Exodus: Moses in Midian

Moses at the Well with Jethro’s Daughters
by Théophile Hamel (1817–1870)
Wikimedia Commons

“[Moses] killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12).

Moses’ crime was a serious crime. Moses had killed an official representative of the Egyptian court in the exercise of his function of watching over the workers on the construction site. When the news reached Pharaoh, he sought to punish Moses severely. Moses was guilty of the death penalty.

Moses Flees Egypt

For this reason, Moses was forced to flee Egypt to a region that was not under Egyptian control. Moses left Egypt for the land of Midian. The Midianites were probably a confederation of tribes living in southern Palestine. This is why the Bible says that the people with whom Moses lived were Midianites (Exodus 2:16; 3:1) and Kenites (Judges 1:16; 4:11). The Midianites were people who lived in the desert, descendants of Abraham and of his wife Keturah (Genesis 25:2).

The Midianites were good merchants (Genesis 37:28) who had a lot of trade with Egypt (Genesis 37:36). No doubt the caravans that went from Midian to Egypt also brought much news from Egypt to Midian. In this way Moses could find out about the events in Egypt and keep up to date with the situation of his brothers.

It is important to understand the reason Moses left Egypt to flee to Midian. The author of the book of Hebrews teaches the meaning of Moses’ action: “by faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God” (Hebrews 11:24–25). By fleeing to Midian, Moses broke his relationship with his past. By fleeing to Midian, Moses left Egypt behind him. His new life in Midian inaugurates a time of spiritual loneliness, a time to reflect on his life and his future.

Solitude is part of the spiritual growth of the believer. Paul experienced this spiritual growth during his time of solitude in Arabia (Galatians 1:17) and Christ during his forty days in the desert. Every Christian has to learn to be alone with God. Personal fellowship with God allows Christians to discover themselves and their place in God’s redemptive purpose. In this spiritual loneliness, Moses recognized who his neighbor was. More than the solidarity of race and class, Moses understood that the oppressed and the unfortunate in society were his brothers and sisters. Moses felt their suffering in his own life.

Moses acknowledged that the misfortune of his people was that they were not free. In this, Moses identified himself with his poor, brokenhearted, captive people. He identified himself with the work of a redeemer. Christ said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to give good news to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives . . . to set free the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

The church of Jesus Christ must have in mind the mission of Christ. We must ask God to create this same emotion in the heart of every believer so that Christians may help and fight for the rights of the oppressed and the wretched of the earth.

When Moses arrived in Midian, he went to the village well. The well in a town was a very important place because passers-by, foreigners, and townspeople stopped there to draw water for themselves and for their animals (Genesis 29:2).

Moses was resting on the edge of the well when seven young women, the daughters of the priest of Midian, came to draw water for the sheep. Among the nomads and other eastern dwellers, men generally tended the sheep, but in this case, it is possible that the priest of Midian had no male children to care for his flock.

Moses watched as the shepherds chased the young women from the well. Moses’ generous spirit was awakened and again he stood on the side of the oppressed and defended the daughters of the priest of Midian against the shepherds who did not allow them to water their sheep.

This scene shows again how Moses identified himself with the oppressed and the defenseless. The Bible teaches that God has compassion on the poor and oppressed. The action of Moses is worthy of being imitated. The oppressed lose their human dignity and live reduced to the animal level, unable to enjoy the freedom that they received from God when they were created in his image. Oppressed people are dispossessed of the goods of this world, dominated by people who do not know the fear of God. In a society where oppression is universal, Moses’ act serves as a challenge for every Christian.

Moses in the House of Reuel

After the seven young women watered their flock, they returned home, earlier than usual. When they arrived home, their father was surprised. It is likely that the young women had to wait until the shepherds finished watering their herds before giving water to their animals. But on this day Moses helped the young women to water the sheep before the shepherds. So Reuel, the father of the seven maidens, was surprised that they had finished watering the flock sooner than usual. Reuel asked his daughters the reason for their early return home, before the usual time.

The biblical writer gives different names to the priest of Median. According to Exodus 3:20, the name of the priest of Midian was Reuel. In Exodus 3:1 he is called Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. In Numbers 10:29 and Judges 4:11 the name of Moses’ father-in-law is Hobab, son of Reuel. It is probable that the different names of Moses’ father-in-law refer to a title of his office as priest. The word Reuel means “Friend of God” or “Shepherd of God,” evidently a title that describes Jethro’s work as a priest of Midian. Hobab was probably Jethro’s son.

Reuel was a priest of Midian, but the Bible says nothing more about his priesthood. It is possible that in his capacity as priest, Reuel held the priesthood as a father of a family or leader of his clan. Priestly work could also imply the responsibility of preserving and transmitting religious traditions of his clan.

When Reuel’s seven daughters reported the incident to their father. They said, “An Egyptian helped us against the shepherds” (Exodus 2:19). They believed that Moses was an Egyptian probably because of his clothing or behavior. Reuel’s daughters reported to their father that the Egyptian had fought with the village shepherds and had given the cattle to drink.

Moses, the prince of Egypt, is now a defender of shepherds. For the first time in his life Moses experienced the life of the desert. For the first time Moses experienced the hard and difficult life that had characterized the lives of his Hebrew ancestors. Life in the desert was hard, but free.

The reception of strangers was of the utmost importance to the people of the ancient Near East. The Egyptian man who had fought with the shepherds was more than a stranger; he had been the defender and liberator of the daughters of the priest of Midian. The generous behavior of the foreigner won Reuel’s sympathy. Reuel reproved his daughters for the ingratitude of not having invited the stranger to come to eat at their home. He said to them, “Why did you leave the man there? Go, invite him to supper” (Exodus 2:20).

Moses accepted Reuel’s invitation to eat with his family that night. He also accepted Reuel’s invitation to dwell with him. Reuel gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as his wife. The name Zipporah means “Bird.” Her name reflects the nomadic country life of her family.

Moses’ Preparation for Ministry

Moses entered Reuel’s service as a shepherd. Because of his marriage and his work, Moses joined the family that had taken him in. This experience contributed to the spiritual development of Moses. He entered a family that descended from Abraham (Genesis 25: 2), a family whose customs and lifestyle were similar to his own ancestors. It is possible that with Reuel, Moses rediscovered the ancient traditions of Israel. No doubt that in Midian, Moses learned to know the God of his parents in a more personal way.

Moses recognized that God’s purpose was to prepare his life for a special mission. Moses still could not understand that the God of his parents was going to reveal Himself to him for this very reason.

For many, the time Moses spent in Midian could be considered a waste of time and talent. Is this the only way that God can use an individual? Anyone can be a shepherd, but how many people can do the work of a Moses? How many times did Moses wonder what to do with his life! But in order to discover God’s purpose, it was necessary for Moses to learn to trust and hope in God. Forty years later, Moses received the answers to his questions.

Moses’ experience in Midian was just preparation for something great. Thus, we must consider the years of John the Baptist in the desert, the years of Christ in Nazareth, and the experiences of Paul in Arabia. In the same way, each person must recognize and evaluate his or her own experience of solitude.

Believers must ask God, “What are you preparing me for?” When we trust in God, we are guided by him and every experience, past or present, is just a preparation for service in the work of God. Each lesson learned in the divine school is a lesson learned in preparation for the mission that God has in store for our lives.

From Moses’ marriage to Zipporah two sons were born: Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 18:3–4). Gershom’s name is related to Moses’ life in Midian. His name in Hebrew means “stranger here.” Moses always recognized that while he lived in Midian that he was a stranger in a foreign land because his heart was with his people in Egypt.

Nothing of Moses’ family life in Midian is known. The author of the book of Exodus was not interested in Moses’ married life. His emphasis was on Moses’ relationship with his people who were being oppressed in Egypt.

Moses’ early life is, therefore, focused on the people of God who were suffering in Egypt, the very people that God is going to entrust to him. This was the divine purpose for Moses; his mission characterizes his life and dominates his personality.

The life of Moses is a demonstration of the power of God. Because God loved Moses, God guarded and protected him in Egypt and in Midian. By his power God brought Moses to Midian. Every event in Moses’ life was one more step toward the greatest discovery of his life: his identity in divine purposes. Moses found himself when he identified with his oppressed people.

NOTE: For a complete list of studies on Moses, read my post Studies on Moses.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary


NOTE: My new book, Isaiah: Prophet of Hope will be published soon.

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