Did Moses Marry a Man?
November 13th, 2008 15th day of Cheshvan, 5769 Issue # 46
While I was still a young child, my parents repeatedly asked, “Do you know why God gave you two ears and only one mouth?” And before I could reply, they would remind me to listen twice as much as I spoke.
Later, parents and teachers taught me that before I could be original and creative, I first needed to learn and value the wisdom of those who preceded me. My father also practiced this. He even learned German in order to read in the original one of the great 19th century transmitters of ancient Jewish wisdom, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
One of Rabbi Hirsch’s specialties was pointing out what looks like incorrect gender usage in the Bible. Hebrew nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs communicate gender. For instance, field - SaDeH -is a masculine noun, whereas city –IR –is a feminine noun. Rabbi Hirsch taught that these categories are not happenstance and how apparent grammatical “mistakes” in the Bible are actually the equivalent of flashing red lights that should cause us to stop, ask questions, and gain wisdom.
When I say, “You need a rabbi” it is often because English translations clean up the “errors” causing the lesson to be lost. In my Genesis Journeys series, my mission is to return these valuable lessons to those who can’t learn the Bible in the original.
What do I mean? Well, after fleeing Egypt as a young man, Moses meets the daughters of Jethro by the well. The problem is that the pronouns used in referring to these women, repeatedly flip gender.
Take a look at this:
And the shepherds came and chased them (masculine);
and Moses arose and saved them (feminine);and he gave their (masculine) sheep water.
Obviously Jethro’s daughters were female and deserved feminine pronouns. Moses eventually even marries one of them. Needless to say, God did not commit a grammatical error. Therefore we can know that in this passage, God is not teaching us history but providing information that can enhance our lives.
These shepherds were not gentlemen. They chased the girls away because they were stronger, feeling no sense of shame at abusing girls. The masculine pronoun tells us that they treated them exactly as they would have treated men. From our perspective, their bullying would have been wrong against men too, but is even worse because of the
By contrast, Moses recognized an obligation to protect the women, as the pronoun tells us. However like most interactions between men and women, there was potential psychological impact. Whenever a man rescues a woman from trouble he gains an emotional window when he can take advantage of her. So when Moses gave water to the girls’ sheep, the masculine pronoun informs us that he was careful to do so with the same attitude that he would have had he been helping a group of guys. He was being genuinely chivalrous, not trying to score points.
We like to pretend that women and men in the 21st century live under new and liberating rules. There would be far fewer tears and much less heartbreak if this was true.
This verse helped me teach my teenage son about his choice of being a knave or a knight. It helped me teach my daughters the necessity of monitoring their emotions carefully and guarding against being manipulated. Knowing when you are emotionally vulnerable makes you less so.
You too can use this information to open a dinner conversation with your son and daughter about male behavior. Maybe it’s even a conversation you or I need to have with ourselves.
Although he died before my father was born, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch saved my father’s life. Trapped as a student in Lithuania as it was overrun by the Nazis, he used the German language skills that he learned studying Rabbi Hirsch’s teachings to convince a Nazi official to grant him an exit visa. He then fled to Switzerland. But the Biblical lessons that Rabbi Hirsch and other Torah transmitters teach are life saving in many ways. Not least of these is helping us to understand unchanging human nature; particularly our own.