Was Yitro Really Moshe's Father-in-law?



Normally, we assume that Biblical characters with different names are not the same person, unless the Torah explicitly records otherwise. After all, why would the Torah want to confuse the reader by referring to the same person by two unrelated names? However, we will see below that in the case of Yitro, the difficulties in resolving the contradictions between various Biblical texts forced many commentators to posit that Yitro really did have multiple identities.

Will Moshe's Real Father-in-law Please Stand Up?

Yitro or Reuel?

In Shemot 2:16-21, when Moshe first meets Zipporah, we read:

"And the priest of Midyan had seven daughters… They came to Reuel their father… He gave Zipporah, his daughter, to Moshe." ("ולכהן מדין שבע בנות... ותבאנה אל רעואל אביהן... ויתן את צפרה בתו למשה")

From these verses it would appear that "the priest of Midyan" who was Zipporah's father (i.e. Moshe's father-in-law) was not Yitro, but rather Reuel.

In subsequent chapters (Shemot 3:1, 4:18, and all of Chapter 18) the Torah has more to tell us about "the priest of Midyan" who was Moshe's "חותן" / choten (a term generally understood to mean father-in-law). However, in all of these stories, his name is given as Yitro,1 and the Torah makes no further mention of Reuel.2

Keini and Chovav

Complicating matters even further, the book of Shofetim presents us with two additional names for choten Moshe ("חותן משה"), Keini and Chovav:

  • "And the children of Keini, the choten of Moshe" ("ובני קיני חתן משה") (Shofetim 1:16)
  • "From the children of Chovav, the choten of Moshe" ("מבני חבב חתן משה") (Shofetim 4:11)

Finally, Bemidbar 10:29 states that Chovav was the son of Reuel (and that one of them was Moshe's choten):

"Chovav the son of Reuel the Midianite, the choten of Moshe" ("לחבב בן רעואל המדיני חתן משה")

In sum, what is the relationship between all of these names? Are they all proper names of individual people? Who really was Moshe's father-in-law? And if it was not Yitro, then who was Yitro and what was his relationship to Moshe and all of the other aforementioned characters?