At the end of Shemot 18, the Torah tells us of Yitro's departure:
And Moshe sent his father-in-law away; and he went his way to his own land.
As Yitro never again appears in Tanakh, the reader's initial inclination is to assume that he went home and never returned. In Bemidbar 10:29-32, however, we read of Moshe's attempt to persuade "Chovav, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moshe's in law" to remain with the Israelite nation. Commentators debate whether Chovav is identical with Yitro or merely closely related (see Who is Yitro), and also whether he acceded to Moshe's request. According to any of these scenarios, however, Chovav's presence during the second year in the desert raises the questions of whether Yitro or his descendants ever returned to the Israelite camp and whether they ultimately were integrated into the Children of Israel.
Did Yitro Leave Only Temporarily?
Yitro's explicit recognition of Hashem and offering of sacrifices leads many exegetes to posit that Yitro converted to Judaism – see Yitro's Religious Identity. According to this position, it is difficult to understand why Moshe would have sent Yitro away, unless it was only temporary and Yitro later rejoined the nation.
Additional evidence for the possibility that Yitro or his descendants joined the Israelites may be found in Shofetim 1:16, 4:11 and Shemuel I 15:6. These three verses speak of the Keinites, the descendants of "choten Moshe." However, while these Keinites are clearly related to Moshe, they are described as living amidst both Israel and her enemies, and the verses have thus been used as evidence both for and against Yitro or his progeny joining the Children of Israel. Conversely, the Keinites mentioned in a fourth verse in Divrei HaYamim I 2:55, who are in fact part of Israel, may have no relation to Yitro.
Thus, in determining whether Yitro or his descendants ultimately joined the Children of Israel, one must address the following questions:
- Are Yitro and Chovav two different people or merely two different names for the same character (see Who is Yitro)?
- If they are the same person, are Yitro's departure in Shemot and Chovav's considering leaving in Bemidbar, two different events or two accounts of the same event (see Chronology)?
- If they are two different people and/or these are two different events, did Chovav decide to leave or remain?
- If Yitro/Chovav did leave, did either ever return?
- Did Yitro convert to Judaism (see Yitro's Religious Identity)?
- What was the relationship of the Keinites to the nation of Israel?