Midian: A Mystery.
Ba'Midbar 10: 28
Chapter 10 begins with trumpets and and ends with sacred song. And in the middle - a puzzling scene of a dialogue between two local leaders that is oddly cut off, hinting at some big family secret. Critical scholars of Scripture read between the lines here to identify a major but silenced theme that may hold the key to the origins of the Hebrew people - and some of our shadows.
This chapter describes, at last! The preparation for the journey. After camping at Mt. Sinai for almost a year - the cloud is lifting and the road opens up for the anticipated journey to the promised land. They still think it’s going to be a few weeks at most.
To start the journey with a flourish- instructions are given for two silver trumpets that will henceforth serve as public announcement cues for the people. One long note calls for gathering, three short notes signify an alarm. Etc. And then the focus changes as we witness the fragment of a conversation between Moses and a guy that is likely his father in law - or possibly his brother in law.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְ֠חֹבָ֠ב בֶּן־רְעוּאֵ֣ל הַמִּדְיָנִי֮ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁה֒ נֹסְעִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה אֹת֖וֹ אֶתֵּ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם לְכָ֤ה אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ וְהֵטַ֣בְנוּ לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־יְהֹוָ֥ה דִּבֶּר־ט֖וֹב עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which God has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for God has promised to be generous to Israel.” (Ba. 10:28)
The man named Hobab refuses, Moses insists, but the text abruptly ends halfway through the negotiation, and goes on to describe how the ark of the covenant will be leading the people through the wilderness, with songs and prayers for each time it was hoisted up or put down. We still sing those songs as arks open and close in synagogues nowadays.
But who’s Hobab, what’s the story of this fragment of a conversation, and how is it related to the ark?
The keyword is Midian. The Midianites were a desert tribe deeply intertwined with the story of the Hebrews. Until it got too close for comfort.
Moses is married to Tzipora, daughter of Jethro, Midian’s High Priest, also known and referenced here as Reu’el. Some say he’s also the same Hobab mentioned in this verse, and he also has a few other names. In Genesis, Midian is born to Abraham from his third wife, Keturah. But in the latter part of this book - coming soon, Midian turns from being a beloved brother to a hated other, and becomes the enemy of Israel in a bloody religions-political fight. How often do indigenous people get erased in the battle for land and memory by those they once welcomed with open arms?
Prof.Israel Knohl, one of the world’s leading biblical scholars has written extensively about the Midian-Israel story and this short article contains the essence of his intriguing theory. Basically - the Hebrews were originally a part of Midian, sharing language and customs, even the name of a solitary abstract male God. Jethro mentors Moses. Eventually, too many differences and territorial disputes arose between the people who split up and becomes enemies. The residues of this origin story and its disruption can be found through out the Bible including in this fragment.
Knohl writes: “It appears that the Torah contains two contradictory approaches: one highlighting positively the Midianites’ actions and their close association with Israel, and the second adopting a negative approach towards this people and erasing any reference to Midianite influence over Israelite society, let alone a close genealogical relation between these two ethnic groups.
It may be that the common origin of Israel and Midian is the impetus for the ambivalence the Israelite authors feel about Midian, which expresses itself in these two divergent approaches.”
Knhol’s article is recommended to get the full picture as we go deeper into the dunes of the desert, digging up some skeletons and opening up questions that perhaps it’s time for us to ask. It’s likely that the Hebrew were also wondering - which is why the next few chapters are full of protest, problems and communal crises. The chapters with the focus on the sacred ark that will lead us on, instead of Jethro, but trauma as we know, has a way of leaking out of closets and between the lines, even after generations and no matter how loud the trumpets.
Image: War against the Midianites (detail), Balthasar Bernards, ca. 1720-1728. Rijksmuseum
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