which have similar ambiguities – see here for more examples. Bereshit 44:22 (Rashi and Ramban), 46:29 (Rashi and Ramban), Devarim 25:18 (Rashi and Ibn Ezra), Shemuel I 15:27 (Rashi and Radak), Melakhim II 8:15 (Rashi and Radak).